The Lion in Winter



“It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” proclaims Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), and she’s got a point. The infighting between aging Henry II (Peter O’Toole), his jailed queen, and jealous sons vying for the crown (Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry) is some of the ugliest — and most twisted — I’ve ever seen.

Based on a play by James Goldman, the dialogue reaches levels of viciousness usually reserved for Edward Albee, with many more quotable lines than you can digest on first viewing and acting that should never have lost an Oscar to Oliver! or Charly. Like The Ice Harvest, this movie belongs on our list of Top Ten Christmas Movies for Cynics. With Timothy Dalton as King Philip of France.

The Lion in Winter. Anthony Harvey, 1968. ****

The Ice Harvest

It’s the night before Christmas in Wichita Falls, and John Cusack plays a crooked lawyer who runs off with two million in mob money in the first scene of the movie. During a very long night in a very odd town, he has to navigate overly solicitous cops, dangerous strip club owners (Connie Nielsen), an untrustworthy partner (Billy Bob Thornton), and the drunken friend who ran off with his wife (Oliver Platt.) The brisk screenplay by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on a novel by Scott Phillips, keeps the movie swerving between outright hilarity and Cusack’s increasing desperation. One of the sharper and more entertaining crime/heist/noirs I’ve seen in a while, The Ice Harvest may earn itself a spot on our list of Christmas movies for cynics.

The Ice Harvest. Harold Ramis, ***

Inland Empire

Inland Empire makes perfect sense,” I wrote the last time, thinking I had the existential mysteries of Lynch’s film if not solved then at least sufficiently unpacked and domesticated. Happy to have found a sturdy story arc, I assumed I understood the film. Not so. We saw it again on Christmas, in a misguided attempt at hipster holiday cheer, and boy did it mess with me. The third time around, Inland Empire flummoxed and confused me, and I was overwhelmed worse than the first time. It also gave me a raging headache. Surely, this must be the year’s best film! Ow.

At the IFC Center, a short clip now precedes the movie, in which Justin Theroux reads a note from David Lynch: a quote from the Upanishads to the effect that all the world is a dream, and then he wishes us “a good experience.” And indeed, the film felt completely different every time I’ve seen it. My original review tried to approach it in terms of David Lynch’s oeuvre; the second time around, I looked for structure and began collecting clues that may or may not form a coherent story. This time, I saw shots, hints, cross-references, and entire scenes that somehow hadn’t registered before, and it made me reconsider Inland Empire as subjective experience.

Perhaps it’s too literal-minded, and maybe there are already a few dissertations about this, but especially in the light of Catching the Big Fish and my own limited experimentation, it seems useful to compare the experience of watching Inland Empire to the practice of Transcendental Meditation, of which Lynch is a adamant proponent. For anybody with any familiarity with TM, the parallels are right there on the surface: there is a lot of sitting and “diving within” in Inland Empire (see how that syllable just repeated three times?) and, more specifically, I see a similar technique at work.

The “transcending” in “transcendental meditation” refers to a particular kind of mental yoga that shuttles the mind back and forth between a completely relaxed state of pure consciousness and a more analytical day-to-day awareness. In TM, transcending is achieved through the repetition of a mantra. Inland Empire achieves a comparable effect through the back-and-forth between apparently disconnected shots–what Manohla and Marcy call the art-installation aspect of the movie. For long stretches of time, Inland Empire is just stuff on a screen, and you drift off toward a weird state between waking and dreaming, just letting it wash over you. The transcending pull back to a more conscious state of mind is achieved by the millions of clues Lynch litters all over the landscape, from “high on blue tomorrows,” “vier-sieben” to “it has something to do with the telling of time” and “the man in the green shirt.” (I began cataloging some of these in a previous entry, and hopefully somebody will soon set up a proper place for it online, much like the excellent site for Mulholland Drive–a wiki perhaps?)

But “figuring it out” is only half the point. The real purpose of the clues is to keep your mind engaged, suggest that there is a graspable story here (and indeed Inland Empire has a solid three act structure.) At the same time, the film continuously frustrates all attempts at “solving” it. The viewer constantly goes back and forth between “Eureka!” and “WTF?” This back and forth is very similar to transcending, an activity that takes the meditator to a unique place between waking and dreaming, a twilight region were identities, memory and imagination merge, and strange images arise from within. (Lynch describes it as a room with red curtains and black-and-white tile floor.)

Transcending is supposed to release deep-seated stress in the form of damage done to the nervous system in the past. In this between-state, old emotions are dredged up from the icky bottom of the subconscious. In the movie, these things include guilt over adultery, shame at selling one’s body or soul, grief over the loss of a child–perhaps even Polish carnies who can hypnotize people into murder by screwdriver. A transcending meditator who is unstressing will often weep, much like the woman watching mysterious images flutter by in a hotel room “in the Baltic region.” When the dive within is completed and another layer of past damage has been healed, there is a feeling of bliss and newfound peace, perhaps even a sense of a blessed light as if facing the beam of a movie projector, and one might sit, with a smile, just like Laura Dern on the other side of the room in the film’s last shot: “Sweet.”

Inland Empire. David Lynch, 2006. *****

[tags]inland empire, transcendental meditation, david lynch, justin theroux, christmas, ifc, nyc, laura dern, sweet, film, 5 stars, adultery, screwdrivers, upanishads, consciousness[/tags]