David Lynch and Digital Modernism

Extract from an essay by Anthony Paraskeva
A still from David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006), starring Laura Dern.
An extract from the opening of Anthony Paraskeva's essay, 'Digital Modernism and the Unfinished Performance in David Lynch's Inland Empire', published in Film Criticism (Vol. 37, No. 1, 2012):
Inland Empire radically advances Lynch’s exploration of damaged actors drowned in dream versions of themselves, and a technique which intermingles real and imagined affective memories. As with Mulholland Drive, fractured narrative correlates with the dissociations and hyperamnesic states of the protagonists, but in the earlier film, contortions and discontinuities issue from the mind of a single character, a Hollywood actress in a fugue or dream-state clearly distinct from her real identity as the suicidal Diane Selwyn. Inland Empire is far less clear-cut, and completely elides distinctions between at least two actors, their multiple personae and the circular, self-enmeshing time-zones they inhabit. The following account will demonstrate how Inland Empire’s radical nonlinearity derives from a confluence of elements: a critique of Hollywood artifice, manifest in the film’s extreme repudiation of continuity editing, and its allusions to Fellini’s 8 ½, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, and Bergman’s Persona, which place it firmly within the genealogy of European modernism; an ambivalent nostalgia for studio-era performance style, as the homage to Sunset Boulevard and the heightened attention to Stanislavski’s rehearsal techniques suggest; and the film’s digital production methods, the way those methods lay bare the actor’s preparatory techniques, inner upheavals and confusions, enabling that process to shape and determine narrative form as well as content. The exposure of the actor’s process, recalling certain techniques of European modernist cinema and studio-era Hollywood, and the marriage of these structural techniques to a specifically digital medium constitutes, in my view, the film’s principal achievement.

The film’s paradigm-shifting use of digital technology, allowing Lynch total freedom from obligations towards Hollywood genre and classical structure, unmasks the structures and processes of filmmaking by showing forth the actor’s performance as an ongoing series of rehearsals in progress, and foregrounding production methods and medium specificity in a manner which recalls the radical experiments in narrative of the sixties. This revival of an old tradition doubles-up as a new kind of experiment on low-res digital video. It was shot using the mini-DV Sony PD 150; Lynch was one of the camera operators, and he also edited the film himself using Final Cut Pro, Apple’s digital nonlinear editing software package. Commentators such as Martha Nochimson have noted the significance of the DV format: ‘through its slippery use of time, Inland Empire offers the possibility of a specific experience – a simulacrum of the experience David Lynch undergoes as a creator.’ I will argue that, in Lynch’s own words, the ‘level of flexibility and control’ of its digital form generates a new approach to modernist narrative structure, based on the experience of the film’s creation. While Nochimson views the film as a simulacrum of Lynch’s experience, I extend this view to include Laura Dern’s experience as a performer, and the history and theory of performance style to which she calls attention. Dern’s multi-layered performance, its foregrounding of Stanislavskian process and its audacious transitions between real and fictional personae, draws on the modernist tradition and its rejection of classicism’s golden rule, what James Naremore calls ‘the rule of expressive coherence,’ whereby an actor is required to maintain a unified narrative image, and a consistent persona throughout the film; but it is also structurally determined by Lynch’s particular application of digital methods unavailable to traditional celluloid filmmaking, including digital video’s extended takes and, in particular, its nonlinear editing procedures. This constant crossing and recrossing of boundaries between the analogue and the digital, and the cross-pollination of cutting-edge digital production methods with the tradition of European modernism suggests an alternative, newly emergent category, what I call digital modernism.

Critics have tended to read Inland Empire’s relentless crossing of boundaries in terms of ‘psychotopology,’ which Robert Sinnerbrink, in his critique of the film, defines as ‘a topology of cinematic spaces that enfolds disparate but related diegetic worlds, diverging narrative lines, cultural-historical locales, aesthetic sensibilities, and cinematic media.’ John Orr also reads the film’s labyrinthine narrative structure in terms of parallel worlds which haunt one another, creating ‘a topographical return of the repressed and search for origin at the same time.’ These are also principal features of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, which represent, for Orr, more successful experiments in film form than Inland Empire, which is ultimately consumed by its own chaos. For Anna Katharina Schaffner, Inland Empire develops the experiment of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, but where in the earlier films the female characters are split and objectified by paranoid-schizoid desire into the fantasy constructs of the wholesome woman and the femme fatale, in the later film, ‘the female protagonist fully emancipates herself from the status of male fantasy object and asserts and embraces her subjectivity.’ I would like to reorientate these topological readings of the film’s multiple personae, dissociations, and splittings, and the lineage of psychoanalytic critique which informs them, as for instance of Slavoj Žižek and Todd McGowan, towards the poetics of its digital form and the structural importance of the rehearsal process between Lynch and Laura Dern. By analysing the film’s process and production methods, and focusing on the acting techniques which the film critiques and disassembles, I wish to show how it does something more radical than merely extend the tropes of the earlier films, that its chaotic form is in fact highly methodical and deliberate, and achieves a newness partly by harking back to the radicalism of the past.

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