Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Unified Field Theory of Filmmaking

This week, I tried to watch David Lynch’s latest movie “Inland Empire.” For the most part, I knew what I was getting myself into – having seen all of Lynch’s previous films and having read various reviews saying that this was his most challenging film to date. I found “Inland Empire” to be relatively coherent (for a David Lynch film) for the first two hours…. Then it went haywire, losing all semblance of narrative logic. At the time, I wasn’t inclined to go along for the ride.

Three of Lynch’s films (“Eraserhead,” “Lost Highway,” and “Mulholland Drive”) are among my personal favorites, and I generally have no problem following the filmmaker into his dream world – it can certainly be frustrating, but it is also frequently inspiring. On first viewing, I usually come away from his films with a sense of curiosity and awe, which prompts me to watch them again in the hope of understanding what so intrigued me. (You can determine for yourself how well I have actually “understood” them by checking out the David Lynch chapter in my book.) There are only a few of the director’s films - more often than not, his short films - that have left me feeling cold.

Like all of Lynch’s movies, “Inland Empire” is at times spellbindingly beautiful, despite the fact that it was shot entirely on digital video. Nobody sets a mood like David Lynch. In just a few minutes of screen time, he can fill you with fear, sadness, and wonder – usually all at once. In this respect, “Inland Empire” is no exception… it immediately reels you into the director’s mind, and has an almost paralyzing effect. In the final hour, the film reels you into the main character’s mind, which is an even tougher place to be. Her world is chaos - an experiment in abstraction. The center does not hold.

I’m not interested in assessing whether or not the film is a success or a failure. For the time being, at least, I am less curious about the film itself than about the director’s process in making it. As it happens, David Lynch has given us an explanation of that process. In his recent book “Catching the Big Fish,” he writes that “Inland Empire” began with a 14-page monologue, delivered by Laura Dern in a 70-minute take. The director then spent the next several years building a film around that monologue. Every so often, a scenario would occur to him and he would shoot it, hoping that the film would congeal eventually.

The director used more or less the same process on his first film, “Eraserhead.” But that film, it seems to me, was more focused. Every scene was undeniably part of Henry’s world, the way he saw it. When Lynch shot something that didn’t belong to that world, he was sharp enough to realize it and adjust accordingly. However interesting a scene might be, he knew when it didn’t belong in his feature film. One example, which the director gave in a series of interviews with Chris Rodley, was a scene in which Henry’s neighbor tortures two women. “The reason I took that out,” Lynch explains, “was it was too disturbing to the film. I didn’t want anyone even to think about what was next door. It just clouded and disturbed it.” In other words: It didn’t belong in Henry’s world. The director had a desire for continuity of tone, if not for narrative logic. It seems to me that he applied no such filter to “Inland Empire.”

In his book, Lynch admits that initially he didn’t want to make any decisions about what belonged or didn’t belong in the film because he believed the ideas that were coming to him were connected in ways that he himself simply could not (yet) understand. He explains, in terms of the Hindu theory of a Unified Field of Life: “There couldn’t be a fragment that doesn’t relate to everything. It’s all kind of one thing, I felt. So, I had high hopes that there would be a unity emerging, that I would see the way these things related, one to another.” Halfway through filming, he says, “I saw a kind of form that would unite the rest, everything that had come before.” While there are certainly images and ideas in “Inland Empire” that interrelate, I’m at a loss to explain how the form of the story unites them.

I think that my grasp of Lynch’s earlier films owes quite a bit to what knowledge I have of Freudian and Jungian psychology. I have yet to get my head around the Unified Field theory. I know that it has been associated with the recent discoveries in quantum physics, but my knowledge in that area is extremely limited. Rather than attempt my own explanation, I must refer to the writings of Fred Alan Wolf (from his 1981 book “Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Nonscientists”): “No clear dividing line exists between ourselves and the reality we observe to exist outside of ourselves. Instead, reality depends upon our choices of what and how we choose to observe. These choices, in turn, depend upon our minds or, more specifically, the content of our thoughts. And our thoughts, in turn, depend upon our expectations, our desire for continuity.” In the case of Laura Dern’s character in “Inland Empire,” and the case of David Lynch as a storyteller, there seems to be a less-than-usual desire for continuity. Does that mean that the film is only worthwhile to those who also lack a desire for continuity?

Wolf says: “Imagination is that drive, that dream, that search for the unseen order we all suspect lies beyond the reality we all have grown accustomed to, the fa├žade of life.” Lynch is undoubtedly searching. Whether or not he has found anything is, as with all of his films, open to subjective interpretation. Some viewers have compared his searching to a room full of monkeys banging on typewriters. Personally, I don’t think the situation is quite that grim. If Lynch’s monkeys (or rabbits, or whatever) have not yet produced a work with the universal appeal of Shakespeare, they have nevertheless consistently produced films that appeal to a very large audience. To some extent, Lynch's mind is our own. If the filmmaker has befuddled some of us with his latest work, it is worth considering the possibility that he has simply gone deeper into that mind than we can see at first glance, and that our appreciation of the film simply depends on how we observe.

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