Whether or not such a thing as "pure cinema" exists is an argument that will never cease. Can movies attain essential movieness by way of pure visual effect, associative or photographic, without depending upon the remnants of theater and literature, namely, language, character, and drama? Should they? Can we separate out form from content, or is form the content, or should content be an integral factor in form? Is Stan Brakhage "pure" (or just "abstract"?), and if so, what does that mean? Does "pure" simply indicate a lack of coherent material ("material"? what's that?) and a surrender to subliminal impressions—if not an outright refusal to provide meaning?
Over the years, critics have attached the "pure" bumper magnet to everyone from Andrei Tarkovsky to Brian De Palma, to little reward. But David Lynch's Inland Empire makes the argument new again: Here is an undiluted, madcap splooge of purest grade-A cinema from our greatest and most uncompromising sui generiste, three hairy hours long and so furiously self-involved, so hermetically sealed yet still explosive and fascinating, so purely a movie and nothing else, that roping it into any category with other movies is a mistake. Evoking it in a mere review is, in fact, a doomed enterprise: Lynch seems to have constructed the film deliberately to evade the butterfly nets of critical response. If that's not "pure," what is?
It might be, in any case, the best American film of 2006. Which is to say, Lynch has finally and irrevocably wagon-trained deep into Lynchistan without a map, and I don't think we can expect to see him return to civilization any time soon. Inland Empire—named after the California region not because it's set there, but because Lynch simply liked the sound of it—recalls Bergman's Persona and Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits in its allusive structure and suggestions of a fracturing female psyche. But there's no trace of homage, or even traditional psychology. Laura Dern plays, in the film's clearest thread, a Hollywood-mansion-inhabiting actress with a homicidally jealous husband (Peter J. Lucas) and a new job: a role in a Southern melodrama that roughly parallels the romantic triangle that eventually forms with her co-star (Justin Theroux). But Lynch twists the diegesis like a mile of taffy, until there's no there there, just dreams within dreams within movies within nightmares.
Dern, stretched on the rack of being a crazy auteur's favorite go-to girl, shows up as a Southern belle (always within the context of the-movie-inside-the-movie or not?), a beaten and homicidal Sunset Strip whore, a Polish émigré's blue-collar wife, a variety of ghost figures, etc.; while a roomful of prostitutes dance to "The Loco Motion," memories and/or shadows of Lodz haunt the periphery, other figures float stories and notions of murder, a family of rabbit people endure obscurely menacing domestic moments in their living room (all borrowed from Lynch's 2002 Rabbits shorts), movie sets open onto real homes and mysterious neighborhoods, interviews are held with no clear purpose, and so holy-shit on.
Shot completely in digital video with little or no effort expended on making it look like celluloid, Inland Empire is a cataract of anxiety, Lynch's semiconscious menagerie unleashed. Think of it as an epic version of the radiator scenes from Eraserhead, or the Tower Theatre scene in Mulholland Dr., without those films' marginally helpful contexts. The film's duration is pivotal: The free-associative chaos becomes its own context, and film becomes merely another form of consciousness, not an alternate reality you can forget even as you occupy it.
The many critics and viewers who gape in frustration at Lynch's exhaustive, kitschy-horror howl have, I think, only expected a narrative clarity where there is none, and searched for irrelevant codes and readings even as they ignored the sensual experience they had, dozily lost in the underlit corridors of Lynch's imagination. Filmgoing in America has always prioritized the viewer's distance and omniscience—movies should never get too close, dare to be too obscure, or stubbornly refuse to boil themselves down into equations and capsule plot lines. Inland Empire violates this position from its very first, far-too-intimate close-up of Grace Zabriskie's Polish-accented gargoyle; it's a film that exists for itself and for its maker, not necessarily for us. You have to see it to believe it. Of course, you could say as much about any incoherent, gone-amok gout of cinematic self-indulgence, which is another way of saying "pure"—but for Lynch's movie, it's true.
Read Michael Atkinson's interview with Lynch.