On the eve of the new issue of the New York Press Armond Dangerous will take it upon itself (ourselves?) to not fall too far behind our man's weekly output. We have a whole year and career's worth of reviews to sneak up on, tackle, and pound into tender, black and blue pulp, so our desperate sprint to surprise Armond at the corner of 2006 and 2007 begins now. We still haven't seen Mel "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" Gibson's Armond-approved (we know that much) epic Apocalypto, but we've been familiar with David Lynch's shape-shifting Inland Empire since feasting our eyes on it at the New York Film Festival and are well-equipped to counter AW's muddled review.
Because this take on Inland and Lynch's new artistic direction exemplifies White at his boorish, self-righteous worst. It starts off harmlessly enough, likening the film to a sketchbook -- not a bad comparison given Inland's disparate, fragmented, piece-by-piece assemblage. Then White makes his true critical intentions known:
We've already seen similar sketches in such recent Lynch films as Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. That means the most fascinating thing about Inland Empire is the degree to which Lynch's personal cosmology (deliberately disturbing, if not off-putting figures and devices) has become an accepted—and expected—part of contemporary film culture.
Ah. As he does so often when confronted with cinematic experiences beyond his reassuring "pop" island, White flips the mirror around to ostensibly gauge a general critical reaction and then position himself in stubborn opposition. As we'll see, that position is incredibly shaky. Onward:
Since Lynch is releasing Inland Empire himself . . . it's clear that he has no shame about repeating himself. Lynch obviously depends on a devoted audience that is interested in his continuing oeuvre and the twisting of his mind. (These viewers are not perturbed by obvious silliness such as the rabbit-like characters who pop up here.) The film's gloomy title is an art-student's invitation to project: Come visit unreachable, far-off places; journey through someone else's egotistical labyrinth. As Dern's Nikki disintegrates into her newest film role as Sue, the adulterous murder mystery may possibly reflect back on Nikki's own professional and private crises. Still, Inland Empire must be taken in a relaxed attitude as Lynch's in-joke, a psychotic, Bosch-like doodle. It seems designed to confound newcomers as much as to delight devotees.
The first warning signs arrive when White states Lynch is "repeating himself." Those who think Lynch is merely treading over the same comfortable ground (if ever comfortable in the first place) with Inland must have, we can imagine, hallucinated a more linear, less experimental narrative while viewing the film so it could compute. Inland's complete disregard for convention is related to but far afield from the Orphic genre-bending nightmares of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and a critic that can't spot the former's radical aesthetic departure needs to get his or her (but his, really, we're talking about Armond) eyes examined. As to whether Lynch "depends" on a devoted audience, our cynicism isn't so advanced as Armond's to believe Lynch wouldn't do (as he has done) whatever he wants according to his singular artistic temperament. But are his devoted followers not perturbed by the "obvious silliness" of the rabbit family? We're not sure how obvious it is in the first place, since this very odd -- even for Lynch -- element of Inland seemed to us more unsettling than anything else. And we still haven't gathered a consensus as to what Lynch's fan base collectively thinks about it. But unlike White, who we guess doesn't know himself, we haven't made such presumptions.
The paragraph's worst presumption, however, is that the film "must" not be taken seriously. Why not? Every tactic White has so far used to relegate it to minor status won't wash and, judging by White's inability to meet a work of art on its own terms when it steps outside the boundaries of "pop" (except in special cases, like late Godard), we suspect this a move designed to get the critic off the hook of analytical responsibility.
White's next volley is to charge that Inland's digital video images "[look] like crap." We don't fully agree, although there is something to say about the general inferiority of dv to film, but fair enough. It's the next passage that absolutely kills us:
[Lynch] wants to hijack movie audiences and take them to the lesser realm of gallery installations and home-sketchpad-digital whimsies. But does the willingness of critics to gallery-hop make our film culture more sophisticated than in periods of truly revolutionary and controversial film aesthetics? Are we smarter because we don't question Lynch's confounding mannerisms the way critics once foolishly scoffed at Alain Resnais' magnificent Last Year at Marienbad or Ingmar Bergman's Persona? The real enigma of Inland Empire is how it seduces critics who ignored Julián Hernández's very beautiful and artful Broken Sky; they lack the confidence to see what's wrong when Lynch is simply being wacky as in Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
"Hijack." We remember White similarly employing the word "destroy" to describe the objectives of Lars von Trier in his review of The Five Obstructions. Such wild accusations make a name for Armond as a take-no-prisoners flayer of charlatans, but they also make for lousy criticism. Maybe it's our hipster naivete, but we refuse to attach filmmakers we dislike to such insidious aims -- to do so betrays a breakdown in critical skills, substituting finger-wagging for analysis. And again, White supposes readers automatically agree with the values he never qualifies. Even if Lynch does want to take audiences to the lesser realm of gallery installations and home-sketchpad-digital whimsies (just so we're all on the same page, Inland Empire was blown up to film and is being released theatrically), why is that realm necessarily inferior? White never explains his reasoning, so we remain in the dark.
But the main problem regarding the above passage is the confident presumption of an ignorant or short-sighted critical consensus. If you know your Armond, though, you know this sort of presumption is a regular occurrence. The hilarious thing about it apropos Inland Empire is that the film has garnered a host of different reactions and seems headed toward a much more unsure critical fate -- it's far too strange and alienating for the likes of Entertainment Weekly and only just interesting enough for even a Lynch supporter like J. Hoberman. But acknowledging that even devoted fans might be split about the film and the various paths Lynch has taken throughout his career (for example, us: we love Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, the Twin Peaks series and movie, The Straight Story, Mulholland but feel ambivalent about Wild at Heart and Lost Highway for reasons close to, but more complicated than, the ones Armond sets forth) would be to acknowledge an untidy critical landscape (and who says critics who like Inland ignored Broken Sky? Can he name just one?) impossible to make into a hegemonic monster. Instead, it's a veritable windmill.
The next paragraph discloses what has by now been apparent: White wants more pop to compliment Lynch's snap and crackle. That was the beauty of the Twin Peaks series, he says, until it got out of control with the weirdness. Finally, a good point -- we similarly wish that Inland had a bit more to hang onto character- and narrative-wise. But Armond somehow associates Lynch's freak-outs with a harmful artistic direction taken due to the influence of unnamed critical enablers. Let's only in passing call attention to his ridiculous, unsupported claim that The Straight Story and Mulholland were "unpopular" (they were actually his two most critically and financially successful projects since Twin Peaks, but whatever) and highlight this nugget of wisdom:
Lynch’s retreat into the arcane of Inland Empire betrays the revolution he almost started. Having already established his high-art credentials (receiving carte blanche that is denied even Matthew Barney), Lynch doesn’t run into the problem that his surrealist rival Brian DePalma faced with The Black Dahlia. Critics expect DePalma to follow Hollywood narrative conventions despite his constant subversion of them, while Lynch is permitted to make capital-A art. Fact is, Inland Empire’s conceptual obscurities are less enthralling than the latest DePalma and Barney.
Funny that White should bring up the facts. Fact is, we should support all artists receiving carte blanche and being able to follow through on their visions without interference. But the fact that Lynch apparently can (and does so independently, now distributing and marketing Inland himself) has no bearing on de Palma, who still chooses to play the Hollywood game. And critics are not the ones responsible for dolling out money or restricting artistic freedom.
Poor Armond -- his beloved de Palma will always be misunderstood while Lynch shucks about among the gallery-crowd, betraying "pop" principles (he showed so much promise with Eraserhead, which clearly demonstrated his adherence to a conventional visual language) and blocking the appreciation of more deserving filmmakers. In his review's last paragraph White (begrudgingly?) admits Lynch to be of talent and interest, but sees Inland as just falling short:
Here, an overworked Dern walks in and out of corridors, drawing rooms, soundstages, continents and time as if she and the maestro know exactly what they’re doing without divulging their intentions to the audience. It’s moviegoers who must compromise their entertainment standards.
White says "compromise," we say "meet halfway." White, due to a delusional belief in a wrongheaded critical consensus and his need to valantly stand outside it, refuses to walk through the worlds Lynch has created. His is a dishonest position, built on faulty assumptions and leading to nonsensical conclusions. We see through his illogic. And we plan to journey into Inland Empire again and again.