Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Twin Peaks: a Starter Kit (part 3 of three)

In the last installment of this piece, I will be moving up to the present, by exploring Lynch's prequel film and the new Showtime series. The “spoiler alert” for the skittish appears below – I'm assuming that readers have had a good chance to see FWWM while it's been available for the last 25 years. 

First, the film: Opinions are pretty sharply divided over Lynch’s "prequel" theatrical feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Critics loathed it when it came out and now revisionists have embraced it as a masterpiece, perhaps Lynch’s best work.

I am somewhere in the middle, as I admire some sequences in it and feel that even the most uneven Lynch film is better than most filmmakers’ entire output. But for me the film is disjointed in its construction and oddly jarring when seen in any kind of tandem with the original TP series.

Two wonderful re-evaluations of the film make a very good argument that it is a “lost classic” in Lynch's filmography – the first was by Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog #16, and the other was by John Thorne in The Essential Wrapped in Plastic. Their wonderful insights into the film make one want to revisit it again – only I have now seen the film a few times and each time I appreciate its craft more, but still can't connect to it emotionally.

Here are the two problems with the picture that I can't overcome: its narrative structure is flat-out bizarre, and the sadism implicit in some of the scenes is disturbingly confrontational. The more you read about it, the more you realize it's one of Lynch's most ambitious works (outside of Dune, which wasn't his own material), but it's the ambition that ends up sinking it in certain aspects – the “smaller” worlds of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and the disjunction-with-no-references nature of an underrated masterwork like Inland Empire are more vivid and “relivable” than this particular slice of Pacific Northwest pathology.

First, the structure of the film. It unfolds in three “acts”: first, the investigation of the Theresa Banks murder (the first victim of BOB in this incarnation, months before Laura Palmer); second, Agent Cooper's investigation into what happened to agent Chet Desmond, who disappeared while investigating the Banks case; and lastly, the final week in the life of Laura Palmer.

The first is the element that throws off most viewers and came into being because one of the most-loved Twin Peaks stars couldn't decide whether to be in the film or not. It was already established in the TP series and Scott Frost’s tie-in novel The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper (see part one in this series here) that Agent Cooper investigated the Banks murder. Kyle MacLachlan initially refused to be in Fire Walk with Me, thus making it important for David Lynch to rewrite the TP “canon” and insert another agent, Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) in the continuity. (Mark Frost completely divorced himself from the project, not wanting to do a prequel to the TV series.)

Lynch welcomed the opportunity to rewrite TP “history” since he enjoys thinking on his feet as a filmmaker. “… What [Kyle] did worked out just fine… there’s no such thing as a problem, there are only solutions, and you just go forward.” [Thorne, p. 319] The only problem is that, once this whole “other agent really examined the Banks case” notion was formulated, Kyle MacLachlan wanted back in to the production.

Thus, there's a bizarre instant “disappearance” of Agent Desmond and the long-awaited “return” of Agent Cooper a short while into the film. The only problem is that Cooper is investigating Desmond's disappearance as much as the Banks murder – and that none of this other stuff with Desmond was ever mentioned before (in events that took place later!). In fact, that becomes a big problem with FWWML: Certain things occur in this prequel that would've *had* to have been mentioned in “later” times (read: the TP series continuity) because it would be just too strange if they weren't.

Sheryl Lee, Lynch, Moira Kelly
Cooper had mentioned the Banks case to Sheriff Truman, but never the agent who disappeared (of course). Another glaring problem is the involvement of Donna Hayward in the narrative – with Moira Kelly in the role, since Lara Flynn Boyle disappeared from the ranks of the Peak cast after the second season ended (our only clue as to what might've happened there is stray gossip from Sherilyn Fenn in an Internet interview: Boyle had dated Kyle MacLachlan while the show was shooting, and then they broke up).

Repeatedly in the series (and in Jennifer Lynch's Secret Diary tie-in book) it is mentioned that Donna never knew about Laura's “other side.” In FWWM, though, she is present while Laura is seducing some truckers (while topless) and she herself nearly succumbs to being raped by them after being drugged (Laura pulls the guy off her). Did Donna somehow *forget* that she saw all this by the time the events of the series take place? Incongruities make perfect sense in a totally original disjunctive Lynch work like Inland Empire or a “dream life” creation like Mulholland Drive, but FWWM does connect to an earlier creation, and turns some of its plot elements upside down because certain things seemed right in this context.

The other element that predominates in the film is a sadistic streak that ran through Lynch's work in the Nineties. Certainly, Blue Velvet had a large amount of sadism, but it was referred to in the plot (one of the most complained-about aspects of the film when it came out was that Dorothy enjoys Frank's hitting her in sexual situations, and she asks Jeffrey to do the same). Brutal violence also appears in his two later masterworks, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. In those context, there doesn't seem to be the jubilance (read: cool rock “thrash” guitar chords and kinetic editing) that accompanies the violence in Wild at Heart (1990). 

Lost Highway found Lynch indulging in these moments but beginning to tone it down – by Mulholland Drive, it became one smaller aspect of the whole. One of his most shocking violent moments wasn't in a feature, though – it was the brutal beating and killing of Maddie Ferguson by Leland Palmer in the “big reveal” second-season episode of Twin Peaks, where we learn that Leland killed his daughter.

The scene was intended to be shocking and horrible, but even given that, it was, and is, still incredibly brutal for network TV, mostly due to the way that Lynch added to its duration by slowing down the action and the voices (in order to create a truly horrifying nightmare sequence). Maddie was a character who was barely there to begin with (she was supposedly created to give Sheryl Lee a presence on the show, since Laura was dead throughout and only seen in the context of flashbacks). Thus, she is innocence personified – not that Laura is “guilty,” but she indeed has a bad girl side and was self-destructive for several months before her death. (She sees death as the only way out of her waking nightmare in The Secret Diary.)

The killing of Maddie was a landmark in TV violence and it also remains one of the most memorable and disturbing scenes in the whole series. It was indeed echoed in Wild at Heart, which has at its start a scene where Sailor (Nicolas Cage) kills a man by smashing his head against stairs over and over again. Lynch's attitude at this point was to amplify the violence, perhaps to underscore the “nightmare” aspect, or more simply to show the underside of human behavior. Whatever the case was, this same sadism shows up in Fire Walk With Me, and is another reason the film is a hard one to watch over and over.

We know how Laura died from the series – seeing Leland commit the murder is something else entirely. Her life in her final week is a downward spiral that is unabashedly tragic, therefore the “redemption” offered her at the end (an angel in the Red Room) is touching and too little, too soon – it can't erase the memory of the humiliation she's gone through.

The steady stream of misery that is Laura's life in the film is offset by the FWWM outtake collection edited into a feature called The Missing Pieces. Here, we see many of the scenes with the original TV cast members that were cut to focus the film entirely on Laura – oh, and the Theresa Banks murder, and Cooper's investigation into Chet Desmond's disappearance.

One can easily imagine the loss of the whole first “two acts” of the film in favor of the footage that was scrapped, which contains the characters viewers loved from the original series – but that would leave out Agent Cooper entirely, and since MacLachlan was the star of the series, it was a natural that there be an FBI story in the film (and instead of the one that would solidly connected the Banks murder to that of Laura, we instead get more FBI-related mysteries; only in the Lynch universe can such a button-down group be plagued by so many paranormal experiences).

The Missing Pieces package (found on the 9- and 10-disc Blu-ray releases of the show) lends some levity to the proceedings, and also offers us an earlier look at some of the characters' dilemmas (Big Ed and Norma's romance, for instance). It would've made the film more sympathetic, but it also would've thrown the focus off of Laura's tragic existence.

As it stands, as Thorne outlines in the essays in his book (some of which are exhaustive to the point of reader exhaustion), Lynch took on too many tasks with FWWM: depicting the Banks murder investigation; outlining Cooper's entry into this world; revisiting the TP characters viewers loved; and showing Laura's descent and final “transfiguration.” The fact that the film couldn't be five hours long (the length of the original rough cut) was a problem from the start – it was a theatrical feature and needed to be a reasonable length (and, as it stands, it still feels too long).

It's an incredibly ambitious work, for which Lynch does deserve credit. The oddest element he added, and kept through each phase of the project, is a moment where Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) appears, covered in blood, to Laura, telling her that Cooper is stuck in the Black Lodge. This is a moment intended to “close the loop” with the end of the series (keep in mind that both Mark Frost and MacLachlan had wanted the feature film to pick up where the series left off – which the Showtime season isn't even doing, since it's taking place 25 years later).

The fact that Laura has never, ever met Cooper is not supposed to be a problem – she has appeared to him in the Red Room, and there was always a presumed psychic connection between them (although, when one party is dead, there's not that strong a psychic connection, so it made sense to include it in a prequel, and it made little sense in the series).

The original series counterbalanced its nightmare sequences with the “normal” characters (whom I mentioned in the second part of this piece). FWWM leaves us entirely (once the oddly-structured first two acts end) in the nightmare, and it's not a very enjoyable place to be.

Theresa Banks and Leland Palmer

It has been emphasized that Lynch treated FWWM as a “free-form” experiment (co-scripter Robert Engels used that phrase to sum up Lynch’s approach; Thorne, p. 324.), which created hurdles for many viewers, myself included. It's been suggested by critics who revere the film that one has to separate it entirely from the series for the film to truly work – this requires, of course, that you have to forget all that you've seen before about the Palmer family, Donna, Bobby, James, and of course the bizarro characters (Mike, BOB, the little Man From Another Place).

Most of the action in the Showtime season takes place outside of the titular town – one of the oddest things about FWWM on first viewing was that it contained many scenes set outside Twin Peaks, whereas the original ABC series *never* left the town (even locations in other nearby towns, like One-Eyed Jacks, were depicted as a being a short drive from Twin Peaks).

[Note: Spoilers ahead – Skip down to the “bonus videos” segment. I am not skittish about “spoilers,” but if you are one of those “I can't know anything about it! Don't say anything!” I can only say two things: Skip to the videos, and also, Why are you on the Internet?]

And now we have completely new Twin Peaks episodes but, in true Lynchian fashion, they were not exactly what was expected. As I write this, nine hour-long episodes have aired – we are in the exact middle of the series – and what we've seen so far is truly amazing.

The season thus far has been an inventory of Lynch's approaches from his preceding 10 features and numerous shorts, not forgetting the many videos he made for his website and the preceding episodes of the original Twin Peaks series. So far we've seen:

– thriller sequences
– sci-fi/fantasy elements thrust into a real-world setting
– kinkiness (not too much of this, but I get the uncanny feeling that more will be in store)
– deadpan comedy (also abrasive comedy, and Lynch's fave, the comedy of repetition)
– pure, undistilled surrealism
– and dreams and nightmares. Lots of sequences that only make sense if you think of them as dreams or nightmares.

In the process, we've moved forward from the original narrative. It's been noted in various places that we are 25 years on from the events in the original series, but we've also been treated to flashbacks, and some Net-splainers have felt that the “present” in the show is taking place in two or three different time frames.

Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn)
We've also gotten a giant cast of characters that has, so far, happened to include, in supporting roles, the original TP roster. This is in line with the fact mentioned above – namely, that this new show has barely taken place in the town. (All of these items are subject to change, but as of ep. no. 9 that's where we stand).

It's been fascinating seeing the original cast members again. They have all aged gracefully – well, maybe not Harry Goaz, but he's being made up to look very odd as “Deputy Andy.” The only completely nonsensical item in all of this: Sheryl Lee of course looks terrific at her present age, but it is weird that Laura Palmer has aged in the fantasy scenes (esp. given that she's been dead since 1989).

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for TP (at least this one) is the news that neither Windom Earle nor Annie Blackburn will be in this season – Kenneth Welsh (75 years old, but he will be seen in three new movies and two new TV episodes this year!) and Heather Graham (whose part was considered seminal in the original series conclusion, and FWWM) are not in the IMBD cast listing for the new season.

So far, the only downside of the current season is what fans are calling “The Dougie Show.” In these segments we follow a brain-damaged version of the “good Cooper” as he inhabits the body of a Vegas insurance man. The premise is simple: Coop-as-Dougie repeats the last word of every sentence said to him, and is an innocent guy who happens upon brilliant solutions to problems (a la Chauncey Gardiner in Being There and Dustin Hoffman's “Rain Man” character). These sequences are pretty endless, and I've wondered as I've watched them if they will get better on second viewing (as some of the “middling” Lynch films have).

I've noted several times in these pieces that Lynch loves the comedy of repetition. The Dougie scenes are the perfect illustration of this (making the “old, doddering men” in the second season of Twin Peaks seem like Jerry Lewis by comparison). This particular fondness of Lynch's does tap in to his feelings about how he works at a slower speed as a director (although, as his viewers know, some of his scenes contain brisk and sudden violence – and slapstick!).

“…Most directors like things to move a hair faster than I like. But that’s not a conscious choice on my part. It’s just that if it goes too fast, something is missing. In order to slow it down you have to start talking about why it has to be this or that way, where it goes and how it feels: interior thinking. If you start in the interior, your moves will slow down. Once an actor tunes into that they will automatically do it correctly.” [Lynch on Lynch, p. 227] 

The “evil Cooper” is a much more interesting character than lame-brained Dougie. In these sequences it appears as if Cooper has been possessed by BOB, but Lynch has said that  BOB is “with” Cooper, not inside of him. [Thorne, p. 245]

As I noted previously, one of the most interesting things about Twin Peaks for movie buffs is its overt references to film noir. One of these is the fact that characters smoke (especially the hard-bitten men and the “femme fatales” females). Lynch continues to draw on these archetypes from classic Hollywood movies. In a recent article on Indiewire he was publicly chastised for perpetuating anti-Asian stereotypes, because Diane (Laura Dern) wears a silk dressing gown and has Asian artifacts in her apartment (since white people who collect that kind of thing are all clearly racist).

The writer apparently wasn't aware of this trend in film noir and the fact that Lynch (and possibly Frost, and other creating the show) is probably well-aware of Sternberg and his own “Asianophile” tendencies. Also, one must remember at all times – these are fictional characters, and people who don't exist can basically be doing anything and it doesn't mean the author endorses their behavior.

A classic "slow scene" -- a guy sweeps for several minutes.
The above-mentioned “slowed down” factor has made for the best scenes thus far in the series. These usually involve an intrigue, as when, in the seventh episode, Gordon Cole and Albert bring Diane (the character to whom Cooper’s tapes were addressed in the original series – and the dreaded “Orientalist” according to the p.c. police!) to see the evil Cooper in jail. The best juxtaposition that has happened thus far was that the plot-centric seventh episode was followed by the truly free-form avant-garde mini-movie that was the eighth episode.

Tens of thousands of words have already appeared online about this episode, and it truly is a landmark in terms of television. A premium cable channel gives a noted filmmaker money to go back and “reboot” his critical and popular success from 25 years earlier, and he uses a portion of the budget to make a non-linear episode that draws on the history of avant-garde film while offering up a slew of memorable images, odd and unsettling sounds, and bizarre mind-fucks.

It was interesting to see the people who enjoyed the episode compare it to the work of Terrence Malick (who is friends with Lynch through the AFI, and their mutual long-time friend Jack Fisk) and Kubrick (whom Lynch often cites as one of his favorite filmmakers, along with Fellini and Billy Wilder). Lynch has admitted his debt to Kubrick in more than one interview, but when Kubrick was releasing the turning point for commercial cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968, Lynch had already been a painter for several years, and had made his first two shorts. By 1970, he made The Grandmother, and he then spent most of the Seventies making Eraserhead, which brought avant-garde cinema to the midnight-movies world of cult cinema.

Lynch began as an avant-garde artist and has remained one as a painter, a lithographer, a photographer, and a sculptor. His films have had plots, but he has injected as much non-linearity as he could – with the eighth episode of the new Twin Peaks, he went for broke and concocted a mini-movie that has “narrative events” (the “births” of BOB and Laura, the invasion of the Woodsman from Hell) but is mostly in the realm of Eraserhead: an upsetting and sometimes openly disturbing series of images that occasionally proves to be absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful in its forlorn-ness.

While the “go for broke” aspect of the episode was very impressive, it was also fascinating to see series television meet up with real cinema, as it has done in only a few cases (Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz comes to mind). The much-repeated refrain these days is that we're in “another Golden Age of Television” when the best-written and best-acted TV shows are “doing what cinema used to do” or “what literature used to do” for previous generations.

Thus, a top-notch show – pick your favorite from the usual suspects (The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, et al) is hailed as cinema. But these shows, as good as they are, are simply really excellent TV (nothing to sneer at, since excellent TV can be, and has been, wonderful art). It's not cinema, though – because there is nothing inventive or intelligent about the visual style, there is no mise en scene (the astoundingly beautiful production design in “Mad Men” was not a visual style, it was sublime production design).

Lynch came along and did get real cinema into series television, and numerous lunkheads then publicly complained, “I'm confused – what does this have to do with Twin Peaks?” Well, the “Eraserhead episode” (as I've taken to calling it) did have ties to the narrative of the original TP, but it also linked to the beginning of Lynch's filmography. The fans that watched and were confused and annoyed were no doubt looking for “Lynchian surrealism,” but of the Red Room sort (“look, isn't that dancing dwarf cute?”).

That initial TP dream sequence was indeed radical TV for ABC in April 1990, but the eighth episode of this new “season” of the show was radical TV for any network in any time span. (Along with things like the trippy, pre-psychedelia visual experiments concocted by Ernie Kovacs, and a handful of the greatest programming on PBS in the early Seventies.)

This week's show, the ninth episode, offered another jarring juxtaposition by jumping back into all the plotlines with a vengeance. In one hour we leapt from thread to thread, with some new “presents” for viewers. This season certainly is a little gift-box for viewers who value quality; it also represents Lynch and Frost successfully making the full-length, very long project that FWWM could've been, if premium cable nets had wanted Lynch/Frost to work for them back in the early Nineties.

Among our new little treats: new performers (Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh); bonding between two characters that no one with any sense dislikes (Diane and Cole); and finally something substantial for the old cast members to do (Major Briggs' “message” for his son and his fellow lawmen). While the “Eraserhead episode" had distinctly “Lynchian” qualities, this show seemed to be more the brainchild of Mark Frost, as it included a number of plot threads and worked in a very intriguing paranormal plotline.

It is most definitely good to be living in a period when David Lynch is still coming up with new things to frustrate, annoy, and mindfuck a percentage of the populace. The idea that nine more, totally new, hours of this stuff is waiting to be slowly doled out is pretty damned special.

And what is the single best aspect of all of Lynch's work, linking him to the great filmmakers and artists of the past? His sincerity. As has been noted by his colleagues in interview after interview, documentary after documentary, he honestly believes in the world he depicts onscreen. 

He embraces the Norman Rockwell-esque American Fifties, while also acknowledging the brutally violent underside of the American character. Nothing is “hidden” or ironic in his work (even his deadpan sense of humor, which often seems to have been put in place to mock his own style). Whatever you can say for or against his work, it is genuine, it is American, and it is very, very, wonderfully strange.

“There are things about painting that are true for everything in life. That’s the way painting is. Music is also one of those things. There are things that can’t be said with words. And that’s sort of what painting is all about. And that’s what filmmaking, to me, is mostly about. There are words and there are stories, but there are things that can be said with film that you can’t say with words. It’s just the beautiful language of cinema.” [Lynch on Lynch, pp. 26-27]

And now for the last batch of “bonus videos”….

First a great profile of Lynch by Jonathan Ross from the series For One Week Only. It’s an excellent “101” for newcomers and a time capsule for the diehard fan.

Another little peephole into what it was like when the show exploded in its first season: Sherilyn Fenn and Michael Ontkean on the MTV Awards:

A pure oddity: the complete video (missing sound in some sequences) of the soap opera watched by the citizens of Twin Peaks, “Invitation to Love.” I believe this is more of a Frost creation than one by Lynch:

When Lynch discovered the Internet and started making short videos for his davidlynch.com website, he used to greet subscribers with a daily weather report. Below is a sample item. For the real deal check out this one.

One of the best known Net-only creations was his series “Rabbits,” a “Twilight Zone” blending of “The Honeymooners,” furries, and deadpan humor. Dig that brilliant audience track!

“Out Yonder” was another Net-only series Lynch did for a bit. It features David and his son Austin Lynch as two yokels who are confused by most things and are fond of one particular phrase:

The single funniest thing Lynch produced in my opinion is the web cartoon series “Dumbland.” It’s incredibly childish, mean-spirited, sadistic, insane, warped, and seems like a reaction to the meaner side of TV cartoon shows like “Beavis and Butthead” and “Family Guy.” I’m very glad the poster in this case put up Italian-subtitled versions of these (unneeded by English speakers, but even funnier). This is my favorite installment, where the phrase “Get the stick! Get the stick!” gets quite a workout:

Lynch has directed many music videos. Here’s a good one for Nine Inch Nails, “Came Back Haunted.” Any video that has to warn viewers with epilepsy that they should not watch is bound to be an intense viewing experience:

Although my favorite track from Lynch as a musician is his spoken word slice of weirdness “Strange and Unproductive Thinking,” this is the full-length video for another of his explorations of the weird impulses in young America, “Crazy Clown Time”:

Lynch has continued to work in a number of media as an artist. Here’s a very short video he did for an exhibition of his photos in Paris:

And lastly, an amazing minute of film. Lynch took part in the film Lumiere and Company, in which a host of filmmakers (from Theo Angelopoulos to Zhang Yimou) were given an original Lumiere camera and asked to make a film. The only stipulations were: no sound, no edits, one minute in length (that’s all the film the camera could carry), and no more than three takes.

Lynch came up with a short inspired by Melies and Feuillade called “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed”:

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