Monday, September 4, 2017

Twin Peaks (The Return) -- some concluding observations

David Lynch's Twin Peaks (The Return) is the most conceptually innovative program ever aired on mass media.  People will be debating the merits of this program for the next century.  In some ways, Lynch's Twin Peaks, now an enterprise consisting of more than 30 episodes aired in the early 90's, 19 episodes shown in 2017 concluding on Labor Day, and a film, Fire Walk With Me, is the Finnegans Wake of TV shows -- it's an endless compendium of uncanny situations, innumerable characters, and a peculiar form of dead-pan humor that is utterly singular.  Like Joyce's work, it's questionable as to whether anyone will ever master all of the intricacies of the show and, equally questionable, whether it is really worth the time to unravel the seemingly infinite multitude of riddles and conundrums that Lynch has embedded in the show.  Furthermore, it must be admitted that the series contains long stretches of inconsequential material, intentionally boring sequences, and misfires of various sorts.  The difference between Twin Peaks and other series like Westworld that also contain lots of dead air, filler between the few and far-between scenes that move the plot forward, is that Lynch is fully aware that he is killing time and, in fact, makes the viewer comically complicit in that venture -- scenes exist in Twin Peaks that are intended to infuriate the viewer.  Lynch dramatizes what other film makers working in this extended form try to conceal -- if he has nothing to say to move the plot forward then he digresses in ways that are spectacularly pointless or disturbing and he's not afraid to simply draw a sequence out to an intolerable length with little burps of dialogue, insanely long pauses, and gestures slowed down until they become freeze-frames of themselves.  (Consider, for instance, a scene in which Mel Ferrer playing Albert, an FBI agent, wants to talk alone with his boss played by Lynch himself -- Lynch's character has been enjoying a romance with a French woman who has nothing to do with the plot, a completely superfluous figure who has been flirting with the FBI chief.  The woman is encouraged to leave so that the men can talk confidentially and, so, she departs -- but her departure which is immensely protracted and contains a mini-strip-tease, her putting on make-up, and, then, sashaying around the room takes about five or six minutes, during which time, Albert fumes, Lynch's character continues flirting with the woman, and the audience gets so restless that you can almost hear toilets being flushed and bottles of beer or pop being opened in the background of the scene.  When the woman leaves and the men have their discussion, it's totally inconsequential -- I can't remember anything about it.  So the entire build-up was for nothing, without any pay-off at all.)  I think that Lynch may have finally educated me to be able to watch Fassbinder's vastly protracted TV series  Berlin Alexanderplatz -- I lost interest in that series after about the sixth episode in which Fassbinder spent the entire hour showing some thugs engaged in a half-assed debate in a bar so dimly lit that you could barely see them:  it was an obvious provocation to the spectator, an insult to the viewer, and, I think, presages much of what we find in Lynch's magnum opus.

There is much about the series that I don't understand even on the basic level -- that is, who is doing what to whom.  Accordingly, I can't provide any ultimate assessment of the program's narrative structure or its meaning.  I will be content with identifying a few features diagnostic to the show. 

An epitome to the program's endlessly self-regenerating narratives occurs in the last episode, a program that is really designed to be the start of a new series.  (In fact, the main narrative in the show, if such a thing can be defined, climaxes with all the principals in the same place, the conference room at the Twin Peaks law enforcement center, in the penultimate show -- many of the plot's loose ends are tied-up in that scene, although I will leave it to those wiser than me to figure out what any of it means.)  In the last episode, Agent Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin), who may really not be Cooper, has located a woman in Odessa, Texas who he perceives to be Laura Palmer, the young woman whose murder has triggered all of the events in the series.  Although the woman looks like Laura Palmer as she might have aged -- twenty-five years separate the first series from The Return -- she denies being Laura Palmer and claims that she doesn't know anything about that person.  The woman who denies being Laura Palmer has either just killed her boyfriend by a shot between the eyes or has watched him kill himself.  As she cooly says:  "I've got to get out of Dodge" and so she joins Cooper on a cross-country drive to Twin Peaks.  Cooper and the woman reach Twin Peaks late at night.  They go to Laura Palmer's house and knock at the door.  A woman answers and they ask her if this was the Palmer house.  She says "no."  There then follows a protracted scene that is intended to harass the viewer -- Cooper keeps asking the woman if the house was owned by the Palmers and the woman keeps denying this; then, he asks her who she bought the house from.  The woman speaks to her husband off-screen and mentions a name.  This isn't anyone Cooper knows and so he demands that she tell him who the previous owner bought the house from.  The husband, who we never see, seems to know this as well, but the new name mentioned doesn't mean anything to Cooper.  Cooper and the woman that he claims to be Laura Palmer thank the lady for her patience, go down onto the street, and, then, the woman begins to scream.  As she screams the house turns into a shadow of itself persisting as a ghostly structure on the screen until a closing credit informs us that the show (and the series) is over.  There is a kind of logic to this sequence:  we have seen that the resolution of The Return involves the cancellation of the entire narrative preceding the climax.  The defeat of the spirit of evil known as Bob (the deceased actor, Frank Silva's face floating in a kind of viscous bubble of amniotic fluid) has reversed the plot.  With Bob gone, there is no one to kill Laura Palmer -- Lynch's sense of time is reversible:  an event occurring in the future can cause events in the past.  Thus, Laura Palmer was never killed and her body never discovered by Lynch's favorite actor, Jack Nance,  the corpse famously wrapped in plastic on the pebbles of the beach by an icy lake.  If Laura Palmer is not dead, and never died (or always died but had her death canceled out), then, the whole story ceases to exist -- all preceding episodes never happened because they were never caused by Laura Palmer's death. And, if Laura Palmer didn't die, then, she must be living somewhere.  This explains Cooper's quest for her, although what he is trying to accomplish by bringing her back to a house where she didn't get murdered by her father, Leland Palmer is totally baffling.  But here is the point of the scene:  Lynch views plot or narrative as a house that can be inhabited by various, essentially fungible characters -- the narrative structure persists but the parts that it requires can be performed by different people.  Therefore, Twin Peaks can be thought of as a series of archetypal plots -- yearning young lovers, people menaced by uncanny monsters, adultery and business deals fraught with betrayal, conflict between parents and their children, and so on -- that are connected by an interstitial space.   This interstitial junction is the room (or rooms) curtained in red velvet to which the main characters repeatedly retire (or are cast into those rooms).  This is the place where there is a sinister little man with no right arm who seems to direct the action.  The floor has a op-art pattern, wavy tiles, and there is a tree that has sprouted a kind of talking brain above its topmost branches.  This location seems to be a metaphor for Lynch's own brain -- it's the source of all of these visions and a trope for the power of the imagination.  I argue that all of the manifestations within the space with the red-velvet curtains are symbols for Lynch's creativity.  This is, I think, the White Lodge -- that is, the "good place".  All of the film's plots are tethered in this lodge and this is the source of the stories that the program ceaselessly produces. 

The dark corollary to the White Lodge, a place that represents the dark side of Lynch's imagination, is a sort of hell consisting of a dark theater, gloomy basements, and creatures floating in clouds of slimy-looking ectoplasm.  People who have been trapped by the dark side of the creative power are imprisoned here -- we see the character played by David Bowie (but apparently lost on the cutting-room floor in the first series) reincarnated as a talking tea-pot or possibly boiler; the heroic Major Briggs is imprisoned here and the dark side of Cooper, a maniacal inhuman killer, hangs in the ghostly theater in a cage.  Plots also emerge from this place and there are a series of narratives that begin and end in this space. 

Lynch seems to be influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, probably The Book of the Dead.  (We know this from the first series in which Agent Cooper unfurled a map of Tibet and kept it over his desk in his office.)  I interpret the red space, the positive valence of Lynch's creativity, as a realm of the beneficent deities -- forces that are purely symbolic of virtuous or ennobling human capacities in Tibetan Buddhism.  I view the gloomy Hades of the movie theater and its various fortress-like out-buildings as manifestations of what the Buddhists call Wrathful deities -- these are characteristics of the human imagination that are dark and destructive.  Increasingly, as the film progresses, we find the various plots connected by a sort of Bardo zone, a dark space represented by a highway unscrolling before us in dense darkness.  Lengthy shots on this "lost highway" connect sequences in the last four or five episodes of the show and they seem to signify an in-between place that is no-place, a zone of transition.  As in Buddhism, personality or self are purely fictional:  in the last show, we see Agent Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern), his secretary, stop at a motel; it's a nasty little hole-in-the-wall.  Cooper and Diane engage in what seems to be some version of Tantric sex.  It's not clear whether this activity is liberating or imprisoning -- but Diane certainly seems to be some kind of female goddess entangled with Cooper in a classically Yab-Yum sexual posture, the kind of sexual congress that is supposed to unite male and female principles and yield enlightenment.  The sequence ends with a sinister-looking shot of Diane filmed from an angle that emphasizes the red flame of her dyed hair.  In the next shot, Cooper is alone in bed.  He calls for Diane but she is missing.  He, then, discovers a note that someone has left on the nightstand --it's a woman, not named Diane, bidding farewell to her lover, not Agent Cooper.  Cooper gets up and leaves the motel and it is a completely different place than where he stopped on what seems to have been the night before.  There are different ways to interpret this -- perhaps, the scene with Diane occurred weeks before and there has been an unrecorded lapse of time or, perhaps, as in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, characters go to bed as one person and inexplicably wake up as someone completely different.  Since the individual Self is an illusion, identity is infinitely fluid -- people can go to bed as one character and wake up with a different name and identity the next morning. 

Ultimately, the master metaphor for this indeterminacy of character is the art of acting.  An actor plays many roles.  Thus, Lynch is touchingly loyal to his cast.  Indeed, like Richard Linklater in Boyhood, he uses the process of natural aging to cast doubt on the notion of the Self -- the person that I inhabited when I was 10 is different than the person that I will be when I am 20; in fairness to Linklater, I think his position is the opposite of Lynch:  despite growing up, the hero in Boyhood remains the same person.  (In Lynch's world, several avatars of the same person can exist and act in independent plots at the same time.)   To dramatize this theme, Lynch tries to cast as many actors who were in the first Twin Peaks as possible in The Return -- this results in the very moving scenes with the Log Lady who is obviously really dying.  Even actors who are deceased come back and have roles to play in The Return -- Bob, the spirit of evil, remains active in The Return and Jack Nance, an actor that Lynch generously cast in every one of his films, appears (although he died before The Return was made) at the very end of the show's main narrative, going out fishing and, this time not discovering the corpse of Laura Palmer -- thereby, canceling out the whole story.  (Lynch's loyalty to Nance is touching -- the man couldn't act to save his soul.)  An actor is a person who plays many roles and whose Self is sufficiently elastic to allow him (or her) to inhabit many different parts -- this is absolutely integral to Lynch's world in which people can be possessed by other spirits and, in which the same actor, can have double or triple or even quadruple manifestations.  It's this notion that animates the puzzling scene early in The Return in which Deputy Sheriff Andy and his wife, Lucy, proudly introduce their son Wally to Sheriff Truman.  Wally is dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One and scrupulously imitates Brando's diction and manner in that film.  It's totally gratuitous, a way to sneak in a cameo by Michael Cera, who doesn't otherwise appear in the show, but the little scene speaks to Lynch's thesis that Self is merely playing a part, no one has a stable or consistent personality -- you can always become someone else or play a different role. 

Lastly, Lynch seems to assert that there are an infinite number of stories all around us.  Film making consists of choosing which narrative to follow, either briefly or, at length.  The world is a flux of stories, something that Lynch repeatedly establishes by beginning a narrative with a striking, even shocking, image and, then, simply abandoning the story without explanation.  Who is badly disfigured beat up guy in the jail who makes chimpanzee noises?  What has the deputy done to cause him to be locked in the jail with an increasing number of monsters and avatars of the imagination?  We see a couple in which the young man is suffering from horrific drug withdrawal symptoms.  With his girlfriend, the young man huddles in the roots of a huge tree.  He has a gun and, apparently, shoots himself.  What is this all about?  Who are these characters?  We don't know and the show moves on without any explanation.  One scene will stand for many:  someone has taken a shot at the Twin Peaks' diner.  The deputy sheriff, Bobby Briggs (Major Briggs' son) is directing traffic.  A queue of cars wait for the cop to wave them by.  Someone is honking a horn.  It's maddening.  The honking goes on and on and on and the scene starts to stretch out into absurdity.  Finally, the honking car comes under Bobby's scrutiny.  A fat woman is enraged and says that she is trying to get to the hospital with a sick child.  As she speaks, a greenish ghastly-looking girl rises up from the passenger seat floorboards and begins to spew vomit all over everything.  It's utterly terrifying.  Bobbie, appalled, waves the woman on through the road-block.  And that's it.  We never see the fat woman or the dying child again although they are, perhaps, the most memorable thing in the whole episode, possibly in the whole series. 

1 comment:

  1. One of those shows loved by the masses that is way over my head.