Saturday, November 7, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Inland Empire" (2006)

Scene from Inland Empire
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Inland Empire (2006)
Directed By: David Lynch
Written By: David Lynch
Starring: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 180 minutes
Summary: As an actress starts to adopt the persona of her character in a film, her world starts to become nightmarish and surreal.

The History

There's no disputing that the iconic "weird" director is David Lynch. For close to 40 years, his movies, TV series, shorts, and music have been pushing boundaries of what cinematic language could be. After breaking out onto the scene with Eraserhead, he's been slowly building a reputation with films that are both artful yet nonsensical; incapable of using typical forms of logic. His films are experiences. The older he has gotten, the more "baffling" they have become, choosing to intertwine his meditative pacing with cryptic imagery. 

While he is likely to be remembered mostly for Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, he has been consistently staying "weird" in every way that he can. While he seems to be just as much of a presence today, especially with the revival of the aforementioned TV series, it's interesting to note that his last cinematic contribution was actually almost a decade ago. In 2006, he unleashed onto the world Inland Empire: a three hour film shot entirely in a lo-fi manner that also featured images spliced in from Rabbits. The film was definitely weird. However, unlike most of his output, it's not quite the great, accessible weird that most people would want from him. In fact, many just consider it Lynch's prank on the audience.

At the center was Laura Dern, returning to Lynch's camp after Wild At Heart, done 16 years previously. The story of an actress morphing into her character was the basis for the film's slow derision into madness. The film is slow and challenging, likely turning off audiences who had fallen back in love with Lynch over Mulholland Drive only five years previous. Even if it doesn't rank among the director's best, there's something that will remain puzzling about it, largely because it is a swan song in some respects; serving as a career commentary more than just another film. Speaking as he has remained just as frequent on shorts and various other appearances, it's not entirely clear why this is the last of them. It just is.

In fact, it makes the general attitudes surrounding Twin Peaks all the more exciting and curious. Speaking as that series ended on an ambiguous, disappointing note; it's impossible to not see anyone that just wants to see the series succeed. While we'll have to wait just yet for more, it's the return of Lynch that should get us hopeful of potentially another project. If not, we'll likely continue to mull over Inland Empire, trying to understand why he made it and what it all means. It'll likely never be his best work, but it's definitely a fitting installment to a strange career.

David Lynch out campaigning in 2006
The Campaign

Unlike every other entry on this list, it does not involve Harvey Weinstein or any major advertisement push. In fact, it doesn't even involve something that's all that elaborate or expensive. What Inland Empire has is one of the most striking and unique Oscar campaigns in history. While this may sound like just another piece of hyperbole, Inland Empire was a film that always seemed like it wouldn't stand a chance at the big times, even if Lynch had previously been nominated four times before and had a Best Picture (The Elephant Man) nomination to his credit. What he did was arguably more attention grabbing than anything else, and it may have helped to keep the film's legacy forever implanted in people's memories.

Lynch literally went to the streets for his movie. In November of 2006, he ran a campaign that took place on the corner of Sunset and La Brea in Hollywood, California. During this time, he sat out in a chair next to a large "For Your Consideration" poster for Laura Dern's hopeful Best Actress nomination. If this wasn't enough, he was accompanied by a cow and its handler. Why? Well, the poster clears it right up by stating that "Without cheese, there wouldn't be an Inland Empire." When asked what it meant, he pointed to the cow and said "Cheese is made from milk, get it?" When forced to elaborate, he claimed that he ate a lot of cheese during the making of the film.

As one can expect, this caused its own problems to the surrounding area. Traffic slowed down as many gawked at the sight. Everyone was puzzled at Lynch's passion. Still, the director was adamant about trying to get Dern a nomination through any means necessarily. While the film had a budget of $3 million, Lynch wasn't able to market as well as most of the bigger films of 2006. He also chalked this logic up to Academy voters simply being tired of bombardment from advertisements. Considering that most would consider this one of Dern's finest performances, it makes sense why things would go crazy.

Even if the film doesn't quite match the enthusiasm that most have for his other films, it definitely serves as one of the most creative and interesting ways that a film has run an Oscar campaign. Of course, this is Lynch we're talking about. Even then, he wasn't known for doing random and crazy marketing stunts in the past. The same cannot be said for The Elephant ManBlue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive - three films that actually got him Oscar nominations. Even if this outshines the actual movie, it definitely goes down as one of the best things that Lynch has ever done; or the most notorious, depending on your views.

The Payoff

Unlike almost every entry in Failed Oscar Campaigns, this one actually did fail entirely. The film was entirely absent from the major awards season. Beyond The Oscars, Inland Empire failed to show up at the Golden Globes as well. Beyond Dern, the film failed to procure any nomination, even in technical fields, resulting in one of the strangest losses of the decade. For a film that was praised for its surrealism and great performance, its lack of presence for Dern seems to be ill fitting to voters. Considering how aggressively over the top most other campaigns are, Lynch's grassroots approach should have gotten him more attention.

So, who did end up getting nominated? The category featured: Penelope Cruz (Volver), Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Kate Winslet (Little Children), and winner Helen Mirren (The Queen). Depending on your views, that is a more predictable and likely set of nominees. Each of these performers turned in what is generally conceived as conventional Oscar bait roles. They all have a narrative worthy of their nomination. As much as Dern had an arguable "career high point" with Inland Empire, the film was too complicated and unsuccessful, only earning $4 million at the box office. Even if Lynch is a well known individual, his film wasn't as immediately recognizable as any of these films during the same time.

But don't worry. Dern would come back to The Academy circles in 2013 with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Wild. Even though she lost, it proved that she might be as great as Lynch thinks. Then again, she's always been a compelling force - especially on the TV series Enlightened. The question mostly lies on what Lynch will do next. Considering that he has only become more unconventional in the subsequent years, it does seem unlikely that he will return to film; at least in any meaningful way. Whatever we get, if we get it, will be just as strange and off putting as Inland Empire. The only hope is that if it's good, we'll also get an Oscar campaign as great as this one.

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