Outlandish Empire

Hold the looking glass with Ryland at [email protected]

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In the beginning, David Lynch went to art school to paint, and movies were an afterthought. Now, movies are everything. By the end of its 172 minutes, Lynch’s newest film, “INLAND EMPIRE,” lays down for viewers an explicit claim: We use movies to build our lives, our dreams and enact fantasies, idealized and horrific alike. The film is rooted in Hollywood (visually name-checked twice), yet its aim is not to skewer. If anything, it’s a celebration of the possibilities of the movies.

As is a beast, “INLAND EMPIRE” is unruly. It may provide an answer to Andre Bazin’s critical imperative, “What is cinema?” but that answer is entirely present-tense, rooted in the 21st century (cinema’s second). And the answer starts with the medium itself—digital video. This is not a pristine, candy-colored DV like “Superman Returns,” but a handheld, grain-heavy DV captured by a “prosumer” camcorder; the images are both buoyant and cumbersome. This may prove too much for casual viewers, but if you can let go any aesthetic (or personal) ties to emulsified film, you can see how the digital blur bleeds whites and hot tones much as a painter would blend colors. The look will aggravate at first—some actors are flatly kept out of focus—but as you proceed and find a rhythm with this wild brutality, you wind up seeing the beauty in the murky, dank world onscreen.

The choice to shoot on video frees the film to embrace any surreal tangent, and they abound. In fact, they build the narrative, if you want to call it that; if you don’t, call it a fiction, a la Borges. Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress newly cast in a banner film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows.” Her co-star is Devon Berk (lady-killer Justin Theroux) and their director is Kingsley Stewart (an unflappable yet off-kilter Jeremy Irons). But all exposition is quickly swept aside once shooting begins and Nikki starts seeing herself in her meta-movie alter-ego, Susan, and, in turn, Susan sees her mirror Nikki echoing in the film-within-a-film. Thus begins the freefall into the “INLAND EMPIRE”.

Cinema, at its best, is a poetic art—one which not only reflects our reality but refracts it through a prism of assembled images and choreographed sounds. That doesn’t preclude linear movies—Lynch’s own “The Straight Story,” in its brevity, evokes the interior. “INLAND EMPIRE,” though, is the interior in all its knotted multiplicity. Narrative wormholes tangle and wrestle against each other—and inside Nikki—placing us within her clogged headspace. There’s no single answer to “What’s going on?” or “What is cinema?” to be found here. What can be found is a wonderland of right and left turns, bitch-slapping, whores, low-life con artists, a byzantine network of hallways populated by doorways leading who-knows-where, dreams, lusty songs that menace under the titillation, blood and guts, dirty blondes and busty brunettes and man-sized rabbits. Enter the maze if you dare: You won’t come out the same, but you will re-emerge.

“INLAND EMPIRE” tied my throat into a knot that has yet to let loose. It’s not a clarity Lynch’s art provides—this film reaches out with two hands plunging into your chest, massaging your beating heart. This is felt in the opening shot: A projector’s beam illuminates the all-caps title, which then bleeds into a close-up of a needle on a record, tying image and sound together. The film is an exaltation, an orgasm, a little scary death celebrating the multivalent mysteries of life. Any worthwhile art should grab your hand, take you into the looking glass, and point your eyes forward.

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