Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Half Time Report:
Twin Peaks: The Return
PLEASE NOTE: For the avoidance of confusion, I’ve chosen to refer to the third series of Twin Peaks aired in 2017 as “Twin Peaks: The Return”, or “Twin Peaks 2017”. The blu-ray box set sitting next to my TV may herald it as “A Limited Series Event”, but that makes it sound like promo for a range of aftershave or something, so I’ll avoid it and just stick to shorter suffix if nobody minds.
ALSO: As a side effect of my decision to stick to general impressions rather than being drawn into the discussion of individual plot points or story elements in the text below, this post remains largely free of spoilers, so – readers who are even later than me in catching up with the new ‘Twin Peaks’ are advised to read on and fear not.
Given that I posted my reflections on revisiting the original 1990-91 run of ‘Twin Peaks’ almost exactly two years ago, I suppose there may conceivably be some readers wondering what I made of the series’ much heralded 2017 reiteration. So, eight months late (which in fairness beats the 40+ years of lateness that apply to most of my posts here), it’s time for me to come down from the mountain and present my thoughts on the first 50% of this project’s epic eighteen episode run, which I have been watching for the first time this month.
At some point in the near future, I will aim to follow this up with another post, in order to assess how these half-digested impressions, opinions and hypotheses hold up once I have completed by viewing of the series.
1. Running on Empty: Episodes #1 - #6
Though episode # 1 sailed by nicely on the excitement and anticipation of being back in this world and meeting these familiar characters again, I’m afraid I can’t avoid the fact that episodes #2 to #6 proved a real drag. My experience of watching them was in fact characterised by a slow realisation that ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 was shaping up to be a considerable disappointment – either an entirely cynical venture on the part of David Lynch & Mark Frost, or else a colossal artistic miscalculation.
It’s not that the footage and ideas of which the seemingly endless, disjointed narrative strands that comprise these episodes are objectively bad, or boring, or offensive or anything, but… how can I best put this?
The core episodes of the original 1990-91 ‘Twin Peaks’ (which I would define as including everything up to and including the unmasking of Laura Palmer’s killer) were alternately mysterious, terrifying, funny and charming.
That’s not just a random list of subjective hyperbole either – it’s a very specific one. It is difficult for a piece of narrative film to maintain any of those feelings over an extended period of time, yet ‘Twin Peaks’ succeeded in delivering a intoxicating mixture of all of them, in over-powering quantities, week-on-week. That – more than any of the cultish Lynchian weirdness that people immediately associate with the show – is the reason why it made such an impression on viewers, and why it has acquired such legendary status.
This achievement is thrown into stark relief by the fact that the initial batch of episodes of the 2017 ‘Twin Peaks’ – as master-minded by a pair of creators now gifted with total freedom and seemingly unlimited resources – initially fail to deliver on any of these qualities.
Somewhat uniquely in my experience of watching film and television, they furthermore beg our indulgence in asking us to sit through an expanse of footage longer than some directors’ entire filmographies, before any equivalent redeeming qualities may or may not eventually begin to coalesce.
Should I wish to, I could prattle on for thousands of words about the myriad things that annoyed me through the arid expanse of episodes #2 to #6, but in retrospect, it occurs to me that what really irked me about them was basically the way that – just like show’s original run – ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 taps into the aesthetic of its era.
Just as the unique qualities of the ‘Twin Peaks’ 1990-’91 grew from the mutated framework of an ‘80s-‘90s daytime soap opera – complete with fuzzy, over-saturated colour, pungent promises of romance and melodrama, luxuriantly appointed sets and lush, overbearing musical cues – so ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 correspondingly anchors itself in the aesthetics of a 21st century HBO-style high-brow TV show.
Specifically, this equates to a visual tone of almost oppressively crystal clear, HD faux-reality – the cinematic equivalent of a modern office’s remorseless overhead strip-lights. The ‘relatable’/everyday qualities of the people who inhabit this environment meanwhile are heavily sign-posted at every turn, and we are repeatedly invited to join characters who are barely more than ciphers (despite reams of expositional back story) as they seemingly wallow dewy-eyed in the emptiness and alienation of their lives (in between exchanges of on-message wise-cracks and gratuitous displays of solipsistic decadence, that is).
As you will have gathered, this is not really an aesthetic I favour, and as such I found these early episodes a frustrating experience.
There are wonderful moments scattered through these episodes, of course. (Seeing Harry Dean Stanton, still full of spark and strength in one of his last ever screen appearances, is a particular highlight, even if the trailer park he manages seems to have been mysteriously teleported to Twin Peaks from the entirely different town in which it was located in ‘Fire Walk With Me’.)
The overall feeling though is one of blandness, with the bulk of the discursive plot strands subsisting purely on the level of somewhat diverting, mildly entertaining filler – somewhat akin to spending an afternoon watching random videos of people doing odd things on Youtube.
But, it is very much worth pointing out at this stage that the 1990-91 ‘Twin Peaks’ also took its sweet time to fully emerge from its soap opera / murder mystery cocoon. It was only with the revelation of Agent Cooper’s unconventional investigative methods, and his first vision of The Man From The Other Place (which must have been absolutely mind-boggling to unsuspecting viewers on first broadcast) that it became clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore, whilst further moments of capital letter Weirdness were doled out very sparingly thereafter.
By contrast, ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 inevitably showcases it’s dedication to the cause of High Weirdness right from the outset – indeed, it ostensibly piles it on in quantities hitherto unknown on broadcast TV. But, in retrospect I feel that the early episodes I’m discussing here were nonetheless operating on a similar ‘slow-build’ principle to the original series. Whether or not ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 will eventually succeed in blowing minds or upsetting expectations to an extent comparable to the 1990-91 run remains an open question at this point in my viewing (although it seems unlikely, given that a relentless tirade of trademark Lynchian hoo-hah have basically reduced our expectations to “literally anything could happen next”). But, for the moment, I can give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Paradigm Ambulance?
As I outlined in my previous ‘Twin Peaks’ post, I feel that the success of the series – and indeed the success of the trilogy of L.A. based quasi-horror films that Lynch has subsequently completed – relies to a significant extent upon the non-dogmatic interplay between psychological/expressionistic and overtly supernatural explanations of the on-screen events. (1)
To put this as simply as I can: in the 1990-91 ‘Twin Peaks’, what is the nature of the dark, evil thing – a thing too frightful for them to even mention it out loud, let alone assigning a name to it - that The Book House Boys and the other virtuous characters stand in opposition to?
Is it the gateway to another order of being, occupied by a malign power so alien in nature that – in classic Lovecraftian tradition – human sensory organs can only comprehend it in a garbled, fragmentary manner?
Or, is it the equally unspeakable truth of a network of child abuse and sexual exploitation that has existed beneath the surface of the town’s public life for so long that it has touched the lives of just about everybody?
The answer is of course that it is both – they are one and the same, and it is the frisson between these two paradigms that provides the series with much of its indelible power.
By disregarding this precarious balance, ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 is in danger of ultimately coming up empty, its events signifying little beyond their surface level function as an extended horror/science fiction potboiler.
Whilst the human drama of the new series is too diffuse and fragmentary for us to really dig into any of our characters emotional lives beyond their involvement in the Frost/Lynch mind-maze, likewise The Black Lodge / Other Place – so terrifying and inexplicable in the past – becomes merely banal in its 2017 reiteration. Stripped of the dense layers of fear and obfuscation that shadowed its existence in the original series, it is treated here simply as a routine (if admirably surrealistic) SF conceit.
To my great surprise in fact, the thing that is most sorely missed in ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 thus far is the sense of palpable fear and cosmic dread that has been a trademark of David Lynch’s work ever since ‘Eraserhead’.
As soon as those deep, dark drones start rumbling, the light fittings start flickering and the camera starts slowly edging around the next corner, anyone familiar with the director’s work will know the time has come to brace themselves accordingly. It may be have become a cliché by this point, and Lynch’s apparent desire to move on from it is perhaps understandable, but his failure to replace his ‘old faithful’ with any new ways to terrify us here is pretty dispiriting.
Although ostensibly upsetting and berserkly violent things happen with great frequency in the new ‘Twin Peaks’, few of them succeed in making any real impact. It’s as if, somehow, the man who once managed to make shots of ceiling fans and traffic lights resonate with soul-withering malevolence has here decided to rush through depictions of spectral hobos tearing people’s faces off and psychotic dwarfs murdering women with ice-picks as if he was just getting from A to B on a routine sit-com assignment.
Minor plot points and gnomic coded messages may still be dangled before the us as if they were tantalising hints of some ungraspable mystery, but, once we’ve become accustomed to the existence of the Lodge and basically accepted it as some sort of alternate dimension from which weird people, some good and some bad, occasionally emerge to fuck with us… well, beyond that, what mystery is left to uncover, really?
With the personal/‘psychological’ interpretation of events entirely off the table, are the precise details of what these beings are up to really all that important, or even interesting?
With the ‘supernatural’ plot-line thus rendered as innocuous as a surprisingly psychedelic episode of ‘The X Files’, the new ‘Twin Peaks’ often feels not just bland, but empty, hollowed out – chronically lacking in the thematic resonance and murky emotional depths that characterised the original series.
Moreso that the aesthetic/storytelling lapses I’ve griped about earlier in this post, I feel this will be a difficult obstacle for Frost & Lynch to overcome in subsequent episodes, but…. perhaps my constant comparisons to the original series are unhelpful here. Fingers crossed our writers are just re-setting the table here for some entirely different kind of thematic significance, as yet unguessed at by myself.
3. Picking up steam: Episodes #7 – #9
Although I think it’s best to retain my extended griping above, just in order to capture a range of arguments and observations that I hope will prove interesting on some level, I’m cautiously going to declare that my belief that, from episode # 7 onwards, the new ‘Twin Peaks’ has really been picking up steam, moving – albeit with painstakingly leisure – toward territory that has the potential to engage and fascinate us anew, and to pull us in directions that will hopefully render my desire to constantly reference back to the achievements of the original series happily unnecessary.
The new and not-so-new characters are finally starting to get their hooks into me, and the infuriating narrative non-sequiturs are finally starting to coalesce into something that suggests they may all actually be going somewhere meaningful, rather than just padding out the run-time with endless shaggy dog stories.
Still early days yet – even after nine hours! – but sparks of that old Lynch magic are finally starting to fly; in slo-mo, the match is being struck, throwing shadow on the rambling, inconsequential world we’ve been occupying for the past six/seven hours.
Particularly of note here of course is Episode # 8 (‘Got a Light?’), a sure-to-be-preceded-by-‘infamous’ benchmark of televisual headfuckery, which seemingly aims – with the same grandiose avoidance of subtlety that has characterised all of David Lynch’s 21st century work – to elicit the same dropped jaws and baffled expressions of disbelief from viewers that the original ‘Man From The Other Place’ sequence must have inspired back in 1990.
Essentially, this episode represents a self-contained, stand-alone David Lynch short film; but, unlike the similarly disjointed sequences that have also given this impression during the preceding episodes, ‘Got a Light?’ is an extremely distinctive and powerful David Lynch short film, harking directly back to the grotesquery and abstraction of ‘Eraserhead’ and early shorts like 1970’s ‘The Grandmother’, amped up to proportions the younger Lynch could only dream of by means of studio production values and the possibilities allowed by the (perhaps somewhat excessive) application of CGI effects.
So audacious in fact is this fifty minute diversion from all televisual norms that I’m almost inclined to believe Lynch simply grabbed a credit card from the production office, hired a bunch of visual effects artists and just started making the damn thing without seeking anyone’s approval, leaving somebody (Frost presumably) to desperately justify its existence by crow-baring in some tenuous connections to the ‘Twin Peaks’ universe.
Ironically, these forced and rather silly series references serve to rather spoil the overall effect of what is otherwise a perfectly unsettling surrealist tour de force on Lynch’s part – one that, for all that it may initially seem entirely disconnected from the rest of ‘Twin Peaks’, nonetheless succeeds in tearing open a whole new can of potential thematic concerns, through which the comparatively mundane episodes that surround it can perhaps be re-evaluated.
4. New patterns emerge?
In ‘Got a Light?’, Lynch seems to be introducing us to the notion that, at the point of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in 1945, some dark spirit entered the USA. Moving forward eleven years from there – and using a set of imagery highly reminiscent of atomic-era American monster movies – he portrays some beings apparently spawned from this event literally emerging from the New Mexico soil and infiltrating and/or violently destroying various symbols of the dream-like innocence that the director has always assigned to the beloved, electrified 1950s of his childhood.
In view of this, it is worth noting that allusions to American nationhood and the faintly melancholic reflections on “American dream”/national heritage type imagery that seems to pop up with peculiar persistence throughout the opening half of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’.
Alongside the expected celebration of the FBI as a great, inclusive national institution and general force for good in the world (once again, ‘Twin Peaks’ surely provides the Feds with the best PR they’ve received at any point in their existence), we have Gordon Cole – his desk backed by a giant blow up of a mushroom cloud – gazing longingly at the flag, and earnestly contemplating the photograph of Mt. Rushmore that Albert hands him at the start of their sojourn in South Dakota (“FACES OF STONE”).
In Las Vegas meanwhile, Dougie Jones (our sleeping hero) gazes blankly at the statue of a gesticulating cowboy that stands in the centre of the disconcertingly clean public square fronting the bland, new-build office complex that houses the insurance company for which he works. In a later scene, we find Dougie and Janey-E in the waiting area of a similarly anti-sceptic police station. As the cynical, self-absorbed Vegas cops waste their time, Dougie finds himself staring at the forlorn, loosely rolled American flag that sits in the corner of the room, as a warped, Caretaker-ised version of ‘America the Brave’ plays distantly on the soundtrack, and, of course, an electrical socket crackles ominously.
This reminds me in turn of one of The Log Lady’s cryptic messages to Deputy Hawk, in which – you’ll forgive me for not checking back to get an exact quote – she speaks of electricity being everywhere, crackling through the air, over the water and the woods, putting me in mind of the expressions of elation inspired by the electrification of the plains and the spread of electric lights to remote parts of the USA during the early 20th century. (I’m particularly reminded of Richard Brautigan’s beautiful I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone from ‘Revenge of the Lawn’.) The Log Lady goes on however to note that the power of which she speaks is getting dimmer, and harder to find – she says there’s not so much of it around, these days.
Could Lynch be moving here toward some kind of elegiac reflection on the slow death of America? Is he encouraging us to cross-reference these moments of patriotic nostalgia with the depression, violence and confusion that seems to characterise the air-conditioned lives of the show’s 21st century characters? Well, it’s just a thought. (2)
This all coincides of course with Lynch’s continued fascination with the sinister properties of electricity – a long-running trope within his work that reaches new heights in ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’. Rather than simply sign-posting the inter-connections between different orders of being (or, warning of the proximity of evil) as they have in past works, the fizzing sockets, crackling bulbs, humming power lines and so on seem at times here to be reaching a kind of continuous, rolling crescendo, drawing an inevitable comparison with the language of fire and light frequently employed by the denizens of the Lodge and their earthly intermediaries, and taking us, by implication, straight back to that ultimate holy fire - the nightmare of nuclear incineration depicted so vividly in ‘Got a Light?’
That episode title – uttered by the black-faced “woodsmen” creatures as they mechanically thrust unlit cigarettes in the face of prospective victims – speaks for itself in this context (as above, so below), as does Hawk’s unravelling of his ancient Native American map of the Twin Peaks area, with its ominous warning of the “black fire”.
The ‘blue rose’ (the code name for Gordon Cole’s covert unit within the FBI) is of course often used as an example something that does not occur within nature. Opponents of nuclear power have likewise often characterised atomic science as “unnatural”, raising spectres of a warning against “meddling in forces beyond our understanding” common to both Frankensteinian mad science narratives and also to the kind of occult/black magickal dabbling that – reflecting the fearful warnings of The Log Lady – could easily lead ill-prepared humans into communion with the denizens of the Lodge.
In view of the clear science fictional slant evidenced in ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’, I’m sure you’ll all recall Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted “sufficiently advanced science indistinguishable from magic” jive.
Given that ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ seems keen on going far more deeply into the origins of Cole’s “Blue Rose” investigations and their thoroughly X Files-y background in the US Army’s ‘Project Blue Book’, could we be looking at a ‘Twin Peaks’ that ends – in the ultimate example of bombastic narrative one-upmanship – with some supernaturally mandated countdown to Armageddon..? (Or, here’s hoping, something a little more original and thought-provoking, drawn from these same themes.) Fire Walk With Me, indeed.
That’s all for now – TO BE CONTINUED once I’ve been able to gather my thoughts after watching episodes #10 - #18.
(1) I won’t clog up space by going into it here, but I’d actually contest that ‘Lost Highway’, ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Inland Empire’ can all easily be read as taking place within the same “world” as ‘Twin Peaks’ – an idea that is lent further weight by the parallels with those films’ plot lines that creep into the 2017 series. In essence, all three of these films concern characters who are victimised by dark, evil powers from another order of being, manipulated by them into carrying out assassinations and other acts for reasons unknown, then abandoned to states of madness, fragmentation of identity and/or death. The flickering of electricity that heralds manifestations from beyond, the garbled messages of unclear significance delivered by its messengers, and the weird, unheimlich human forms they assume – none of this will be new to viewers of ‘Twin Peaks’, and no further evidence should be needed I feel to establish all of these works as part of the same shared universe.
(2) Through much of his work, Lynch seems to have been positing an “innocence corrupted” narrative of American society, presenting his shimmering, guilt-free suburban ideal of the 1950s – with a particular emphasis on the hope and excitement that that decade’s technology and engineered seemed to represent – and contrasting it with a creeping tide of cynicism, uncertainly, psychosis and moral turpitude that he seems to imply has weakened and eventually destroyed this ideal through subsequent decades. In ‘Blue Velvet’, we can see this latter strain portrayed as a kind of “worm in the apple” corrupting suburbia from within, and this interpretation can also obviously be placed upon the overriding narrative of the 1990-91 ‘Twin Peaks’.
Subsequent to this I think, it is notable that Lynch’s trilogy of L.A.-set films take place in a world that is already thoroughly corrupt, sinking deep into a noir-ish abyss and impossible for the kind of honest, avuncular characters that Lynch often champions to negotiate without finding their personalities shattered into pieces. It’s as if he is admitting that the battle has already been lost, that the America he knew as a child has already fallen, torn apart by the loss of innocence that was the second half of the 20th century. (This, essentially, is the story he gives us in miniature through the oddball science fictional imagery of ‘Got a Light?’)