“The ambulance guys, they say, what the fuck happened here? I say, he come to reaping what he been sowing, that’s what. They say, fucker been sowing some kinda heavy shit.”

Over the course of its three bizarro hours, INLAND EMPIRE draws a lot of attention to its mode of presentation and status as physical artifact. The film opens with a shot of a movie projector cranking up and throwing a beam of flickering light into the darkness. The camera turns, and the screen becomes our screen. This is only the first of dozens of times Lynch reminds us what exactly it is we’re looking at. The magic is that it works anyway.

Because of the constant references to film as a medium, I was worried that seeing the film on DVD (available on August 14) would diminish the experience more than it usually does. But like the river you famously can’t step into twice, INLAND EMPIRE is a shape-shifter of a movie that reconstitutes itself differently every time, and my own TV screen turned out to be a fascinating place to see it.

First of all, what happens to the film’s surface is nothing less than a revelation. Lynch shot INLAND EMPIRE on cheap digital video, and it is much more at home on the small screen. The infernal glare and lousy resolution of the blown-up film are gone; the images regain something of the sensual quality that inform every frame of Mulholland Dr. At least by traditional standards, INLAND EMPIRE on DVD looks better than ever.

And while it’s true that the film opens with a projector, it only takes a few more shots before we’re in a hotel room with a woman who spends the entire movie watching TV: talking rabbits, static, Laura Dern, herself, whatever’s on. Since it continuously references both modes of presentation, INLAND EMPIRE can be said to be about Lynch’s move from film to digital, about getting lost in a media-saturated world built from competing narratives. The medium must certainly be part of the message, and the film’s interlocking stories are all framed by various acts of looking: at screens, through burn holes, through the windows of a movie set.

In this context, questions about which part is “real” and which is “just a movie” become pointless. Take the scene where Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) rehearses her role. Like Naomi Watts’ audition in Mulholland Dr., the miracle is not that an actor can summon emotion out of thin air, it’s that we feel it, too — even though it has just been revealed as a trick. All of the film’s narrative levels have the potential to affect us, and that’s why we should be afraid of the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), the shadowy Polish carnie who hypnotizes circus audiences and can simply vanish.

David Lynch distributed INLAND EMPIRE himself, and the number of people who had a chance to see it in theaters was limited. With the DVD, some of the film’s subconscious pull has been traded for bonus features and the opportunity to pour over individual scenes and fast-forward through others. (Let the obsessive analysis begin!)

“More things that happened” is Lynch’s title for 75 minutes of deleted scenes edited into a single piece, a kind of extended appendix. The new scenes offer hints and clues but also confuse matters further: Sue loses her job, the Phantom sells a watch, Laura Dern masturbates while she’s on the phone, Nastassja Kinski makes a confession, and a couple of prostitutes crash a remote controlled UFO. In other words, catnip for the converted.

The DVD also provides a gallery of still images, three trailers, and the short film “Ballerina.” A fascinating half-hour long documentary shows Lynch at work, and in another short, the filmmaker reveals his recipe for quinoa while telling a story about buying colored sugar water in Turkey. Finally, there are forty minutes of Lynch speaking about the making of Rabbits, working in Lodz, the beauty of digital editing, and where “the babies are hiding.”

pushes up against the outer edge of what film can do, and it drives home just how timid, unadventurous and homogenized most movies really are. It operates in an endlessly fertile space of open-ended possibility. Harry Dean Stanton’s Freddie sums it up as well as anybody:

There’s a vast network, right? An ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits. I’ve always loved animals. Their nature, how they think. I have seen dogs reason their way out of problems, watched them think through the trickiest situations. Do you have a couple of bucks I could borrow? I’ve got this damn landlord.

INLAND EMPIRE. David Lynch, 2006. *****