Michael Lidstone’s “Old World Politics, New World Prophecy” and My Misunderstanding INLAND EMPIRE (2006)Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on October 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney
Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE “A Woman In Trouble,” by Michael Lidstone.
Discussing a film as loaded as David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE requires one to place a few cards on the table first. I do not enjoy this film, but I assume entertainment was not its top priority, and I accept that. I had long admired David Lynch’s imagination, and his ingenuity with the tools of expression, be they the tools of film making or painting or sculpture or any other medium he chooses to work in. Ever since my dad took my brother Ed & I to see THE ELEPHANT MAN at the SoNo Cinema in Norwalk, CT I’ve understood that this was a man with a unique perspective. Where INLAND EMPIRE is concerned, I respect the ambition of Lynch’s riddle within a maze storytelling style, and I appreciate that he trusts his audience enough to challenge them at nearly every opportunity in this 3 hour film.
The first time I saw INLAND EMPIRE, with my friend Sahara at The Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA, we were utterly confounded within the first act. We both trusted Lynch to take us somewhere we’d never seen; a significant portion of the audience didn’t share our trust, and walked out within the first 2 hours. When it was over, Sahara & I went for our customary drink (in my case, 2 or 3), during which we share our thoughts on a movie while it is fresh in our minds. Usually during these drinks we point out cool things to each other that the other might have missed. This time all we came up with was an expanding list of questions. I assumed that my understanding of INLAND EMPIRE would grow a little bit each time I saw it, but that I would never fully grasp it.
Then I met Michael Lidstone. With his study “Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE ‘A Woman In Trouble’,” Mr. Lidstone has explored an impressive bibliography in a consummate effort to decipher the most beguiling film Lynch has released to date. We’ll return to Mr. Lidstone’s book in a moment, but in order for me to explain how surprising his effort is, I need to tell you how thoroughly I misread INLAND EMPIRE.
On its most literal face-value level, INLAND EMPIRE is about an actress named Nikki Grace (Dern) starring as a character named Sue Blue in a film called “On High In Blue Tomorrows.” It is revealed by “On High” director Kingsley Stewart (Irons) that his film is a remake of an unfinished German film called “47,” which was never completed because the production was considered cursed. Some have called INLAND EMPIRE a companion to Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DR. since both feature women in jeopardy in Los Angeles, and a story-within-a-story structure. Other than those similarities, I have not found anything in either film that helps explain the other, any more than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO illuminates THE HOLY MOUNTAIN.
For a significant portion of the film, Nikki becomes her character Sue Blue. As Sue Blue, Nikki crosses paths with a group of prostitutes, also characters within the film in which Nikki stars; later we meet Polish prostitutes, who may be part of the story of “47” or may be genuine, but either way someone has been murdering Polish prostitutes. Given Lynch’s use of soul transference in LOST HIGHWAY, it didn’t strike me us too unusual that Nikki could become Sue Blue, or that characters in one film may have counterparts in another film, or reality, or both. The reason I say that I misunderstand all this is that I cannot explain to you what it means. I get what is happening, and maybe even one level of subtext, but my inability to explain it to someone else is enough to tell me that I remain mystified. Truth be told, the feeling being mystified is part of why I like seeing Lynch’s (and Jodorowsky’s) films; I like knowing that I can spend the rest of my life figuring them out as my own understanding of life, the universe and everything grows.
Michael Lidstone was not willing to sit back and wait for life or Lynch to explain INLAND EMPIRE to him. “Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE ‘A Woman In Trouble'” reads like forensic detective work or the crafting and testing of a theory via the scientific method. He begins by offering a more clearly defined set of questions than I had ever considered. With a few well chosen moments in the film, he explores possibilities for their meaning, and unlocks potential meanings for other moments and themes. At first his research seems as elusive as INLAND EMPIRE, but when you reach his conclusion, you sit back and realize how logically he progressed through the entire story. I want to be very careful not to give away too many of the epiphanies delineated by his study. I would hate to be that guy who tells you about this great comedy film you have to see, and then tells you all the best jokes in the movie, know what I mean?
One major clue that Mr. Lidstone’s research jumps off from is the word “AXXoNN,” which Nikki sees written on a door, through which this would have been a short movie had she not passed. Anyone could look at that scene and know AXXoNN must mean something significant, but how many of us bothered to look it up? Mr. Lidstone found it to be a formula used in 1928 by Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp to analyze folk tales and legends. Further exploration down this track gave insight into potential allegorical meaning of a family of humanoid rabbits that appear early in the film, a sequence regarded by many critics as nothing more than a bizarre nonsequitor, as well as several other key scenes that might have bee similarly dismissed. Aaah, but how to know which folklore to analyze? Like a good detective or literary rabbit, Mr. Lidstone starts at the beginning. The film opens with an image of a record needle playing an LP, and a voice telling us that we are listening to “the longest running radio play in history,” before we realize we are in a hotel room in Poland. Mr. Lidstone exhaustively researched stories from Poland and Eastern Europe, via folklore as well as history. Using what he learned from those stories, combined with what he read in Lynch’s own website and his 2006 book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity,” Mr. Lidstone was guided toward other history, other legends, and even spiritual texts. I was ready to look at “AXXoNN” and think “that’s odd, what happens next?” Mr. Lidstone did the footwork to realize that this formula holds the master key to Sue Blue’s subconsciously journey.
Some may take issue with Mr. Lidstone’s final interpretation of INLAND EMPIRE. Again attempting to avoid spoilers of either the film or the study, he finds a very topical and timely political subtext to the film’s spiritual allegory that could be rejected by viewers who see the movie on as singular a level as I first experienced it. He concludes that the film is an warning to the soul of America, against following the George W. Bush administration too blindly, specifically in regards to The War on Terror and the expansion of what some pundits have referred to as The American Empire. On Lynch’s own Facebook page fans have argued and debated whether his artwork is political or socially conscious, with some citing interviews in the past where Lynch has said he is not a political person. I have two responses to this. First, I think it is a mistake to take David Lynch too literally at his own word, when so often in his career he has enjoyed an almost Bob Dylanesque tendency to tamper with our expectations. This is after all an artist whose contribution to New York’s series of public art installations, Cow Parade 2000, was rejected. Lynch followed the rules of the show to the letter, but his piece challenged the spirit of the entire enterprise. Second, for me to reject Mr. Lidstone’s conclusion that INLAND EMPIRE is a politically themed spiritual allegory, I should probably have my own equally reasoned assessment of Lynch’s meaning. I do not have that.
I will not say that I take Mr. Lidstone’s interpretation as some dogmatic gospel of what INLAND EMPIRE can only mean, but no one else I have read or spoken with has done nearly as much work to make his or her case. In speaking with Mr. Lidstone, he mentions artists beside Lynch who had not considered themselves political, until the events of a Post 9/11 America. Those artists aside, I would point to others who recognize that a certain point some aspect of their work becomes the provenance of the fans. An artist creates a work and that belongs to them, or to whomever commissioned the piece, be that an art patron or a film studio. As I have suggested in earlier articles and may a nerdy debate, a viewer or participant brings their own perspective, based on every moment of their life up until their experience with the art in question. Clive Barker has said for years that he no longer owns the Cenobites of his HELLRAISER films; fans and other artists have brought so much of their own perspective to that world, that their originator regards them as something in the ether. If one disagrees with Mr. Lidstone’s analysis, one must nonetheless acknowledge both how deeply within his own experience he was willing to plumb, and how far beyond his experience he was willing to research in order to connect with Lynch. That effort in itself is more than forensics or scientific examination, it is a creative endeavor in its own right.
When my mother was in law school, she told me about professor who had assigned his class a heavy reading assignment to be completed before their first class. On that first day, he asked them how the reading sat with them; the entire class admitted confusion. He told them “The law will never be clear but stick with me, and when we’re done you’ll be confused, but you’ll be on a higher plane of confusion.” I will continue to try to grow with INLAND EMPIRE as I increase my experience with the medium of film. Having read and reread Mr. Lidstone’s book, I will now approach this film and all of Lynch’s work going forward on a higher plane of confusion.
To his mind, Mr. Lidstone has thoroughly unlocked Lynch’s film, and I suspect he is probably right. Whether he is right or not, he has provided us a polished shiny set of keys to encourage our own further exploration. In a perfect film geek world, an adventurous publisher like Taschen or Phaidon would accept this initial study as a treatment and provide Mr. Lidstone the means to interview Mr. Lynch and the cast and crew. One of these publishers could combine Lynch’s photography and Lidstone’s analysis, interviews, and conclusions into one of those snazzy heavy-bonded hardcover books that movie nerds give each other during the holidays. Until that day comes, you can got to Amazon and download “Old World Politics, New World Prophecy” to your Kindle.