Inland Empire (2006)

Nikki's story takes her deep inside herself or deep inside the movie industry.No matter how you're inclined to read the film's final dancers, the scene offers a Lynchian Rorschach test. What you see tells you something about you.

Inland Empire

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Jeremy Irons, Terryn Westbrook, Grace Zabriski, Diane Ladd, Julia Ormand
MPAA rating: R
Studio: 518 Media
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-12-06 (Limited release)

Editor's note: See another review of Inland Empire here.

We all maybe think we see the same world, but they say that we don't. They say that the thing is, the world is as you are. A lot of people are really, like, say, political. And they'll see films in terms of politics. Other people are into something else, and they'll see any film in terms of that, but it really means in terms of themselves. Their interpretation comes from that.

-- David Lynch, Salon (7 December 2006)

Not many of us think we see the same world as David Lynch. And yet his work retains an almost magnetic pull, so strange and disturbing, so gorgeous and perverse. His new film, Inland Empire is like that, and has solicited the usual range of responses, as viewers conjure their own meanings, deciphering its bits and pieces, its illogic and resistance to interpretation.

On one level, it delineates a complex, shifting relationship between art and audience. Consider the film's closing credits sequence, a mesmerizing lip-synched performance of Nina Simone's "Sinner Man," danced by women of color. They're observed and much appreciated by the film's white women characters, including Laura Dern (who plays Nikki Grace, who plays Susan Blue), and Nastassja Kinski and Laura Harring, who only show up for this last moment. Sitting on divans and smiling warmly, they seem background mirror images of you, watching them watch.

Behind the black women and in front of the stars sway a set of white girls who play Nikki and Susan's friends and fellow prostitutes, outfitted in shorts and miniskirts with too much mascara and bra straps showing under their tank tops. They're vaguely sultry and pale, their slow, awkward moves distinct from the more vigorous rhythms of the foreground, dark-skinned dancers.

The scene is striking for any number of reasons, not least because Lynch's films so rarely include black figures. Like most everything in Inland Empire, this scene can mean variously: a typically masculine movie lusting after the "exotic" (or at least, the energetic), a layering of desires and desired objects, or maybe an oblique critique of class and race disparities. This last indirectly answers a devastating scene toward the end of the movie, when Nikki/Susan lies wounded on a sidewalk, framed by "street people" (Helena Chase, Nae Yuuki, Terry Crews), whose discussion of a drug addict with a blond wig only seems irrelevant to the woman collapsed and bleeding next to them. No matter how you're inclined to read the film's final dancers, the scene offers a Lynchian Rorschach test. What you see tells you something about you.

That said, Inland Empire -- self-distributed, Lynch's first movie shot in DV -- looks personal (in fact, it looks grubby, owing to his use of a Sony PD-150). Like other Lynch movies, it is confusing and confused about its women characters, simultaneously exquisite and anguished. Here, as in Mulholland Drive, women are doubled and surreally performative, elusive and tenaciously curious. Nikki is an L.A.-based actress, directed in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows by the bullhorn-wielding Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Her experience in character appears to bleed into her life at home; it's an old story, as her relationship with her leading man, Devon playing Billy (Justin Theroux) turns rather inside out. His reputation as a ladykiller precedes him, but she's married to Piotrek Krol (Peter J. Lucas), eerily possessive. His threat to Devon ("My wife is not a free agent") is so intimate as to seem erotic: "I'm going to put my arm around you, I'm going to hold you close. You don't mind, do you?"

Shades of Frank Booth. The difference here is the focus on women's desires, despite and because of masculine tyrannies. Where Blue Velvet's Frank (Dennis Hopper) memorably instructed his victim, "Don't you fucking look at me," Nikki and her selves/associates insist on looking and being looked at. On one level, this has to do with a "folktale" relayed by Nikki's unnamed, heavily accented neighbor (Grace Zabriskie), just before she plummets into her journey: "A leetle girl went out to play and was lost in the marketplace, as if half-born." (This opposed to the boy in the tale's initial version, who is followed by "evil.") Nikki's several incessant half-births in Inland Empire resonate with one another, all having to do with abusive men and her rebellion, usually violent.

This theme is reintroduced in Blue Tomorrows. Spooked by an apparent interloper on the set (another version of Nikki/Sue, perhaps alternately dimensioned), Kingsley confesses that the film is a "remake" of a movie never completed. "A Polish gypsy story," it stopped production when, he says, "They discovered something inside the story... The two leads were murdered." This fatal mystery "inside the story" is standard Lynch, of course, and as Nikki explores it, her face repeatedly twists up into a mask of distress, recalling Dern's Sandy in Blue Velvet (appalled more than once by her boyfriend Jeffrey's dark doings). Nikki's discoveries are repeatedly layered with the experiences of other women performers (those cheesy, Hollywood Boulevardy whores) and audience members, for instance, the "Lost Girl" (Karolina Gruszka) who appears intermittently, watching a TV in a hotel room. In between bouts of static, she sees here a series of "shows," including Rabbits (three rabbit-suited figures in a sitcom-seeming living room, waiting) and apparent melodramas focused on abusive men and frightened, insubordinate women.

Nikki's soapy story fits in here somewhere, slipping in and out of roles as she pursues a creative "process," an immersion in her character and the many characters like her (including those in Lynch's movies). In one scene that repeats, she ascends a set of dark stairs to meet with a man in a dingy, windowless office. "Guess I'll just tell you the thing," she says, the camera close on her bruised face. The thing, it turns out, in a couple of variations, is a story of cruelty: "There was this man I once knew... Doesn't matter what his name was." But if such stories are common in movies (and elsewhere), this version makes you acutely aware of its repetition. "A lot of guys change," she continues, "They don't change but they reveal. In time they reveal what they really are, you know what I mean? It's an old story."

Such repetition is emphasized by the familiar spaces Nikki inhabits, or better, discovers and hides in, or tries desperately to escape. They're all indicative of her internal state and, presumably, the observant filmwatcher's. The dank office here, with its bespectacled listener behind a desk, indicates her desperation, Nikki's ornate home in L.A. is oppressive with expensive accoutrements, a too-bright backyard complete with barbeque and redneck gatecrashers, and a probable stage set features pink adobe walls and an Eraserhead-ish radiator (when Mary Steenburgen shows up here with a message ("I came about an unpaid bill that needs payin'"), the film seems nearly illegible. But again, you're inclined to press on, unable to imagine what happens next.

"I don't know what went before or after," says the bruised-face Nikki/Sue. "I don't know what happened first. It's kind of laid a mindfuck on me." Indeed, it's hard to know what happens when in Lynch's movies (and internet activities). Whether they deploy archetypal-seeming imagery or completely garish and unnerving surprises, they don't often follow predictable paths. Nikki's story takes her deep inside herself or deep inside the movie industry (which might be a metaphor for deep inside you). Her "process" takes her eventually to a movie theater and that hotel room where the Lost Girl is watching her on TV: in each instance, Nikki sees herself on screen, and then her space, without her.

Whether her space needs her (or you) as a viewer or performer may be Inland Empire's central question. "I guess after my son died," she says a couple of times, "I went into a bad time." (Wait: she had a son?) "I was watching everything around me while I stood in the middle, watching like I was in a dark theater before they bring the lights up." Seduced by "blue tomorrows," entranced by dancers, you're watching too. What you're seeing is about you.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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