David Lynch in Austin (without cows)


Filmmaker David Lynch decided to include Austin in his multi-city promotional tour of his latest film, Inland Empire, which he is self-distributing. On Wednesday night, every seat in the Paramount was filled for the local premiere of the three-hour film, followed by a Q&A session with Lynch.

Paramount marquee for David Lynch


I had hoped that Lynch would hold a red-carpet event with a cow, or perhaps hang out on the corner of Congress and Sixth with a cow to advertise Inland Empire, like he did to promote Laura Dern's performance. I'd heard he was planning to include a cow in the tour. However, no cows were sighted anywhere near the Paramount.

I was happy enough to have the chance to hear and see Lynch himself. I had a seat in one of the opera boxes -- I'd never sat in one before. They're off to the side and aren't the best seats for movie watching, but I had a good view of the movie screen and the slight angle wasn't so bad. The angle reminded me of the seat I had at the Butt-Numb-a-Thon. Another thing the opera box seat had in common with my BNAT seat was that I had a great view of the audience. There's something wonderfully voyeuristic about getting to watch an audience watch a movie. I could see everyone in the orchestra seats and even waved to a few people I knew. The Paramount's opera boxes are beautifully decorated and it was also a rare chance to see some of the decorations up close. (I wish I'd brought my camera into the theater, but the Paramount is notoriously restrictive about photography.)

Before the movie started, Lynch appeared on the Paramount stage to prepare us for his film. He called local singer Chrysta Bell up on stage with him. Bell had recorded some music for the Inland Empire score, and sang a brief excerpt for us. She was elegantly dressed, and it was a lovely moment that I hoped would anticipate a breathtaking film.

I didn't like Inland Empire as much as I've enjoyed Lynch's films that have a stronger and clearer traditional narrative structure. I got lost and confused too many times. I felt like Lynch had some grand pattern and symbolism in mind that I didn't quite catch. Laura Dern is excellent, but it was difficult for me to become absorbed in the surreal and often plotless stream of images for nearly three hours. It was fun to catch glimpses of Lynch regulars like Diane Ladd and Harry Dean Stanton, and even William H. Macy turned up for a whole five seconds, but overall it was a difficult movie to watch. Still, I was glad I had the chance to see the film, especially in a big sold-out theater like the Paramount.

Afterwards, John Pierson accompanied David Lynch onstage to moderate the Q&A. Pierson introduced Lynch with the words: "If you're a certain age, you''ll always remember where you were when you first saw Eraserhead. And you'll always remember when and where you first saw Blue Velvet. And now you can remember Inland Empire here at the Paramount." This comment actually worried me a little. The first time I saw Eraserhead was at a revival at the old Village Cinema Art in the early 1990s, and that theater is gone, although it's been replaced by the much nicer-smelling Alamo Village. (That's also where I saw The Straight Story, come to think of it.) The first time I saw Blue Velvet was in 1986 at the Robert E. Lee theater in New Orleans, which isn't around anymore either. And in fact I know the theater where I saw Wild at Heart in Baton Rouge is gone too. I hope this isn't a bad omen for the Paramount, that I saw Inland Empire there.

Anyway, back to the Q&A. Lynch told us that this was his first visit to Austin, and that he'd been enjoying the cross-country tour with Inland Empire. "It's very good to go out and meet the theater owners, check the sound, check the picture. We all love this shared experience in theaters, when the lights go down and the curtain goes up." When asked about Inland Empire's self-distribution plan, he noted that he doesn't like the term "self-distribution" because he's not the only person working on the film's distribution -- he has a whole team. The group has been distributing some of Lynch's earlier shorts and films on DVD over the web, and he thought that they could handle something similar with the theatrical release of Inland Empire. Besides, he said, "This film is three hours long ... this is the kiss of death in Hollywood." He feels that self-distribution is going to be something we see more filmmakers trying in the future.

Lynch referred again and again throughout the session to "catching ideas" in relation to creativity in general and the way he made Inland Empire in particular. Someone asked him about the evolution of Inland Empire, which he'd originally intended as an internet project, and he noted, "We catch ideas, and we don't necessarily catch them all at once." Lynch compared the filmmaking process to puzzle pieces that you don't always know how to fit together at first. I really wish I'd been able to capture some of Lynch's discussion on video, because he punctuated his points about catching ideas with these delightful hand motions -- kind of like jazz fingers but sideways, and that makes them sound much dumber than they were.

People asked him questions about his studies in meditation, and specifically Transcendental Meditation, and he was able to get away with talking about "sheer bliss" without sounding flaky. He was unfailingly polite to people who seemed less interested in asking questions than in simply gushing about the movie and Lynch's work overall. Austin Film Society, which sponsored the event, had a photographer on hand and if I can find online or obtain some of the photos, I will post links here.

On a more practical note, Lynch was asked if he knew when his 1997 film Lost Highway would be released on DVD. "It's all color corrected and timed and ready to go," he replied. "Universal is sitting on it, they don't think it's a priority." In addition, he has no plans to return to television work, remarking that "The internet is the new television -- if there's a continuing story, it could go on the internet." I heard that Lynch had provided free coffee afterwards for everyone, but in the crush of 1200 people all trying to leave the theater, or worse yet, stand in front of the Paramount, I couldn't see a thing.

After seeing Inland Empire and hearing Lynch speak, there's still one question lingering in my mind: What do cows have to do with Inland Empire? When asked about this in November, he said it had to do with cheese ... but is there cheese in the movie that I didn't see, either real or symbolic? I still don't get it.

One last note: If you're in Austin and want to see Inland Empire, it's playing exclusively at Alamo Drafthouse Village starting today. If you like David Lynch's movies with nontraditional (or nonexistent) narrative structure, you should catch Inland Empire.