We Live Inside a Dream: TWIN PEAKS, FIRE WALK WITH ME

 

I spent the last two pieces on my Twin Peaks (Part I & Part II) grind discussing them more in terms of Lynch’s world-building and the background production fiascos. Let me switch gears a little here:

In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a film which should in all respects be revisited (this thankfully is happening now) and realized as an indispensable part of any 1990’s must-watch list, and considered a landmark in American horror cinema, Lynch recreates our childhoods: the parks, the homes, the coffee shops, the diners, the cars, the high school. But then, he turns them upside down and reveals what is hidden in the darkness of memory. The offputting strangeness that glides like mist in tranquil suburban Americana was the basis of Twin Peaks, and here it condenses itself into a full-blown storm of terror. Soon, everything starts to become unfamiliar. Your surroundings start to take different shapes. It is a staple of Lynchian cinema to take good ol’ down-home American pop and transport it somewhere we can’t really place. When you look at his films, they look like could be Norman Rockwell paintings, but they exert the sensations of a Man Ray. What sets this film apart from any others by Lynch is that it’s not self-contained. It’s a chapter to a greater saga.

In Fire Walk With Me, Lynch, for the first time, completes the circle on an all-encompassing mythos centering on a singular character. Unlike any other Lynch character, Laura Palmer has the dimensions of a past, present, and future. She exists both in the mortal and tangible sense, but also in the spiritual sense. Throughout the film, Laura is an unsolvable riddle. Her haunting by Killer BOB forms a narrative arc to the film and is at surface level the serviceable trope of a supernatural thriller. But nothing is what it actually is on screen in a Lynch film. Nothing represents its literal physical or even thematic form.

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There have been many speculations that the entirety of Twin Peaks is about living through and overcoming a childhood of abuse and trauma. While suburban neighborhoods are depicted in American cinema and television as the closest thing this country can provide to a working utopia, Lynch insists that each individual house encloses something sinister. Laura’s house is from the get-go, a place of trauma. That this trauma exists in the form of an evil manifestation with a name is merely narrative privilege. Laura was not a happy person. She did not have a happy childhood, and there were no amount of fresh cut lawns, cool cars, parks, and backyards that were going to turn that around. Laura is drawn towards darkness because she has nowhere else to turn.

One of the most peculiar moments exists in her conversation with James, where she self-sabotages her pleas to be saved by him repeatedly. Her responses wildly swing from love to hate to fear and ultimately hopelessness. “I love you James!”, she screams as she heads into the woods, leaving him at a traffic light glowing bright red (a recurring motif in the series). In that moment, it was clear Laura was going to die.

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This is not a spoiler: In the end, Lauran Palmer is murdered by the demon Killer BOB in an incredibly brutal and terrifying way, yet the notion that this was some sort of cathartic release is what makes Twin Peaks and Laura’s story such an absolute heartbreak. It is the origin story of a deeply tragic girl, and a precursor to her actual life. In many senses, the Red Room, and Laura’s existence beyond the realm of mortality is where her story truly takes form.

In the next and possibly final chapter of this series, I’ll spill out what I mean by this.

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A Place Both Wonderful and Strange… TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 2)

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The majority of TV is constantly at the mercy of viewership statistics above all else. Blame the producers, show-runners, focus groups, whoever.  Blame business. Blame the fact that the television industry is called an industry for a reason. Assessing viewership in quantifiable digits reduces the audience’s perception of a show into a binary: watch or don’t watch. It says nothing about the way they feel about a particular episode or whether the people who do watch, no matter how few, are dedicated to the show. This circumstance is most tragic when it affects shows that dare to push the boundaries of the medium. For run-of-the-mill sitcoms and formulaic dramas which follow patterns that are easily accepted and digestible by viewers, statistical performance is predictably good; from the get-go, their audience is automatically delivered on a silver platter. But what about shows like Twin Peaks?

In the first part of this series, I talked about Twin Peaks: Season 1 and its ability to bait-and-switch its audience into falling in love with the surreal characters to the point where the major plot becomes secondary to a charmingly weird examination of small-town Americana. It’s a challenging show, one which mixes genres we never imagined could be mixed, and one which tests our tolerance for television as an art form rather than a form of instantly gratifying entertainment.

Perhaps it was too good to be true.

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The first season, comprised of only seven episodes including the 2-hour pilot, was followed by the show’s much lengthier Season 2, consisting of 22 episodes. Amidst the filming, the expected fallout between creatives and businessmen plagued the production of the show. Lynch’s approach began to test the patience of the showrunners, and his surreal intents which aimed to take his audience on a completely uncharted path of narrative experimentation was completely at odds with the way the accountants, financiers, and executives tend to think of television. To them, bold was bad, audiences were stupid, and anything which might require even an ounce of thought on the part of the show’s viewership meant that it was too ambitious and pretentious. Lynch left to direct his feature film Wild at Heart midway after losing the reigns on the show. With Lynch gone, the show never stood a chance.

While the residual effect of Episode 1 remained for at least half the season, by Episode 15 (once the Palmer murder was seemingly “solved”) it was very clear there was something missing. The show became a standard cop drama, ridding itself of the ambiguity of evil and identifying an obvious enemy in Dale Cooper’s (Kyle McLachlan) former FBI partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Earle is the typical sadist you’d find on any darker episode of Law & Order: SVU; A one-note “mad genius” who uses cliché metaphors like chess pieces to signal clues and taunt detectives and who’s main gripe was blaming Dale Cooper for the murder of his wife Catherine. Cooper was even given a love interest in Special Agent Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) to try to get viewers hooked into the romantic angle of the show.

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Of course, the studios and the producers were going to win the battle in the end. It became a rather embarrassing mark on their decision-making because the dips in ratings for the show occurred at the exact same moments when Lynch’s influence over it waned. The more conventional the show became the more people tuned out. But in classic narcissistic style, the showrunners shifted the blame towards’ Lynch’s initial vision. The producers believed that they tried to “save” Twin Peaks but Lynch had made it so weird that it was too little too late. Twin Peaks was canceled.

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Yet, the original spirit of Twin Peaks lived in Lynch’s two self-directed episodes, which sandwich the season and tie together the timelines of Dale Cooper and the terrifying Killer BOB, a supernatural demon who haunted Laura near the time of her death. This character is one of Lynch’s most ingenious creations and provides an anchor for the show to never get too far away from its horror-fantasy elements as well as a path for Lynch to take once he managed to pull the reigns back into his control in Episode 22. With the show having drained Twin Peaks of its intrigue in Lynch’s absence, Episode 22 of the season brings us back full circle to the Pilot episode of the show in Season 1. The strangeness of the show comes to a summit when Dale Cooper discovers the entrance to a parallel dimension, consisting of two areas called the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. They center themselves as the cause for everything that occurred before, as to say that everything we once believed about the town, it’s people, and Laura’s murder is not even scratching the surface of what is truly going on. It’s a remarkable point in the Twin Peaks saga, and it turns Season 2 from being a lesser entry into an important if less eventful and artful bridge between Season 1, Season 3, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

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Beyond Fear… Love: TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 1)

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Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Le passion de Jean d’Arc is considered by many people to be the moment when cinema became a form of art, but it took a while to realize it. There was a much delayed positive academic reaction to the film that was a result of cinema being accepted, several decades later, through serious critique and eventually canonization, as an art worth examining. While cinema has achieved its heightened status over time, television has always been somewhat stuck in a rut. The idiot box, the mindless entertainment unit, where any space not taken up by sports and general news broadcasts, is reserved for cartoons to be watched by children after they’re done with their homework, laugh-track heavy sitcoms to fall asleep to, and background noise to accompany more productive activities. Even the shows which were deemed as culturally significant and of somewhat of higher quality such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, or Seinfeld remained chained to an inescapable structural formula that all of their visual technique and narrative creativity had to abide by.

So, imagine my disbelief upon seeing a show like Twin Peaks. A show that goes so far beyond the pale of what one could have imagined being greenlighted by any network in 1990 let alone a milquetoast broadcaster like ABC. Imagine a show that even close to thirty years after its first episode aired, is more bold, revolutionary, and radically original than anything television has done in that time.

While the mysterious murder of small-town sweetheart Laura Palmer forms the emotional crux of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, much of the show’s first season concentrates heavily on world-building of a quaint town drenched in inconspicuous traditional American aesthetic. The frosted donuts, the sweet cherry pies, the hot cups o’ joe, the diners and roadhouses, the varsity jackets and motorcycles. These are the images that remain with the viewer long after each episode fades to black. Lynch and Frost’s original conception of the show was a sort of bait-and-switch for the audience and the show’s producers. The murder-mystery would be solely for the purpose of hooking the viewership in. The rest would be an examination of the strange and peculiar individuals residing within the town.

Laboring to understand the world that Lynch builds, especially in his films, is an arduous, and many times fruitless task. He doesn’t do us any favors here either, but the inclusion of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, assigned as the lead on Laura Palmer’s murder case, gives us a cipher to discover the world of Twin Peaks. We learn about the town just as he does, and his occasional tape-recording of interactions and observations as messages to an unknown person named “Diane” is a rope Lynch throws to us every once in a while so we can find our way out of the narrative abyss. But there are no easy answers, and the tension consistently builds without letting any real clues lead to tangible results. The conversations are circular, repetitive, the characters frustrating in their non-sequiturs and cryptic non-answers, and the town as a whole, lightly vibrating with a mystic energy that is only hinted at in the first season through a few terrifying images.

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The strangeness of the show’s aesthetic, however offputting it may be, is never there for the sake of it. Unlike Lynch’s more unrestrained projects Inland Empire and Lost Highway, Twin Peaks’ surrealism is still tied to a narrative. Lynch, a master of toying with audience expectations, strings many future moments back to events that at first seem disturbing in their jarring shifts in tone. One of the most memorable is the Log Lady, who’s on-screen introduction is one of the funniest moments in the show (Agent Cooper asks Sherrif Truman “who’s that lady with the log”… Truman plainly responds “oh, that’s the Log Lady”). It’s not until later that we start to really witness her importance to Cooper’s investigation and the meaning of her vague and puzzling stories. Cooper himself encounters weird dreams, of a short dancing man, Laura Palmer herself, an empty room backdropped by a red curtain, and a terrifying psycho with long gray hair who comes and goes in nightmares around the town.

The show’s distinct mix of soap opera melodrama and abject horror is what sets it apart from almost anything else on mainstream television. It’s an unconventional and un-subtle style that Lynch first used to full effect in his 1986 landmark thriller Blue Velvet and then made a signature in much of his later works like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. The outlandish love-triangles between high school students and awkward comedic hijinks highlight the less savory parts of what constitutes TV culture in the U.S. but they’re juxtaposed next to some of the most artistically radical directorial choices, creating a vision of hokey Americana seen through a trippy post-modern lens. It allows the show to play as an art piece as much as a gripping mystery.

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Twin Peaks merits as a work of art lies in the way it transforms images and innovates structurally. There are so many visual techniques utilized in the show (the crossfades, intercutting, obscured shadows, blurred images, sharp zooms) that were, at the time, considered highly inappropriate outside of indie cinema halls. The pushing of the boundaries was also not eased into. Lynch unleashed the cinematic tricks he cut his teeth with straight from the Pilot episode (later titled Northwest Passage), which is the single greatest episode of TV I’ve ever seen. The ending sequence of the Pilot, a terrifying nightmare of disjointed images and sounds that Laura’s mother experiences, is in itself probably the most radical TV has ever been up until that point (and arguably up until today, even). Two hours long, the episode can be considered a TV Movie, and a work of cinematic art that was much respected by audiences and provided damning evidence that network executives had heavily underestimated their viewership’s openness to experimentation and challenging material. They didn’t take the hint though.

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The episode is also a brilliant foreshadowing of how much more complex and intricate Lynch attempts to build the mythos of Laura Palmer, and her existence in Twin Peaks. The character serves as a direct opposite figure to Dale Cooper in the first season, and while Dale’s discovery of the town is our guiding spirit to the same, his investigation into who Laura Palmer really was is Lynch’s own journey to discover his character. Lynch sets up Laura as an all-American Homecoming queen, a winner of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, trophy girlfriend of the star football player at her high school, from a good family. Even the ending credits of the show scroll on a framed picture of Laura, hair glowing, eyes bright, immortalized. The following episodes, after the Pilot, systematically knocker her down notch by notch. That she was far from angelic in her last moments and instead was ultimately taken by an obsession with the demonic. She recites strange messages like “fire walk with me” and “do you want to get to know Bob?” The nightmare her mother experiences at the end of the Pilot might be connected to something.

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The first season, only 7 episodes, builds a town that includes all of Lynch’s favorite themes. Backstabbing and conniving soap opera melodrama with a twist at every turn. Teenagers in intimate conversations over their world which has suddenly become unpredictable and dangerous. Incredible evil caused by men who seek nothing but the destruction of others for their own selfish gains. Love. Fear. Lynch decried the trend of movies and TV being completely straightforward and understandable. He believed that works of visual art should be comprised purely of feeling, and those feelings should illicit something inside the viewer. His beliefs of what the visual medium should be guided the creation of the most brilliant television show in American history. A show both a representation as much as a reflection of us as people. Every moment of Season 1 carries us through pure feeling. It’s a surreal dream, anomalous to everything that existed before it. For the first time, television became art. But we are just now realizing it.