NEW YORK — IT'S hard to figure David Lynch out. Is he one of the most audacious and original talents in American film today? Or is he one of the least?
This question is prompted by "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," the newest work by Mr. Lynch to arrive in theaters. Judged by the standards of ordinary filmmaking, it's as strange, suggestive, and surreal as other Lynch pictures have been. Judged by the standards of Lynch's own career, however, it's amazingly stale and second-hand. Surrealism isn't so surreal when it's made from recycled nightmares!
I've been interested in Lynch's work ever since his 1978 debut film, "Eraserhead," an unsettling but inventive picture that embodies the spirit of surrealism - rooted in dreams, fantasies, and the irrational - more assertively than any other movie of its day. He brought a surprising amount of the same spirit to his first Hollywood effort, "The Elephant Man," and made game try in "Dune," a big-budget production whose cumbersome effects and prefabricated plot ultimately defeated him.
Lynch rebounded from "Dune" with "Blue Velvet," an ode to sex and violence that established him as the most eagerly outrageous of mainstream moviemakers. When he made an unexpected foray into television with the ambitious "Twin Peaks" series, network censorship forced him to leave much of his sensationalism behind - yet he succeeded in revolutionizing the airwaves by retaining the bizarre approach to acting, storytelling, and image-making that had distinguished his most talked-about movie work.
Success and outrageousness are uneasy bedfellows, however. When you're known as the most subversive artist in your chosen medium - commercial cinema, in Lynch's case - what do you do for an encore?
Lynch's solution turned out to be: Give 'em more of the same. Even as "Twin Peaks" turned into a rousing TV hit, with its story of tangled teens and grotesque grown-ups in a rural Northwestern town, he concocted "Wild at Heart" for the wide screen, featuring Nicholas Cage and "Blue Velvet" heartthrob Laura Dern as uninhibited lovers on a road-movie rampage. It won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but many observers were unconvinced by its efforts to shock and scandalize while staying on the g ood side of art-minded critics and earning the commercially viable * rating.
`TWIN PEAKS: Fire Walk With Me" is another sign that self-imitation has become Lynch's currently favored mode. A "prequel" to the TV series, it reveals more than you wanted to know about who killed Laura Palmer, how the vicious Bob came to town, and all the rest of it.
At times, notably during fantasy and hallucination scenes, the picture veers into the sort of outright weirdness that Lynch still handles better than anyone else. When it was shown at Cannes earlier this year, some spectators also praised it for connecting the story's evil goings-on with incest, a phenomenon rarely acknowledged, much less exposed, in mainstream movies.
There's something to this argument, but in my view it's undercut by the fact that "Fire Walk With Me" contains not a single moment of genuinely felt emotion. The picture skims along the surface of its dark and delirious notions, lacking the fortitude to explore them as deeply and unflinchingly as the authentically great cinematic surrealists - Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau, for instance - have done in their classic works.
As a cultural event, the heyday of the "Twin Peaks" series will deservedly receive a few paragraphs in the history books. Still, the latest trip to "Twin Peaks" territory has more tricks than truth up its sleeve; and the same can be said of "On the Air," another attempt at Lynchian television that fell flat on its face a few weeks ago. Lynch needs to jump-start his imagination with some really challenging new idea, and plunge into it with the sort of courage and resourcefulness that his earliest work exe mplified.
* Rated * for sexuality, violence, rough language.