Studios expect us to pay for movies... theaters expect us to stay quiet for them. Some filmmakers expect us to sit back and enjoy them, or to be moved by them, or to relate to them. These are all worthy expectations for us, the fickle film audience, and by meeting them, we determine the success of the film, artistically, financially, and historically.
But can we really be expected to decipher a film? To be able to put its pieces together, as if it's a jigsaw puzzle or a game of Sudoku, and work out a meaning that sometimes seems intentionally obscured from us? This is an expectation that David Lynch seems to have for us, if you believe his own claims about his work; and whatever you think of his method or his artistry, you'll always be taking this into account: his films aren't just pure stories, self-expressions, or records of experiences. They're puzzles, complete with solutions, and though Lynch himself never deciphers them for us, he generally informs us that we can figure them out, if we look for them.
Mulholland Dr. was defined, if anything, by its shape. Though it was filled out with striking images, it was really the product of a central inversion, the interaction between the narrative threads, and the shifting relationship between the main characters. However, with his more recent Inland Empire, Lynch seems less concerned with sculpting a shape and more concerned with creating a language. He does this in a stream-of-consciousness visual poem, filmed without an overall plan or a well-defined shooting schedule. The result is a fragmented narrative full of significance-laden people and objects, the words and phrases to which the film gives voice.
This has been said before of dreams... Jung says dreams, like poems, have their own language, and in concert with his psychoanalytical brethren, he believes that this language can be heard and understood. And this helps give us a sense of Lynch's mission: he wants to talk about a certain life experience, but he wants to do it in an oneiric language. Among all filmmakers, he may be the most proficient at accomplishing this goal.
So it turns out this puzzle is to be solved through translation (more goal-oriented than "interpretation" in general). David Lynch refuses to tell us the intended meaning, so he removes himself as a source, and it becomes a lot like the act of reading a dream: we know these images have sources, objects of reference, but we have to determine them through context, and trust our determination. It's hermeneutics, returned to its pre-postmodern relativism level... we can stop asking "What did this movie mean to me?" and go back to asking, "What did this movie mean?"
This is Lynch's dream-logic at work. No meaning is readily apparent; reality is heightened to its peak, and you know every object and word and gesture is pregnant with significance, but you're denied direct access to that significance, and even the code that determines them isn't transparent. This paragraph isn't going to add much to the above discussion, so I'll just let it remain an abortive little tribute: nobody can match Lynch in creating meaningful images, ripped out of their explicit structure and allowed to create their own semiotic system within the space of the film.
Of course, if you're going to make a movie like this, you have to do what Lynch has done here: you have to give your audience something to involve themselves in, even if they can't immediately apprehend the overall meaning you're going for. Luckily, Lynch is a master of mysterious and intriguing images, and I have to confess, the shot of Susan running toward the camera was one of the most terrifying moments I remember seeing in cinema. This shit hits you in the visual cortex, where it will always count, even in the midst of the most oblique narrative imaginable.
It's worth noting some other dreamlike aspects of Lynch. His dialogue is dissociative, like everyone in the film is in a trance. It's as if they're not real people, but rather mere projections of the dreamer in their own mind. Further, once we get into the heart of Inland Empire, everything seems to take place in an interior, including the scenes out on Sunset Boulevard (reinforced when we discover that it's actually a film set). After all, the real world, the expansive landscape of California geography, isn't really our setting... how else could it feel, spending three hours inside the mind of a stranger?