David Lynch: Czar of Bizarre

As his haunting Twin Peaks begins a new season, David Lynch tests whether a brilliantly eccentric film artist can move into the mainstream

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Only! Long before the series' April premiere, ecstatic critics were priming TV viewers to expect the unexpected. Lynch's two-hour pilot didn't disappoint. It was frantic and lugubrious in turn, a soap opera with strychnine. In one night, the show had hip America hooked. Twin Peaks stoked a media frenzy unseen since the Dallas heyday. But this time the director, not the star, was the prime beneficiary. David Lynch was J.R.

Suddenly, like a high-cult Larry Hagman, Lynch was everywhere. The director whose pre-1990 oeuvre comprised just four features -- eight hours of public film -- will have more than matched that total this year. Two two-hour and three one-hour episodes of Twin Peaks. The rambunctious road movie Wild at Heart, winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and now in theatrical release. Four TV commercials for Obsession perfume. A 50-minute video, Industrial Symphony No. 1, featuring a dwarf, prom teens, a floating topless lady, a skinned deer and ethereal warbler Julee Cruise singing from a car trunk; it's Lynch's most brazenly avant-garde work. If that's not enough, how about a weekly David Lynch comic strip called The Angriest Dog in the $ World? Or a book of his own photographs? Or a flurry of Twin Peaks merchandise, including the unexpurgated Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer?

He has proved that an eccentric artist can toil in American TV without compromising his vision, and in doing so he helped loose the bonds of the prime-time straitjacket. Who was the last fellow to pull off that parlay -- Ernie Kovacs? And what filmmaker as inimitable as Lynch has ever sponsored other directors to clone his style? The quirky outsider is close to becoming David Lynch Inc.

But even Lynch must know that every fad must fade. Any enthusiasm with the velocity of Twin Peaks mania is bound to boomerang. "Fame is an unnatural thing," says Mark Frost, Lynch's TV partner and Twin Peaks co-producer. "There is no equivalent to it in the animal kingdom." A director on the edge gets critical indulgences when he steps into the mainstream; a director on top is ripe for a raspberry. The trick for Lynch is to keep the ebb of acclaim from affecting either his work or his attitude toward it.

So as Twin Peaks' fall season begins next Sunday with another of the two- hour episodes he directed, Lynch arrives at a perplexing crossroads. He is too familiar to some admirers of his early movies, yet too weird for the Hollywood establishment -- or for the American couch potato.

Wild at Heart, which sends a pair of loser lovers (Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) on a trip into the dark night of the Southern Gothic soul, is a tonic for the senses and an assault on the sensibilities. Heads splatter, skulls explode, biker punks torture folks for the sheer heck of it, and a pair of loopy innocents find excitement in a side trip to hell. Pretty much like Blue Velvet. Yes, it's different, but the same kind of different; Lynch could no longer shock by being shocking. Many critics figured they had solved the mystery of his visual style and thematic preoccupations. Next mystery, please. By August, when the film opened in the U.S., the Lynch mob was more like a lynch mob.

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