Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Thoughts on…
Revisiting Twin Peaks.

Although it dominated my thoughts on cinema through my late teens and early twenties, my David Lynch obsession has (mercifully for the readers of this blog) lain largely dormant since shortly after the release of his last film to date, ‘Inland Empire’, (god-was-it-really) almost a decade ago.

Following the announcement last year that ‘Twin Peaks’ is due for a 25-years-later return in 2016 however, I became conscious of the fact that my recollection of the original series had faded into a mass of distant, fragmented images and half-forgotten characters buried deep in some forgotten archive in my long-term memory. Thus, I decided that I would quite like to revisit the series prior to this ‘revival’ (the nature & wisdom of which remains decidedly uncertain at the time of writing). As it turned out, my wife had never watched the series at all, so what further excuse did we need to break out the old DVDs?

And, in short, refamiliarising myself with ‘Twin Peaks - reliving its terror, mystery, absurdity and catharsis as if for the first time via my wife’s reactions - has proved an immensely enjoyable experience.

Rather than finding the show grating and insincere, as I feared I might when reassessing it from a more detached, ‘grown up’ point of view, returning to ‘Twin Peaks’ has in fact only served to deepen my appreciation for what David Lynch and Mark Frost managed to achieve through this production.

What follows therefore is merely a collection of tangents and observations that occurred to me whilst re-watching the original episodes of the series, arranged in no particular order and leading up to no particular conclusion, but hopefully perhaps providing a few new avenues for fans of the show to ponder as they nervously anticipate the forthcoming quarter century reunion.

SPOILER WARNING: Whilst I have avoided giving away the story’s Big Reveal in the post that follows, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to avoid hinting at it pretty strongly in places. As such: readers who have not watched ‘Twin Peaks’ in its entirety and intend to do so at some point in their life are STRONGLY ADVISED to skip the remainder of this post until said viewing has been completed. (I’m not usually too bothered about such things, but as those ‘in the know’ will understand in this case, prior knowledge would tend to ruin one’s full appreciation of the show to a significant extent.)

1. Twin Peaks is a rigidly moral universe.

Like many viewers I suspect, I recalled ‘Twin Peaks’ largely as a series of rambling digressions and jarring tonal shifts – but in actual fact, the feature length pilot and seven subsequent episodes that form the first series are as tight as a drum in terms of their construction: painstakingly assembled packages of soap opera-via-horror movie emotional manipulation, centred around an elemental ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy as strictly enforced as that of a Christian morality play (even as organised religion plays almost no role in the show whatsoever).

If we examine the series in terms of its most basic conflicts in fact, we find a universe that is closer in essence to the romantic fantasy of something like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ that it is to the morally ambiguous, reality-based fiction that it at first appears to be, in spite of the myriad complications that are thrown in to put us off the scent.

When contemplating the first series of ‘Twin Peaks’, one could easily draw a diagram incorporating every single character, their positions defined within a fixed moral framework. (If I had any talent whatsoever for capturing facial likenesses in sketches, there is a chance I might have actually, literally drawn this diagram as some kind of insane work of outsider art, so… let’s all be thankful that I don’t.)

On the right hand side of the diagram, we can envisage the forces of ‘good’, clustered around Agent Cooper and the micro-community within the Sheriff’s office, also incorporating Big Ed (still my favourite character after all these years) and the protective spirit of The Bookhouse Boys, Dr Hayward, Major Briggs, Norma at the diner, and the equally steadfast presence of Pete Martell at The Mill.

These are strong characters, their moral integrity and inner peace keeping them safe from corruption or ‘attack’ by the dark terrors that swirl around the town. Whatever day-to-day perils they might face on the physical plain, on a spiritual/psychic level, they collectively constitute an unassailable fortress.

Branching off slightly from the fortress toward the centre of the diagram, we find James, Donna and Maddy – the ‘good kids’ who remain under the nominal protection of their elders, even as their Nancy Drew-like investigations frequently put them in danger of succumbing to ‘the dark’ – their youth making them susceptible to the deadly combination of personal weakness and metaphysical assault that, even whilst never given name or form within the show, adds an eerie, walking-on-eggshells quality to their scenes throughout the first series.

Far away on the other (left hand) side of the diagram meanwhile lurk the dark, dark woods, and the Evil – terrible, unknowable, unnameable, soul-destroying. In its human aspect: Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault (traditional Bad Men, their spirits so degraded they can tread close to the heart of darkness without even knowing it – literally so, on the night of Laura’s death). In its non-human aspect: the nightmare world of Killer Bob and One Armed Mike, which I will freely admit remains utterly terrifying to me to this day (because no one, but no one, in the field of popular culture pulls off that utter-fucking-terror thing like David Lynch, however old hat his tricks may seem when examined after the fact).

Skirting the line between the ‘evil’ realm and the diagram’s central no-mans-land, we have a little boat captained by Benjamin Horne (also housing Jerry, Blackie of One-Eyed Jacks, and Catherine Martell): figures whose greed and moral turpitude places them far within the influence of the dark, but not so much so that they couldn’t escape it, should they choose to try.

And in the very centre of this diagram of course: Laura Palmer. The empty space around whom everyone else in this system must define themselves from the moment the show begins. Strongly subject to the pull of both good and evil – succumbing to both, repelling both – the central area around her becomes a whirlpool of opposing forces.

Scattered in this maelstrom are the show’s ‘lost souls’ – weaker characters, many of them close to Laura, drawn to the light but damaged by the darkness, without the inner strength to know what is happening to them or to determine their own fate. Bobby Briggs, Dr. Jacoby, Audrey Horne, Josie Packard. And, closest to the centre of the whirlpool of course, the poor, tragic spirits of Leland and Sarah Palmer.

Having laid all that out, I hope I won’t sound too crazy when I state that absolutely everything in series # 1 of ‘Twin Peaks’ fits into this scheme completely. Once you have the form of this diagram in mind, there are very few loose ends, very few threads left hanging.

(One remaining anomaly of course is The Log Lady, who, based on a number of hints quietly dropped in the second series, I think might best be defined as a former victim of the town’s ‘evil’, who, as a result of the resulting trauma, has built up psychic walls to protect herself from it. She lives near the whatever-it-is, intercepts messages from it, but is no longer under threat from it.)

2. The Mike / Bobby thing is worth a mention.

One interesting red herring / unexplored avenue / random headfuck [delete as applicable] in the early episodes of ‘Twin Peaks’ is the implied relationship between the town’s “real life” Mike and Bobby – dumb teenage punks stumbling toward a life of low-level criminality (and thus into the realm of the show’s ‘evil’) – and the supernatural ‘Mike’ and ‘Bob’ whom Cooper and the other characters encounter in dreams and visions.

From the garbled and dream-mangled impressions we receive of these entities, we might initially envisage them as a pair of middle-aged criminals or sadists of some kind, who, lurking in the minds of their victims, have somehow become transfigured into fearful disembodied figures in the psychic realm, pitched somewhere between demons, malevolent magicians and elemental avatars of negative human emotion.

Given that Cooper pointedly states that his dream takes place twenty five years after the present, the logical implication here is that One-Armed Mike and Killer Bob represent the terrible beings that the real life Mike and Bobby will become a quarter century hence, should they continue to pursue their callous and destructive path through life. (Eerily, the vague similarities between the two pairs of actors are just close enough to make this seem plausible, in some dream-logic type fashion.)

Whilst this angle is understandably dropped from the storyline once One-Armed Mike becomes a real-world presence in the form of Mr. Gerard, and the circumstances surrounding Laura’s life and death begin to become clearer, it is nonetheless a queasy and potent notion that sticks in the mind longer than it has any right to. (It might make an interesting springboard for a potential 25-five-years-later storyline, perhaps..?)

3. To fight Great Evil, it takes Great Good.

If you boil down David Lynch’s feature filmography down to its basic essence, what you tend to find are stories of lonely, drifting or otherwise emotionally troubled individuals who are drawn into contact with some spirit of ‘evil’ that, whether interpreted in supernatural or psychological terms, is almost too malignant and frightening for the human mind to bear, and subsequently find themselves tranformed or destroyed by it.

Whilst ‘Twin Peaks’ contains some of the most upsetting outbreaks of this ‘evil’ ever realised by Lynch, it is also the only entry in his canon to set up an equally strong force for ‘good’ alongside the horror. Rather than being characterised as doomed victims, riding a noir-ish whirlpool to their inevitable destruction (as per so many of Lynch’s feature films), the people of Twin Peaks at least have a fighting chance.

This innovation could well be attributed to Mark Frost (whom it is all too easy to see as the Derleth to Lynch’s Lovecraft in this particular partnership), but nonetheless, in the first series at least, it is explored in purely Lynchian terms. ‘Good’, for Lynch, is represented by feelings of comfort, compassion and familiarity, and, at times, these virtues are rendered just as powerfully in ‘Twin Peaks’ as the stark terror and threat of the nameless ‘evil’.

Through the shared appreciation of “damn good coffee” and the lunch-time slice of pie, the rituals of ‘good’ are asserted, and the atmosphere cleansed. The scenes early in the series, in which Agent Cooper is initiated into the ways of The Bookhouse Boys, and in which he and the sheriff’s deputies bond on the shooting range (when Hawk memorably recites the poem he wrote for his girlfriend), convey such a spirit of acceptance and belonging that it is almost overwhelming. As long as guys like this are on the case, the viewer is invited to think, the nameless shadow that hangs over the town can never triumph.

Whilst it is all too easy for less insightful fictions to quantify ‘heroism’ in terms of intelligence and physical strength, ‘Twin Peaks’ is generally careful to side-step this misapprehension, demonstrating in its best moments that the our heroes’ ‘strength’ – that which makes them impervious to the evil into which they delve - exists primarily on a spiritual and moral level. This is expressed through their honesty and selflessness, their acceptance of ‘difference’ within their community (whether it be Cooper’s magickal detective work, the ways of The Log Lady or David Duchovny in drag) and their willingness to help others through difficult times; their love for the people around them, basically.

(As an aside, the mythos of The Bookhouse Boys is to my mind one of the most interesting and under-utilised ideas in ‘Twin Peaks’. The notion of a group of entirely conventional, down-to-earth guys feeling drawn together to organise and guard against a threat so vague and nebulous that none of them can even speak about it out loud or express what it is, is one that greatly appeals to me, and that I would very much like to see further explored in any new iteration of the series. [Whilst on the subject: why the ‘bookhouse’? What is this ‘bookhouse’? What are the nature of the books in it, and who put them there? Has no one ever summoned up the courage to say, “guys, I think the word we’re looking for here is ‘library’”? – all these are questions long overdue an answer.] )

4. Authoritarian Mysticism.

Something else about ‘Twin Peaks’ that had never really occurred to me until I started considering it in terms of the ‘good vs evil’ framework outlined above is how thoroughly conservative the assignment of roles within the show is (on the surface level, at least).

Whilst most of the show’s human villains are very traditional ‘bad guy’ types – drifters, petty criminals, pimps and corrupt businessmen, mostly identified as working class -‘Twin Peaks’ conversely paints an extraordinarily positive picture of traditional authority figures.

Police officers, federal agents, even an Air Force Major (and in one episode, a judge and a District Attorney) – these characters are presented, not only as our main protagonists and moral anchors, but as noble, complex and idiosyncratic individuals – warriors, sages and seekers-into-the-mystery, all navigating their own strange paths to enlightenment.

Of course, American popular culture is not exactly lacking in stories that glorify the exploits of unconventional law enforcement officials, but, coming from a counter-culture aligned representative of the ‘baby boomer’ generation like David Lynch – the enfant terrible director of ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild At Heart’, no less – such portrayals swing so far from what we might expect that they become almost transgressive. Especially so given that, as outlined in point # 2 above, the authority figures of ‘Twin Peaks’ are about as far removed from the violent rule-breakers of the John Wayne/’Dirty Harry’ tradition as it is possible to get

Instead, the show’s cops and agents all embrace the civic duty and regimental conformity of their office with almost comical solemnity, whilst simultaneously embodying a set of values that American culture more commonly assigns to lone mystics, saintly humanitarian figures, or, less charitably, just plain hippies.

By so pointedly overturning the clichés of the doltish small town cop, the hard-headed FBI agent and the bullying military dad, Lynch & Frost repeatedly create fresh, interesting and unpredictable characters for us to identify with, and perhaps even to a certain extent succeed in opening the minds of those of us who grew up images of Rodney King beatings and Vietnam massacres to a different, more measured understanding of the human beings behind this kind of civic authority, and the positive force they can exert. And in a certain sense, what could possibly be more subversive than that?

5. When quality drops, it drops hard.

Back when I first viewed ‘Twin Peaks’, the much vaunted drop in quality between the first and second series never struck me as that much of an issue, but, returning to it again with my critical faculties more carefully attuned, what can I say but - ouch.

As I suppose will be obvious to fans, all of my fine words above and below relate primary to the ‘core’ of the series – that being, the first season, and the portions of the second season directly related the mystery surrounding Laura’s murder. Outside of that, the speed with which the carefully wrought atmosphere and universe of the show’s first series falls apart in season # 2 is staggering.

Whilst the business with Major Briggs and the Black and White Lodges remains diverting, any sense of real gravitas is long gone (it’s as if a Zulawski or Herzog film suddenly turned into an episode of ‘The X Files’, effectively), and by the time the central mystery of Laura’s death is concluded, it is only the fine characterisations previously established by actors like Kyle MacLachlan, Jack Nance, Don S. Davis, Everett McGill and Sherilyn Fenn that even keep things watchable. In terms of writing and direction, we’re running on fumes from thereon in.

Whilst there is no point dwelling unduly on the negative, there are a couple of characters in particular who are very poorly served by this quality drop. In particular, it is the younger characters who seem to get their personal story arcs most cruelly bashed out of shape by the second series, and this irks me to the extent that I’d quite like to tell you about it.

Having started out as a not-terribly-likeable caricature of a swaggering teen delinquent, Bobby Briggs seemed to have turned a corner and become a potentially interesting character by the end of season #1. Breaking down under questioning from Dr Jacoby, he tearfully admits that it was Laura who convinced him to start pushing drugs and getting involved with bad guys, and, with her corrupting influence removed, we start to see a picture of the goofy, innocent teenager beneath emerging. When his father subsequently reveals his dream of his son’s future happiness, we see Bobby genuinely touched, and, perhaps boosted by his initially very positively portrayed relationship with Shelly, we start to feel that he has perhaps been ‘saved’, under the terms of the show’s moral schema.

All this goes straight out of the window in season # 2 though, as he’s immediately back to being a two-dimensional teen hood straight of a second rate sit-com – an easier sell for both actor and writers, no doubt, but a shameful betrayal of the character who was just beginning to emerge at the end of season # 1.

Even more redundant are James and Donna, who, I’d imagine I won’t be the first to observe, are a complete waste of space in season # 2. Whilst their ambiguous moral position, and the trauma of their proximity to Laura’s murder and the dark deeds of her killer, fuels the drama of their scenes very effectively in season # 1, season #2 drops the ball horrendously.

In terms of season # 1’s strict moral scheme, the mess their little gang gets into with the unfortunate Harold Smith should see them advancing further down the path of danger and corruption – ignoring their moral culpability for his death whilst they increasingly let their own self-pity and melodramatic emotional hang-ups define their actions, at the expense of those around them. If the menace of the earlier episodes was still hanging in the air, this is the point at which the show’s ‘evil’, feeding on such weakness, would make its presence felt and draw them in.

The writers and directors of season # 2 dodge this necessary judgement call entirely however, apparently expecting us to indulge and even sympathise with these solipsistic wet blankets, and, as a result, their respective plotlines drivel off into sub-soap opera tedium and irrelevance. (And, if there’s one thing worse than a daytime soap, it’s daytime soap material that thinks it is being better and cooler than a daytime soap, whilst failing to actually offer up anything at all to critique or transcend the form.)

Whilst on a roll, I could also lament the way that the entire Jean Renault / One-Eyed Jacks storyline, having been so painstakingly built up, fizzles out in an ‘action set-piece’ so flat and half-hearted it leaves no impression on the wider narrative whatsoever, and could rue the day that some script editor decided that the pantomime villainy of Windom Earle made an appropriate replacement for the genuine horror of the forces tied up with Laura’s death, but… well, you get the idea – I think we’ve dwelt on this long enough.

6. ‘Twin Peaks’ is a great work of art.

Above and beyond all of the irony, surrealism and affected quirk that ‘Twin Peaks’ wears like a cloak, the central story of Laura Palmer’s life and death remains a tragedy that no remotely sensitive viewer can remain untouched by, whilst the far-reaching implications and coded, hidden worlds that are uncovered in the course of the investigation of her death can’t help but echo those of similar, undocumented stories – cruel, painful and endlessly circular – that unfold in every city in the world, every day.

By establishing a framework that allows every single facet of one such ‘case’ to be absorbed in the form of popular entertainment – crucially keeping the audience ‘in the dark’ until it is far too late for them to withdraw their emotional investment – Lynch and Frost achieve something uniquely powerful.

Although both creators have repeatedly insisted that they never intended to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer (the lore around the show claiming that this was a decision dictated by the broadcaster ABC), I find such a dismissal difficult to believe, given how beautifully the ‘big reveal’ is eventually handled, and how thoroughly the light of the resulting knowledge retrospectively casts a dark shadow over everything we have seen up to that point – a shadow that, ultimately, defines the meaning of the entire series.

Characteristic of David Lynch’s directorial work, the scenes surrounding the ‘reveal’ operate on a level of psychic/emotional ‘truth’ that at times becomes entirely disconnected from the logic real world cause & effect. In particular, take the way that the murderer’s third killing (the moment at which the penny drops for the audience) is intercut with an almost otherworldly gathering of souls at The Roadhouse (where Julee Cruise’s band plays, and the giant appears to inform Cooper that “IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN”).

Various characters, all of them close to Laura, have gathered there for no reason that is ever made explicitly clear. As they sit separately around the room whilst Cruise and Badalamenti’s upbeat yet strangely harrowing dream-pop music plays and Coop mulls over the realisation that he has failed to anticipate or prevent another killing, a shared feeling of realisation seems to creep over all of the characters similtaneously, even though, in story terms, they do not yet know the literal truth. Why could we not see what was happening? Why did we let it continue? Somewhere deep in their souls, they – and by extension, the whole town – knew the answer. They just couldn't admit it to themselves until now. They did nothing, but what could they do, against a secret so closely guarded? We can place no blame upon them.

Without needing to utter a word out loud, the scene overwhelms us with a combination of sadness, resignation, forgiveness and horror, as the characters see that same shadow stretching back across all they’ve experienced up to this point, just as we feel it falling across the memory of this intriguing and entertaining TV show we’ve been watching over the past however many weeks.

As mentioned earlier in this piece, Lynch’s mysteries can always be approached in either supernatural or psychological/symbolic terms – but crucial to their power is the fact that neither interpretation cancels out the other. Like the work of any magician, it exists on both plains simultaneously.

Put it this way, perhaps: Lynch & Frost could easily have made a grim, real life drama about the events in the Palmer household. It might have been harrowing and compelling, with committed performances and inspired direction. But few would have had the stomach to watch it, let alone fully engage with it, and I certainly wouldn’t be talking about it today.

By drawing us instead into the dark mysteries of The Other Place, the dwarf and the giant, the occult fragments and obtuse clues that lead to the terrifying realm of Killer Bob, they have us hooked before we even know what we’re hooked with.

When Bob makes his attacks – revved up using all the tricks in the Lynch playbook, like the elemental father of every horror movie boogeyman – we feel a genuine sliver of the kind of raw terror experienced daily by victims and perpetrators alike in real life situations that mirror that of Laura's. As we don’t initially know the root of what we’re seeing and feeling, our armour is not in place, and it goes straight in like a knife.

Then, when we’ve been through the worst of it together, when Laura’s murderer eventually leaves this world at peace, the remaining part of his heart that loved her duly forgiven, and the other characters come to terms with the unpalatable truth that is now out in the clear light of day, we feel a kind of ‘closure’ that is difficult to put into words.

I should conclude here by saying that I’m speaking here as someone who has never been at all affected by any of the, uh, ‘issues’ involved in this storyline, but its resolution still left me flattened. I can’t even imagine the effect that viewing ‘Twin Peaks’ might have on someone for whom such issues did have personal significance, but, I believe that effect would ultimately be positive, and indeed, I hope it was.


Gregor said...

Hi Ben
Great post! Quite an odd piece of synchronicity there. I watched Twin Peaks (and several other Lynch films) for the first time last year. Previously I had only seen Dune and some of Wild at Heart.

Whilst I enjoyed your review and insights, I did however disagree with some of your points. For instance I don't dispute that Twin Peaks operates within a dualist moral universe or that Lynch has things he obviously associates with 'good' or even that he comes across as a small c conservative, but I also think his work is strongly based on individual morality concerning egoism and freedom.

My own view is that that moment in Blue Velvet where the degenerate Frank blubbers and gets overcome with emotion when listening to Roy Orbison's 'In Dreams' really is the most purely refined essence of a recurring theme in Lynch's work.

On the surface (indeed consciously to Orbison himself) In Dreams is a sentimental tale of unrequited love, but the lyrics? 'In dreams you're mine, all the time'. Can't really get much creepier than that.

I thought that in Blue Velvet there was maybe a metatextual joke on the audience- that we are supposed to be appalled by Frank and touched by Jeffrey's kindness towards a damaged and vulnerable woman, but in his own utterly warped mind Frank is also affected and moved by Dorothea's vulnerability.

Perhaps it is an uncomfortable fact of human nature that someone's free will can make them less lovable or us less happy. In another Lynch film a protagonist with a Lynchian homeliness behaves with exemplary generosity to a vulnerable companion, later we see them responding with homicidal jealousy when it turns out the companion just isn't that into them- the implication being that anyone can be impressively altruistic when feeling utter control, when it is freedom that tests us.

I thought this was part of what made Twin Peaks so powerful- Dale Cooper never meets Laura Palmer. She exists only as an archetype of a beautiful young woman. Does she become more or less tragic the more we know of her? Lynch portrays Cooper as a white knight, but this contrasts with most of the people who knew her. He sees people who were moved by her- indeed her murderer seemed to want to possess her.

My own view was that there was possibly a very slight hint that Palmer could have corrupted or redeemed him (not by hedonism but by jealousy- I got the impression that her hedonistic lifestyle corrupted her killer by jealousy). Was Lynch saying that a beautiful young woman does have a near mystic ability to test men and that is part of the meaning of the lodge? I don't think either of these questions are ones that Lynch would want to answer definitely or ploddingly, but they came up from watching his other films. I noticed also according to wikipedia, that Cooper was named after an aeroplane hijacker who baled out over a mountain range, whose body has never been found. This both implies a greater moral ambiguity and it does speak of a lost man and of someone with a dramatic fall.

It is interesting in the context of Lynch's other films that you mention Ed as your favourite character. Being honest I soon found myself skipping through that narrative, but I wonder if Ed is a kind of Lynch ideal of a genuine romantic hero- a guy who loves a woman who left him and is also loyal to a woman who gives him little happiness?

Gregor said...

Uh yeah, speaking about his wife this kind of leads me on to another (though possibly more subjective) point I'd disagree with you on. I think Lynch's no 1 weak point is his interest in mental illness and physical disability combined with what seems to me a very disappointing lack of imagination in how to portray it. This is bad in the context of the wider story but I personally found that to be the worst aspect of Twin Peaks- I just didn't find Bob, Mike or the killer frightening. Head clutching. Staring into space. Maniacal laughter. These feel to me like overused motifs Lynch the art student might have borrowed from Munch or some other visual artist*. By contrast I found the lesser bad guys a lot better- Hank Jennings with his puppy dog eyes and studied bluecollar gaucheness/ Jean Renault with his charm and odd blend of cultural influences. I thought that the film Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me failed largely because it put too much dramatic pressure on the killer, who in my opinion simply wasn't a very good actor.

Lynch's lack of imagination with portraying mental illness also extended to other types of disability and I don't think you'd need to be a fierce SJW to cringe a bit at having two running 'comedy' plots concerning brain damage playing simultaneously. Whilst it could be tempting to blame this on less gifted collaborators, Lynch's own cameo as a deaf man WHO SHOUTS A LOT does kind of blow that out of the water.

Whatever quibbles with some aspects, I don't disagree that Twin Peaks is a masterpiece- I've never had such a strong feeling that I've lived (even dreamed) in a place I've seen onscreen. I thought Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway both toned down the features I disliked in Lynchs earlier works, but at the same time they also lacked their vivacity so perhaps Lynch is an all or nothing kind of guy.

Ben said...

Hi Gregor –

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply (I haven’t had time for any weblog stuff this week, sadly).

Really interesting stuff re: ‘Blue Velvet’ and freedom / individuality in Lynch’s films. It’s been a very long time since I watched ‘Blue Velvet’ (time for a revisit, I think), but that’s definitely a compelling alternative reading of ‘Twin Peaks’.

The idea of Cooper as a “white knight” character is interesting too. As I stated in my post, I enjoy his brand of selfless heroism a great deal whilst watching the series, but as my wife commented once or twice, “he’s just too perfect really, isn’t he?” Presumably the writers began to see this too, and it’s weird that in the very last episode of the show, they suddenly decide to turn it into a kind of “grail quest” story (even mentioning Glastonbury Grove and King Arthur, fairly randomly), having the “white knight” enter the “chapel perilous” to face his worst fears in order to rescue his true love.

For a variety of reasons, this doesn’t quite work, but perhaps the main one is that evil (in both the show and wider storytelling/mythology) works through fear, temptation and moral corruption. At no point in the story does Cooper show any real sign of weakness, so to have him walk into the lodge fearless and basically just get bonked on the head by Bob seems all wrong. If he’d instead found his moral ‘innocence’ challenged as he followed in the footsteps of Laura, and had had to deal with a genuine conflict within himself when he entered the lodge, that might have been more interesting all round (if rather reminiscent of his character in ‘Blue Velvet’, I suppose).

And speaking of bumps on the head, you make an extremely good point about the portrayal of mental and physical disability in Lynch’s films. I’d never really thought about this before, but you’re completely spot on. In fact, in a lot of ways, his use of such characters isn’t much more developed than that seen in old horror films that have dwarfs and hunchbacks running around just because they’re “freaky” (something I’m never entirely comfortable with).

In Lynch’s defence, I think (as you mention) that he tends to plan out his ‘big images’ in the terms of a “visionary” visual artist more than a storyteller – he puts exactly what he “sees” on the screen, regardless of anyone’s concerns about good taste or representations of minority groups etc (you could say the same thing about Fellini – a big influence on Lynch), but even so, his repeated use of, say, elderly people suffering from dementia to convey feelings of weirdness and fear is definitely something some might justifiably take objection to.

Similarly, the cartoonish ‘bump on the head’ approach to mental illness in ‘Twin Peaks’ comedic plotlines gets a bit grating. If you were feeling charitable, you could say that the portrayal of the town as a kind of ‘kooky’ place where such, uh, extreme eccentricity is accepted and tolerated has it’s flipside in the fact that no one questioned the erratic behaviour of Laura’s murderer too closely, allowing his ‘dark side’ to remain undetected until he had killed again… but this is not a point the show itself ever really makes – I’m just projecting it.

That said though, I don’t think that the murderer is really meant to be seen as mentally ill, despite his “look at me, I’m crazy” type mugging. Rather than seeing him in terms of split personality disorder or schizophrenia, I think it’s more powerful to just see him as a dramatisation of the way that people who commit abuse can separate that side of themselves from their day to day life so completely that it’s almost as if a ‘different person’ takes over when they approach their victims – a phenomena of which we’ve seen some particularly chilling examples in the high profile celebrity abuse cases that have been big news here in the UK in recent years.

Gregor said...

Hi Ben
Thanks for your response! It has given me quite a bit to think about. I never noticed the Arthurian references before and admittedly only get them now because I watched Excalibur. I really have to read more of British mythology. Also a good point about kooky eccentricity and blindness to flaws, in the context of modern Britain and some of our 'endearingly offbeat' celebs of such recent times.

I would agree that Lynch is a very visual director and perhaps this comes from his Fellini influence, It is curious you mentioned Herzog in your original post because I also had a Herzog binge last year and I think that might have highlighted some of Lynch's weaknesses by comparison. For instance, it sounds like Klaus Kinski was a nightmare to work with, but their collaborations did give Herzog a moral gravity for exploring his themes of alienation and mental illness. Kinski's acting at the end of Woyzek might not be any subtler than Laura Palmer's killer, but I found it haunting in a way that the TP killer never was. Though as you say, it is possible he was not supposed to be mentally ill (you could possibly say, especially given his staring in the mirror it was almost like he was hamming up an insanity plea).

By a bit of a contrast with Herzog's favourite collaborators, Lynch somehow connected with Kyle McLachlan as an actor in a way that he hasn't connected with any others, in a way I'd find impossible to really articulate- and would even say that McLachlan's very ordinariness makes his Lynch collaborations more fascinating. McLachlan does not seem to have had a hugely successful career outside of Lynch's works and I don't really have a great interest in tracking down his other films, but in Twin Peaks he somehow managed to make a largely straightforward goodie seem oddly complex and ambiguous. I did like the scene where Jean Renault blames him for the troubles in Twin Peaks and I really don't think that line was either throwaway or a lame effort to find a motive for Renault's actions but it must have had some deeper meaning for the creators. Consciously I would say McLachlan was very good at combining spontaneous, impulsive gaucheness with intelligence, but at the same time there was a lot I liked about his Dale Cooper that I cannot really put into words, at least on first viewing.

On the McLachlan note, I would definitely recommend a rewatch of Blue Velvet. In terms of spectacle it certainly delivers- the scene of the lobotomised cop with the radio in his pocket standing next to a broken TV shows Lynch's terrific visual imagination at its best. But I also think it could suggest that Frost deserves more credit than he often gets for TP in that he did provide a more rounded ensemble and more ambiguous characters and TP did have a better detective story.

I started watching Lynch because I'd seen him named as an influence on two contemporary TV shows I liked- True Detective (season 1) and Hannibal (this coming from a guy who generally thinks Hannibal Lector is the most embarrassingly over-rated horror franchise ever). I'm not much of a fan of these new-fangled films but I think some modern TV shows have made pretty good progress in characterisation and set design even if they are not so groundbreaking in ideas/concept.