Monday, February 2, 2009


Recent viewings: on Saturday at WHC, two films by the silent film master Erich von Stroheim, Foolish Wives (1922) and The Wedding March (1928), then on Sunday, instead of the Super Bowl, I finally sat down with David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006), which was "filmed" in digital video.

And what went through my mind, wonderingly, as I watched the completely silent Foolish Wives (not even a score since that would've made the film play at a faster speed) was admiration for the ability to tell a story without words. There were the title cards, certainly, both as narration and as dialogue -- the narration titles were often rather amusing in their disjointed scene-setting -- but much of the fascination of the film derived solely from the act of watching. And what I admired was that von Stroheim had such a complete grasp of his medium that he was able to keep us focused on whatever scene was before us.

I realized that much of that fascination had to do with watching "dumb show." In other words, just as when we observe people at a distance in real life, we have to interpret what's going on solely by what we see. So we have to remain attentive so as not to miss something. And von Stroheim has an easy, superb naturalness in his way of keeping our attention on what he wants to show us. But it's a method that has to know exactly how every scene should be shot and how played. Top it off with the fact that Stroheim was himself the male lead in both films: in one film, heartless; in the other, forced to become heartless. In both cases, the story of how that plays out is faultless in its pacing, its sets, its grasp of how to communicate with the audience.

Von Stroheim is known as the man who made Greed, a 21 reel film that would've taken about eight to nine hours to watch. All but two hours' worth was destroyed by the studio. Would it be possible to make a fully watchable film at that length? I can believe von Stroheim did it, and it suggests possibilities of a film that would truly feel like a novel in its plots and subplots and diversity.

Watching Inland Empire after the von Stroheim films convinced me that might in fact be an idea worth pursuing. Shooting in digital video rather than film means no one can destroy the stock, no one has to pay for processing, so one can be as prolix as one likes. This could be a great danger in creating a sprawling, pointless opus which, no doubt, some find Inland Empire to be. But what this kind of license -- the film runs to 179 minutes -- requires, for justification, is no less a compelling grasp of the medium than von Stroheim shows.

Lynch is a master at delineating his own dream world universe. Inland Empire shows possibilities for what an "art film" can be once we no longer have the driving logic of narrative continuity to buttress what we're seeing. Lynch has often strayed into this realm, but his movies have tended to downplay the possible breaks with narrative norms in favor of "a story." Inland Empire instead creates "a world." Rather than try to follow narrative progress, we follow narrative juxtaposition. This bit of the world set against this other bit of the world. There is great beauty, humor, drama, and a very unsettling, almost metaphysical suspense, as though at any moment the very borders of sanity were being skirted.

But what makes Inland Empire work is the same thing that makes Foolish Wives work: a complete grasp of how to portray action, how to make it live on the screen, how to create and sustain our interest in watching by constantly giving us something interesting to watch. Von Stroheim tells a story one could easily recap; Lynch tells a story that one can only sum up, scene by scene. But both rely entirely on what the eye registers in watching. The effect is always in excess of what a description of the scene would provide. And that, my friends, is cinemagic.

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