Moving Pictures
Nov 23, 2021, 06:28AM

Dern Down the Rabbit Hole

David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006) and Melissa Anderson's new book on it.

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Since Bloomsbury started its 33&⅓ series on albums, publishing houses have sought to replicate its success in the world of film criticism with various compact compendia on the canonical works of cinema; some great (Adam Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, Jonathan Lethem’s They Live, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden), others not great. A new decade offers a new imprint of such volumes, Decadent Editions, from the Berlin/Melbourne-based Fireflies Press. Their website describes the series as “10 books about 10 films, one for every year of the 2000s.” These editions do feel decadent, not just in their neat matte paperback binding (the understated covers adorned with nearly imperceptible fireflies) but more so in the exhaustive thought, energy and research devoted to their contents.

The first volumes show a preference for art house cinema over the populist canon covered in Nayman and Lethem’s books: the debut edition, Nick Pinkerton’s superlative entry on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, finds an appropriate outlet for his characteristically gloomy takes on the current state of cinema; and most recently, Melissa Anderson explores the divergent pathways of David Lynch’s unbound digital odyssey Inland Empire. (Upcoming editions include Dennis Lim on Hong Sangsoo’s Tale of Cinema and Rebecca Harkins-Cross on Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman.)

Anderson’s approach—assigning a commensurate level of authorship to the film’s star (a career-best Laura Dern) as she does its director—isn’t novel; she says as much in a brief history lesson of acteurist texts early in the book. However, in the context of a critical study of one of the most celebrated auteurs’ most challenging work, reframing the film as an equilibrious creative collaboration is slightly radical, even thrilling. Anderson shows little interest in trying to read the film in a conventional sense. She repeatedly insists that it defies such a reading, that words do almost nothing to adequately explain the film—Lynch’s maxim, “Talking—it’s real dangerous,” makes multiple appearances—and instead she probes the work as a self-reflexive study of Dern (the actress, the star, the daughter, the feminist) that builds on her elastic visage (“Modigliani-like”), lanky figure and vast filmography, including past collaborations with Lynch and Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.

On the topic of Smooth Talk, Anderson steps out on a precarious limb, questioning Dern’s post-#MeToo reevaluation of the film’s ambiguous ending, in which her character Connie goes for a ride with an older male. While Dern once embraced the ambiguity of what actually happens to Connie on that ride, she slightly reconsidered that embrace at a 2020 event for the film, insisting, “I didn’t know a lot of what I was enacting.”

This remark inspires a long paragraph (in her words, a “semantic deadlock”) written entirely in the inquisitive in which Anderson ponders how to reconcile her commitment to those subjected to “the sordid realities of being an actress in Hollywood,” including Dern, with her strong desire not to victimize them; how to consider the risk of sacrificing sexuality’s more nuanced aspects without minimizing the seriousness of sexual violence and misogyny. Further: “Why do I flinch at the thought of Dern re-analysing the complex, ambiguous Smooth Talk—a film filled with uncertainties that she, eighteen when the film was released, once embraced—to fit a current orthodoxy that seems so often to insist on sexual relations, at least those between women and men, as the ‘seedbed for trauma’?”

This question is not a provocation but a set-up to a more difficult question: why does Dern feel the need to reassess Smooth Talk but not her work with Lynch? Especially pertinent to this discussion is a scene in Wild at Heart, wherein Dern’s character Lula is sexually assaulted by the repellant Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), who in turn humiliates her for getting aroused. In a 2016 interview, Dern defended the scene in terms that would likely get her dragged five years later: “Lula has an orgasm. She wins! She gets off, and he gets nothing… She gives Bobby Peru what he wants on the verbal level, saying what he wants her to say, out of general fear. But at the same time, she stays in control.”

Most of Lynch’s films, particularly their depiction of sexuality, exist in the same murky and ambiguous realm as Chopra’s less explicitly prurient Smooth Talk, so it’s worth asking why Dern never publicly backpedaled on the scene in Wild at Heart. Is it because the Lynch scene explicitly depicts an assault, so that even if viewers have misgivings about Lula’s reaction, they maintain a level of certitude about what happened to Dern’s character that’s absent from Smooth Talk? Or is it because Smooth Talk, with its teen movie trappings and James Taylor soundtrack cuts, feels less like the “adult” entertainment of a Lynch film and thus a more unsettling vessel for such ambiguity?

Anderson doesn’t give us any answers, and the section devoted to Dern’s attitudes regarding her characters’ victimhood (or lack thereof) points to the book’s most curious blind spot: the lack of discussion on Dern’s role in Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Anderson references The Return (specifically the platinum bob wig Dern wears in it) but for some reason never delves deeply into the character of Diane Evans, the long offscreen assistant of Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who makes her first appearance in the rebooted series. The similarities between Diane and Inland Empire’s Avenging Angel alone call for some attention, but Anderson misses a major opportunity in failing to tie any of the discussion on reading Dern and Lynch’s work in a post-#MeToo world to Diane’s own #MeToo moment late in the series, when she recounts being raped by the possessed Agent Cooper.

Then again, putting too great an emphasis on the sexual violence in Lynch’s films or the victimhood of Dern’s characters would run contrary to Anderson’s critical prerogative, which prioritizes Dern’s independence and fearlessness as a performer and eschews the kind of puritanical concern-trolling that characterizes so many post-#MeToo attitudes about sexuality in popular media. Also this book isn’t about Twin Peaks, it’s about Inland Empire, a film that demands to be read paradoxically as a metatextual interrogation of its lead and as a free associative dream designed by its director to thwart precisely the kind of analysis Anderson attempts. Talking is dangerous. Writing is too. Anderson rises to the occasion, proving herself an observer worthy of her fearless subject.


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