I'm a contrarian all year round on this blog, thus for the fun of participating in Jim Emerson's Contrarianism blogathon at Scanners, I'll make it an exercice de style. Following up on Andy Horbal's initiative to study the buzz generated by Manohla Dargis NYT review of INLAND EMPIRE, I've decided to take the aggressive detractor approach and give a detailed reader's feedback.
This is a gameplay of course, as Dargis is a great critic and my tentative analysis is pretentious. Nitpicky mode intentionally exaggerated. For the fun of being contrarian, at least let's not bash a little helpless reviewer, let's go for the best and see where it takes us. Why not? Keep in mind I'm not familiar with american TV culture and English is a second language, this should relativize my following remarks, but what any reader gets from a review says something about the writer. Moreover I happen to share Dargis opinion that INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece, and I have nothing but respect for her critiques.
I've read this article back in December and only saw the film last week. I had already a few objections back then when it was celebrated "the most significant piece of criticism she wrote for the NYT". Now reading it again, with hindsight of seeing the film, I'm able to qualify my troubled impressions.
Contradictions of my own contradictions are of course welcome and encouraged.
"The Trippy Dream Factory of David Lynch" by Manohla Dargis (NYT, Dec. 6 2006)
Dargis calls it "art", ranks it in her top10 of the year, people call her review her best job ever... Then I'd like to know what is an art review and how good can get criticism with great literary style.
I'm not siding with John Podhoretz and Andrew Sullivan who called her "pretentious" and "poser", on the contrary, I think she is too superficial and dilutes the density of Lynch works in a populist rhetoric meant to vulgarize "art", which obviously goes against her stated intention to place this movie above all.
Where is the critical reflexion about Lynch's world vision? Where is the aesthetic analysis other than qualifying actors and set furniture with colorful adjectives, and dropping as much pop culture references as possible? I don't know what was the bottom line for this review, and maybe the editor watered it down afterall.
paragraph 1 : lyrical intro, obligatory(?) filmography reminder.
- I wouldn't even mention the triviality of the "vine" metaphor, and the insisting cliché about Lynch's "creppy-creepy" persona if this article wasn't acclaimed as a model of criticism.
paragraph 2 : vague overall description of the atmosphere
- I wholeheartedly agree with the infamous A-bomb, INLAND EMPIRE is art. I wish Dargis had developped this angle and actually treated it as a work of art by giving up any reference to conventional filmmaking and conventional reviewing. Instead she produces a standard movie review with a plot rundown, nods to the actors, nods to the image, trivia, name-dropping...
- "Dark as pitch, as noir, as hate" : not so subtle wording.
- I'm not sure what to think of the Mad Magazine reference... is it really appropriate? Are we really in the same kind of humor there?
- I'll pass on the TV reference (Ralph Kramden) which I don't know, and the painting style (Edward Hopper) which is another recurring cliché associated with Lynch (will critics bring it up in every Lynch movie?).
- "I’m still trying to figure out what the giant talking rabbits have to do with the weepy Polish woman" : useless bit of non-information. Some think that the stream-of-consciousness note-to-self creates an informal tone that feels like a confidence... I think this is more appropriate to the blog format, while in print we don't need all the speculations going through the critics head, just to fill space in a word-limited column. Or at least could be formulated in way to commit the reader's imagination instead of laying down straightforwardly key pieces of the puzzle and revealing an approximate link between them at the risk of spoiling the experience for readers who didn't see the film. I'm not against spoilers in general (thus the critic can develop a thorough analysis of every elements). But droping a spoiler without any critical point to make is just a mean space filler.
- "weepy" : The tone of the whole sentence is very light and almost mocking. I don't see why. I take offense to this pejorative qualifier, it gives the wrong impression to the reader who hasn't seen the film. We see the face of a woman in tears indeed, but nothing says her emotion is exagerated or faked (she weeps already when the TV show starts), in fact she might have serious troubles. Lynch films her in a very dignified way.
- "may be a whore or merely lost or, because this is a David Lynch film (after all), probably both" : oversimplifying generalisation. Is she saying that whores and lost girls are Lynch's auteur trademark or that he systematically mixes up prostitution and confusion when portraying women? I doubt either are insightful propositions. (see comment above about useless spoilers)
paragraph 3 : plot rundown, caricatural description of characters
- The Wizard of Oz reference was already a stretch for Mulholland Dr., it's dubious for INLAND EMPIRE.
- The "once upon a time" reference to fairytale is also out there.
- Although one thing is important there is to pay attention to how the film starts.
- Now, the derogatory terms to caricature the screen appearance of actors with funny words : "hilarious", "bulging eyes", "East European accent" was it really necessary? are they really representative of the scene or just a cheap shot at the most superficial details? Dargis seems to enjoy laughing at a freak show, while Lynch was installing the quirky calm of a possessive inescapable encounter.
Why not talk about the gradual oppressive intrusion of this stranger in her intimate space. Or the awkward silences, the poses, the offbeat timing as if suspended in time. The time feels soft, actually making uncomfortable moments last longer, until it jumps to tomorrow, leaving the scene unfinished, as if it never happened...
paragraph 4 : Mulholland Dr. (tabloid-friendly) synopsis.
- There is more critical analysis of Mulholland Dr. in this single paragraph than in the full article for INLAND EMPIRE!
- "Mr. Lynch loves women, or at least their representations" : again, underdevelopped generalisations. I'd like to know more about this.
- Should the form of a review attempt to match the form of the film, or at least adapt the review formula to its narrative specifity?
paragraph 5 : see paragraph 3
- Continuation of the rough plot description in a very face-value, lineary way that might not be the best approach to a Lynch movie, or to a film called "art". There is this, there is that, one, two, three characters, this is what they do, that is what happens then... INLAND EMPIRE is not made to be summarized to fit in a conventional plot. If it's art, let's take liberties with the usual narration of a film review...
- More uncalled-for derogatory terms "foreign-accented visitor", "butched-up as a neo-greaser". Maybe it's hip for a journalist, but is that GREAT film criticism I wonder?
- "almost-unrecognizable" : star-gazing type of remark for the fanboys. How insightful is it to the film?
- "(...) kind of" : mysterious unfinished sentence to hint at more twists, although the reasons (of the interruption and of the secret) will not be developped here.
- Why mentionning the porn-name anecdote, the costumes... instead of installing the love triangle tension, the cursed film, the mannered spelled out inhibition, the upper-class cordial uppity, the naive clumsy lust...?
paragraph 6 : synospsis of the "film(s)-within-the-film"
- Why go for a pedestrian description that is no use to grasp the originality of this one-of-a-kind film, nor to get a sense of its mysterious atmosphere? Citing the various disconnected scenes for the sake of an inventory without helping the reader to assemble it all in a coherent impression of the film and without adding the insight necessary to begin to interpretate the story only makes the review more unintelligible and disparate than the film actually is. At least in the film the montage and the recurrent places give an intuitive understanding of the circumvolutions, which the review lacks.
- "Susan spends a lot of time in a sinister house" : I don't know how much Dargis appreciated the film and how much she wants to convince her readers that this art is a must see, but this kind of tired sentence doesn't shine the best light on what Lynch meant to do. It denotes that time is wasted, and that the house is repulsive instead of captivating.
- "chew the fat and their naughty lower lips" : I guess to find 2 phrases using the same verb in a row is great poetry (is it?) but why choosing to highlight the listless aspect of the scene instead of its latent sexual ambivalence (conflation of adultary with prostitution, sex slavery with sweet infatuation)?
paragraph 7 : set design description
- The prevalent role of places and the labyrintine architecture gives the film its structure indeed. But again, the pedestrian inventory, disconnected from the scenes described in the previous paragraph miss the connections that would give us an idea of what is going on and what Lynchian ideas are at work.
- "weepy" changed to a preferable "weeping" here.
- "money-for-sex transaction" : I find the phrase used there to kill the possibilities left opened by Lynch. The woman who is asked to undress appears to be a prostitute indeed, but the ambiguity of the scene relies precisely on the absence of money. Both characters' faces are blurred as if on a surveillance tape trial exhibit. The guy asks "Do you know what prostitutes do?", but this could be role playing within a married couple/adulterous lovers (theme of the film), and the importance of multiple interpretations are key. A review narrowing down the freedom goes against the film.
paragraph 8 : The only reflexive analytical paragraph so far.
"How Nikki and the other characters wind up in these rooms — how, for instance, the pampered blonde ends up talking trash in a spooky, B-movie office — is less important than what happens inside these spaces. In “Inland Empire,” the classic hero’s journey has been supplanted by a series of jarringly discordant scenes, situations and setups that reflect one another much like the repeating images in
the splintered hall of mirrors at the end of Orson Welles’s “Lady From Shanghai.” The spaces in “Inland Empire” function as way stations, holding pens, states of minds (Nikki’s, Susan’s, Mr. Lynch’s), sites of revelation and negotiation, of violence and intimacy. They are cinematic spaces in which images flower and fester, and stories are born."
- "How Nikki and the other characters wind up in these rooms is less important than what happens inside these spaces" : 1st insight engaging with the film purpose. Although instead of asking why the same actress appears in milieux that have nothing to do with each other (without explanatory narrative transitions), a better insight would be to note the way Lynch re-use the same actress to play different roles in the same film. The fact we can recognize Laura Dern each time doesn't mean we are expected to believe she is the same person. This is art. Let's think outside the box and forget about long lived narrative conventions. Lynch obviously introduces a shift of time and place, possibly fantasized by the character itself. So the pertinent question is not to make sense of the logistical link between each story but the mood they describe and how they resonate in relation to each other. For instance Lynch puts rabbit heads on the sitcom actors so we don't identify them, he blurs faces (because they are symbolic/archetypal scenes) to prevent the viewer to draw immediate conclusion about the persons themselves.
paragraph 9 : 2nd insight of the review.
"Each new space also serves as a stage on which dramatic entrances and exits are continually being made. The theatricality of these entrances and exits underscores the mounting tension and frustrates any sense that the film is unfolding with the usual linear logic. Like characters rushing in and out of the same hallway doors in a slapstick comedy, Nikki/Susan keeps changing position, yet, for long stretches, doesn’t seem as if she were going anywhere new. For the most part, this strategy works (if nothing else, it’s truer to everyday life than most films), even if there are about 20 minutes in this admirably ambitious 179-minute film that feel superfluous. “Inland Empire” has the power of nightmares and at times the more prosaic letdown of self-indulgence."
- "Each new space also serves as a stage on which dramatic entrances and exits are continually being made" : Well, I used to find it interesting before seeing the film, but actually only a few scenes function that way in the film (sitcom, small house at the end).
- The "20 min too much" comment feels quite petty, the kind of thing you say of some pretentious director who doesn't know what he's doing, not of a film you call "art".
- "prosaic letdown of self-indulgence" WTF does it mean? again, I'm afraid Dargis has issues with artistic vision that are too personal, too far away from traditional cinema. I can't tell if she actually admires this film.
paragraph 10 : banalities about Lynch and subconscious. Nod to photography
- The kind of useless press-kit info that is repeated in every review. I realized by reading other interviews that this concerned only the preparatory phase of the work, then ideas came together and he had a larger crew and an uninterrupted shooting schedule that was prepared in advance. It's fine to mention it, but to build the buzz of a film on geeky trivia doesn't elevate it to art territory.
- Seriously though, the surrealist gameplay of automatic writing doesn't quite correspond to the practicality of a film set. It implies to write mindlessly, beyond attention span, in order for subconscious word associations to surface without the conscience to register and filter it. Maybe some improvised scenes allowed to last 40 min could take an actor to act subconsciously. But these are rare occasions in the film with Laura Dern alone. Most of the scenes are fairly constructed and reworked in post-production.
paragraph 11 : Impressionistic conclusion
- "Inland Empire seemed funnier, more playful and somehow heartfelt" : something the lame director Bob Brooker in Mulholland Dr. could say.
- Somehow Dargis attempts to sympathize with readers disappointed on first viewing, by sharing a similar experience, and then promising a funnier second viewing. In principle I don't approve appeal to sympathy, especially when it relates to (re)viewing recommendations. A critic should leave the decision to buy a ticket or not to the reader. The consumation-driven rhetoric is for the marketing campaign.
- "It’s easy to get lost in a David Lynch film, but Ms. Dern and her amazing rubber-band mouth, which laughs like the sun and cries us a river, proves a magnificent guide." ain't it corny?
- "rubber-band mouth" : derogatory qualifier, and only refering to a couple of shots of Dern's distorted face.
I don't see how this particular review is any different from any other one. It doesn't strike me as such a writing mastery (I'm French, I wouldn't know), nor does it feature the greatest filmic insights we've read in a long time. As for the film, I'd wonder if she liked it if she didn't call it art and put it in her year-end top. Lots of nitpicky notes, seemingly off-the-cuff, on details of minor importance and few demonstrations of the greatness of the film. From the review alone I would say she liked it but will move on quickly to the less artsy fare. These words don't shine with passion and adoration as we could expect it from a glorified art piece. But maybe Dargis just doesn't like art that much... ;)