Within the Context of No Context
Down to hell Ed Zwick tumbles, over his good intentions. The director of Glory and The Last Samurai has set out willingly for the inferno of 1990s Sierra Leone, where drug-addled child conscripts carried out massacres for a rebel army, using guns bought through the diamond trade. His golden intention: to stir the conscience of moviegoers in the North so they will seek to end such horrors. When Americans go out for a date on Friday night, when they seek holiday recreation, Zwick will appall them with scenes they previously refused to watch on the 11 o'clock news. All he will ask, by way of thanks, is an Oscar or two.
In this way, Zwick has arrived at a substitute hell: the cinematic Styx titled Blood Diamond.
It is long (or, if you prefer, epic), expensively expansive, marvelous to look at (no matter how awful its events) and incorrigibly expository. Considering how much information Charles Leavitt's screenplay dumps into your ears, you might at least expect to leave the theater with a focused analysis. But given the number of clichés Zwick has lavished on the subject, you are more likely to lose track of the argument, so that you'll go away with nothing in mind but triumph and tragedy. The triumph belongs to thrice-noble Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who starts out as a poor fisherman but by the end has a briefcase full of cash, a handsome new suit and lip service from a chamber of white diplomats. (So much for the suffering of Africa's people.) The tragedy is that of Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a conspicuously hot globetrotting correspondent for The Nation, or some such magazine. By the end, this unlikely figure has filed the biggest story of her career, but at what cost? Maddy will never again ride up and down on mercenary-smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio)--so tanned, so sweaty, so interesting.
Don't get me wrong: If any onscreen love interest would be worth Jennifer Connelly's attention, it would be Leo, who comes to the role pumped and gives good dialect, too. But why (apart from the obvious reason) should Blood Diamond waste so much time building sexual tension between him and Connelly? With so many chases to cut to, why don't they? Why, as Connelly waits for the inevitable, must she take seriously a role that Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark played for laughs? And speaking of those chases: How do the stars of Blood Diamond make so many improbable escapes from hails of bullets? You'd think the movie ought to be called Near-Death Experience.
"I know people who say there is something wrong inside our black skins," Hounsou tells DiCaprio at a meditative moment between machine-gun bursts, "and we were better off when the white man ruled." For all of Zwick's good intentions, I see nothing in Blood Diamond to contradict this foul opinion. With exceptions that are painfully few (and painfully stilted), the film's black Africans come booming their blood-lust song straight out of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." The white mercenary-smuggler, by contrast, is at heart a soulful fellow, trembling for Connelly's redemptive touch. ("An entire country made homeless," she sighs to him, with her right breast fetchingly displayed.) Anyhow, the white man still seems to rule, since the solution to Africa's problems, evidently, is for several of the species to pass a resolution at a G-8 conference.
But it's up to you to make that resolution binding! As a title explains at the end of Blood Diamond, power ultimately rests in the hands of the consumer. So next time you splurge at Tiffany, Nation reader, demand conflict-free sparklers, lest you add to Djimon Hounsou's troubles. Though maybe you should add to them, so he can get a second briefcase full of cash. Hell, I'm not sure what to do for the guy.
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Some people admire David Lynch because he does not just use the conventions and atmosphere of "the movies" but revels in them, and without any burden of Zwicklike social purpose--in fact, without discernible purpose at all. Though certain of his fans may stare mistakenly at his narrative threads, hoping for a pattern to emerge, wiser moviegoers know that Lynch just wants to pull the rug out from under them. Then he slips it back under their feet so he can pull it again.
So it goes with Inland Empire, one of the longest and most self-involved works in the Lynch canon: a film (video, actually) that purports to play the old game of trapping an actress within the movie she's making so that she loses herself in the maze of role and identity, illusion and reality. Having set up this game, Inland Empire also mocks it, making cheesy, portentous use of images like the Hollywood sign and the Walk of Fame. Folderol happens (generally involving the actress being abused, menaced, bewildered, abased); a plot begins to suggest itself; and then, just as intelligibility threatens, the whole thing collapses back into folderol. Some people call this the free play of signifiers. I say it's a prison-house of futility.
Laura Dern stars as the movie actress (maybe) who is or is not making a picture titled On High in Blue Tomorrows. At one point, this project is said to be the remake of an unfinished, accursed German film that was based on a Polish gypsy folk tale. I would like to see that movie. What I got instead, for three hours, was a catalogue of vintage David Lynch motifs, unified only by the director's fascination with Laura Dern's mouth.
Inland Empire is about nothing but that. Lynch shoots upward at Dern in close-up, to make her mouth loom in the frame. He floods the screen with light so her face washes out except for the lipstick. He plants a big fake bruise on her chin, right where it will draw attention to the jut of her lower lip. He directs her to breathe orally, so you can see her teeth framed by a gently curved, vertical box. Her tremulous orifice, red-bordered, white-lined, soft and pliant at the center of its bow, hard and linear at the edges--this fleshy abyss that nervously sneers and stammers--seems to speak and act on its own, since it is attached not to a character but to a mere notion. It is more than a synecdoche, more than a fetish. The mouth of Laura Dern is the sole subject and protagonist of Inland Empire.
Unless, of course, you count the family of giant, bourgeois rabbits.