Just saw Inland Empire, and of course, well, so. So. Mulholland Drive was, relatively speaking, a controlled and linear masterpiece. It gave you two-thirds of partially plausible narrative before clamping down with the mindfuck. This new one just takes the mindfuck and smears it all over the story from almost the first digital frame on. But the set pieces that follow are virtuoso. Lynch, as you know, didn’t even write a script, he just filmed whatever came to him. Its tagline is “A Woman in Trouble”—that’s not a storyline, that’s a theme to riff on. Talking it over with John afterwards, we agreed the movie was one long cinematic jam session.
But IE does have its own impenetrable logic. Laura Dern opens a door near the end and everything somehow clicks in spite of itself. Of course the bunnies are in that room, you find yourself thinking after being spun in circles for three hours. But then there are no bunnies in the room. That’s because they live in another dimension! The best Lynch-logic moment was the neighbor’s cameo, walking out from behind the tree with a red light bulb in his mouth. Lynch, helpfully, cues a flashback to the blinking red lamp from forty-five minutes earlier. Yes, it all makes sense now.
Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire form a trilogy of Lynch identity pieces. Back in Twin Peaks’s days, there was good Laura Palmer and bad Laura Palmer, and her dad was also Bob, but these were twists. In Lynch’s more recent work, the shifting identities are the premise itself.
Bill Pullman wakes up with the face of Balthazar Getty. No problem. Walk it off. Naomi Weiss played two characters in Mulholland (at least according to Salon’s reading): a jilted lover who has her ex-lover capped, and the fresh-faced, innocent young Hollywood arrival she dreamt up to suppress away the pain. And Laura Dern in IE: is she Sue or Nikki? A kept actress? A battered blue-collar wife? A whore? Doesn’t matter to her, she flits back and forth between identities without losing a beat. She inhabits each like it’s her own. It’s a nightmare either way, but she’s comfortable there.
This is what hurts the brain when trying to follow a Lynch film. How do I follow this story if the characters keep becoming different people? In the wake of over a decade and a half of hard-edged academic identity-critique, Lynch may be giving his warped take on our contemporary notions of identity.
Since I guess the ’80s, we’ve been figuring out how to reconcile our identity as individuals against our identity as groups, and trying to come to grips with the ways those identities are created by others and projected onto us. As that trend has lost steam, the word “identity” has mostly disappeared from the discussion, and re-emerged as the non-business end of the phrase “identity theft.”
Identity is now the sum of our financial, demographic, and consumer information: our social security number, credit card, and bank account numbers, our credit rating, our email passwords. Our identity is defined by our choice of things we buy. Identity is a reason to stick with Citibank.
There’s an anti-consumerist lament that believes our identity should be something greater than materialistic preferences, that we are somehow more than the lists of things we like posted on Amazon and iTunes.
Coming from a place where identity is held onto as the inviolable, sacred part of who we are inside, it doesn’t make sense for Laura Dern to switch from character to character and still be Laura Dern. However, if we can detach identity from our bodies, or from our selves, that is the liberation of identity from consciousness. And that’s what makes this new sense of identity so much of an improvement over the old version.
Not only is it measurable (think of corporate ‘rewards systems,’ and the meritocratic future it portends), but Identity also holds the distinction of being wholly divorceable from the person from whose mind it supposedly emanates. Identities now exist independently online, observable and pokeable, even when the user behind it is away.
I used the word “user” just then without thinking, but I think it gets at what this is trying to say. We used to be our identities. Now we are the users behind them. Our identities have become our avatars. They can go on without needing the user to be there.
Maybe even after the user has expired. The internet is still too young and evolves too fast, but after we’re gone our identities will still be out there, online, doing the different things identities do. Just like how in the old days, dead people could still get caught voting, or converting to Mormonism.
So that’s the question, not specifically David Lynch’s question but somebody’s question, probably. Will the dead’s online identities fade away as links break, or will the Internet clog up like some cholera-infected river, with the dead’s blogs and MySpace profiles taking up virtual space and sticking around forever? Personal domain names are always being reclaimed for nonpayment, but try visiting the—ahem—free-account blogosphere. Already, it’s filled with the detritus of the one- or two-time bloggers, the half-committed aspiring diarists who never had the follow through on their efforts, leaving behind a testament in microcosm to their greater living failure. For eternity.