Arriving Upon Kracauer in INLAND EMPIRE (Dir. David Lynch, 2006)

Richard Martin, in tandem with Justus Nieland, gives Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) an excellent reading in the fifth chapter of The Architecture of David Lynch, rife with essential background information and illuminating synthesis. Among the key pieces of deep research Martin performs, a fascinating moment emerges where he brings in Hotel Savoy, a 1924 novel written by Joseph Roth that’s “clearly based on Łódź” (Martin 170), the Polish city wherein much of Inland Empire is set (?).

Łódź plays a key role in Inland Empire. The film that Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) directs, starring  Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows, is based on an unfinished Polish film entitled 47; Nikki’s neighbor, introduced in the film’s beginning, appears to be of Polish origin; the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) is a Polish prostitute; many of the events transpiring around Nikki/Susan Blue (Laura Dern) are doubled in Łódź; and, amid the frenzy of spatial confusion Lynch depicts, Łódź and Los Angeles are constructed as physically connected spaces.

Martin introduces his breakdown of Łódź with a justification of its pairing with Los Angeles in Empire. Though it “might seem a perverse pairing,” Lynch has a vested interest in the Central European city, as he was “involved in Łódź’s regeneration plans,” and he feels “‘very much at home’ … in the ‘ecologically ruined Poland of industrial wasteland'” (Martin 168-169). Martin then seeks guidance from “prior representations of Łódź,” and introduces Hotel Savoy as a worthy contender in this category (Martin 170). Martin describes Savoy‘s Łódź as markedly Lynchian, a landscape so smolderingly industrial that “fantasmatic desires … arise from this grim urban environment” (Martin 170). “‘In this town,’ [Roth’s] protagonist states, ‘nothing is more needed than a cinema'” (170). Martin reframes this moment by clarifying that the “fraught juxtapositions of centripetal urbanism and the compressed leisure produced by industrial time-keeping require release in the form of the movie theater” (170).

This language of seeking release from harsh urban living brought me back to earlier moments in our curriculum, such as Lewis Mumford’s “Intolerable City” and Siegfried Kracauer’s “Cult of Distraction,” wherein cinema is cited as a tool to combat contemporary urban living. Though Mumford mentions cinema in passing as a dim, mass-produced amusement that relieves some of the stresses inherent to urban living (3), Kracauer advocates for a cinema that without disguise displays a world as fractured and as disintegrated as modern city life, edging the audience closer and closer to requisite revolution (95).

In much the same was that Kracauer sees his contemporary cinema as honing in on the essence of contemporary living, and revealing it fully to a receptive audience, I see Inland Empire as a work that weaves a tale so unabashedly digital, that it performs the same task Kracauer was calling for.

To bring in the work of Justus Nieland, in “Vital Media: Inland Empire” he argues for the film as promoting a “surrealist anthropology”of sorts, where the notion of “organic becoming in media” surfaces as a lamentation on the inhumanity of “human nature and human culture,” an “assemblage of codes, forces, and prosthetic accoutrement that are subject to infinitely plastic dynamism” (Nieland 154). Empire‘s vastly intricate spatial and temporal integration, and its meditation on cross-mediation, are today’s equivalent of Kracauer’s disintegration communicated through distraction.

Viewing Inland Empire is an experience of the essence of modern life, hyper connection across vast space and a simultaneity of events, that reminds and educates the viewer of their current lived experience. The films also advocates for a demystification of these connections on the part of the individual, as coded through moments such as Nikki burning a hole through silk and being able to peer into foreign spaces (while setting ablaze the set of Rabbits). It’s only after (?) making these connections that Nikki is able to set free the Lost Girl.

This is the equivalent, I argue, of Kracauer’s sought revolution. Lynch wants the spectator to recognize and appreciate the power and swath of modern connectivity, and use this hyperconnected world to benefit others.

Works Cited

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans. Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. 91-96. Print.

Martin, Richard. “Room: The Logic of Simultaneity.” The Architecture of David Lynch. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 163-88. Print.

Mumford, Lewis. “The Intolerable City: Must It Keep on Growing?” Harper’s(1926): n. pag. Print.

Nieland, Justus. “Vital Media: Inland Empire.” David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. 134-54. Print

Discussion Questions

Separate from the analysis prompted and offered, did you derive pleasure from Inland Empire? How would you characterize your surface-level feelings of the film?

Do you find such a mode of filmmaking, intentional incomprehensibility, to be an effective from of communication? As a film student, do you feel it necessary that a film be able to communicate its message without required extra reading?

Nieland puts great emphasis on the film’s feminist ideology. Do you agree with his analysis? How do you read the gender politics of the film?

“Film exists because we can go and have experiences that would be pretty dangerous or strange for us in real life. We can go into a room and walk into a dream. If we didn’t want to upset anyone, we would make films about sewing, but even that could be dangerous. But I think finally, in a film, it is how the balance is and the feelings are. But I think there has to be those contrasts and strong things within a film for the total experience.”

-David Lynch


David Lynch’s films depict the filmmaking process with a sense of self-awareness.  They are used to express Lynch’s own dissatisfaction with the lack of complete control over his films, and they are also used to integrate the story into parallels of real life and life on film.  The woman shown in the very first scene of Inland Empire (2006) is watching a television, in which the camera goes into and comes out of throughout the film.  Jean Nouvel described this phenomenon as “invented small worlds” by the film director and architect.  The television is a means to connect this otherwise unconnected worlds, which is not unlike what we experience when watching a Lynch film.  The seemingly disconnected spaces, the green room with the rabbits, the hotel room, the snowy street in Poland, the small house, and the movie studio are all visited by the Nicki Grace/Susan Blue by the end of the film.  The camera teleports us through different spaces to arrive at different destinations.  The sex scene is the first time we are in the small bedroom.  It is unlike the mansion Nikki Grace is seen at the beginning of the film, yet we see her husband in the shadows.  Nikki is panicked, and terrified as she recalls a memory she had about parking in an alley, “because there’s always parking there.”  Then she suddenly emerges in the scene she was describing.  She runs through the set, as one of the previous scenes in the film occurs.  Nikki is the cause of the very disruption on the set that she hears in the beginning of the film.  She finally reaches a door and goes in, finding she is transported to a different location.  It is in this house, that bedroom of the sex scene is located.  The rest of the film shows Nikki/Susan living in the small house, sometimes through the stories she is telling the man in a suit that she hopes can help her.  This lead me to believe that the stories Nikki tells are the reality, and the mansion is the home of her character, Susan.  While one of the first scenes of the film do not show camera’s, later in the film camera’s are shown in locations that have a similar aesthetic as the mansion.  The ambiguity of what is on film and what is not contributes greatly to the mystery of the film.  The film within the film has themes of romance and horror, then it becomes uncertain when the film stops and horror of reality begins.  The desire to understand the film relies on its confusing nature.  In Vital Media, Justus Nieland discusses understanding the scene with the rabbits, “In these ways we become involved in the film’s sensory-cognitive continuum, in its capacity for abstraction.  The point is not to answer finally the question of what it might mean for Niko to be ‘good with animals,’ but to see how the question opens itself to situational uncertainty and to a related emotional ambiguity.”  I feel this and the quote from David Lynch explain that although we may have this urge to want all of the answers, the intent of the filmmaker is for the viewer to just get something out of it emotionally, appreciating it as a work of art.

Do you think some characters in Inland Empire work in the same way as in some of David Lynch’s other work?  For example, the homeless woman, Nae speaks in a similar manner as the short man in Twin Peaks.  Does visitor #1  reveal information to us in a similar way as the log lady? Is the green room with the rabbits in a way similar to the Red Room in Twin Peaks?  Richard Martin mentions in his reading of David Lynch that many of his films surround the architecture of one room (such as the Red Room) how might this be related to Inland Empire?




Works Cited

Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons. 518     Media, 2006. DVD.

Martin, Richard. The Architecture of David Lynch. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Nieland, Justus. “Vital Media: Inland Empire.” David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. 134-54. Print



Maya and David: A Match Made in Heaven

In his chapter on David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Professor Nieland suggests that the director’s use of “low-fi video” aligns him with “a long tradition of avant-garde artists captivated by the non-naturalistic image” (140). Lynch, and these avant-gardists, pursue “the reality of the cinematic experience on a phenomenological level, where our involvement in the image deepens as the picture itself becomes less real” (140). To which experimental filmmakers is Professor Nieland referring? One potential answer is Maya Deren, who reveres nonlinear and inorganic temporality, and heightens spectatorship through sequences that grow stranger as images become more detached to a sense of reality. In her essay, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” Deren suggests that cinema can differentiate itself from other arts, and establish itself as an art form, by ceasing to simply “record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship” (227). In other words, it is not enough for cinema to record reality; cinema’s potential as a true art forms rests on its ability to approximate a consciousness (here’s where phenomenology comes in), where attention is drawn to transfigurations of time and space that link multiple ideas, themes, thoughts.

The defiance of a narrative/spatio-temporal logic is clearly evident in Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, in which the heroine’s repeated doubling in multiple spaces invokes the Vertovian “creative geography” method of using montage to bridge sequences shot in different locations and different times. Meshes analyzes a woman in trouble, who is fragmented into multiple personas and imprisoned in a kind of reality that weirdly resembles the form of a nightmare; the nightmarish quality and uncanny merging of place, space, time, and character is exploited to an unnerving degree in Lynch’s Inland Empire with Laura Dern taking on multiple roles as Nikki Grace/Susan Blue, and possibly the surrogate for the Lost Girl and group of L.A. prostitutes. Both films foreshadow the subsequent journey into the unclear area of a woman’s unconscious, or perhaps projected fantasy? In Meshes, we are transported through the female character’s eye, through a telescopic effect, into a repetitive nightmare—an apt metaphor for cinematic viewing that is indirectly invoked in Inland Empire when Sue is told to use a cigarette to burn a hole in silk and look through it.

Like Deren’s film, Lynch purposefully confounds our efforts to figure out if the narrative is unfolding in the past, present, or future, or whether we’re trapped inside the dark corridors and hallways of a character’s mind. In The Architecture of David Lynch, Richard Martin highlights how Lynch imbues “corridors, tight channels and claustrophobic spaces” with a “symbolic power” (181). This vitalization of the built environment is evident in the various scenes in Inland where characters navigate the hallways of apartments, and the tight and dark spaces between the film set. Compounding our sense of logic, are the multiple versions of characters who move through similar spaces at the same time, where voyeurs are everywhere and any sense of reality is completely malleable. And just as Nikki never fully awakens from her absorption into the character of Susan, getting up from her ‘death scene’ in a trance, Meshes never has a (to use an Inception reference) ‘kick’ that brings the character out of her dream/nightmare. Her nightmare and reality are practically indistinguishable, and the viewer is left with an ambiguous ending of whether the woman’s death/suicide actually happened. We end with a similar sense of ambiguity in Inland, where we can interpret all kinds of meanings, but one thing is for sure, Lynch (and Deren) are quite fascinated in the cinematic medium’s ability to create realities that are seemingly endless, recursive, and malleable.

Discussion Questions:

What do you make of Inland Empire’s preoccupation with objects like the television screen in the Lost Girl’s room, the screwdriver Nikki is stabbed with, and the telephone (in the Rabbit sitcom and interrogation room)? Are these objects coded with any symbolic meaning like in Deren’s Meshes where a flower, a knife, a telephone, slice of bread, and the house itself play a part in Deren’s experimental construction of a psychological/dream/nightmare state?

What is it about the non-naturalistic image, and Lynch’s experiment with digital cinema, that allows for a pursuit of the reality of cinematic experience, as Professor Nieland writes, “on phenomenological level, where our involvement in the image deepens as the picture itself becomes less real” (140)? This sounds paradoxical? How do we experience a kind of cinematic realism by becoming more engaged with an image the further it gets from reality?

Works Cited

Deren, Maya. “Cinematography: The Creative Uses of Actuality.” In Leo Braudy. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 216-227. Print.

Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons. 518     Media, 2006. DVD.

Martin, Richard. The Architecture of David Lynch. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. Print.


What’s with the….

David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) is more appropriately categorized as an artist’s study of spatial relations than an actual film.  I consider film’s to have a coherent or at least digestible narrative.  Inland Empire on the other hand is more of a insufferable rambling of incomprehensible moments.  I believe Professor Nieland was very accurate in describing the viewing process of such a film as a “siege.”  My blog will focus on Lynch’s interest on locations in an unknown world.

Locations seem to play a central role in Inland Empire.  The primary story-line of the film takes place in Hollywood, California, yet the narrative jumps to Eastern Europe, a darkness space, and a “comically” dark anthropomorphic rabbit sitcom.  The often and sudden changes of locations highlight Lynch’s “spatial concerns” (Martin).  For example, the scenes in which long, winding corridors and streets are navigated in dreamlike movements create a mysterious aura to otherwise familiar spaces.  The added mysterious eliminate seems to defamiliarize the audience to the space in frame.  This is because, the film’s depiction of sidewalks and corridors become estranged with dark spots and fog.  “Our experience of the space may be radically by a shift in lighting or sound” (Martin).  These effects add an element of horror; as if an ominous entity were in the frame.  The location itself may be The Phantom or unknown character, for that reason that the audience can not feel comfortable/identify with the area since we are unsure what the fog and dark lighting is masking.  The dreamlike aesthetic may be depicting that the scene is not part of reality.  What is the purpose of cutting the audience’s identification to the film’s reality?

In the film, the director Kingsley Stewart cryptically says “Information is indispensable.”  I believe Lynch, the director of the actual film, is speaking through Stewart, the director of the film within the film.  His words clue in the audience that information is crucial in decoding any thematic meaning that takes part in the film.  There are two interpretations of Stewart’s words.  I believe combining both meanings will present the way Lynch wants the audience to read into his use of locations and their connections to the film’s thematic meaning.  First, information is absolutely necessary in piecing the narrative together.  Second, information is indispensable; or will not be given out easily.  Overall, I believe Lynch/Stewart’s words mean that the film won’t simply tell the audience where the events are taking place, because those valuable pieces of information will give away the meaning of the film.

Pomona as in Pomona, California is the key to unraveling some of the film’s meaning.  The city is mentioned at least eight times throughout the film, thus it holds some significance in Lynch’s eyes.  In the scene where Nikki is dying on Hollywood and Vine, homeless people are talking about how to get to Pomona from there present location.  After researching the history of Pomona I believe the name of the city and the demographic background of its initial inhabitants in 1875 to 2000 will provide some insight into the film.  The city of Pomona was named after the Greek goddess of fruit.  Ironically, the city took on the name prior to anyone planting a fruit tree.  An additional level of absurdity was that the city’s naming rights were determined by a raffle of names taken from the residents the area.  This total disconnection of meaning and appropriateness ties in to how the film’s locations are shown in an nonsensical method.  At the time, Pomona was also know as “Queen of the Citrus Belt” with one of the highest per-capita levels of income in the U.S..  This relates to the title Inland Empire as the inland/mainland of California, Pomona, was at the time an extremely wealthy city.  Fifty years later, the predominately white residents of Pomona dropped from making up 99% of the population to 50%, subsequently making the minority groups an equal if not majority of the inhabitants.

Going back to the scene with Nikki and the homeless people it seems as if all members in the frame struggle to understand where they should be.  The (racial minority) homeless people want to move back to where they are feasibly not the outcasts of society.  While Nikki is crossed between a wealthy home (perhaps the old world of Pomona) and the impoverished street of Hollywood and Vine.  By placing people in places that do not align with one another makes the audience feel estranged to the meaning and overall message of the film since the characters themselves lack a connection to the present location.



Why are there four shadows (on the wall) when only three rabbits are in frame?  Does it have something to do with the darkness/Phantom figure shown in the film?

Why are intense close ups used repeatedly throughout the film?  Are they suppose to alienate the audience or perhaps aid the audience in their identification with the characters?

Works Cited:

Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons. 518     Media, 2006. DVD.

Martin, Richard. The Architecture of David Lynch. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. Print.

“Pomona, California.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 Mar. 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

The Brilliant Incomprehensibility of Inland Empire, David Lynch’s Finnegan’s Wake

How to write about David Lynch’s Inland Empire? The film exists as an outlier of sorts in the auteur’s oeuvre, longer than anything he has ever made, more abstract than even his most experimental feature length films (e.g. Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive), shot digitally on the Sony PD-150—what Justus Nieland refers to in his book on Lynch as “a small, cheap, low-definition camera that was already outmoded by the time Lynch first picked it up (138)— and, at many times during its three hour running time, utterly incomprehensible and disturbingly surreal. With this conception of the film in hand, I suggest a possibly productive reading of the work can be made if we analyze Inland Empire as Lynch’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel considered by many critics to be one of the most difficult works of literature ever written. That is to say, in the same way that Joyce crafted what some consider to be the greatest work of fiction of the twentieth century with Ulysses and the greatest example of the short story form with “The Dead,” Lynch, with films such as Blue Velvet and Wild Heart—two films that Nieland refers to as “critical darlings…dovetailed with the academic consolidation of postmodernism” (2)—follows his earlier critically acclaimed and academically canonized films with his own version of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the one and only Inland Empire, a film that Richard Martin dubbed “one of the most challenging American films to have appeared in a generation”(163).

This proposed framing of Inland Empire does not mean that these two texts have received less critical attention than each author’s other works, far from it. Rather, I believe viewing Inland Empire as Lynch’s Finnegan’s Wake allows us to step away from the difficult task of trying to decipher the film and permits us, in the words of Dave Eggers in his foreword to David Foster Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece novel Infinite Jest, “to see what a brain like our own—that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through—is capable of” (n.p.). Furthermore, this authorial comparison is not limited to just Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake, for we could suggest the same type of comparative reading when analyzing works such Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 encyclopedic novel The Almanac of the Dead, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 epic film Magnolia, and most recently Alejandro González Iñárritu’s inimitable Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, and many more could apply. All of these works, just like Inland Empire, exist as difficult outliers in the canons of their respective creators, and all of them offer readers challenges that most works of film and fiction do not offer. “Challenges” functions as the key word in the previous clause, for at their core, that is what Lynch’s films do. They challenge viewers to make meaning out of films that seemingly defy that command. Yet, it is this paradoxical demand that I find so appealing about texts such as Inland Empire and Finnegan’s Wake, and seeing these works as paragons of human intellect and creativity, though still very difficult to decipher, can open our hearts and minds to experience the transcendental power of art. Or, as Eggers so eloquently claims, “the point is that if we are interested in human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other on to leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create” (n.p.).

Works Cited

Eggers, Dave. “Foreword.” Foreword. Infinite Jest: A Novel. By David Foster Wallace. New York: Back Bay, 2006. Print.

Martin, Richard, The Architecture of David Lynch

 Nieland, Justus, “Vital Media”

Nieland, Justus,  “Wrapped in Plastic”


“I Don’t Know,” A Frustrated Reaction to David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE

David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) is a contender for the most dense film I’ve ever seen. Soon after watching it, my friend (who’s a massive Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) fan, but has yet to see any of David Lynch’s other films) asked me what Inland Empire was about, and warned me not to spoil it in my description. I told him that I don’t know what it’s about, and that I couldn’t spoil Inland Empire if my life depended on it.

This encounter, I think, encapsulates at least one of the “meanings,” if I could go as far as to call it that, of David Lynch’s most recent feature film. In his analysis of Inland Empire, Justus Nieland goes into depth about many aspects of the film, but one that stands out among the rest involves Lynch’s inclusion of Rabbits (2002), a nine-part video series originally distributed on the Internet. Nieland suggests that Inland Empire’s inclusion of Rabbits is the fact that the “rabbits are, interpretively speaking, productive fuckers. They spawn situations. The could mean, virtually, anything” (p. 147). This claim is particularly powerful due to the nature of how Inland Empire came into being (an eighteen-page monologue recorded over a seventy-minute long-take), and also the medium on which it was shot (low-fidelity digital video). Inland Empire is a film of seemingly disjunctive situations connected by threads of both narrative and formative similarities, thereby allowing for near endless readings of the film.


In this way, I see Inland Empire as a very surrealist experience, as I’m sure many people do. It harkens back to the way in which surrealists viewed films: arriving at a random film, at no particular time, leaving at the first sign of boredom, and popping into another film, repeating the process and creating their own films within their heads. In a way, Inland Empire does this in a single film. The narrative switches between multiple storylines, often blurring the audience’s conception of which plot they’re following, and if it’s even possible to follow the plot at all. This type of viewing experience might be seen as “democratic,” to use Fred Turner’s language, as the audience is invited to derive their own meanings from the film. And even more compelling is the fact that Inland Empire was filmed on digital video, and outdated, low-quality digital video to boot. The film has an almost ametuer quality about it, giving the impression that possibly anyone with a camera could have made it.

The idea that Inland Empire is a film composed of situations that could mean virtually anything is a compelling one, but one that seems to problematize film, the medium, as an ideological tool. If, for instance, someone claims that Inland Empire means nothing, how can someone possibly refute their claim? If there are limitless possibilities to the film’s meaning, then surely “nothing” is one of those possibilities. This, however, implies that films are intrinsically meaningful beyond the human scale. Needless to say, I’m not sure what Inland Empire “means,” or if it means anything at all, and whether or not its meaningfulness or meaninglessness is relevant to anything outside of human consciousness. At the very least, Lynch succeeded in making a thought-provoking film.

Work Cited

Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. Print.

Lynch’s Digital Light and Defamiliarization

There are two kinds of light—the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.” -James Thurber

Light is realized in almost every form of media, so it is not enough to express its importance in a film as simply illumination of a room or scene. David Lynch’s Inland Empire has an interesting way of allowing light its natural ability to encompass, but in a way that makes it difficult to construe his machinations. In-film, light is as important and varied as that of Film Noir, except it is not nearly as black and white (idiomatic pun intended) as it is in that example. By doing so, Lynch highlights the importance of digital media to his typical process of demfamiliarization.

In one of the first particularly troubling scenes from Inland Empire, a harsh contrast between light and darkness frames the arrival of Grace Zabriskie’s Visitor #1 character. Laura Dern’s Nikki ushers this strange woman into her sitting room where they begin a polite conversation that ends with some intriguing, cryptic assertions from the visitor. It becomes immediately evident in this bright daytime setting, the futility of understanding just exactly what transpires. The light shining in from outside does nothing to soften the unease of the unknown, as it is apt to do. Its overexposed rays shroud the windows in an aural fog. The frame is replete with lit lamps and glistening chandeliers which, for all their effort, serve no practical purpose in this scene except to encode the idea of light as incessantly fraught with some other purpose.

Scenes like that of the ever-watching “Lost Girl,” who sits weeping in some room watching a television set that switches between fuzzy displays of nonsensical color and uber-suggestive (but never quite realized for their vagueness) moments from Nikki/Susan’s fraught forays into the unknown, reinforce the quality of metaphor for that baser element of cinema—light. Lynch is constantly enforcing an involved spectatorship, as involved as the Lost Girl is, and by doing so he equates the importance placed on the screen-within-a-screen’s images with its non-images of light. “The language of this story and its framing are typical of the film’s tendency to structure its images and sounds as sites of cognitive connection, or better, recognition, for characters and viewers alike” (Nieland 145). We are asked, then, to meditate on the importance of light and color as equal to the film’s plot-line (or lack of a plot-line) of Nikki’s internal journey.

This way of defamiliarization comes to a heady culmination in the film’s more digitally informed moments, owing to digital media’s structural harnessing of images as pieces of light. The flexibility and malleability of the dots of light that are pixels allows for the creation of otherworldly effects like the horrific transposed images of Nikki’s digitally distressed face onto the Phantom’s when she attempts to shoot him in the film’s approximation of a “climax.” The effect “embodies the way Lynch’s digital images in Inland Empire consistently blur and collapse identity beyond recognition. At the same time, it underscores the power of the digital grotesque as a cognitive site of resemblance—of doubling and analogy between and across the temporally fractured situations of the film’s many troubled girls” (Nieland 142). In moments like these, digital light works to create uncertainty with “a particular imagistic quality” (Nieland 140), forming the unfamiliar from associations to “normal” images, rather than passively altering the mood of a scene. Such is the nature of digital as Lynch sees it.

Works Cited

Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. 518 Media, 2007. Film.

Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. U of Illinois, 2012. Print.

A Feminist Encounter with the Grotesque in David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE and Cindy Sherman’s Photography

David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) is perhaps his most unwieldy and impenetrable film. As a cinematic hodgepodge of previous thematic concerns— fractured female psyches, 1950s domesticity, and the Hollywood star machine that breeds fantasies as much as it does nightmares— Inland Empire presents a culmination of his work with strikingly new digital aesthetics. In Justus Nieland’s cogent analysis, he highlights a shared relationship between digital media and women in the film. Throughout Inland Empire, digital images are mediated through film projection and television, whereby female protagonists are positioned as agents of witness and recognition. Yet in the same way that digital media fractures and displaces experience, these moments of attempted female recognition prove similarly dislocating, or as Nieland writes, “ … the more these women look at themselves, the less they recognize themselves as distinct selves, appearing instead— to them and to us— to change constantly in echoes, anticipations, or temporal displacements of each other (149). This shared “worldliness” of digital media and womanhood in the film produces a sense of vitality in opposition, according to Nieland, from the “non-changeability of men and the stasis of the domestic environment” (149). Thus, despite the consistent abuse and debasement of women in the film, Nieland convincingly argues that an underlying feminist ethics emerges. In some regard, this is fostered by the grotesque, a pulsating sense of revulsion and humor that critiques the pressures on the female body from Hollywood and global markets. To expand on this concept further, allow me to link the photography of Cindy Sherman with Lynch’s film.

In Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), Sherman portrays herself in frozen film moments that feel recognizable, as if taken from a forgotten Hollywood melodrama or film noir. An air of indeterminacy and impending violence— or even continuous conflict, in some photographs— haunts these frames, seemingly from someone directly outside the image or perhaps by the gaze of the camera itself. By the very nature of the photographs being unspoken film narratives, critics have largely viewed the photographs as a critique of the male cinematic gaze for its paradoxical drive to ravish and safeguard vulnerable females.

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Throughout the 1980s, however, Sherman’s photography would increasingly upend this perception as her work diverged from the cosmetic to the abject, allowing Laura Mulvey to argue, “[Sherman] grotesquely parodies the kind of feminine image that is geared to erotic consumption and turns upside down conventional codes of female allure and elegance” (70). For example, in 1981’s critically-labeled Centerfolds or Horizontals series, which was originally commissioned by Artforum but later rejected because critics interpreted the images as rape narratives, Sherman explicates uncertainties implicit in female subjectivity under male review via the high-gloss spread of fashion centerfolds. These women (Sherman again) are not the waifish ingénues of the Film Stills, but rather they are victims held captive by introspective anguish in a format made to market cosmetic beauties. Her following photography series Fairy Tales (1985) and Disasters (1986-1987) present besieged bodies wracked by decay, filth, and abjection, thereby marking a continuous trajectory toward the grotesque in her explorations of the female form.

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Since Sherman’s images recall the fractured multiplicity of media in the realms of pop culture, horror, and pornography, and because Sherman presents the difficulties of the female subject’s recognition of herself within this onslaught of images, her photography underlines a shared concern with Lynch’s Inland Empire. For Nieland, Inland Empire underscores a surrealist anthropology, which he defines as both “sharing with the historical surrealists … a sense of the organism as living in uncanny hybridity with technology and mediation and a subversive awareness of culture as a basically incoherent arrangement of norms, rules, and limits on human freedom” (7). For Sherman’s photography this complex level of recognition most clearly emerges in her Sex Pictures (1992). In this series, Sherman ignites an interplay between absurdity and vulgarity with knowing awareness on how female eroticism is constructed in pornography and art history. In Untitled #264, for example, Sherman harkens back to a longstanding artistic tradition of eroticizing female forms for male viewers, most notably drawing upon Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Manet’s Olympia (1863). Sherman completely de-eroticizes her mannequin by obscuring the figure’s face and over-accentuating the genitals; in fact, she literally removes the torso to do so, thereby producing an unsettling and comedic tone in the photograph. The key to this parodic photograph, however, is its playful tone. Rather than being a bleak product of a violent or objectifying gaze, Sherman’s mannequin positions herself in knowing disavowal to the portrayals of women in art history and pornography, even while being constructed by the very conditions of those forces.

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In Lynch’s Inland Empire, awareness of the female protagonist’s position among media forces occurs in the film’s final scene before the credits, in which while immersed in “vital media” Nikki achieves, according to Nieland, “a pervasive feeling of relatedness, of a sensual community that happens through and across the unbounded situations of the digital image” (153). The ending suggests a hopeful, even celebratory, understanding for the female protagonists, but given how persistently time and space fold in on themselves in the film, as well as Inland Empire’s emphases on the endless refashioning of multimedia, any sense of finality remains uncertain. What we may gloss from Inland Empire, however, and to a certain degree Cindy Sherman’s performativity, is how technology and culture coexist and how subjects can nevertheless shape their own realities in tandem with and in response to these forces.

Works Cited:

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, 1996.

Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2012. Print.

Nostalgia in London and Still Life

Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) and Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) are both deeply nostalgic films, but in wildly different way. While it’s obvious that Still Life is especially nostalgic at a narrative level, it’s also concerned with the politics and geography of China (specifically Fengjie). The same (though for somewhat different reasons) is true of London. I would even go as far as to say that they are both nostalgic for a certain type of infrastructure, though both seem to be tipping opposite ends of the same scale.

Still Life, while its main characters, Sanming and Shen Hong, are both deeply concerned with their pasts (Sanming attempting to rectify his botched marriage with his estranged wife and Shen Hong attempting to cut ties with her husband she no longer loves), the film is also nostalgic for a infrastructureless China. Throughout the film, the spectator is shown how capitalism has been rushing its way into Fengjie, destroying the lives of people that have lived there for generations. A new bureaucratic system has been put in place that severely confuses both the citizens of Fengjie (as illustrated by the unpaid, arguing townsfolk and the lost Sanming) and the employees of the system (the government man who’s trying to explain his situation to the townsfolk and the irritated secretary dealing with Sanming). All of these people are upset in someway that things have become more complicated since the introduction of capitalistic industrialization into Fengjie, which is epitomized by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It seems that even the government is nostalgic for an infrastructureless Fengjie, as the imagery on the printed money is of the rivers before their capitalistic contaminations.


Keiller’s London is, on the other hand, nostalgic for a hyper-infrastructured London. Throughout the film, Robinson is constantly worrying about the reelection of the current government because they will ruin infrastructural things that are already on the decline in London, such as the transportation systems. Robinson seems to be alluding to the idea that a London existed where these things were perfect or ideal, and that with the reelection of a highly conservative government, these infrastructural necessities will rapidly disintegrate, making the lives of Londoners far worse.

Both films seem to preside on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to infrastructure and what it means to live in a modern city. Jia Zhangke seems to want to evoke feelings of nostalgia by contrasting modernity with tradition, whereas Keiller seems to believe that modernity can be beneficial to a point, but to surpass that point is to essentially sign any cities death certificate.

Still Life: Speaking for the Unspoken

Jia Zhangke’s film Still Life (2006) is overall a quite depressing film, but rightfully so.  One of Jia’s goals of the film is to depict people that are typically ignored and hidden by the Chinese government.  Still Life tells the reality of only a few of the millions of people that are living in poverty in China.  It also brings awareness to issues surrounding climate change and scarcity of resources.  Pheng Cheah’s writing discusses Heidegger’s argument on the issues of world cinema.  One of the four aspects Pheng Cheah mentions is that by being a knowing and calculated subject, “it reduces being of beings to their representativeness.”  When making a film, even a documentary, there is the obstacle of authenticity.  As an artform, film is subjective and can create false representations.  Not every film aims to be factual, but they still have the power to be persuasive and can normalize stereotypes.  Despite these issues within the film industry, I agree with Pheng Cheah’s argument that Jia’s film is an exception of Heideggerian problem.  Heidegger criticizes the spatialization of the world, and Jia’s film portrays the consequences of globalization caused by spatialization.  Throughout Jia’s film it is clear that the Chinese government places the country’s global image as an industrial society over their own citizens.  The Three Gorges Dam is at the forefront of the film by existing in it’s background.  Missy Ma’s home is now underwater, buildings are painted with water level notices, buildings are torn down, and video messages are played on the ferry about the dam.  Wherever Hanming travels there is a feeling of vulnerability along with its rubble.  Three Gorges is being built to be used to generate hydroelectric power while Hanming mines for coal, both sacrificing people in the name of economic growth.  While I don’t find the film uplifting, that is not necessarily negative, as the message of the film is still effective in its approach.

Works Cited

Cheah, Pheng. “World as Picture and Ruination: On Jia Zhangke’s Still Life as World Cinema.” The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas. Ed. Carlos Rojas and Eileen Cheng-yin. Chow. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 190-206. Print.

Still Life. Dir. Jia Zhangke. Xstream Pictures, 2006. Film.