The Empire Strikes Back 

David Lynch's epic closes the Memphis International Film Festival.

David Lynch's Inland Empire is a declaration of war on commercial American filmmaking. Working almost entirely outside the studio system that had long frustrated him, Lynch wrote, directed, and edited this three-hour digital video epic and distributed it himself during its initial theatrical run last year. It acts like a summative meditation on Lynch's filmmaking career so far, which may or may not be of interest to viewers who have spent time in Lynchland before.

All of Lynch's fetishes and obsessions appear here: eerie amplified ambient noise, fragmented narratives, unsolved mysteries, fuzzy criminal conspiracies, stilted dialogue beamed in from the Eisenhower years, and a coterie of menacing whores. (God, Lynch loves his menacing whores.) In its role as the rambling, creepy twin to Lynch's 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire offers a troubling yet ecstatic vision of independent filmmaking that should not be missed. And you can see it this week in a 35-millimeter print being shown as part of the On Location: Memphis International Film Festival.

The film begins in Poland. After a shady sexual transaction in an old hotel, we see a "lost girl" (Karolina Gruszka) sitting on the edge of a bed and crying as she watches a television show. The actors, who are dressed like a middle-class family but look like giant rabbits, move slowly and deliberately around a cheap sitcom set. They speak or think banalities that are greeted with mysterious roars of applause. But don't worry about the rabbits. They soon disappear as Inland Empire restarts for the second (but hardly the last) time.

Hollywood. An Eastern European neighbor (Grace Zabriskie), stunned by the sunlight, staggers next door to pay a visit with Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an aspiring actress waiting to hear about a juicy new film role. Their conversation is awkward and unnerving. Then the neighbor lady tells Nikki that if today were tomorrow, Nikki would be sitting on the couch at the opposite end of the living room. When Nikki looks, sure enough, there she sits.

Nikki gets the part "tomorrow," which she celebrates by unleashing an anguished howl. The film is called On High in Blue Tomorrows and it is to co-star noted lothario Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) and be directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). When a table reading with Devon, Kingsley, and Kingsley's right-hand man Freddie (Harry Dean Stanton) is interrupted by a mysterious presence lurking behind the half-built set, Nikki and Devon are told that the film is a remake of an unfinished work. Both of the film's previous leads were murdered.

Right around the point where Nikki realizes that she was in fact the person who disturbed her table reading with Devon, Freddie, and Kingsley, mere plot summary proves futile. As classical narrative rules about cause and effect dissolve or are discarded, the film becomes even more about filmmaking and performance as processes and as dangerous expeditions. Nikki splits off into at least two other characters, one of whom is a tough victim of domestic abuse who recalls much of the next 90 minutes of the story through a combination of flashbacks or flash-forwards — she can't really tell.

From dew-eyed matron to seething white-trash survivor, Dern covers opposite ends of the social spectrum with lunatic conviction. Her face is as riveting as a silent-film star's, and she has a dozen different looks for terror. These looks are amplified through Lynch's hallucinatory and disorienting extreme close-ups.

After repeated viewings, visual and verbal motifs emerge. Being "good with animals" seems important; three characters claim this trait. The studio audience's inappropriately enthusiastic responses to the rabbit sitcom are echoed by the behavior of a studio audience during the taping of a trashy Hollywood gossip show. One key line, "Look at me — tell me if you've known me before," is spoken twice by two different women desperate for human connection. Dern's multiple roles and character changes emphasize the hazards of acting as both a profession and soul-consuming obsession. The ridiculous title of the film Nikki was working on is suddenly reprised in another desperate moment. The search for answers culminates in the bowels of an old movie palace. More clues are found when Dern watches herself on-screen.

These temporary connections spark and maintain interest, but more basic questions about Lynch's distinct technique remain unsolved. How does he do it? How can he fill the dark corners of a room with more terror than they contain in a dozen horror films? How can he film a kitschy lamp like it's a buoy washed up from the shores of hell? How did he make the cheap digital video format burst with color and lighting effects that other directors have not yet discovered?

Questions, questions, questions, and feelings everywhere, but there are no answers in sight. Inland Empire is a film that should not work. But it gnaws and scratches and burrows through all our expectations, codes, and rules for 179 minutes until, suddenly, it does.

Inland Empire screens on the final night of the Memphis International Film Festival alongside the 20-minute documentary portrait Lynch.

Inland Empire

Studio on the Square

Sunday, March 30th, 8 p.m.

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