Monday, October 08, 2007


I've been doing quite a bit of filmwatching in the past few days, partly in theaters but mainly on DVD. I recently finished watching David Lynch's Inland Empire for the second time on DVD, and I wanted to get down some thoughts on it while it was still fresh in my mind. Technically, there are spoilers, though I'm not sure that the concept applies to a film as opaque as this.

Several critics I've read have taken for granted that the scenes of the filming of "On High with Blue Tomorrows" that we see are "real," as opposed to later scenes, which may be dreams, fantasies or just surrealism. This isn't surprising, since this is the longest segment of the movie which could be taken for a realistic narrative. But there are several hints that these scenes are no more "real" than anything else in the movie. First, there is the film's title. Can you seriously picture a Hollywood filmmaker making a film entitled "On High with Blue Tomorrows"? Then when Nikki's "Visitor #1" asks her if the film is "about marriage," Nikki replies "Um, perhaps in some ways, but ... um ..." But the film we see being shot is unquestionably about marriage: it's about a married woman with a jealous husband having an affair with a married man. Finally, if the initial scenes of filming are real, then presumably the filming of the final scene is real as well. But would the writers of the banal dialogue we hear in the earlier scenes have nearly the last words in the film be a monologue by a homeless Asian about her prostitute friend who has a pet monkey and a hole in her vagina?

Once I suspected that the filming scenes aren't real, my first thought was that Visitor #1, who also talks about "magic," had in fact cast a spell upon Nikki, and everything between that scene and Visitor #1's appearance at the end of the picture is an illusion created by this spell. But this doesn't account for the Lost Girl and the rabbits, who make their first appearances before Visitor #1 meets Nikki. Moreover, Visitor #1 is first seen on the Lost Girl's television. These made me suspect that the conversation between Nikki and the visitor is itself not real. In which case, is Nikki even real? And if she isn't, who is dreaming, or imagining, her?

My first answer to this last question was the Lost Girl. After all, we periodically see her watching the events of the film on TV. And the scene in which Nikki kisses the Lost Girl, and then disappears, would fit well with this interpretation: now that the "film" is over, the Lost Girl's dream self has reintegrated with her real self. But the fact that the real film -- that is, Inland Empire -- ends with Laura Dern, not the Lost Girl, poses problems for this idea.

When I first saw the scene where the black homeless woman tells the dying Bruised Woman "no more blue tomorrows. You're on high now," I immediately surmised -- having seen Mulholland Drive -- that this scene was reality, and that rest of the movie were the Bruised Woman's fantasy, triggered by this remark. (You can find an elaborate reading of the film built on this foundation here (read the posts by onetailtest) and here.) But I quickly rejected this, for a couple of reasons. First, it would make the film too similar to Mulholland Drive. Second, on this hypothesis the film's last half hour would have to take place after the woman whose fantasy it is is dead. While this doesn't completely rule out the hypothesis, it does count against it, especially since there's no explicit evidence for the hypothesis. Furthermore, the scenes with the Bruised Woman, taken as a whole, aren't any more coherent or realistic than the rest of the film.

What does work, and what I would argue for, is that all or most of the film is the product of someone's unconscious (not necessarily a dream, but we can call it that for convenience). This explains why pieces of dialogue are repeated in completely different contexts by people who could not have known of the earlier use, and why Laura's husband joins a Polish circus (!): the Dreamer's unconscious is making things up as it goes along, cannibalizing earlier material in the process. Moreover, the film should be viewed not as the story of the "real" character played by Laura Dern whose personality is fracturing (whether we want to identify Nikki or Sue as this real character), but as the Dreamer's unconscious efforts, whoever she is, to construct a stable persona.

The first persona the Dreamer tries out is Nikki, but early in the movie's second hour, Nikki is replaced by the Housewife. (I refer to this persona as "the Housewife" and not Sue, because Dern plays the two personas differently, and because I think Sue's story is one of the things the Dreamer tries to repress by creating the Housewife.) Shortly before this happens, Nikki tells Devin to "look at me," insisting he recognize her as Mikki: she is demanding that Devin validate the Nikki persona, which he refuses to do.

The Housewife persona, as I hinted at above, is intended to suppress whatever it was that prompted the creation of "On High with Blue Tomorrows." But the repressed elements soon pop up again: first sex, with the group of seductive women who appear in the Housewife's house, and then violence, both dealt out and received, with the Bruised Woman. Shortly after the film's halfway mark, the Housewife confronts two women and asks them to "look at me and tell me if you've known me before." Like Nikki, the Housewife is demanding validation of her persona and does not get it.

This time, what follows is a chaotic section in which no persona dominates. This chaotic section ends with the "light show" that starts at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. After this, the Bruised Woman becomes the main persona from this point until her "death." But this persona is more fragile now than it had been before, as is evidenced by the danger that threatens her throughout this section. A couple of minutes after the start of this section, the Polish woman says to two prostitutes, "Hey, look at me and tell me if you've known me before," as the Housewife had earlier. Shortly afterwards, we have a reprise of the Bruised Woman's first encounter with the man at the top of the stairs; but this time her monologue expresses bewilderment and disorientation, rather than anger. The monologue is interrupted by a brief scene of the Housewife being beaten; there are also brief shots of two other women, one only seen in silhouette superimposed on the Bruised Woman's face.

From the Bruised Woman's death to the end of the film we get another period of chaos. This could be read either as all of the personas finally integrating, or as the final splintering of the personas. Obviously, this reading is far from complete, but I hope I've shown that it works as a starting point for further analysis.

Why is the Dreamer's unconscious so desperate to construct a stable persona, and why is it unable to do so until near the end of the film, if ever? In the conversation between Nikki and Visitor #1, the visitor tells Nikki she has an unpaid debt, and that actions have consequences, both phrases that will reappear later. It's reasonable, therefore, to assume that the Dreamer is guilty about something. What the Dreamer is guilty of is never stated; presumably it's the "thing" that the Bruised Woman sets out to tell the man at the top of the stairs about, but never actually gets to. Perhaps the Dreamer has killed her husband, or fantasized about doing so: this would account for a number of things. Note that the basic thrust of all the material between the start of filming and the Bruised Woman's death is either to portray Laura Dern's character as a victim, or to set up a self-defense justification for killing her husband.

wow! this is a superb explanation! I feel that this explanation makes sense! I saw this film several days ago, and although I have seen all the films by Mr. Lynch, but I did not know up to now what to think about this latest film, I had no ideas how to explain the events of this film. Now I feel much better, because I can put the puzzle together with your help :) Thank you for sharing your ideas!
... on this hypothesis the film's last half hour would have to take place after the woman whose fantasy it is is dead. While this doesn't completely rule out the hypothesis, it does count against it, especially since there's no explicit evidence for the hypothesis.

Well, the final two songs "On the other side, I see" and the the Gospel song "On that day power! Power, Lord!" Both of these songs would suggest that Sue has died and has gone over to the other side, into the spotlight of the theater of heaven, where even her childhood dream of being a ballerina is fulfilled. On that day - this is the day of death - power! Power, Lord, on that day!

The movie is about a woman who kills her husband and her various rationalizations as to why she did it, including the idea that she was just in a movie that had a murder. And after she kills him, she kills herself.

Thank you for your mention,
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