Digital modernism and the unfinished performance in David Lynch's Inland Empire.
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 that 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. The film 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 (Lynch 153). 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." (Nochimson 12). I will argue that, in Lynch's own words, the "level of flexibility and control" (Lynch 145) 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 (Naremore 17); but the performance 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, along with 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" (Sinnerbrink 144). John Orr also reads the film's labyrinthine narrative structure in terms of parallel worlds that haunt one another, creating "a topographical return of the repressed and search for origin at the same time" (Orr 39). 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" (Schaffner 280). I would like to reorientate these topological readings of the film's multiple personae, dissociations, and splittings, and the lineage of psychoanalytic critique that informs them, 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 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, achieving a newness partly by harking back to the radicalism of the past.
Film historians tend to characterize modernism as two separate periods that book-end the period of classical Hollywood. In film modernism, according to David Bordwell, "spatial and temporal systems come forward and share with narrative the role of structuring the film"; starting with Caligari, Gance, and Epstein, there is a "transitional period" with post-war Italian neo-realism, before the second wave of "Tati, Godard, Duras and Bresson" (Bordwell 23). Andras Balint Kovacs argues that the first wave modernism of the silent era is cut short by the advent of sound; transitional experiments in form in the forties and fifties by Welles, Kurosawa, film noir, and Italian neo-realism lead towards the rediscovery of the modernist project, as a collective and sustained exploration of the formal aspects of the medium, in the fifties and sixties (Kovacs 52). The formal innovations of Godard, Bresson, Fellini, Antonioni, and Resnais--explicitly indebted to Proust, the Nouveau Roman, Faulkner, Joyce--shattered the preconceptions of the classic-realist film, as exemplified by Hollywood's cause and effect logic and goal-driven protagonists. In modernist cinema, the unpredictable subjective reality of the characters, and the materiality and process of filmmaking, intrude upon, distort and overwhelm the film's structure.
In interviews, Lynch has suggested a specific debt to the interior monologues and free associations of Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), a cornerstone of cinematic modernism, in which Fellini's alter ego, a film director played by Mastroianni, suffers from director's block as he struggles to make an art film about an impending apocalypse. Actions trigger interior visions and childhood memories, which in turn summon illusory visions of a girl in white come to save him, baroque oedipal hallucinations, and scenes from the film Mastroianni is preparing to direct. We see Mastroianni auditioning actresses not for roles in the film within the film, but to play the parts of the real people in his life: his wife, his mistress, the prostitute Saraghina. The way parallel levels of reality intermingle and overlap, especially between the film-within-the-film and the life of the actress in Inland Empire, partly resembles the technique in 8 1/2. Lynch's structural free associations and fractured causality are indebted to Fellini, but Inland Empire's indecisions and revisions are shaped by the figure of the actor rather than the self-reflective autobiography of the director.
The caption, a "woman in trouble," implies a single protagonist, yet there are several, variously played by Laura Dern and Karolina Gruszha, and it is impossible to tell with any certainty which are real and which are imaginary. A character called the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) sits in a hotel room in Poland watching the entire film on television. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an aspiring Hollywood actress, rehearses a character called Susan Blue for a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows, a remake of an unfinished Polish melodrama. As Nikki Grace begins rehearsals with the film's director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons), Inland Empire begins to fragment into disjunctive scenes, or beats, intermingling scenes from Nikki Grace's life and the life of her character, Susan Blue, with the life of the Lost Girl, the murdered Polish actress in the original film, and her version of the Susan Blue character. The film within the film is a love triangle melodrama involving a jealous, potentially murderous husband. Variant scenarios are played out in parallel in the lives of the Lost Girl, Nikki Grace, and Susan Blue: her husband in both situations is played by the same actor, Peter J. Lucas; Nikki Grace's affair with her co-star, Devon Berk, mirrors the affair their characters have in On High on Blue Tomorrows. The love triangle plays out both in the life of the actress and her character, identities merge, fiction and reality become indistinguishable, to the extent that either Dern's character or Gruzshka's could represent the memories, fears or fantasy projections of the other.
Inland Empire provokes comparison with Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which also combines a melodramatic story of a love triangle with a radical experiment with form. A stranger meets a young woman and tells her the love story they lived the previous year. The woman denies they ever met, the man continues to persuade her. Their scenes together are sometimes watched by the woman's husband. The back-and-forth of persuasion and denial is presented in serial repetitions, each of the scenes a series, as Deleuze puts it, of "undecidable alternatives between layers of the past." (Leutrat 7) Any given shot could conceivably represent the perspective of the woman, the lover, or the husband. This radical indeterminacy of subject position also extends to the film's time-line: any shot, as James Monaco observes, "can be read as a present or past tense, as a conditional, a subjunctive, or as pure fantasy" (Monaco 56). Scenes are constructed as interior monologues, and the comprehensive avoidance of classic continuity editing--of showing a master shot, then cutting in with medium shots and close ups--allows settings and tenses to shift inconstantly, then to return in modified form later in the film, according to the workings of three separate interior monologues. In the opening shot, as the camera tracks through the palace in Marienbad, a voiceover describes the events of last year, in phrases that repeat and modify, and that are spoken again later by the actors; retrospectively, the serial repetitions of phrase resemble an actor's process as he or she learns or rehearses lines that are later embodied in a finished performance. But the film's circular, contradictory time-zones perpetually defer this finality by presenting the characters as figments of possibility, whether real or invented, rather than definitive, finished personae.
Resnais and Fellini clearly break "the rule of expressive coherence" by foregrounding the actor's work in representing or embodying character and allowing that procedure to shape the film's narrative structure. Ordinarily, performance in the Hollywood system involves "an artful imitation of unmediated behavior." The rule of expressive coherence might be broken, but only at the level of characterization, as for instance when a character conceals or represses what they really think. By identifying herself fully with her character, the actor creates the illusion of a single persona; in this respect, as Naremore puts it, "acting is an attempt to maintain the coherence of a unified self in the face of multiple possibilities" (Naremore 71-72). Hollywood acting in this sense imposes the coherence of an artificially constructed persona on a highly fragmentary process: in classical narrative cinema, an actor's performance is filmed out of sequence, in distinct scenes, and this doubly requires a unified whole on the level of characterization. The finished performance, in reality a series of distinct scenes, is then edited together to maximize and enhance the coherence and organic unity of the character. As Kuleshov argues: "it is possible to put strips of film together and create a performance that never was actually given." In Film Technique and Film Acting (1949), Pudovkin similarly observes the "basic contradiction" between the fragmentary process of shooting and the unified persona in the end-product: "The aim and object of the technique of the actor is his struggle for unity, for an organic wholeness on the lifelike image he creates." He argues that the "the subdivided splitting up of the actor's work in the shooting of a film, set[s] up a corresponding series of obstacles through and over which the entire creative collaborative [...] must combine to carry the organic unity of line of the actor's image" (Pudovkin 22-25). In this view, the task of the actor and director involves overcoming the obstacle of fragmentation to arrive at an organic wholeness of characterization.
Classic-realist film masks the process of filming out of sequence and the attendant fragmentation of the actor's experience, as well as the sense of filmmaking as a series of rehearsals towards an always unfinished or abandoned performance. As Kim Stanley observes, the actor's primary audience in film is the director: "No matter what you do in a film, it is bits and pieces for a director" (Carnicke 76). In theater, the director is the audience for the period of the play's rehearsal; he or she is later replaced by the live audience, after rehearsals have finished and the play is presented in front of an assembly of gathered spectators. Filmmaking, in which the director always remains the primary audience, resembles the process of theatrical rehearsals. What Lynch does in Inland Empire is to expose the circumstances of an actor's work as she rehearses or builds her role, performing her character in fragments, before she achieves the finished performance. The film's narrative is thus determined by the actor's struggle to rehearse her character amidst multiple possible incarnations and performance styles.
The extreme formal and performative distintegration belongs to the lineage of Fellini and Resnais, but Lynch takes the process much further. Inland Empire's relentless layering of possibilities, as we see Dern endlessly rehearsing, watching her takes, being watched by her director, is significantly enhanced, if not radically altered by its digital form. As a director, Lynch has always practiced rehearsals and line-readings prior principal photography: "When you rehearse, it doesn't matter where you start. You get your actors together and you just pick a scene that defines the characters in your mind" (Lynch 71). One of the advantages of shooting digitally, Lynch claims, is the ability to shoot forty minute takes. The extended take allows the actor to immerse herself, to "get down into a character," and it allows the director to talk to the actor during the take--"many times I am talking to the actors while we are shooting and we are able to get in deeper and deeper"--so the final scene is actually a filmed rehearsal: "you can even rehearse while you're shooting" (Lynch 150). Filmed rehearsals enter into and re-shape the structure of the finished film. This fluidity, which blurs the boundaries between rehearsal and end performance, determined the course of the film's pre-production--there was no script prior to rehearsals--as well as post-production: the footage was instantly uploaded into Final Cut Pro, with its digital timeline allowing an unlimited number of simultaneously composited video tracks, or layers. Final Cut Pro's timeline is "non-destructive": unlike with celluloid, the original content is not modified in the course of editing (Weynand 25). The final sequence is a series of digital files that can be played back without affecting either the original footage or the digitized source files. While each workprint, or layer of performance, exerts pressure on what precedes and follows it sequentially, it remains, in itself, distinct and indestructible in the editing process; each scene or take can play out in simultaneity with layers above and below, without ever being displaced. As a result, decisions over which take or scene to choose are not so stark as in traditional film editing.
With film, footage recorded before or after the chosen splice points is usually discarded to save on lab costs. Between the thirties and seventies, films were usually edited at first on Moviolas, and editing a film was analogous to sewing, or stitching (hence the "suture" theory of the seventies). The editor watched a small image flicker on a viewfinder and would slowly build up a reel of good takes, although each take-up reel had a maximum capacity of eleven minutes. This procedure was followed by the flatbed editing system, commonly known as the Steenbeck; first introduced in the seventies, it was faster but less refined, and required editing from eleven minute chunks from the first reel, rather than one or two minute takes of Moviola (Reisz 42). By the mid-1990s, electronic non-linear systems such as Avid were gradually replacing flatbeds. Final Cut Pro, Apple's more user-friendly and affordable version of Avid, first released in 1999, effectively allows for an infinitely greater degree of flexibility, far beyond the constraints of an eleven minute reel. This technology in turn creates new possibilities--of which Inland Empire is a recent, although still unique example--for the densely layered performance, in which each layer might function as rehearsal or re-enactment of an oblique event in the past, or the future.
Non-linearity is the film's narrative principle, and the addition of chapter breaks in the authorized DVD--a first for Lynch, who has deliberately refused them in the past--reiterates this sense of multiple layers, giving the disc an almost interactive quality. At thirty minutes in, we see Nikki Grace and her scene partner, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), rehearsing a scene from Blue Tomorrows with the film's director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). We see Grace responding to her director and scene partner, and then to a mysterious third figure who interrupts the rehearsal from inside the unfinished set behind them. Theroux goes to investigate, gives chase, finds nobody. Seventy minutes later, the same scene plays out from a different point of view: we observe the scene from the point of view of the person interrupting the earlier rehearsal, impossibly also Laura Dern, perhaps an embodiment of the fictional character (Susan Blue) she is rehearsing. The earlier rehearsal scene gives birth to the character of Susan Blue, who interrupts the scene from a parallel reality later in the film. The scene is neither flashback nor flash forward: the two scenes exist in simultaneity, on separate tracks, as two co-extensive layers on the digital timeline.
The focus on the actor's work and the relentless foregrounding of the film's formal devices also recall Bergman's Persona (1966), to which the film again explicitly alludes in the moment towards the end, immediately after Susan Blue's death scene on Hollywood's Walk of Fame: the scene ends when the first AD shouts "cut" and "check the gate," and the digital camera pulls back to reveal the film camera for On High on Blue Tomorrows, as it becomes apparent that the scene was part of the film-within-the-film. There is a similar disorientating moment towards the end of Persona, when the camera also pulls back, and we see a crane-mounted camera, and the first AD shouts "check the gate". Bergman's scenario, in which two women--an actress Elizabeth, struck by aphasia while on stage, and her nurse Alma, charged with the task of curing her--mysteriously exchange identities (the film is also a key reference point for Mulholland Drive), plays out like a series of acting exercises: for instance, the mirror scene, where two partners face each other, each reflecting and mimicking the other's movements. This exercise is amplified over the course of Persona as the nurse gradually transforms into the actress on stage, and the actress in turn becomes the audience. The intensity of their mimetic encounter bums a hole in the film before the final metamorphosis is enacted. Persona constantly reminds us of the film as a material object and as a drama of projection occurring on the surface of a screen, as for instance towards the end, when we see the film unspooling from the projector.
Inland Empire begins where the film unspools in Persona. The Lost Girl, sitting in her hotel room, watches three figures: herself in the earlier Polish version of On High on Blue Tomorrows, Nikki Grace, who may be an invention, or an idealized fantasy persona, and her character Susan Blue. Dern's personas are in turn watched by the director Kingsley Stewart and, finally, by herself, when she wanders into a cinema towards the end and we see her earlier takes playing on the big screen: "watching everything go around me while I was standing in the middle, watching it, like in a dark theater before they bring the lights up." The Lost Girl and Nikki Grace possibly exchange identities in the manner of Persona, but the elaborate accumulation of performance and response reiterates a more radical uncertainty about originary characters and events, and also their eternal recurrence, the inability, physically, to erase the event from the timeline. Each layer of Dern's performance supplements rather than erases earlier versions, so the performance, and consequently the film itself, never attains completion.
Lynch uses the nonlinear timeline to lay bare the actor's process, where possible scenarios are tested before the actor is tethered to a single, expressively coherent character. These techniques of modernist European cinema, updated for the digital age, are interlaced with echoes of key films and performance techniques of the Hollywood studio-era, which further enhance and define the film's critique of the damage Hollywood inflicts on its actors. On the one hand, Lynch claims that the digital image has superceded film, and that as far as he is concerned, "film is dead [...] I'm shooting in digital video and I love it"; yet part of the appeal of the low-res quality of the DV camera he uses, the Sony PD-150, is that it harks back to "the films of the 1930s. In the early days, the emulsion wasn't so good, so there was less information on the screen. The Sony PD result is a bit like that; it's nowhere near high-def" (Lynch 149-150). The new digital image also becomes a means of reviving an old style studio-era film image. As John Orr observes, "the cinematic staging, spatial positioning and the cutting is, for the most part, neo-classical in design" (Orr 39). In addition to the staging and mise-en-scene (though I would strongly disagree with Orr's claim about the film's cutting), the breakdown in the continuity of the acted persona also alludes to studio-era critiques of the Hollywood star system, as for instance the final shot in All About Eve, in which the debutante actress Phoebe, standing before a three-way mirror displaying an endless regress of images of her, pretends to receive Eve's award for acting; or the scene in Sunset Boulevard in which Norma Desmond, as played by Gloria Swanson, a faded star of the silent screen, watches herself in an earlier incarnation. In the latter scene, a middle aged Swanson watches her younger self in Queen Kelly (1929), a film starring Swanson, and directed by Eric Von Stroheim, who plays her butler in Sunset Boulevard. The scene pitches two performance styles against one another: the restrained close-up eloquence of Swanson as Queen Kelly, and the grotesque histrionic style of Swanson as Norma Desmond, gesticulating in medium shot.
Norma Desmond's gestures hark back to an earlier era of silent screen acting. Prior to 1910, film actors would gesticulate by standing center stage and facing front, as though playing to an auditorium. The restrained, naturalistic approach, as standardized by D.W. Griffith, gradually modified the melodramatic style by allowing a closer focus on small-scale gestures and emphasizing, as Louise Brooks--one of silent cinema's most naturalistic actors--put it, "a new quiet and subtle style of acting" (Brooks 61). Swanson's two performances, or her performance as she watches herself, expose performance style in Hollywood as historically contingent, refusing a straightforwardly naturalized relation between actor and persona. Lynch alludes to this scene in Sunset Boulevard, re-staging and quoting word-for-word the intertitles from the scene in Queen Kelly--"Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart"--in one of the few moments in which Nikki Grace and the Lost Girl appear to acknowledge one another's presence.
Inland Empire demonstrates Lynch's complex nostalgia for the performance style of studio-era Hollywood, before Method acting became the dominant school, a deep fondness also apparent when the concussed and amnesic Camilla Bowles (Laura Harring) in Mulholland Drive cannot remember her own name: she chooses "Rita," after seeing the poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), whom she partly resembles. In the thirties and forties, acting style was a combination of the methods of silent film and US theater. Acting academies were set up in the US by emigres from the Moscow Art Theater between 1923-26, offering formal, systematic training in the principal features of naturalist performance, such as diction, body movement, script analysis, emotional recall, concentration, and the development of internal dialogue. These techniques were derived from the teaching of Constantin Stanislavski, the founder of the Moscow Art Theater. Stanislavski is more usually associated with Method acting, although his emphasis on concentration and emotional distance--as one acting manual puts it, the ability "to divorce outward gestures and expressions from affective content"--is more in tune with the increasingly detached acting style of the thirties and forties. Another acting manual from this period remarks: "I always like to think of the actor as not only doing, but standing aside and watching what he is doing, so as to be able to propel himself to the next thing and the next thing and the next" (Baron 42).
Studio-era actors had an ability to divorce outward gestures and expressions from affective content, a technique the Method actors of the fifties would later reject. Dern's performance of maximum personal disintegration incites a critique of the Method's emphasis on the actor's own personal experience, regardless of the circumstances of the scenario, as distinct from Stanislavski's "as if" and its critical relation between character and actor. As Naremore argues, Strasberg's Method, a series of exercises designed according to the principles of psychotherapy, constitutes a "reification of the self" (Naremore 197). Nikki Grace, having lost all critical distance between character and actor, ends up dying on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, vomiting blood on Dorothy Lamour's sidewalk star print. Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire shows forth Hollywood's reification of its female actors, but this critique also extends to include Strasberg's Method, which, by encouraging actors to find the characters within themselves, rather than transform themselves into characters, ends up "feeding the star system," and promotes "conventional realism at the expense of avant-garde" performance (Naremore 199).
Stanislavski's teaching, an extended reflection on Diderot's "paradox of the actor"--an actor must experience real emotion, and yet if the emotion is real, it is not acting--begins with what he calls "the magic as if" (Stanislavski 146): an actor treats a fictional circumstance "as if" it were real, by visualising the details of the character's world and forming a concrete series of images in her mind, what he calls a "filmstrip" of images, in preparation for the role (Carnicke, "Stanislavsky's System" 20). Stanislavski's "magic as if' is one way of thinking about the transitions between levels of the real and the imaginary in Lynch. The originary moment of the film's inception--"When we began, there wasn't any Inland Empire, there wasn't anything. I just bumped into Laura Dern on the street, discovering that she was my new neighbor" (Lynch 139)--is restaged early in the film, when Nikki Grace receives a visit from her sinister new Polish neighbour. After a strained exchange about polite visits from neighbors, she asks Nikki Grace about her role in a film "about marriage," enquiring if her husband is involved; she then tells a mysterious story about a "half-born" girl lost in a marketplace, a compressed allegory of the film itself, and after a series of non-sequiturs, in which the time-line of the story leaps back and forth--"if today was tomorrow ..."--she remarks: "Actions do have consequences and yet there is the magic ... if it was tomorrow, you'd be sitting over there." She accompanies the phrase "magic ... if" with a gesture, pointing to the empty sofa in the living room opposite them. A shot of Dern looking at the sofa is followed by a reverse shot of the sofa, in which a future version of Dern is now sitting amongst her friends. The neighbor's language, reverberating with the language of Stanislavskian technique--"actions have consequences," "magic ... if"--appears to initiate the jump forward in time: the future Dern leaves the sofa to take a call from her agent, who tells her that she has been offered the part in On High on Blue Tomorrows, the film "about marriage" to which the neighbor refers. The neighbor appears to direct Nikki Grace's action and reaction, inviting her to imagine today 'as if" it were tomorrow, and "as if" she were going to play the role in the film about marriage; the scene then jumps forward to 'tomorrow'; the "magic ... if," ordinarily an actor's technique, here determines both the narrative structure and the lack of continuity in the editing.
Stanislavski's "magic as if" is a rehearsal technique an actor refines under the watchful eye of her director, and is designed to enhance the actor's sense of possible scenarios before she is tethered to a single, expressively coherent character. Inland Empire is more interested in showing forth the process an actor undergoes prior to the end performance, as distinct from an end performance that never materializes. In the rehearsal scene with her scene partner and director, interrupted mid-way by a version of Nikki Grace emerging from the unfinished film set behind them, internal process appears to invade narrative space. The scene's exploratory line-reading echoes Stanislavski's teaching on the rehearsal process as a combination of script analysis and affective cognition. Cast and director come together to discuss each element in the film and the details of its world. The actors begin to empathize with, or enter into their character, in the form of "visualisations," whose purpose is to trigger affective responses (Stanislavski 24). In the second part of the scene, shot from the point of view of Nikki Grace from inside the unfinished film set, we see her walking through the set, the house of Susan Blue. The version of Nikki Grace wandering through the film set, as summoned by the real Nikki Grace in the rehearsal scene, again incarnates interior process and allows it to re-shape the film's narrative structure. The scene resonates with another of Stanislavski's acting exercises, in which the actor, in order to enter into the role, imagines herself in the house of her character, going through a typical day, walking through its many rooms, just as we see the version of Nikki Grace walking through the various rooms in the unfinished film set. According to Stanislavski, this allows the actor to create a personal vision, or "filmstrip," of the details of her character's life. In this respect, the rehearsal scene in Inland Empire incarnates the private imagination of Nikki Grace as she visualizes her character's house.
Stanislavski's method involves certain techniques that help develop skills of concentration, to enhance what he calls "public solitude," a technique that allows the actor to tune out anything external to the world of the character, enabling her to behave in public as she would in private. Training in concentration begins, for an actor, with sharpening the senses with various exercises; for instance, by attending to the sound or touch of an object, then recollecting the sensual properties of the object in its absence (Stanislavski 57). But the principal technique in concentration and affective memory involves the actor remembering details from her own personal life to recall a powerful emotion, which is then used to stand in for the emotion of the fictional character. Emotional memories, moments of sadness or ecstasy, are more effectively summoned if the circumstances in which they occurred are exactly recalled (Stanislavski 19). In one rehearsal technique, from which the rehearsal scene in Inland Empire partly derives, the actor practices not recalling an emotion directly but rather summoning the sensory impressions surrounding it, recreating as far as possible the physical reality of that moment, "the size of the room in which it happened, the color of the walls, the fabric on the furniture, the time of day, how the people there were dressed, what they looked like, and so on" (Krasner 136). Recurring moments between the On High on Blue Tomorrows film and the life of the Nikki Grace--for instance, gestures made by Nikki Grace's husband that are repeated by Susan Blue's husband--seem to lay bare this process as the actress summons her own emotional memory to perform her character. The set she wanders through could also represent a house she used to live in with her husband: we see her husband, or a version of her husband, in the window of the set. The sequence embodies her interior process as she imagines herself in her private filmstrip; this access gives birth to her character, Susan Blue, who we see existing independently of the actor, wandering through the set of On High on Blue Tomorrows, the film-within-the film.
The actor, according to Stanislavski, should create a personal score of actions, which follow logically and consecutively, creating a uniting thread, or through-line (Stanislavski 36). In rehearsals and script analysis, prior to the performance of the logical through-line of the character, the actor breaks the script into bits, or beats. Each beat embodies a single action, which the actor examines, using the character's given circumstances and attempts to describe the situation, allowing the actor to test out scenarios as successive drafts for future performance. Dern's performance is a series of beats without a clear through-line, and in this respect it totally breaks the rule of expressive coherence. The effect is achieved by marrying Stanislavski's rehearsal techniques, which permit the actor an experimental openness and fluidity in relation to their persona, with the simultaneous co-existence of multiple takes on Final Cut Pro's nonlinear timeline. Rather than opt for one take over another, Lynch instead builds a network of successive first drafts of a performance that is never finished. The DVD edition contains over three hours of extra scenes, which are not so much outtakes as further layers and possible scenarios of a perpetually unfinished performance, by an actor trapped in the purgatory of an endless rehearsal process.
Inland Empire's digital modernism draws, as I have demonstrated, on the uncertainties and contradictory time-zones, the displacement of chronology by emotional states, the proliferation of alternative possible scenarios in European modernist cinema; but in its incompletion, its multiple layers of rehearsal and re-staging, and the way these levels of reality are co-extensive on the digital time-line, the film ventures far beyond the discontinuities in Bergman, Resnais, and Fellini. Lynch's innovation is to structure the narrative not just as a circuit of alternative possibilities in the manner of Marienbad, but specifically as fragments of an actor's rehearsal process prior to the emergence of a finished, coherent persona. The film's interactions and collisions among classical Hollywood, European modernism, and digital video discover a virtue in the open-endedness and potential of the unfinished performance. In this respect, the film, and Dern's performance in particular, resist final enclosure and reification in a finished artifact. By emphasizing the actor's work in building a role and experimenting with possible scenarios, the film militates against the artificially constructed Hollywood persona imposed upon actors; its sense of radical openness and fluidity serves to counteract a system that imposes predetermined structures upon its actors and that strives endlessly to reduce creative potential into finished product.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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