Saturday, April 1, 2017

Twin Peaks (1st season)

A lot of water has gone over the falls since David Lynch's Twin Peaks aired on network TV beginning in April 1990.  I was a fan of Lynch's work then and recall watching the show faithfully during the two seasons that it aired.  The serial is now rebroadcast on Netflix as a promotion for a new series starring many of the same actors who made the show famous in 1990 -- Twin Peaks rebooted is scheduled for release on Netflix in May 2017.  The original show made its viewers feel hip and "in the know" -- we were part of a secret society attuned to Lynch's trademark oddity.  Although I admired the show, and was one of the few Lynch fans who appreciated the director's weird pendant to the TV program, the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, I didn't really remember anything about the show except its curious atmosphere of lazy dread and lust, the lavishly beautiful leading ladies in the program, the Pacific Northwest scenery (waterfalls, lakes brimming with cold, black water, and haunted woods), and, of course, Angelo Baldamenti's remarkably effective musical score.  My life was complicated in those days and I watched most episodes at the house of my girlfriend (now my wife). Much of Lynch's scenario was so peculiar that it became unmoored in my imagination -- in a room with scarlet curtains a dwarf was dancing and someone spoke backwards.  But what did it mean?  No one knew. 

The first season of Twin Peaks consists of eight episodes.  The first program, the so-called Pilot (to use the nomenclature of the time) was broadcast as a two-hour show -- it now appears as a program about an hour and thirty-five minutes long on Netflix (Cable doesn't broadcast the commercials added to the show to fit the program's initial two-hour time-slot.  An alert viewer, however, can see where the commercials were inserted into the show and the way that the narrative was, in fact, structured to create minor narrative frissons to keep the audience interested over the advertising breaks spaced at 15 minute intervals.)  The seven subsequent episodes of Twin Peaks first season are about 40 to 43 minutes long.  As everyone knows, Twin Peaks involves an effort by an FBI agent working with town authorities to solve the torture-murder of Laura Palmer, an 18-year old girl who was the village's Homecoming Queen.  The show is strangely claustrophobic, relying upon formulaic shots of the locations between the action shuttles -- we see the Sheriff's department, Horne's Department Store, a roadhouse in the country, the Great Northern a rustic-style lodge located on the brink of an ominous-looking waterfall, and One-Eyed Jacks, a Canadian brothel with red velvet walls and curtains.  The cast is large and there are many subplots -- most of the marriages depicted involve adulterous liaisons and the characters scheme to harm one another:  an abused wife plans to kill her brutal truckdriving husband; a sensitive young biker admits to an affair with Laura Palmer but, then, falls in love with the dead girl's cousin (reprising Vertigo for the teenage set); the owner of the Great Northern schemes to transform a local forest, Ghostwood, into a golf course courting first Norwegian and, then, Icelandic investors; the girls at the perfume counter in the downtown department store double as whores in the Canadian brothel; a mill-owner's beautiful Asian widow conspires to burn down the timber factory to keep the enterprise from falling into the hands of her deceased husband's sister, and so on.  This is all mildly engaging, although there are longuers over the course of the 8 hours of the first season.  Until the last episode of Season One, a show that seems to have been filmed on different (and inferior) locations and that is so rushed as to be incoherent -- this was to be the season finale -- the pace is andante, dreamy, with many luscious dissolves and fades:  a woman's face, for instance, gradually becomes trees whipping in an enigmatic gale; landscapes melt into one another and, at the bottom of the geography, as it were, we see the great waterfall throwing ribbons of white lace into a deep pit; the top of Lynch's geography, it's summit, of course, is the icy crest of the Twin Peaks, a domain of glacial snow that we see from time to time, typically glimpsed towering above huge trucks carrying bundles of tree-sized logs precariously chained together.  The interiors are all loving detailed and crammed with kitsch -- for instance, there are faux-Haida designs at the Great Northern and a mural showing men wrestling with an immense log.  The color scheme of the movie is based upon the colors that the visitor encounters immediately upon landing in Seattle's airport -- everything is a kind of enameled cherry-red, the tint of fine redwood that has been polished to the glaze of a ballroom floor. 

Everyone remembers Twin Peaks as being cheeky and glib, a kind of kitschy melodrama that engaged you intensely while you were simultaneously laughing at it.  (The show even features a double of itself, a daytime soap opera that everyone is always watching, also involving much adultery and violence.)  In fact, people's recollection of the show as a ludicrously plotted dark comedy, an exercise in heterosexual camp, doesn't account for half of the program.  In fact, Twin Peaks is often very cruel and harrowing -- Lynch doesn't shy away from the consequences inflicted on the community and Laura Palmer's family by the young woman's murder.  There are many close-ups of faces ravaged by grief and people go insane from sorrow.  For every campy scene, there is an episode of unmitigated horror and grief.  Pauline Kael remarked upon Lynch that he uses "the blackest blacks of any filmmaker" -- she was referring to the visual texture of Lynch's early films, but, of course, the comment is also morally and metaphysically acute.  In a Lynch film, dark opposes light -- Lynch's heros and heroines are all drawn from a severely limited lexicon of characters:  his good folk are well-meaning, if stupid, bourgeoisie, obsessive cops, and tormented teenagers who league together to try to solve terrible crimes.  His villains are monsters of unmitigated horror -- lustful, sadistic, feral.  Lynch's cinema-world poises his virtuous characters, who all speak in the most vapid and banal clichés, against an abyss of foul and immeasurable darkness.  There is something deeply unseemly about Lynch's obvious interest in 1950's teenage girls -- he seems to demonstrate a kind of severely retarded sexuality:  the man never got over High School prom queens and bad boy bikers -- his films are immured in a kind of juvenile delinquent morality and imagery borrowed from Rebel without a Cause or old Mamie Van Doren pictures.  The center of Twin Peaks revolves around the allegation that a small town's high school cheerleaders would also gladly engage in sado-masochistic sexual sessions at a local brothel.  Lynch's sex is always complicated by severe sadism -- a bird has been trained, for instance, to peck holes into Laura Palmer's back and shoulders and thighs.  This nightmare of sadism is shown in prurient detail and one shudders to think how Lynch will portray the world of Twin Peaks in the upcoming Netflix series unhampered by the polite conventions and standards of network TV.   For Lynch's erotic sensibility to function, he seems to need fantastically beautiful young actresses -- these young actresses represents figures of compromised purity defiled voluptuously by Lynch's reptilian monsters.  The lurid brew of sex and violence that Lynch contrives occurs in the context of a world in which FBI men rely upon prophetic dreams to solve crimes and use techniques of detection based on Tibetan Zen archery.  Lynch's surrogate in the film is Agent Cooper, played memorably by the inhumanly calm and repressed Kyle McLaughlin.  In one scene, the supernaturally beautiful Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn) climbs naked into Agent Cooper's bed at the Great Northern -- the hotel is rigged up with spyholes opening into all of the private suites and she has kept Cooper under surveillance.  Audrey's complexion is like the finest cream and she uses all her feminine wiles in an attempt to seduce Agent Cooper.  Cooper lectures her on morality and, then, tells her to get dressed so that they go down to the hotel's restaurant for "a couple of milk shakes" -- it's the ultimate confrontation between Lynch's lust and his sense that banal clichés about duty and honor are the only thing that keep us from succumbing to our intrinsic desire to rape and torture to death young girls. 

The most remarkable aspect of Twin Peaks, of course, is Angelo Baldamenti's intensely lyrical sound track.  The principal theme, comprised of about two bass chords and a couple of higher notes is a thing of profound, abstract beauty, a kind of droopy deliquescent masterpiece that perfectly fits the rotting kitsch elements of the plot.  But Baldamenti manages to create from this seven or eight note theme all sorts of other things -- there is a kind of sinister finger-clicking jazz that characterizes the films many bad boys and bad girls, a rapturous love-theme, and, finally, Laura's theme, a melancholy ode to the dead girl.  All of this is constructed from the show's main title music.  The fact that the emotionally complex score all seems to originate in one set of very limited musical materials contributes to the hermetically sealed and claustrophobic emotional environment embodied by the series.  It is impossible to imagine Twin Peaks without this powerfully effective score and it is surely one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded.

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