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Revisiting Lynch – Part Six: INLAND EMPIRE, Unmade Projects and Crazy Clown Time

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In the early part of this century, Lynch spent a lot of time putting together his website David Lynch.com. Embracing the internet and the opportunities his own website afforded him, Lynch would make his own shorts available via this medium as well as the weird sitcom Rabbits and animated series Dumbland.  Lynch also branched out into coffee sales as his own brand was launched and available through the website. His next film was an even more polarising and baffling effort than anything he had previously made.

INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

Financed completely independently and filmed over a period of two years on new digital HD camera’s INLAND EMPIRE was initially a collection of scenes cobbled together from both Lynch’s own website (the Rabbits shorts) and scenes he would film with Laura Dern. Eventually the project started to take on some form of narrative plot and Lynch filmed scenes involving actors Justin Theroux and Jeremy Irons as well as several scenes in Poland where Lynch found the crews to be unbelievably great to work with. Scenes would often be written on the day and then filmed. All of this would eventually be edited together to create the 3 hour tumble down the rabbit hole that is INLAND EMPIRE.

INLAND EMPIRE debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September 2006. The film was largely well received by critics but remains almost impenetrable in terms of its narrative. Like Mulholland Drive the film is open to interpretation but does not have any obvious clues and much is left up to the viewer’s imagination. Lynch took the unusual decision of largely distributing the movie himself without the backing of any major studio as well as working out a deal to enable him to distribute the film on DVD. Unusually for someone who has in the past declared his love for film, Lynch has stated that he enjoyed the experience of working digitally so much that he will never again make a film on traditional film.

The film starts off with a Polish couple (a prostitute and her john) with their faces blurred and then moves on to an emotional woman seemingly trapped in a hotel room watching a bizarre sitcom involving rabbits on the television set. We then move to California and actress Nicki Grace (Laura Dern) who is visited by her strange neighbour (Grace Zabriskie) who warns her of terrible things to come. Nicki wins a role in a highly sought after production ‘On high in blue tomorrows’ and is warned about the womaniser co-star Billy Burke (Justin Theroux). Everything seems to be going okay but Nicki begins disappearing more and more into her role and begins an affair with Billy. There are strange noises on set and the director (Jeremy Irons) tells them that the film they are working on has actually been attempted before back in Poland, but was seemingly cursed and ended in murder. Things get more and more bizarre and Nicki finds herself living as a battered wife as well as an actress in Poland whilst recounting her story to a silent man. The line between reality and illusion blurs and identities shift all over the place with the nightmare seemingly controlled by a Polish curse and its enforcer known only as The Phantom.

That’s about as best as I can sum up the plot of INLAND EMPIRE. Once it gets past the forty five minute mark there is no narrative in a normal sense, it’s a collection of bewildering scenes. Some of it is genius; some of it is self indulgent. When it works though it is amazing, the later scenes on the street with Laura Dern acting her socks off as a prostitute in the films tense last thirty minutes are amongst the most brilliant things that Lynch has ever put on film. The earlier parts of the film feel somewhat uncomfortable, watching a Lynch film shot digitally is jarring at first and the film is not as beautiful and rich as his previous work. As the film goes on though it seems that Lynch got used to the format and it becomes visually more impressive. Without the need to please distributors and corporate financiers, Lynch is free to pour his subconscious on to the screen without restraint and if this is his last film then it feels somewhat fitting. Laura Dern was cruelly denied an Oscar nomination for this film despite Lynch’s best efforts campaigning on the street with a cow and the sign ‘Without cheese there would be no INLAND EMPIRE’.

The Great Unmade Projects: Ronnie Rocket, Metamorphosis, Goddess, One Saliva Bubble and The Dream of the Bovine.

Like many of the most original and creative spirits that work in entertainment, David Lynch has a number of unmade projects that rivals Terry Gilliam’s in terms of wonders that we have not seen. Through a combination of financial pressures, creative disagreements and the director just losing interest, we have not seen several films that the director has been involved with at one time or another. Perhaps the most famous of all of these projects has been Ronnie Rocket, a film that was planned originally at one time or another to be Lynch’s next film after Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and even as far forward as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The film seems destined to never happen and the aborted deal with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope in the 80s is probably the closest we will ever come to seeing it.

Ronnie Rocket dealt with several of Lynch’s obsessions, notably electricity and industry and told the tale of a three foot tall guy who is powered by electricity and becomes a kind of musical instrument for a band due to the beautiful sounds he emits when powered up. All of this takes place in an industrial dystopia ruled by the menacing ‘Donut Men’. The screenplay has been available to read on the internet for a good many years now and is well worth a read if you get the chance. It’s definitely a film that would have been defined by its visuals and would have starred Michael J.Anderson long before he became the man from another place, its possibly too strange and expensive a project to ever have come to life. Too weird to be financed by the mainstream and too outlandish and ambitious to ever be funded independently.

David Lynch and Mark Frost first met whilst collaborating on a screenplay based on Goddess written by Anthony Summer in 1987. Goddess concerned the last few months in the life of Marilyn Monroe (changed to Rosilyn Ramsay for legal reasons) and the story made the claim that Bobby Kennedy (Phillip Molloy for legal reasons) killed Monroe. The story was a balancing act between reverence for Monroe’s legend and the sleaze which plagued Laura Palmer in her last weeks. When the producers heard about the whole Kennedy-Monroe murder angle they essentially killed the project. Still the Lynch-Frost partnership lead to Twin Peaks so for that we should all be thankful.

Around the time of Twin Peaks’ success Lynch worked on another project with Mark Frost; the screwball comedy One Saliva Bubble. The script took place in the lightning capital of the world; Newtonville, Kansas and dealt with the fall out from a single saliva bubble getting into the power grid, making a government satellite malfunction and causing people to comically flip identities. The film was at one point going to possibly star Steve Martin and Martin Short but was a casualty of the failure of the Twin Peaks film and financing was pulled. The script is again widely available on the internet and is a fun read, it’s an out and out very silly comedy and though Lynch has shown skill with comedy before, it sense of humour like On the Air, perhaps harkens back too far to a bygone era and wouldn’t fit in with the gross out comedy prevalent in the 90’s. There again it’s an interesting sounding proposition teaming up Lynch with Steve Martin, a performer who sadly seems to have lost that zany touch that made us all like him in the first place.

As far back as the early 80’s Lynch was working on a film adaptation of the Kafka story The Metamorphosis in which a man turns into an insect. The difficulties came up in creating a believable giant bug pre-CGI and Lynch is reported to have spent much of his own money creating a practical giant cockroach. The Metamorphosis was thought to be one of the movies that would have been made in his deal with Ciby 2000 but has not moved beyond Lynch stating that he very much liked the dark humour and richness of Kafka’s original story.

The Dream of the Bovine was written back in 1994 by Lynch and Robert Engels and was originally intended to be a series for comedy central. It then became a film script and told the tale of a trio of humans who were once cows and their adventures. They still behave like cows but had a human appearance and Lost Highway DP Peter Deming described it as ‘an existential Marx Brothers’. Lynch wanted Harry Dean Stanton to star along with actors Ed Wright and Max Perlich. The project has been quiet for a long while and it’s possible that the same problems that plagued One Saliva Bubble with its style of comedy have also affected the film and it’s likely a project out of its time.

What next? and Crazy Clown Time:

For a director who has considered himself a sound man rather than a director for quite a while, it’s surprising that David Lynch took so much time to actually make an album. Sure he produced Julee Cruise’s albums ‘Floating into the Night’ and ‘The Voice of Love’ and wrote many songs, but music has always been such an integral part of his films that surely an album was always there just waiting to come out. Finally in 2011, Lynch’s solo debut was released ‘Crazy Clown Time’ came out in and received pretty good reviews all round.

Listening to the album for the first time, it sounds exactly as you would expect a David Lynch album to sound and truthfully is somewhat disappointing. There are a few too many songs that sound the same, all doom laden bass and twangy guitar with Lynch’s singing voice sounding exactly like his talking voice and giving off a surreal air. The more you listen to it though the better it gets, tracks like ‘Pinky’s Dream’, ‘Good Day Today’ ‘Strange and Unproductive Thinking’ and the heartbreaking ‘These are my friends’ are strangely catchy and a couple of tracks wouldn’t be out of place played very loudly in a club. Tracks like ‘She Rise Up’ and ‘Football Game’ whilst at first seeming uninspired actually grow on you and you find them repeating in your mind on those cold dark nights of the soul. There are not as many acid jazz like tracks as you would expect but Crazy Clown Time is definitely evocative in atmosphere and provokes thoughts of further movies from the man.

During the press rounds for INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch proclaimed his love of digital film due to the freedom it gave him and expressed doubts that he would make another film on traditional film cameras. Due to this proclamation you would expect that Lynch would be churning out films that gave him creative freedom but sadly this is not the case. Apart from some short films made for the website, a Moby music video, some commercials and promos for film festivals, as well as a disturbing music video for the title track from Lynch’s album, he has done very little in film since 2006. He has produced two movies, the little seen Jennifer Lynch effort Surveillance and Werner Herzog’s Lynch-esque My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Both of which are worth a look if you are in the mood for something off the wall and strange. The website and work with digital film gives him massive amounts of freedom that a two hour movie might not allow and with this in mind it’s understandable if he never went back to working under the restrictions of a financier.

It would be good if Lynch could return to one of the previously mentioned unmade projects he has been involved with. Ronnie Rocket seems like it needs to be made as the director has had it on the backburner for so long. If INLAND EMPIRE does turn out to be Lynch’s last feature though, at least it ends on a high note with a joyous musical number featuring many of his obsessions in the end credits and is a fitting celebration of one of the most idiosyncratic careers in modern media.