“Perhaps we can be swallowed whole (W-H-O-L-E) because we invest so much psychic, at times libidinal, energy in the people we see before us on the screen. ‘Cinema is public fantasy that engages spectators’ particular, private scripts of desire and identification,’ film scholar Patricia White writes in Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Sometimes these scripts are rewritten. Sometimes they are discarded entirely in favour of improvisation. To watch Dern play a woman (or women) in trouble is to be any combination of turned on, terrified, dumbfounded, stupefied.”1
When I read Melissa Anderson’s thin volume on Inland Empire late last year, I was overwhelmed. After inhaling its 104 pages, I felt immediately that I wanted to write about the book but equally knew that I could never review it, since it appears in a series – the Decadent Editions from Fireflies Press, ten books about ten films, one for each year of the 2000s – to which I’m also a contributor. Now I happily have my chance, freed from any pretense of objective assessment.
Anderson takes an “acteurist” approach to David Lynch’s 2006 film, focusing not on its revered director so much as on its formidable star, Laura Dern – her quivering chin, gaping mouth, and wounded strength. This is not the book’s only subversive move. Lynch is hardly someone associated with a queer, feminist cinephilia. Yet here he becomes a vehicle for the articulation of exactly that, as Anderson wanders through labyrinthine paths of inquiry with a quotation from the amazing Boyd McDonald never far out of mind: “Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women.” I like to watch women; motion pictures are for me; I get swallowed whole. Why deny it? In reading Inland Empire, I felt the ecstasy of being in the presence of a kindred spirit.
McDonald’s remark, which Anderson cites early on, stakes out a counterposition to a certain strand of feminist film criticism, one for which the watching of women is precisely the problem: the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the female star is an emblem of all the pernicious demands placed on women’s bodies in this world, while a director like Lynch is a potential textbook example of cinema’s indulgence in the punishment and violation of the same. Anderson does not shy away from this – indeed, the post-Weinstein reckoning looms large in the book – but she knows it’s only part of the story. Although she proclaims that “words are [her] enemy,” acknowledging the immense difficulty of wrangling a baffling work like Inland Empire onto the page, she beautifully wields these foes to convey how pleasure, discomfort, and fascination mingle in this movie, and at the movies more generally. This is a book about much more than a single actress or a single film: it is about the relationship between fantasy and reality, the ceaseless revisitation and reconstitution of the past in the present, the writing of criticism, and the need to honour ambivalence. At a time when some critics look to cinema for a clear political stance – for an exemplary morality cleansed of any bad feelings – Anderson has authored an implicit defense of a different approach, a different relation to the screen. In her lively prose, the irreducible complexity of how we can be at once “turned on, terrified, dumbfounded, stupefied” at the cinema comes through. It’s a feeling I’ve felt many times before. I hope to again soon.
- 1. Melissa Anderson, Inland Empire (Fireflies Press, 2021), 53.
Image from Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
In its new section Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.