I might still be in INLAND EMPIRE, which I saw last week. It's about being unable to tell whether you're in a movie, acting for a movie, watching a movie or watching yourself watch or act in a movie. (Yeah, I know.) I walked out of the AFI and didn't want to turn my head, fearing David Lynch would be next to me with a digital camera in my face. ("David, please, I'm trying to cross the street.")
INLAND EMPIRE, INLAND EMPIRE. All caps. A great title -- epic and intimate. "A woman in trouble" is its tagline. Perfect. "It's a mystery," Lynch has said. He shot it on digital and swears he won't go back to film, which is a shame because Mulholland Dr. was gorgeous and INLAND EMPIRE is not. It looks like a student film. A bad student film.
I can only assess EMPIRE with regards to Mulholland. After all, both feature blonde actors vying for a role that puts the kibosh on their psyche. But where Mulholland was measured and profound (it was in my top 10 for 2001), Empire is cagey and unfeeling. The first was about heartbreak, the second about murder and guilt. I think. Both movies operate on their own logic and -- despite their what-the-f*ckness -- they follow the rules therein. Except Mulholland's logic makes sense. You dig? Neither do I.
And while I value Mulholland as a whole, I was only transported during one sequence of EMPIRE. Laura Dern's character is lost in the dim hallways of her soul (think John Malkovich in his own portal) and stumbles into an empty movie theater. She sees herself on the theater's screen as we see her on ours. Then a dark figure darts on her screen at the same time it moves in her reality (which is our screen), and I immediately wanted to look around my own theater (my own reality) for the intruder. Dern is unnerved, and we are unnerved. Who's watching us? Who's watching us watch ourselves? (I was half-expecting Dern and Lynch to jump in through the fire exit to pulverize the last bricks of the fourth wall. They didn't; if they did, this would've been the best movie of the year. Alas.)
This brief scene is a thesis, but the rest of the film doesn't support it. At least, not after one viewing. I took notes on every scene, knowing I'd have to piece it together. And even though I was riveted for EMPIRE's 172 minutes, it doesn't add up for me. Lynch has proven to be a careful artist, but this one feels like an amateur attempt to trick people into seeing a genius that just...isn't...there. If this sleight-of-hand was Lynch's intent all along, then good for him. But I feel sleighted rather than delivered.
"I'm not sure how many characters I'm playing, but I bet it'll look just fascinating."