Directed by David Lynch, USA, 2006
Approximately 13 minutes
Source: Inland Empire DVD (2007)
David Lynch has always flirted with the experimental approach to filmmaking in his features; his student films outright exemplify it. In the first half of this decade after completing his masterpiece Mulholland Drive, he finally freed himself from all Hollywood expectations, conventions, values and methodologies when he set out to independently create his 3+ hour surrealist epic (and ode to digital cinematography) Indland Empire. The project began when Lynch started toying around with digital video cameras, having shot a 12 minute monologue by the film's eventual star Laura Dern. Lynch, intoxicated by the (paraphrasing) "beautiful ugliness" inherent in DV, decided he would henceforth film all his future features in digital video. The idea for Inland Empire spun out from that lengthy test monologue, resulting in a heavily improvisational surrealist exploration of the horrors of the human psyche and the trapping of the Hollywood production machine. The movie is a completely experimental picture in the academic term, rejecting narrative coherence completely and blissfully, constructing meaning out of sound and the unique visual palate offered by DV, propelled by Lynch's personal nightmarish thematic montage. The closest the director has come to pure cinema to date.
So, you're probably asking, "What the hell is Ballerina and why are you talking about a 179 minute experimental feature film on our short films blog?" Well, Ballerina, featured on the supplemental material for the film (along with over 100 minutes of additional footage cut from the final picture), would seem to be one of the numerous vignettes, or test concepts Lynch created when shooting what would become Inland Empire. In fact, a 3 or 4 second snippet from Ballerina is cut into a sequence during the climax of the feature, though the meaning of its placement or duration there is up for anyone's interpretation and I wouldn't dare attempt to begin to analyze any part of I.E. in this venue. Ballerina itself, standing at a surprisingly endurable 12 minutes, neither embraces narrative nor rejects it in the same way as its parent film. It merely exists.
This short is little more than a series or seemingly continuous shots of a girl dancing on a dark stage, subject to varying lighting and camera setups. The film begins with its subject entirely out of focus, its shape and performance still intelligible, though the entire film is masked by a morphing grey haze composited with the imagery of the dancer. The shots themselves move from long shots to medium shots at the most intimate, and the subject shifts in and out of focus with little sign of suggestion. The subject is soundless, scored by an haunting yet beautiful string orchestration that becomes increasingly eerie and nightmarish as the film endures. Interestingly, and contributing to the unease of the piece, the music is clearly unrelated to whatever composition the ballerina is dancing to, resulting in a frightening disconnect.
All these techniques existing outside of explicit story or plot serve to create a tangible mood, one that Lynch explores to unfathomable depths in I.E. Here though, as the stimulus of the simple visual and aural collage is given time to take hold, one begins to wonder about the subject anyway, and what the film implies about her. The duration in which the girl is spent out of focus, in silhouette, or completely masked by the ominous grey fog suggest her physical space does not exist in our natural world. She may exist in memory, clouded by time, seeming to move in slow motion as ones dream often do. Perhaps her stage is on a supernatural plane, in the afterlife, as the mood and music might suggest she exists as a spirit. The unchanging content of the film implies the performance was going before we arrived and will surely continue after we leave, suggesting this girl may well be damned to repeat this performance for an eternity, her eyes and complexion faded like that of a corpse. Or most likely, as Lynch is known to explore, this exists is a dream (or equally probable as a nightmare) blurring the lines of what we perceive as real and as imagined.
David Lynch has made a career of examining that line through the cinematic form, and he would appear to have found his preferred medium for doing so. Ballerina and Inland Empire may well be experiments firstmost in the capabilities and qualities of digital video, but he is concurrently breaking new ground in the possibilities of the narrative form and pure cinema. I'd strongly suggest keeping an eye out for his next project, because I feel this work is just a warm-up for a whole new period of Lynchian surrealism.