December 21, 2006

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Inland Empire (R)
David Lynch — brilliant artistic genius or pretentious loon? After three hours of Inland Empire, I vote for the latter.

So, suppose I made it my “thing” to wear, I don’t know, clown shoes all the time. You are told to take it as a given that clown shoes are my ruling motif, my artistic vision requires clown shoes. Only if you understand what I’m trying to say with my clown shoes can you possibly judge my outfit. So, when I show up to your party in a muumuu, stirrup pants and clown shoes and say “what do you think,” what would you say in return? Will you say “I don’t think I am capable of answering that question because your clown shoes are revolutionary and beyond my bourgeois understanding of an outfit’s structure” or will you say “what the hell is wrong with you?”

I realize David Lynch fans will say I don’t get his artistic choices — his tossing aside of narrative structure and linear story-telling and basic logic. They will say I am stuck in my mainstream, Hollywood point of view and I don’t have the intellect or artistic sensibility to understand really innovative film. Fine, I say, but I’m not the one wearing clown shoes and trying to pass them off as a sign of genius.

Lynch gathers an Eastern European nightmarescape, a fading actress played by Laura Dern and a reoccurring cast of human-sized rabbits to convince us of his creative genius in this movie. Nikki Grace (Dern) is an actress married to a rich man and delighted to get a part in the movie On High in Blue Tomorrows. As she starts shooting, she learns that the film comes with some sort of curse, possibly the reason she and costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) feel themselves getting a little too deep into their characters. They are also mirroring their characters’ actions — starting up an affair that leads to Nikki’s becoming Susan, the rough-edged woman she’s playing. Susan is maybe a prostitute, probably violent and definitely horrified as she runs through a suburban home, down desolate streets (some of which are in southern California, some of which seem to be in 1920 Poland) and through the halls of a dreary apartment complex. Along the way she runs into a man who is possibly a detective and a group of girls hanging around in varying states of undress, talking about their love lives and occasionally dancing to “The Locomotion.” Intercut with scenes of her travels are scenes of her husband and his dealings with a Baltic circus, scenes of a young girl watching the action of the movie on TV and crying and scenes involving a family of humans in rabbit costumes who spout meaningless lines to sitcom-style canned laughter.

Inland Empire definitely has the whole feeling-of-dread thing down. A gritty video-like picture in much of the film, low yet still harsh lighting and characters sporting the sort of tears, blood, bruises and general dishevelment that are the result of violence — Lynch can build a bleak, frightening picture. But then nothing happens — we see endless trips down gloomy hallways that go nowhere and lead us to nothing. Tension — which is only barely established by early scenes of a creepy woman appearing at Nikki’s house and by news of the curse — is not able to stand up to tedium and, somewhere around the 90-minute-point, Inland Empire ceases to just be confusing but also becomes boring. Confound me, challenge me, heck, be a bit pretentious if you need to, but don’t bore me.

Art does not always have to make sense, movies don’t necessarily need a traditional beginning, middle and end. But the movie needs to hold your attention and to make you think (and think more than just “what the …? rabbits?”). You have to want to watch the movie unfold, not just wait impatiently for it to end. Different doesn’t always equal important, incomprehensible doesn’t always equal art. If a director is going to burden us with three hours of film, it needs to be absorbing, not just self-absorbed. C-

Rated R for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity, all of it strange and inexplicable. Directed and written by David Lynch, Inland Empire is just under three hours long and is distributed by Lynch in extremely limited release. The film is currently playing in Cambridge.