DAVID LYNCH means different things to different moviegoers. His new picture, ``Wild at Heart,'' is sure to spark much debate when it opens in theaters on Aug. 17, about three months after winning the best-picture award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival - which some observers say it didn't come close to deserving. To those dissenters, Mr. Lynch represents all that's wrong in filmmaking today. Exhibit A in this argument is his last movie, ``Blue Velvet,'' a melodrama drenched in sex and violence. ``Twin Peaks,'' his successful TV series about intrigue in a rural town, is a lot milder - yet strikes Lynch detractors as equally offensive in its own way, exploding the boundaries of TV decency as surely as ``Blue Velvet'' did to wide-screen standards.
Others, including a number of young people I've spoken with, don't understand what the fuss is about. ``Blue Velvet'' is shocking at times, they agree, but its sense of right and wrong is unmistakable: The good people win; the bad ones never get a shred of sympathy; and evil is exposed as the ugly, repellent thing it really is. These supporters also point out that Lynch's work includes ``The Elephant Man,'' a gentle film nominated for multiple Academy Awards and that ``Twin Peaks'' is leading all contenders in the current Emmy race - so how outrageous could it be?
If there is a middle-of-the-road position on Lynch, it's that his talent as a visual stylist (often steered by his weird interest in sex and violence) is not matched by his skill as a storyteller, and certainly not by any philosophical depth. Lynch began his career as a painter, and his filmmaking has always been fired by tremendous visual imagination. His abilities are less developed in other areas, though. ``The Elephant Man'' is weighed down by a repetitious screenplay, for instance, and ``Blue Velvet'' suffers from miscalculated acting, not to mention its tortured view of human excesses.
More seriously, Lynch's critique of American values has more flash than substance. Some commentators acclaim him for exposing layers of hidden corruption beneath the seemingly scrubbed and contented surface of middle-class life.
His vision is limited, however, by the way he shows good and evil slugging it out for supremacy in the family, in the community, in society at large - but rarely where it counts most, deep within human nature itself. His movies are battlegrounds where heroes and heroines (sometimes innocent, as in ``Blue Velvet,'' and sometimes sensual, as in the new picture) work their way to showdowns with grotesquely wicked enemies. It's a ``Rambo'' view of morality, dramatically compelling but simplistic and short-sighted.
``Wild at Heart'' finds Lynch painting his allegorical portrait on the largest canvas he's used since ``Dune,'' his least successful film. The heroes are a young man and woman (Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) on the run, zooming through a nightmarish version of the Deep South that grows stranger with each new acquaintance and adventure. What's new for Lynch is a streak of childlike fantasy that pokes its head into the otherwise steady stream of sex, violence, and perversity.
Doing an encore to ``Blue Velvet'' is no easy job, and you can feel Lynch straining for new shock value to throw into his yucky stew. Then, just when you least expect it, the picture goes positively Disneyish for a few moments. If earlier Lynch films shared George Lucas's black-and-white moral sense, this one has Steven Spielberg's goofy optimism tacked crazily onto it. These are odd models for Lynch, but springing surprises has always been his strong point.
As a story, ``Wild at Heart'' is even less coherent than ``Blue Velvet,'' to the point where whole characters and subplots disappear into a murky haze at the end.
When we talked at the Cannes filmfest, Lynch told me the movie ran more than four hours when first completed, and that he gradually whittled it down to its final length of about two hours. This isn't unusual in Hollywood filmmaking - indeed, ``Blue Velvet'' went through a similar process - but the results are rarely so slipshod. Next to this, ``Twin Peaks'' is a model of clarity.
``Wild at Heart'' delivers enough sliminess and looniness to please hard-core Lynch fans, but even they may agree that it's a step backward in terms of originality. For example, both this movie and Lynch's first feature, ``Eraserhead,'' have moments when a character literally gets his head knocked off. In the early film, which is highly surrealistic, the knocking is done by what looks like a loaf of Italian bread that pokes up from the character's own neck; in ``Wild at Heart,'' it's by a shotgun blast. Both pictures are pointedly outrageous, but there's no question which is more imaginative. Or that millions of mature moviegoers will want nothing to do with either one.
``Wild at Heart'' is rated R, reflecting a great deal of sex, violence, and vulgarity.