Monday, December 18, 2006

Inland Empire, the Review

Caution: Spoilers Abound!

Saturday night I finally made my way over to the IFC Center in the West Village to see the highly anticipated Inland Empire, David Lynch’s newest film since the mysteriously amazing Mulholland Drive. The atmosphere in IFC was that of an audience inside a theatre readying themselves to see a play rather than a movie. My friend and I sat inside the cafĂ© (we arrived forty-five minutes early) and before we knew it, suddenly there was a line to get inside the theatre. We rushed to get in queue.

IFC of course, is not your regular theatre. The people that go to see movies there, presumably, are not your regular movie-goers. Generally, people that go to see David Lynch movies are not regular people, either.

I have to say that the audience was rather chatty during the previews, but once the titles came on, you could have heard a pin drop. I have never, in my entire life, been in a movie-theatre audience that was so quiet and respectful of the film onscreen.

David Lynch is an experience, to say the least. My friends and I refer to him as “the fiber of cinema.” You go see Lynch just like you read Henry James or eat spinach: it’s good for you. Well, not necessarily “good” but in the end, you’ve grown as a person. I have to say that Inland Empire is the least linear film I’ve seen, possibly ever, next to Le Chien Andalou. “But none of Lynch’s films are linear!” you might say. Well, believe me, Inland Empire is the least so.

The film’s tagline is, “A Woman in Trouble,” and damn, is this an understatement. Nikki Grace, played by the ever malleable Laura Dern, is an actress preparing for her next film. In a scene that rivals that of Oedipus Rex, a neighbor comes to congratulate Nikki on her new role, asking if there will be murder, and making various other assertions, “a girl went outside and got lost” and terrifyingly funny facial expressions. This woman turns out to know what she’s talking about, and as Nikki gets further into her film role, and into her co-star, Justin “my perfect man” Theroux, things get ugly. Things get really ugly.

So here’s my take on the whole thing. Lynch is, in my opinion, a feminist. Mulholland Drive attempts to make some sort of commentary about what happens to innocent young actresses when they come to Hollywood expecting to make it big: they turn into lesbian heroin addicts that end up blowing their brains out and rotting where they last laid their heads. Most of these things are motivated by the fact that their very gorgeous actress girlfriends are taken advantage of by their sleazy directors and hearts get broken. It’s a mess, really.

Inland Empire makes some of the same claims. Nikki literally gets lost in an alley way while filming a scene for her movie. Her journey includes a new house with her white trash husband and friends, a gaggle of (prostitute) girls that function as a Greek chorus of sorts, and, of course, there’s the whole other narrative going on about Russian women and the men that beat them.

After Nikki gets stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver by her co-star’s wife (in real life? In the film?) and coughs up more blood than I’ve ever seen anyone cough up in a movie, and dies—she’s seemingly resurrected in that “it’s all a movie” scene where the camera pulls back and she gets up. But, it’s not over yet—this is David Lynch. Nikki does some more wandering, blows the bad guy’s head off, and finds the Russian girl that’s been watching the whole time on a TV with static and sometimes, human sized bunny rabbits. They kiss (again, this is Lynch) and somehow everything’s okay.

I don’t presume to know what any of this means, but I have a feeling it has something to do with Hollywood and acting in general, the idea that you can “lose” yourself in a part. It’s my understanding that the Russian girl is the “part” Nikki’s playing, and in the end, when they finally find each other, and Nikki kisses her, she transfers the part back to the real girl, and then the real girl is reunited with her family and the world is in harmony. Meanwhile, the actress, bloodied and dirtied, returns to her life, changed, but in one piece.

That’s my bit of wisdom.

My friend, the next night, at a party said that she “hated” the movie and felt like it was “just pretentious bullshit.” As much as I’d like to believe that David Lynch is just some dilettante like me, trying to make high art out of a few inventive ideas, I just can’t. I really do believe that he’s functioning on some higher level, and if I spent enough time trying to decode these movies I might actually achieve a solid explanation. But of course, that’s not what his films are meant for. As he said in the introduction to the movie, “I don’t like to explain things. I’ll tell you how the film was made, but what it’s about—that’s for you to figure out.”

After three hours of Laura Dern failing about in torturous agony, I felt like I had been through a war. We headed over to bar, where for a few minutes, being in the company of frat boys felt somewhat comforting. But not for long. And that’s why I love David Lynch.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler, a production by Thomas Ostermeier
Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 2nd 2006

Hedda Gabler is quite easily my favorite play of all time. When I heard that BAM was doing yet another production (it seemed almost too soon) to follow last year's zeitgeist starring the brilliant Cate Blanchett, I was intrigued. Not only did it seem an incredible act to follow, but this production was being performed in German with English supertitles, and it was modernized. I had to see.

The star of the show was the set. In Ostermeier's production, Hedda and Tesman live in a Frank Lloyd-Wright-esque glass house (literally) with a key-lime sofa and concrete walls. The set pieces are mounted on a black stage which is fitted with hydraulics and turns a complete 360 degrees. As if that weren't enough to get theatre people going, a mirror has been mounted above the stage, so that no matter where the characters go, the audience can see them from all angles wandering about the house.

Katharina Shuttler, our Hedda, is a pixie of a woman. About two feet shorter than the lanky gawky Tesman played by Lars Eidinger, she flits around the stage like a perturbed tinkerbell, exuding the same sexuality as Nabokov's Lolita-deceivingly innocent and dripping with sex.

Mr. Ostermeier has also fitted this production with a soundtrack by the Beach Boys, and without an intermission, the small breaks after each Act are totally necessary--but rather than filling them with darkness or empty stage time, he has the concrete wall turn towards the audience and work as a film screen. One particularly interesting and touching scene was that of Hedda, in a car, driving down the highway while Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" blasts from the speakers.

I've always read Hedda as a fucked up love-story of sorts. Lovborg and Hedda seem to share this undying hatred of the world and by the idiots that surround them, and there are lines that imply such a sexual connection that cannot be ignored. As Lovborg calls Hedda by her maiden name, “Will I ever be able to call you Hedda Gabler?” chills ran down my spine. Unfortunately, the only time the audience gets evidence of Hedda’s passionate connection to Lovborg is when she destroys the manuscript Mrs. Elvsted and he have labored over for so long. In this production, the manuscript is a laptop which Hedda places between her legs “Now I will destroy Lovborg and Nora’s child!” and smashes to death with a hammer. But the connection between the two former lovers seems lost when Hedda gives Lovborg the gun and tells him to “Make it glorious.” Shuttler is leaning against the wall in way that suggests she could care less whether Lovborg offs himself or not, regardless of it being glorious. The two actors were so far apart—I just wanted to walk onstage and push them together in some sort of romantic embrace, or at least one final touch or kiss. But then, this modern Hedda, and things are more complicated, I suppose.

Ostermeier’s production of Hedda is rife with sadism and humor, best illustrated by his interpretation of the last scene. We all know how it ends. BANG!!! Hedda retreats into the other room, and the ceiling mirror is tilted so the audience can’t see the final shot—Tesman says, “She’s playing with those pistols again…..Hedda?” Silence. As he smirks, he remarks, “She’s shot herself,” and laughs. Brack retorts, “What a naughty thing to do.” The audience, along with Brack, Tesman, and Mrs. Elvsted, all laugh as the stage rotates around to reveal Hedda, propped up one leg under the other, pistol wound to the temple, blood spattered all over the concrete.

Traditionally, Tesman usually walks off the stage, finds Hedda and runs screaming back into the main room, “She’s shot herself!” Upon which Brack replies, “What kind of a person who do such a horrible thing???” Curtain.

In this production, the three remaining actors go about their business putting together Lovborg’s notes, as the stage rotates again and again, “God Only Knows,” comes back on, silently mocking Hedda’s suicide—since life certainly goes on without Hedda. No one even notices that she’s dead!

I found myself laughing, just like the rest of the audience. In retrospect, though, I wonder, should we really be laughing at Hedda? Is her suicide a non-issue in today’s society, where women (sometimes) can get what they want without having to shoot themselves or stick their heads in an oven, their middle fingers an eternal “fuck you” to those who have done them wrong?

I’m not so sure. In 1890, Hedda was a girl who knew what she wanted. In 2006, Hedda’s a girl that doesn’t want anything—just only to not be surrounded by men who act like horny teenagers or lovestruck schoolboys. Hedda’s pistols are the symbol of power and control—she strives the whole play to feel the way she does with a warm gun in her hands. Do modern day women want the same power? Or are we still manipulating others and ourselves into thinking we’re content?