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Watching Women Watching: An Excerpt from “Inland Empire”

Melissa Anderson’s book on David Lynch’s 2006 film is the third release in the Decadent Editions series, devoted to milestones of the 2000s.
Notebook
This is an excerpt from Melissa Anderson’s Inland Empire, available to order from Fireflies Press.
Like the Avenging Angel – the Nikki/Susan avatar who delivers a long soliloquy teeming with tales of imperilment – I often don’t know what was before or after in Inland Empire no matter how many times I’ve watched it. Recursive episodes proliferate in the film. At least three times Nikki/Susan dissociates, looking at another version of herself from another vantage point. At one point the Avenging Angel enters an empty movie palace, here a de facto hall of mirrors: she sees herself onscreen saying, ‘Watchin’ it, like in a dark theatre.’
That nearly vacant cinema instantly recalls Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, the mystical cabaret that Betty and Rita, desire-drunk after having sex, cab to in the middle of the night – and where their love story, if not their very identities, begins to unravel. But while revisiting Inland Empire, I begin to see repetition, connections across not only David Lynch’s but Laura Dern’s filmography – and to the gruesome history of what Kenneth Anger has described as ‘LA’s Shadowland’. ‘Where did you go? Where have you been?’ the Greek chorus asks Nikki/Susan after she appears on Hollywood Boulevard, or, more accurately, after she’s back, following a time/space detour, on that street again, where she will die, soaked in her own blood. Their query closely matches ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, the title of the Joyce Carol Oates short story – inspired by the real-life Pied Piper of Tucson, a serial seducer and murderer of young women in the mid-sixties – on which Smooth Talk is based.
Interiors are also echoed, refracted. Dorothy’s residence in the Deep River Apartments complex in Blue Velvet is designed to destabilise; her one-bedroom flat ‘appears to have been furnished, not to mention lit and photographed, to fulfill the surrealist ambition of making everyday objects strange,’ as Dennis Lim writes. Living spaces also estrange, derange in Inland Empire. Often shot in distorting wide angles, the enormous rooms of Nikki’s Hollywood mansion – replete with marble columns, Persian rugs the size of football fields, and ornate Louis XV-style furniture – seem suffused with dread. Their­­ cavernousness reminds me of one of the more infamous two-page photo spreads in Hollywood Babylon: the trashed suite of San Francisco’s luxury St. Francis Hotel where silent film star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle held, in 1921, a bacchanal to celebrate a new, lucrative contract with Paramount. The revelry led to a seismic scandal in the movie industry. One of the guests, an aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe, died a few days after the party. (Her ghastly demise would seem to anticipate Elizabeth Short’s twenty-six years later.) Arbuckle was arraigned on charges of manslaughter, and rumours spread of his using champagne bottles (and other objects) to rape Rappe. Unlike another hulking man, Harvey Weinstein, Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, after three trials. But despite being legally cleared of wrongdoing, Fatty, like Harvey, was shunned and unemployable, a pariah.
Diabolical décor also dominates the shabby house where one of the Nikki/Susan avatars lives. Its shag carpet is a vomitous green; lamps, emitting a sickly incarnadine glow, especially seem gravid with sinister powers, much as they are in Mulholland Drive. This tumbledown one-storey home somewhere in Southern California, its exterior sooty and stained, recalls, in turn, the modest dwelling of Connie and her family – which has been in disarray for several years, as various renovation projects remain unfinished – in the northern part of the state in Smooth Talk.
Connie’s bedroom, like that of teenagers everywhere, is a makeshift shr­ine. Her fetish objects are eclectic. Her panda bear figurines slightly outnumber her multiple posters of James Dean, a brooding heartthrob (one whom Arnold Friend tries to emulate) and a famous disciple of the Actors Studio, just like Montgomery Clift, whose damaged visage – stitched and reassembled after a car crash in 1956 that nearly killed him – assumes pride of place in Sandy’s bedroom in Blue Velvet. Clift’s terror-stricken mug tells a story, presaging the look of unremitting horror and dread that creeps across Nikki/Susan’s face as it pushes up against the camera. That face – Dern’s rubberised, weaponised face – articulates the story of Inland Empire most succinctly and cohesively.  
***
Characters are nested within and ‘leak out of’ Nikki. Similarly, stories are nested within Inland Empire. In addition to On High in Blue Tomorrows, there is the austere sitcom “starring” the rabbit-human crossbreeds played by Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring and Scott Coffey that takes place on a set that suggests Father Knows Best by way of Fassbinder. Running throughout Inland Empire are references to Axxon N., identified by a tinny off-screen voice at the very beginning of the movie as ‘the longest-running radio play in history.’ ‘Axxon N.’ appears, graffiti-like, on walls, in alleyways. Nikki/Susan spots the bizarre proper noun on a decaying metal door, underscored with an arrow pointing to an entryway; she follows the sign and finds herself in a wormhole, transported back in time to an early rehearsal of On High in Blue Tomorrows, a run-through taking place on a Paramount soundstage. Later, the Avenging Angel catches a glance of this cryptic term on Hollywood Boulevard.
Could Axxon N. be the actual story, the sprawling narrative of the three-hour Inland Empire? Does Axxon derive from ‘axon’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a usually long and single nerve-cell process that usually conducts impulses away from the cell body’? Thinking of that extra ‘x’ in Axxon, I remember that the letter, in algebra, means a value that is not yet known, a variable – a quantity that changes, just like Nikki.
***
But I’m losing the plot again. Free-associating like this is my desperate way of trying to make sense of a film that continuously defies it, that is itself a product of free association. I go back to what Dern told me over the phone fifteen years ago: ‘There was clearly a mystery, as there always is – there’s a mystery to solve as the actor in the story.’ Dern, as Sandy in Blue Velvet, helps solve a mystery; she dances, in a wood-panelled suburban rec room, with Jeffrey to Julee Cruise’s ‘Mysteries of Love’. To watch Dern’s sleuthing, her guesswork ‘as the actor in the story’ in Inland Empire is to gain traction in a project designed to elude our grasp. ‘Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women,’ Boyd McDonald wrote, his words providing a spot-on credo for this dyke cinephile. McDonald composed several impassioned paeans to actresses but, unlike me, he did not desire women; a caveat to his aesthetic principle about cinema spectatorship is this more personal avowal: ‘May I say that I like women better than men, but not for cock.’
A few years ago, in response to my ardour for Mulholland Drive, which I have always praised as a great lesbian love story, a sapphic friend of otherwise excellent taste and judgment dismissed the film as too ‘male gaze-y’, making a cumbersome term all the more cudgel-like by turning it into an adjective. I recall something that Patricia White wrote in 1999: ‘Feminist film theory has been unable to envision women who looked at women with desire,’ an assessment that still largely remains true more than twenty years later – not just in film theory but in popular culture, where the equally reductive term ‘the female gaze’ has taken hold.
Liking to watch women does not always mean desiring them, even if a spectator desires women in general. But at the very least, to like to watch women onscreen means to be deeply interested, invested in what they do. It means, regardless of your gender or sexuality, to be a voyeur, a term that I do not use damningly and that need not be incompatible with a spectator’s identification as a feminist. As the film scholar and critic Erika Balsom so astutely pointed out – vis-à-vis a discussion of Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) in a 2020 article about the limitations of the use of ‘the female gaze’ as a rubric – voyeurism
is an integral part of psychic life, a terrain of struggle far too important for feminism to vacate. … [Variety] recognizes that there can be power and pleasure in being an object, that the field of the gaze will always be marked by dynamic asymmetries, and that women are scopophiles, too.
Illustrating Balsom’s piercing observation, two characters in Inland Empire stand out as spellbound female spectators: the weeping Lost Girl, who cannot tear herself away from the images on her hotel TV, and the Avenging Angel, who stands transfixed, if puzzled, by her own depiction on an enormous movie screen. (At one point, the former implores, ‘Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart,’ an oblique homage to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a frequent Lynch touchstone. The 1950 meta-film features Gloria Swanson as an ageing, imperious actress named Norma Desmond, among cinema’s most entranced female viewers. Norma is besotted with revisiting her earlier movies – in this instance 1932’s Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson, and a line from which the Lost Girl’s prayer replicates.) Maybe McDonald’s maxim could be amended to motion pictures are for people who like to watch women watching.
To continue Balsom’s assertion about the ‘power and pleasure in being an object’, I’d add that, in the case of Dern, there is power and pleasure in performing instability, disintegration, abjection – and power and pleasure in witnessing how she paradoxically exerts such control while falling apart. As a kind of reward, perhaps, for Dern’s fortitude (not to mention that of the audience), Inland Empire surprisingly ends ecstatically; as Lim points out, the film ‘is almost all nightmare, and yet, through considerable exertions, it blinks itself awake, and into a state of grace.’ The penultimate sequence finds the Avenging Angel and the Lost Girl in a tender embrace. Each is then restored to some version of happiness, or, at the very least, equilibrium.

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