It’s tempting to claim that 1990 was the year director David Lynch finally went mainstream. The one-time master of the midnight movie launched a media blitz that unloaded Lynchian explosives on the most commonplace entertainment foxing: soap operant TV travelogues, road movies, even commercially Had the man who’d gagged his audience on the mutants of Eraserhead and the mutilations of Blue Velvet decided to temper his signature eccentricities? No. He had simply been waiting for the rest of the country to join him, and it did. In 1990, the mainstream went David Lynch.
The first warning sign came April 8, when, after enough publicity to deforest a small state, ABC unveiled Twin Peaks, the 44-year old director?s strange, scary, semi-straight faced variation on TV’s prime-time serials. It worked as a murder mystery and soap opera, it worked as a spoof, but most of all it worked as a phenomenon — a show that seemed blithely unaware, from its striking music to its hilarious irrelevancies to its unveiling of an incestuous evil-spirit psycho killer, of TV constraints. Thirty-five million American’s watched the two-hour pilot, but when half of them abandoned subsequent episodes for safer shores, media watchers sniggered that Peaks was, a one-shot wonder. They missed the point: 19 million Americans kept watching. They didn’t just watch; they strained for nuances and clues, debated meanings, and raced to keep up with the show’s spiraling, murky developments.
By summer, when his romantic melodrama Wild at Heart reached U.S. movie screens, Lynch had become a household word, synonymous with rule-breaking weirdness in the same way the names Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock connote entire categories of film. ”From the director of Twin Peaks!” blared the ads, which sold $14.5 million worth of tickets, more than would have been imaginable one year earlier. And as Lynch gained fame, a media mythology began to encompass his private life. We learned that Lynch can’t abide the smell of cooked food in his house, that he has an inordinate fondness for chocolate milkshakes, and that his 22-year-old daughter, Jennifer (who had her own success with the best-selling Secret Diary of Laura Palmer) is just a chip off the old psyche — she’s planning a film about a man who severs his girlfriend’s limbs.
Fascination with Lynch remains high, even if the franchising of his name hasn’t been entirely successful. Fox hyped American Chronicles as his next innovative flourish, but it sank like a stone. But the fact that the stylized, slo-mo series of ”docu-poems” wasn’t laughed out of the network boardroom in the first place is testimony that anything Lynch creates — even Obsession perfume ads — is taken very seriously.
The Lynch mob may not grow indefinitely; even the most impassioned Peaks admirers aren’t betting on a long run for the series, which has the feel of a quick, brilliant blaze rather than a slow burn. But in 1990, Lynch confounded skeptics and won new converts by taking his career and his audience in spectacular and unpredictable directions. Who?s to say there aren’t more peaks ahead?