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'Inland Empire' is a trip in Lynch's terra incognita

Anyone wandering into David Lynch's latest art-school funhouse, Inland Empire, will be apt to ask, "What gives?" - and the proper answer would be, "Everything."

We're used to ambitious directors producing huge, sprawling fiascos like Heaven's Gate or Cleopatra. Lynch's Inland Empire, which opens today at the Charles, is something completely different.

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As fiascos go, it's an intimate, sprawling art-thing. Self-produced and self-distributed, shot with a run-of-the-mill digital-video camera, Inland Empire is an epic act of free association, equally intriguing and depleting. It's watchable without being "readable."

I'm not even sure it's a fiasco. In its own art house way, it's as review-proof as Wild Hogs or Norbit, which rode their critical pans to pole positions at the box office. Those who've followed Lynch from Eraserhead through Twin Peaks and on to Mulholland Dr. will seek it out, and they should. Lynch is one of the few completely independent artists in American film. In this sort of movie, all the filmmaker's obsessions tumble off the screen, and all his talents, too, except for concision or coherence. From moment to moment, Lynch plays games with perspective that open your brain as well as your eyes.

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It starts out as a relatively conventional identity-fusion thriller about a Hollywood actress (Laura Dern) who finds it increasingly difficult to separate herself from her role in a movie that turns out to be a remake of a cursed, unfinished Polish film. I say "relatively conventional" because there's also a close-up of (I believe) a 78 rpm record needle, a sexual assault, another woman watching her TV set in tears and human-sized rabbits in proper middle-class clothes enacting some sort of dramedy on a stage set. After an hour you begin to realize the actress herself may be a figment of someone else's twisted imagination (not just Lynch's). Over the next two hours, the action takes lupine leaps among locations in Los Angeles and Lodz, Poland, and some forbidding Southern California suburbia, with a cast of characters that includes troupes of Polish and Hollywood Boulevard prostitutes.

The experience left me, like the heroine, with at least two minds. I loved Dern's performance even when I didn't know what she was playing. For embodying (to use Lynch's ad line) not just "a woman in trouble" but every woman in trouble, she deserves, if not an Academy Award, then a medal. And there's an elating scene when the Hollywood prostitutes do the Locomotion. No one can chart the intersection of exuberant American pop and deteriorating American atmospheres better than David Lynch. But what's valuable about the film is also irritating. It's all so damn Lynchian.

It might be wise for Lynch to take a note from his hero, Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, who in 1966 made Persona, the ultimate identity-fusion movie about a troubled actress - in a mere 85 minutes. (Persona plays March 31 and April 2 and 3 at the Charles.)

Bergman worried about directors becoming insular, even solipsistic. He wrote, "My admiration for Fellini is limitless. But I also feel ... that Fellini began to make Fellini films." He preferred Kurosawa, who "never made a Kurosawa film," and asked, "Where are we going? Has Bergman begun to make Bergman films?" While trying to be true to himself, even an artist as great as Bergman or as adventurous as Lynch can get lost in himself.

I hope Lynch realizes that the friction between a director's sensibility and an actual drama or story can often prove a filmmaker's salvation. He's demonstrated that again and again in his own career. Following the underground sensation of Eraserhead (1977), Lynch burst into public awareness with his profoundly moving The Elephant Man (1980).

What's remarkable about this "conventional" film is its closeness to Lynch's experimental films. Lynch pulled off the feat of telling the story of massively malformed John Merrick (John Hurt) from the rational point of view of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) while evoking Merrick's haunted and romantic consciousness.

When Merrick attends a Drury Lane performance of Puss 'n' Boots, Lynch erases the boundary between his hero's perception of the performance and our own. He transports us to a theatrical Never-Never Land that will stay in our minds Forever and Forever.

Later, Lynch leapt from the debacle of Dune (1984) to the masterly Blue Velvet (1986). That's where he showed, like Bergman, he could open up a private universe that still encompassed the real world. But he did it with a script as tense and basic as Ross Macdonald's classic Blue City. Lynch's hero (Kyle MacLachlan), a collegiate Hardy Boy, returns to his hometown to help at the family hardware store after his father is hospitalized. With the aid of a high-school girl who becomes a reluctant Nancy Drew (Laura Dern, great back then, too), he discovers the sordidness and despair that lurk beneath the driveway-to-sidewalk sod and the wall-to-wall carpeting.

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In the '90s, Lynch threatened to disappear into his own vapors as the glorious Twin Peaks drifted into magnificent marginalia. But he found a new hit of aesthetic oxygen in the aptly named The Straight Story (1999), the true tale of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old who hitched a makeshift trailer to a riding lawnmower and trekked more than 300 miles to see his estranged brother. Lynch's teamwork with his star, Richard Farnsworth, was empathic and total. Together they made the rare "movie for all ages" that's also a movie for the ages. The whole picture is about a certain kind of American individuality. And that gives the film its share of gorgeous Lynchian abstraction: Alvin creates his own sense of space wherever he goes. When he hunkers down in the yard of people who help him fix his mower, he brings out a chair for the man of the house and says, "Now you're a guest in your own back yard."

Films like The Straight Story and The Elephant Man are lifesavers, not compromises. Even more than Inland Empire, they're testaments to following one's own light to the end - and making movies the same way.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com


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