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Inland Empire

David Lynch has long been accused of being obtuse. Such is life. When talking about Eraserhead, Lost Highway, or Mulholland Dr. their "trippy" narratives (and remember, Eraserhead was one of the most famous of midnight movies) are often fiercely discussed because many viewers leave scratching their heads, not entirely sure of what they've just seen. What is important to note is that, usually in these filmed narratives, Lynch is after a very simple theme, and he fills his movies with images that may not make narrative sense — but they do make emotional sense (if only to Lynch). However, those earlier films featured Lynch tied to a more coherent narrative structure. And whatever indulgences are laid at Lynch's feet, it's fair to call his 2006 release Inland Empire his most experimental feature-length effort to date. Begun as a series of shorts, the project grew into a full-length production (running three hours) with its anchor being Laura Dern. She stars as Nikki Grace, an actress who is warned by a neighbor (Grace Zabrinski) that the next role she takes will lead to bad things. She gets the role, wherein she is to be directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and co-star with Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), who has a habit of sleeping with his leading ladies. Such does not sit well with Grace's husband, and the warning that Nikki received suggested that the two might fall into an affair that may lead to their deaths. The more they shoot, the more the line between Nikki and her character Susan Blue becomes blurred, and the stronger her attraction to Devon (or his character) grows. The first hour of Inland Empire contains the most coherent plotting, with cameos by Diane Ladd and William H. Macy, and with a supporting turn by Harry Dean Stanton as Kingsley's assistant Freddie. But after the affair begins, Nikki falls into a rabbit hole and ends up in Poland with a different husband, occasionally a group of magical hookers who perform the "loco-motion," and a psychiatrist with whom she may be an entirely different character (or giving an entirely different performance). Dern's identity slowly evaporates, though all of Dern's characters could be fictional within the terms of the film, as she could simply be the entertainment of a bored Polish hooker.

Being one of the most respected filmmakers working today must feel gratifying, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee David Lynch financing. Thus, he's often struggled to realize projects, and he hasn't really succeeded within the studio system. Inland Empire was Lynch's first film shot on digital video, allowing him to do whatever he wanted. And more than any other film in his catalog, Empire genuinely can be called "indulgent," at least in the sense that the pieces don't necessarily seem to fit as cleanly as they have in his other fugue-state pictures. Lynch also acted as his own cinematographer, editor, sound designer, camera operator, and carpenter, so this is the very definition of a DIY effort. But there's something very freeing about Inland Empire (indeed, that is how Lynch describes making the movie), although cinema has codified the hand-held aesthetic in such a way that often when Lynch moves the camera, it's visually jarring. Cinema tends to give the camera grace and weight — thus, when there is that direct handheld motion, it's comes across like a home video. Quite possibly, Inland Empire is the biggest and best home movie ever made, even though it's hard to disengage from the standardized language of cinema. Then again, perhaps it's fair to call Lynch the e.e. cummings of moviemaking, for he is surely a poet. This reviewer cannot claim to make heads or tails of the experience, and he finds some of Lynch's tropes a bit tired (particularly the gang of hookers breaking into an impromptu musical number), but there are also some dazzling moments here, and Lynch does build the film in a dreamlike way. Inland Empire is a film to fall into, something that will surely grow and change upon repeated viewings.

*          *          *

Rhino presents Inland Empire on DVD in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. French subtitles are provided to fit both 4x3 and 16x9 monitors, while Disc One also offers a helpful screen calibrator. Though there is no Chapter index (per Lynch's custom on DVDs), there are 40 chapters for the title, which will be helpful to anyone who wants to break up the three-hour movie in more bite-sized pieces (though watching it in one pass is highly recommended). Disc Two offers over three hours of supplements, which includes an amazing 75-minute section called "More Things That Happened." Not so much deleted or extended scenes, these are more fragments from the Inland Empire world. "Ballerina" also seems for use in the film and features a ballerina dancing in a fog (12 min.). "Stories" is Lynch sitting with a mike, having a smoke, and talking about the making of the film, and other tangentially connected thought processes (42 min.), while "Lynch 2" offers on-set and behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the movie (30 min.). "Quinoa" features Lynch making himself some dinner and offering a recipe he particularly loves, leaving the food to cook while ruminating on some experiences abroad (20 min.). Three trailers are also included, along with a stills gallery. Keep-case.

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