Book Review by CEJ
(A responsive exchange between author Michael Lidstone and CEJ follows the review)
"Woman With Branch" - '67 (Lynch)
Books (as well as documentaries or features) purporting to “reveal”, “explain” or “decipher” the meaning of another, engage in a tricky business, as often a “nebulus” narrative (in film for example) will be intentionally so, deliberately leaving “space” wherein each member of the audience can “fill in the blanks” with material from the stewing soup of their own subconscious. 2001: A SPACE ODYSESSY, JACOB’S LADDER and THE EXORCIST are prime examples of films, the meanings of which fans and historians have debated for years. Then … there are the films of David Lynch; particularly his later day trilogy of non-linear narrative exercises LOST HIGHWAY (1997), MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006). Cryptic, symbolic, metaphysical, and plumbing the depths of the human psyche (in all it’s glory as well as eroded degradation) they are, to be certain, of the very few cinema experiences well deserving of the term “in a class all by themselves”. Before beginning any examination of Lynch (or review of a book claiming to peal away layers of hidden meaning within a work of Lynch) one must remember first and foremost that Lynch is an artist … literally.
While born in Montana, his later formative years were spent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - studying at that city’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts (the nation’s oldest museum and artschool also responsible for turning out such legendary visualists as Thomas Eakins, Maxfield Parish and Alphonse Mucha). First as a painter, Lynch would segue into the medium of film, continue his cinematic studies at the (then still new) American Film Institute, then eventually make a splash with the breakthrough independent film ERASERHEAD (begun in 1972 and finally released in ’77). Throughout his filmic career (including THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, BLUE VELVET, TV’s TWIN PEAKS and THE STRAIGHT STORY) he would not only continue a thriving career as a world-renowned painter, but would more and more integrate his own version of the Bunel / Dali marriage of painter/filmmaker visual aesthetic into his features … to the delight of some and the heated consternation of others. All of which brings us to Micheal T. Lidstone’s 2010 e-book publication OLD WORLD POLITICS, NEW WORLD PROPHECY: UNDERSTANDING DAVID LYNCH’S “INLAND EMPIRE - A WOMAN IN TROUBLE”.
INLAND EMPIRE (2006) - Theatrical Trailer
Site Search Index:
THEMATIC LYNCH PINS
While Lynch’s first feature since 2001’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (he’s also been busy with comic book illustration and web series such as RABBITS and the animated DUMBLAND) was one of the most critically acclaimed of his entire career, it’s ironically one of the least known amongst the general public. And this is a shame since (for our money anyway) it’s the most outright enjoyable (if demanding) of that “non-linear trilogy”.
Ostensibly beginning as the story of actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), the filming of her comeback vehicle ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS, her possible/sort of “is it real or filmed?” affair with heart throb actor Devon Burk (Justin Theroux), and a Hollywood murder mystery centered around a possibly cursed script, these standard narratives (that is, "standard" within the Lynchian world) serve merely as the frame within which our director will set his “Unified Theory” inspired painting - his film perhaps the most intricate cinematic dissection of the female psyche since Cassavette’s A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974). And while there are nods to Cassavette’s classic, as well a tip of the hat to Karl Reisz’s THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’SWOMAN (1981 - it’s “actors on-screen affair mirrored off screen” narrative also starring INLAND’s Jeremy Irons), EMPIRE’s narrative takes most of it’s steam from - as Lidstone informs us - ancient Polish/Roma folklore. And this is where Mr. Lidstone certainly shines.
Perhaps expecting from the beginning the usual dry litany listing of “this means that and that means this” prevalent in so many other such written works, we were pleasantly surprised at the rabbit hole (ha! ha!) down which Lidstone chose to take us for the first half, the “Old World Politics” section, of his in-depth treatise. While shedding light on ancient symbolism, Lidstone provides a damned fascinating and enlightening read, such as in this excerpt where he references Charles Godfrey Leland’s “GYPSY SORCERY AND FORTUNE TELLING” to make a credible case for Lynch’s likely thematic/visual intent in INLAND EMPIRE’s blatant “moon” reference/motif:
“When Billy Sides‘ wife Doris Side (Julia Ormond), who is an assassin both in the Lodz, Poland sequences and in ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS, meets with Detective Hutchinson she confesses a premonition that she will commit a murder. Immediately prior to this scene Lynch presents a shot of a full Moon. Citing the denunciation of Moon worship in the Biblical Book of Job as evidence of the antiquity of the custom and to illustrate a connection between Roma and witchcraft, Leland writes that ―from early times witches and other women worked their spells when stark naked by the light of the full moon, which is evidently derived from the ancient worship of that planet and the shameless orgies connected with it.
The concept of Moon worship reaches back to the era of shamanistic, matriarchal societies where tribal activities were governed by the phases of the Moon in relation to women‘s menstrual cycles. The cycles dictated the hunting and mating schedule of the tribe and maintenance of the schedule was directly linked to the tribe‘s survival”.
A consistent thematic through-line in many of Lynch’s films is his view that the repressing of human sexuality by blocks of society is not only unhealthy but ultimately inherently dangerous. With ancient (and modern) man’s “to-this-day still” hang ups with sexuality in general … and with female sexuality in particular, one can’t help but agree with Lidstone’s enlightened “historically based” assessment of Lynch’s symbolism. He continues:
“At the beginning of this Hollywood sequence(where
actress Nikki as BLUE TOMORROWS character Sue wanders Hollywood & Vine after being stabbed by a screwdriver) a song by
Beck entitled ‘Black Tambourine’ is featured on the soundtrack, and
Leland notes that the tambourine, as a favourite instrument of the Roma,
was used in what European society viewed as their witch dances. Lévi
references the use of tambourine in the human sacrifice rituals of
Moloch and Chamos in ancient Palestine and the fact that it remains a
popular instrument of the Roma. All three of these elements
(premonitions under a full Moon, unsuspectingly wandering into a
cross-road and Black Tambourine) spell doom for Sue Blue. She has been
subjected by The Phantom to a shamanistic, black magic curse of the
An emerging Nanaimo, British Columbia-based screenwriter/filmmaker, Micheal T. Lidstone has recently completed two shorts for festival submission, and he harbors a personal passion for history, religion, mythology, music and popular culture - all of which serve him well in his book. As stated earlier, while making us aware of ancient imagery and it’s usage within INLAND EMPIRE, Lidstone’s study shines in it’s “Old World Politics” opening half. Unfortunately not as impressive to us is the “New World Prophecy” conclusion.
THEMATIC LYNCH MOBBING
And it isn’t as if Lidstone doesn’t inform us as to what’s coming. On the first page of his Introduction he clearly states, “As an epic, sprawling allegory, INLAND EMPIRE is a prophetic warning against a descent into fascism, the rise and fall of a future American 4th Reich, nuclear war and even the Biblical ―day of the lord”. But perhaps we were so engaged and carried away by Lidstone’s wonderful study of ancient symbolism (he making us feel like armchair versions of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon character) that when the more “this means that and that means this” portion of the book did finally kick in, it felt jarring … as if another book written by another person altogether.
Our interest started to wane with the Chapter “AXXoNN” (in reference to the cryptic letters Nikki/Sue finds scrawled on a number of doorways). Things begin promisingly, citing Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp’s 1928 study, MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE. But when Lidstone attempts to use an alphanumeric system to exemplify Propp’s paradigm at work within INLAND EMPIRE’s narrative structure, things for us suddenly ground to a halt. Then in the closing chapter, “INLAND EMPIRE” REVEALED, we felt the journey from “engagingly interesting” to full out thematic didactism was complete:
“The woman in trouble is America. Nikki Grace is America as a woman in trouble. The name Nikki is a feminine variation of Nicholas, itself derived from Nicodemus. Nicodemus in ancient Hebrew means ―innocent blood, but in Dorian, Indo-European Greek means ―conqueror of the people. The duality of the United States, a nation with the potential for and history of great salvation as well as the potential for and history of bringing great destruction, is reflected in the name Nikki. The name Grace refers to the belief held amongst the original New World colonists that they were selected by God for exceptionalism; God‘s grace so to speak. Her character being an actress is a reference to the theatre of politics with Hollywood substituted for Washington, D.C.
"Like the production of the fictional script of ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS, political policy initiatives themselves can often be described as fictional ―productions. Nikki being trapped inside a nightmarish fictional script mirrors the United States being mired in self-destructive policies. Policies, the War in Iraq or secret domestic surveillance for example, that are often given fictional justifications and resemble previous ―productions by other nations in history. Not to mention the potential for conspiracy in the September 11th, 2001 attacks themselves, something Lynch has publically raised questions over. 4th President of the United States James Madison once wrote, ―If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. In any event, the 21st Century has rendered America ―a woman in trouble”.
While we certainly agree with the assessment of America as “a woman in trouble”, being “a nation with the potential for and history of great salvation as well as the potential for and history of bringing great destruction”; and while we certainly concur with President Madison’s description of a possible fall into national tyranny (and how the “Patriot Act” came dangerously close to realizing it), … we feel the logic threads connecting these (and other conclusions in the same chapter) as INLAND EMPIRE’s thematic intent - deliberate or contextually coincidental, is tenuous at best. From this point it feels as if Lidstone is desperate to “tie things up neatly”.
And this is a shame, as a) the first half of the book (the historical context of his treatise which is nearly undisputable) is so strong and tight and waterproof in it’s structure and execution. And b) Lynch himself doesn’t feel the need to tie things up succinctly with his own film. As such we feel why should a book attempt to do so. We were content with the revelatory nature of the first half of Lidstone’s work. As with Lynch’s film, we were happy to take what was given us, then draw our own conclusions - to “fill in the blanks” based on what we “brought to the party” inside the rustling space of our own individual psychological shopping bags.
in all? “OLD WORLD POLITICS, NEW WORLD PROPHECY: UNDERSTANDING DAVID
LYNCH’S INLAND EMPIRE - A WOMAN IN TROUBLE” is recommended for fans of
film, art … and especially fans of David Lynch in particular. Just
“heads up” on that second half.
CEJ - final draft, April 2012
Jeremy Irons, dir. Lynch, Laura Dern & Justin Theroux
RESPONSIVE E-MAIL EXCHANGE BETWEEN
AUTHOR MICHAEL T. LIDSTONE AND REVIEWER CEJ
Many years ago, I was fortunate enough as a neophyte writer (at the time not knowing a damned thing about representation) to have as my first experience with a professional literary agent, a series of friendly and encouraging communiques with the late Scott Meredith, founder of The Scott Meredith Literary Agency NY and author of the the book on the composition of fiction - WRITING TO SELL. As someone still learning craft as well as "the biz" I was at once overjoyed that the man who represented such literary stalwarts as Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan and Philip K. Dick would take time out of his busy (and valuable) schedule to help educate such a newbie. Then, upon later learning he took such time to respond to all first time writers, I was also overwhelmed, blown away, and extremely grateful.
Meredith (1923 - '93)
Shortly thereafter I learned why Mr. Meredith was such. As a child he'd written at least one story per week, and had been constantly rejected for years (all writers seem to have a trunk full of years old rejection slips - why do we save them?) until making his first sale. Having never forgotten those days, he made damned sure no one on his staff ever laughed or dismissed out of hand any submission received. In fact he'd fired staff for doing so. His reasoning was that regardless of personal feelings about a particular work (it's quality and/or sale-ability), the fact that a writer had the chutzpa to sit down and finish something they'd poured their heart and soul into, commanded a degree of professional respect.
It is in this spirit we at the GullCottage (to this day still blown away by the late Mr. Meredith's old-school graciousness) will never do a "hit and run" review of any submitted work (written, filmic or otherwise) - which is to say "drop a bomb" either positive or negative, then disappear from sight, refusing to return calls or e-mails. Before any review or guest blog is posted, we send a proof to the author of the piece asking if they feel our transcription is a valid and fair representation of their intent. Of course we may not always agree. But the author will always have a platform to express their POV if they desire to do so.
After e-mailing a proof of the above review to Mr. Lidstone, he felt we'd in some respects "missed the mark" and misinterpreted (or just didn't get) some of the more fine pillar points he was attempting to accomplish in OLD WORLD POLITICS, NEW WORLD PROPHECY: UNDERSTANDING DAVID LYNCH'S INLAND EMPIRE - A WOMAN IN TROUBLE. After a series of e-mail exchanges on the subject, it was agreed we'd print his response to our review ... as well as our subsequent response.
Craig Ellis Jamison - April 2012
M. LIDSTONE RESPONSE (MARCH 3, 2012) -
Hi Craig, I'll just make a few comments to you while I go through the review...
Since you've read my study you know that the idea that inland empire is a 'dissection of the female psyche' isn't my view of the film, since as you know, I feel Nikki Grace represents something much larger than an individual female, rather, an entire nation. But that's your view and you didn't state that it was my view so that's ok.
I'm not sure if I myself am the one who informs the viewer that much of INLAND EMPIRE is derived from Polish Roma folklore, since it is stated explicitly in the film that "On High In Blue Tommorows" is based on a Polish gypsy folktale. but I suppose that's a minor difference...
I don't understand why things "grind to a hault" in AXXoNN.. that's the key the unlocking the whole film... and it was the whole reason I actually decided to write about it in the first place... I did talk to a couple of people who know Lynch and one who has been in his home and claims that Lynch has a painting of Propp in his home ... he told me this without having read my study ... maybe he does or maybe he doesn't, but Propp's influence is hugely evident. I use Propps exact definitions, word for word from his text, and if you follow them and watch the film, you will see how they, from the preparatory section onwards, match up plot point by plot point to what happens in INLAND EMPIRE.
I disagree that Lynch doesn't tie things up with INLAND EMPIRE ... If you follow Propps definitions, and follow the biblical prophecy the film mirrors as well as the Roma folktales it mirrors, then INLAND EMPIRE ends fairly predictably and traditionally and neatly.
At least you didn't say something like my book's no good because Lynch isn't a political person.... some people say that until I present them with reference upon reference in his films, music, art as well as his public political statements and the types of things he gets involved in... i agree with Lynch's own assessment of himself that he isn't really political but that doesn't mean he isn't aware of the world around him and doesn't have reactions to it.... so I'm glad you didn't go that route.
But again.. to just take one point of the many I make regarding the political allegory of the film ... people will read it and be not really sure ... it really needs to be put together with all the other points ... along with the chapter on Function X.
So again, you didn't state what it was about the AXXoNN chapter that didnt work for you ... and i can't imagine what that would be since, again, point by point the film's plot follows props exact universal sequence exactly.
And also, I could go through many other previously not overtly political artists who makes political protest pieces right around the exact same time INLAND EMPIRE came out ... even Tori Amos wrote in a song at the time "Yo George, well you have the whole nation on all fours" as a reference to the same aspects of bilblical prophecy Lynch references.
So I think you need to dig deeper in your understanding of the film, either that or write more specifically what you objected to in those sections.
CEJ RESPONSE (MARCH 3, 2012)
1) Since you've read my study you know that the idea that inland empire is a 'dissection of the female psyche' isn't my view of the film, since as you know, I feel Nikki Grace represents something much larger than an individual female, rather, an entire nation.
- Yes, I DO realize "the dissection of the female psyche" isn't your view of the film. I don't state that it is. I state AFTER mentioning that Lynch is an artist (and the fact that the meaning of art is relative within the perception of the individual viewer) that this is my perception of the film. Structure-wise, the first two paragraph's of the review is in essence an encapsulation of Lynch's film for those reading the article who may not be familiar with INLAND EMPIRE. THEN the article goes into a review of your book.
2) I'm not sure if I myself am the one who informs the viewer that much of INLAND EMPIRE is derived from Polish Roma folklore, since it is stated explicitly in the film that "On High In Blue Tommorows" is based on a Polish gypsy folktale. but i suppose thats a minor difference...
- I agree that it is a minor difference.
3) I disagree that Lynch doesn't tie things up with INLAND EMPIRE ... if you follow Propps definitions, and follow the biblical prophecy the film mirrors as well as the Roma folk tales it mirrors, then INLAND EMPIRE ends fairly predictably and traditionally and neatly.
- I believe 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ties things up neatly, but many do not ... and many hate the film because of this. I believe the climax of THE EXORCIST is a positive thing (young Father Karras loses his life, but he does so after regaining his faith, then offering his life to save the young girl ... this proves he's regained his faith as "greater love hath no man than this - that he lay down his life for a friend"). But there are those who still feel the end is a downer and the Devil wins, a conclusion I find ridiculous to even consider. But once again, when a film is intentionally "loose" and "open to interpretation" people are going to take away from the film what their psyche brings to it.
- Lynch and the cast members have themselves stated how INLAND EMPIRE was filmed on a day to day basis, with everyone getting new script pages every morning, therefore making the project a literal "work in progress". Lynch's stated intent was (in keeping with the "unified field" theory ... and it IS but a theory, albeit intriguing) was to see how the film developed as well as what it developed into. The fact is just because you view it one way (and your conclusions are well researched) doesn't mean everyone will take away from the film the same conclusions. Within the world of art we must allow for this.
4) At least you didn't say something like my book's no good because Lynch isn't a political person....
- I would never say something like that because a) it's a foolish thing to say. And b) I do believe Lynch ispolitical ... as am I. And my personal beliefs will inform anything I create ...whether I intend it to or not. It's inevitable, and it should be. Being political doesn't mean a person has to stand on a soapbox.
5) I don't understand why things "grind to a hault" in AXXoNN.. that's the key the unlocking the whole film...and it was the whole reason I actually decided to write about it in the first place ... I did talk to a couple of people who know Lynch and one who has been in his home and claims that Lynch has a painting of Propps in his home ... he told me this without having read my study ... maybe he does or maybe he doesn't, but Propp's influence is hugely evident
- I agree that Propp's is the key to unlocking the whole film, and that your AXXoN chapter makes this very clear. I state it's the WAY - THE MANNER in which the point is made which (for me) ground things to a halt. Up to that point I found the way you made your points to be very engaging and enjoyable. Up to that point the way you go about it has an almost conversational tone which I think ANYone (even the non-Lynch fan) can understand and get into. It feels to me (and once again this is all relative, as any opinion of a film or book or piece of music is) once we get into the chapter AXXoN, things take on a more "preachy" tone, almost condescending ... as if talking down to the reader. Now, I'm sure die hard Lynch fans will love the manner in which it's presented. I'm just saying for a non die hard Lynch fan (of which I consider myself) the manner in which the point is made is considerably more heavy-handed and less engaging. This is no reflection on the points being made, merely in the manner in which they are made. There is a big difference. The manner is what ground things to a half for me. I believe this is clearly stated.
6) So again, you didn't state what it was about the AXXoNN chapter that didn't work for you ... so i think you need to dig deeper in your understanding of the film, either that or write more specifically what you objected to in those sections.
- I did state what didn't work for me (and just did it again in the previous paragraph). I also don't claim to have as much insight into the film INLAND EMPIRE as you do, but then again the point wasn't to review the film layer by layer, but to review your book.
You seem offended I didn't agree with everything. But that's going to happen. There are numerous screenplays I've written which have been torn apart and dissected by everyone from secretaries and assistants to producers and directors. I've learned the challenge is to not just "get my points across" but to get them across in a manner in which others can "get a hold" and find engaging. Every script since is similarly torn to shreds by managers et al. And it's a continual learning curve. Don't be offended I didn't enjoy EVERY part of your book as much as others. It doesn't mean I don't understand or am being stubborn. Just means I've got a different psyche, is all ... as so do many others.
I think your book's damned good. It ALL just doesn't work for me. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for you or me. It's part and parcel of any art form - painting, film making, writing.
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