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Dream world Lynch project takes eerie look at moviemaking

Laura Dern is extraordinary in David Lynch's "Inland Empire." Truly.

She often is, though, in a movie world that seems weirdly reluctant to give a sprocket -- in, for instance, the domestic adultery drama of a couple years ago, "We Don't Live Here Anymore."

She was more than just an actress in David Lynch's latest phantasmagoria, "Inland Empire" (the title seems to be poetic Lynch dreamspeak for the unconscious, the dream world inside our heads that operates on its own rules). Dern was an executive producer of the film, too, and something of a facilitating partner in getting it made. Given the nature of the role and her rich history with Lynch going back to "Blue Velvet," it's easy to understand.

The film is anything but. It's a three-hour enigma about an actress essaying a "comeback" role that descends into degradation from pure bafflement.

We have, all of us -- even those of us who know better -- come to completely abuse and misuse the word "surreal." We throw it around to mean anything strange and unexpected -- "It was positively surreal, you know?" Well, no, it probably wasn't. It is, though, a mark of how thoroughly surrealism came to be the monarch of all 20th century art movements.

Lynch may not be the last true cinematic surrealist, but he is certainly the greatest now working. He is the American filmmaker who insists the most adamantly on making cinematic dreams. He is also one of the handful of moviemakers to whose films some of us run, instead of walk, no matter what.

Unfortunately, I felt a little like limping on the way out of "Inland Empire." Besides Dern's moving, bravura hallucination of a performance and a final hour where everything comes together with some sort of indecipherable emotional power, "Inland Empire," in its first two hours, almost seems like a wicked parody of a Lynch dream film.

Grace Zabriskie -- everyone's favorite "wicked witch" among character actresses -- comes to the actress' house to be photographed scarily, say dark things about time and to inform the star that the movie she's about to make is a remake of a Polish film whose cursed performers came to a bad end. Before that, we see giant rabbits performing what seems to be some kind of terrible sitcom. The first time they're glimpsed, one walks through a stage door and the audience applauds wildly the way they do when a sitcom star makes a first appearance ("and then there's Maude").

I've interviewed Lynch twice, and the most fascinating thing he ever told me was when I talked to him before the release of his beautiful Victorian freak drama "The Elephant Man." He said that his greatest inspiration for making his first dream film, "Eraserhead" -- a midnight movie classic -- wasn't any other filmmaker or writer or artist but rather the eerie industrial Philadelphia neighborhood he was living in when he made the film.

"Inland Empire," like "Mulholland Drive," is saturated with Hollywood as a place. It's also saturated with the feel of moviemaking -- the occasional squalor of movie sets, of real Los Angeles streets and buildings and all of it contrasted with the upscale lives of actors and of those depicted.

Otherwise, don't ask me what "Inland Empire" is about. Unlike "Blue Velvet" or "Mulholland Drive" or "Twin Peaks," I don't really know, to no small annoyance. I can tell you everything that happens in it, but it's not the same thing.

In its limited run, by the way, there will be midnight shows. And if it seems as if it took an unconscionably long time getting here, part of the reason is that Lynch is helping distribute it himself.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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