Sunday, June 16, 2013

Twin Peaks

Despite my great admiration for David Lynch’s films, I’d never seen his famous Twin Peaks TV series until recently, when we noticed the whole thing was available via Rogers On-Demand and decided to go for it. We’re not into the binge viewing thing you hear about now – it took us over six months to watch the thirty episodes. This shouldn’t be taken to indicate any lack of enthusiasm though – I could have spent much longer inside Lynch’s insinuating universe. Indeed, sometimes, in moments of disequilibrium or disquiet, I find myself imagining it’s not the TV show that ended, but everything else.

Who killed Laura Palmer?

The show originally ran in 1990 and 1991, and even in Britain, where I was living at the time, I remember the question of who killed Laura Palmer sucking up a big chunk of media space for a brief period (although the answer can of course be discovered now in two seconds online, I won’t reveal it here, so as not to discourage readers from taking the journey for themselves). The story begins with the discovery of the murdered homecoming queen in a small town in Washington State, which soon triggers the arrival of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). It turns out Laura was mixed up in much shady activity, yielding a range of suspects – from early on though, it also seems the answer may not entirely belong to this world. The mystery was solved partway through the second season – although only because of network pressure, according to Lynch – and the focus then shifted to a new drama: an ex-partner of Cooper’s turned bad, Wyndham Earle (Kenneth Welsh), who plots revenge against him for a past transgression. The second season ends with several unresolved cliffhangers, with Cooper in a perilous altered state and several major characters possibly dead. Since the audience had all but vanished by then, there was no third season.

Around the dark core of Laura’s story, the series weaves other strands of intrigue, as well as much lighter, often downright goofy material. Lynch himself pops up periodically as Cooper’s superior, who – being profoundly hard of hearing – shouts at the top of his voice, except that in one of the last episodes he can mysteriously hear a local waitress perfectly well, and so doesn’t need to shout at her. This attunement to the possibility of small mysteries and wonders, in the most mundane circumstances, runs through the whole show. After an accident, an unhappy middle-aged woman regresses to thinking she’s back in high school, and embodies the illusion so well that she even reels in one of the leading jocks as her boyfriend. More mundanely, but very engagingly, Cooper never seems to lose - despite his heavy preoccupations - his enthusiasm for the quality of the local coffee and pastries.

Fire Walk with Me

The show amiably evokes the eccentricities and preoccupations of small-town life: beauty pageants, local campaigns, harmless weirdos (the best known being a woman who carries and converses with a log). But the foundations are severely compromised, not just by evil men and by personal weakness, but by international conspiracies of virtually Bondian scope, and increasingly by the intrusion of the unknown and unchartered (had the series continued, it would have been no surprise if the town had turned out to be built on the site of a long-buried alien spaceship, or something like that).

A lot of this is mumbo-jumbo of course, with the clear sense of being made as it goes along (which Lynch was nicely candid about in the interview book Lynch on Lynch). A plotline that came and went about Cooper being framed seems somewhat perfunctory (despite involving a cross-dressing David Duchovny), and I wasn’t that enthused by the Wyndham Earle strand. But for all the bumpy history, the purity of Lynch’s delight in innocence and goodness, even as he can’t help himself from placing it under perpetual threat, gives it a pleasing coherence.

The year after the show ended, he made a movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Rather than wrap up the loose ends (he admits to having been less personally invested in the second season), he returned to the original mystery of the troubled girl, “radiant on the outside but dying inside.” Sheryl Lee – who appeared in the TV series only as a corpse, in flashbacks and visions, and for a few episodes as Laura’s cousin – now occupies the centre, as the film tracks the last days of her life, after first dramatizing an earlier, related murder investigation involving Cooper, which was mentioned but not deeply probed in the series. The film wasn’t well-received, and Lynch’s vague plans of returning to the material again went nowhere.

Lynch had disappeared…

Funnily enough, I did see the film when it came out – a rather senseless decision for someone with no knowledge of the preceding show. Understandably, I was largely mystified by it. Watching it again the other day (now in full knowledge of what came before, as one should be) I was struck by how scrupulously it intersects with the facts established in the earlier episodes, but even more by the depth of its plunge into the darkness engulfing Laura and her family (much more explicitly rendered than network TV would allow, and with greater Freudian richness) – in its closing stretch, the film is little more than pure misery, turmoil and trauma. This, it seems, is why even many of the series’ remaining fans hated it. But I found Fire Walk with Me rather movingly conscientious, if that’s the word, in its refusal to ingratiate itself. Quentin Tarantino probably spoke for many when he said of the film: “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.”

Well, there hasn’t been a David Lynch movie for seven years now, and there’s no clear prospect of getting another one, although he continues to generate occasional shorts and other art projects, and was a very memorable guest star in a few episodes of Louie. According to a recent New York Times interview, he spends much of his time teaching and promoting transcendental meditation. When I reviewed his last film Inland Empire here, I quoted one writer’s assessment of it as “a film that exists for itself and for its maker, not necessarily for us.” It’s not hard to know what he means (a more eloquent expression of what Tarantino said, perhaps), but of all American filmmakers, Lynch may long have been the least preoccupied by what it might take to keep “us” intrigued, let alone entertained. It’s just a miracle of birth and of art, I guess, that he makes it so compelling to submit to his sensibility rather than your own, even if that sometimes frightens you.

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