William H. Macy is in INLAND EMPIRE for one shot lasting less than twenty seconds, and his single line ends with this phrase: "Hollywood, where stars make dreams and dreams make stars." That's probably not true, and it ignores a question near and dear to David Lynch's heart: what about nightmares?

Certainly, the film seems like it might all be the nightmare of Nikki Grace, an actress played by Laura Dern in her third go-round with the director. Insofar as the film has a plot, that plot concerns Nikki's experience on the set of a new film titled On High in Blue Tomorrows, and the craziness that starts to envelope her when she starts to lose track of where she ends and her character, Susan Blue begins. In the end, it can be reasonably argued that the whole affair is just a brief flash in Nikki's mind, triggered by an attempt to watch herself one day in the future.

That's insofar as the film has a plot.

Insofar as the film doesn't have a plot, it consists of a series of interlocking moments and characters. To begin with, there are multiple characters played by Dern herself: the credits only cite Nikki and Susan, but she is also also an abused housewife living in what appears to be the actual Inland Empire of southern California, as well as a gutter-mouthed Hollywood Boulevard hooker. These women may be the same person; one or both of them in fact be Susan; it's very difficult to tell whether Nikki is playing all three, or if Nikki is actually any more real than they are. Another thread concerns a lost girl (Karolina Gruszka) on the snowy streets of an unnamed Polish city in the 1930s, who may or may not be a prostitute, who may or may not be beaten to death in the course of the film, and who spends much of her time watching an absurd sitcom in which people in rabbit suits spout non sequiturs to uproarious canned laughter.

Lynch has always trafficked in the inexplicable and the surreal, but with the exception of his debut film Eraserhead, he's always yoked his surrealism to a narrative throughline, even if it takes multiple viewings and inordinate patience to discover that narrative in a film like Lost Highway. I have now seen INLAND EMPIRE twice, and I am certain that there is more that I do not understand than otherwise, but I suspect this film falls more in line with Eraserhead. For example, I think that the central question most people will walk away with, "what is the relationship between the four Laura Dern characters?" cannot be ultimately answered. That said, I'm also not going to cry "surrealism!" and be done with it.

The fact is, INLAND EMPIRE does have a very clear structure, and the disjointed elements all fit in with one another logically. It's just that they fit together according to dream logic. In dreams, stairwells in Poland can lead down to the streets of Los Angeles, and the same group of whores can keep popping up anywhere at every time. Nearly every element of the plot does come together, in fact, and while I don't want to sit here and make a chart of every moment of overlap (for one thing, it takes all the fun out of the movie), I'll point out that the story of On High in Blue Tomorrows is a Polish fable, and there are moments throughout the film that suggest that it might be the same story of the lost girl (9:45 PM is a significant clue in this respect, as is the physical location in which the lost girl ends the film). Even the rabbits are ultimately brought into the fable, hinging around the German title for the fable, "Four Seven." That said, the meaning of the rabbits evades me still. I guess it will have to wait for viewing #3.

Making a dreamlike film isn't much in and of itself of course, and what makes INLAND EMPIRE an important film moves up and beyond that. It continues the agenda that Lynch began with Mulholland Dr., an agenda that apparently consists largely of a raging hatred for the cinema. In both that film and his latest, Lynch presents women who are broken by the Dream Factory, but while that film was a personal tragedy, INLAND EMPIRE is full assault against the film industry, using the shocking treatment of the female gender as his entry point. Famously, there are fewer great roles for women than for men, and Lynch ascribes that to the Western cultural fear of female sexuality (a fear Lynch has indulged in several times, most notably in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet), a fear that traditionally manifests itself as the Madonna/Whore complex. There are no Madonnas in INLAND EMPIRE, but there are a great many whores, because that is what Hollywood and America permit women to be.

One of the key moments in the film occurs near the beginning, when an unnamed Polish woman, played with cartoonish intensity by Grace Zabriskie, tells Nikki a series of stories and anecdotes. Every moment in the film somehow connects back to this scene (I think the argument can be mounted that all of INLAND EMPIRE is told from Zabriskie's point of view), but what I would like to focus on at present is a pair of old fables. In one, a little boy walks out into the world, and the shadow he casts gives birth to evil. In the other, a little girl walks out into the world and is lost in the marketplace. That is, all that is evil comes from men, and women are left as commodities. From the film's ad-line, "a woman in trouble," to the endless prostitution both literal and metaphorical that we see onscreen, INLAND EMPIRE explodes that social structure, describing a world of corruption and ceaseless violence against women. The cinema is not the only way that this is achieved, of course, but it is one of the most pernicious.

And so, Lynch makes an anti-movie. The vicious rejection of narrative normality I have already discussed, which leaves the actual physical fact of the project, which is every bit as impressive. INLAND EMPIRE, we all know, was shot on consumer-grade video and released through Lynch's own company (with a little help from Studio Canal). I will not pretend that I don't have a personal bias towards this sort of DIY willfulness, and I'm not going to pretend that I can be or want to be objective about it; an objective response to INLAND EMPIRE is worse than useless. Lynch's perversity is extremely appealing to me, and if that makes me overvalue the film, then so be it.

But there's no questioning that it all ties together. This is just about the most independent indie movie I can think of, and that's a major thematic point. Movies are awful, so let's release something that doesn't follow any of the industry rules.

As a direct result of how it was shot, the film looks distinctive, and if you think that is a euphemism for "awful," you're mostly right. And completely wrong. This is a film in which the limitations of videotape are exploited: its clumsy relationship to bright light, its inability to record fully saturated colors, and it noise. There's a certain abstract beauty to some of the images, which for ill or good are totally unlike anything that has ever been professionally made in this country. And it's all very inexpertly done. There are shots that drift in and out of focus, and there are almost as many shots that are never in focus at all. There are shots lit with handheld flashlights. There is no cinematographer, only a team of camera operators including the director. Somehow, I found this exhilarating; it's distancing and artificial, and even though it gave me a bit of a headache when I was sitting in the fifth row back from the screen, there's something terribly wonderful about seeing a man with Lynch's undeniable visual mind limiting himself to such crude tools. Of course, anyone who has followed Lynch's recent short work on his website knows that he has been wielding crudity as a tool for a while now, and it strikes me that when something exists in such aggressive contrast to the "right" way of doing things, that aggression is its own justification. The movie is kind of ugly, and kind of beautiful and it all depends, I think, on how you want to look at it.

I'm such a hypocrite - I yammer on and on about "discipline" and yet, here's a movie of profound indulgence, with a 2 hour, 59 minute runtime that it scarcely earns, and yet I wouldn't cut a frame of it. Partially, I think it's just because history is littered with bowdlerized David Lynch films, and I'm thrilled to finally see the director unfiltered, so to speak (the four-hour Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me sits alongside The Magnificent Ambersons as one of my chief regrets that it will never exist again). Partially, I think it's just that I'm on the same page as Lynch, which is a bone-chilling thought, and I'd like to see as much of this befuddling, challenging imagery as he can provide. So that's my guilty admission: I have only subjective things to say about this movie. And I don't really feel too bad about it, either. Art is supposed to be subjective, and love it or hate it, it's hard to deny that INLAND EMPIRE is art.