INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch, 2006

Some thoughts on Inland Empire and Time

Time, specifically chronological time, is a deeply convoluted network in David Lynch’s work. Indeed, the notion of chronology (and its rupture) is such a key theme in Inland Empire that his characters are often seen questioning the order of events. For example, when Nikki is visited by her Polish neighbour the latter talks about the mixing up of time – yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows:

“Me, I… I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I’d think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill…If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.”

In another scene, Nikki asks the question,

“Hey! Look at me. And tell me if you’ve known me before.”

And later, even more tellingly, we see her state:

“This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”

Even the film in which Nikki gets a role is entitled “On High in Blue Tomorrows.”

The important point here, I would suggest, is that we are not left with some nihilistic flight from time in which chronology is subjugated to some kind of higher (yet still not definitive) dream-time. The rather lazily drawn out claim, made all too often by both Lynch admirers and detractors alike, that his essential modus operandi is one in which dream-time and its layering of unconscious desires is the only (non-)structure of order, does not do Lynch justice.

Rather, I would argue that his treatment of time is far more subtle. What might at first glance appear as merely jumbled-up, disarranged, fractured, and fragmented words, images, scenes, or characters have at their core the threat of something more axiomatic, something where order is always a tangible possibility. In place of (or perhaps in spite of) untamed, limitless abstraction, Lynch always offers the opposite – clarity and the threat of order breaking out at any moment.

And this, I claim, is revealed in the Rabbit sitcom scene. Here, the Rabbits speak in terse, seemingly perfunctory sentences that appear disconnected from each other because they do not follow a conventional, chronological conversational basis. This is heightened by the fact that they are occasionally followed by a non-sequitur laugh-track. The ‘conversation’ goes as follows (the insertion of numbers is mine):

1) Female Rabbit: “I’m going to find out one day.” Pause. “When will you tell it?”
2) Male Rabbit: “Were there any calls.”
3) Female Rabbit: “What time is it?”
4) Male Rabbit: “I have a secret.”
5) Female Rabbit: “There have been no calls today.”
6) Male Rabbit: “I am not sure.”

But the fact is that one could so easily re-order the chronology of the statements as follows:

3) Female Rabbit: “What time is it?”
6) Male Rabbit: “I am not sure.”
2) Male Rabbit: “Were there any calls.”
5) Female Rabbit: “There have been no calls today.”
4) Male Rabbit: “I have a secret.”
1) Female Rabbit: “I’m going to find out one day.” Pause. “When will you tell it?”

This simple rearrangement would offer cohesion in place of the randomness of the unqualified chatter of this scene in its former shape.

The fact that there is this more axiomatic, analytical aspect to Lynch’s work is perhaps one reason why all of his films, including Inland Empire, can be read as having ‘happy endings,’ or at least having endings which include the redress of the major difficulties which his protagonists and their situations face. Abstraction, then, is always mirrored by its other – a concrete order.

And this is precisely why, as I have already mentioned, Lynch’s characters make constant references to their experience of time. It is not a case of ‘anything goes,’ rather, there is always a short step from confusion to resolution.

In place of a hierarchy either way, Lynch’s work is a constant straddling of the tension line between the two.

Bash Khan


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