Twin Peaks: The Return, or What Isn’t Cinema?
By Nick Pinkerton
1: Where You Find It
Any port in a storm. In 2017, faced with the most ignominious slate of theatrical releases in memory, a few of us belonging to the small cabal of film world types who engage in the curious ritual of year-end listmaking, decided to recruit a television show to the ranks of cinema, or at least tried to. Enough agreed that the resurrected 2017 season of Twin Peaks, also known as Twin Peaks: The Return, was the artistic apotheosis of one of the greatest living filmmakers, David Lynch, who directed and cowrote every episode, to place it on the top tens of both Sight & Sound and Cahiers du cinéma, cinephile publications which allowed it in the running. Elsewhere, its non-eligibility revived a periodic kerfuffle over whether a work made for and aired on “television,” much less a serialized one, could ever take its place among the year’s best “films.”
I’ve scare-quoted the formats here because the television of 1990-1991, when the first season of Twin Peaks aired on ABC—a broadcast medium consumed entirely on a large box in your living room—resembles the multiplatform narrowcast medium of 2017 even less than the cinema of that period—viewed on celluloid spools, magnetic tape and, perhaps, LaserDisc—resembles that of today’s digitized, streaming-on-tap medium. This isn’t to suggest that television has become indistinguishable from the cinema, or vice-versa, but they do find themselves sharing a lot of the same real estate on LCDs, laptops, pad devices, smartphones, and the proliferating screens in Matryoshka doll descending sizes that have become insidiously indispensable to most of us. This disturbance of the theatrical cinematic experience’s accustomed place on top of an unofficial but tacitly agreed-upon hierarchy of moving image art amounts to a great leveling, cinema given its comeuppance and shrunk to pocket-size, like deposed royalty inhabiting a cramped, walk-up, cold-water apartment. The films-on-iPhones phenomenon was commented on by Lynch way back in 2008, in a clip from the special features of the DVD of Inland Empire (2006), the film in which he began to explore the possibilities of a particularly digital aesthetic, a raspy, artifacted aesthetic which has evolved into the eerie hyaline crispness of the new Twin Peaks. “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone,” says Lynch in the clip. “Get real.”
Whatever you watched Twin Peaks: The Return on, what you were watching fell a long way from either the first two seasons of the series or the released-to-cinemas, feature-length prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper—affectionately “Coop”—the heart of the series, has here become a structuring absence, trapped in the other-dimensional space of the Black Lodge since the ABC series finale. In his place we get two MacLachlans: Coop’s evil doppelgänger, a one-man criminal scourge who has been using his fed credentials to wreak untold havoc in Coop’s good name; and Dougie Jones, an insurance salesman living in the Las Vegas suburbs who has been created as a kind-of placeholder to receive Coop at the end of the period of his detainment, into whose life a discombobulated Coop is dropped, appearing like something of a holy fool in his amnesiac bumbling to relearn the simplest human functions. In one of the series’ richest running jokes, Naomi Watts, playing Dougie’s wife, Janey-E, takes her husband’s imbecility in stride. You don’t have to be of even average intelligence to bluff your way through middle-class respectability in this country; in fact it probably helps if you’re not.
When I’ve been asked to weigh in with a vote for 2017’s best films and have had the inclination to do so, I have voted for Twin Peaks without getting too bent out of shape over the question of whether or not it’s cinema. Arguing for its inclusion is the fact that the year-by-year “Best” lists that I keep for private purposes are already chock-a-block with television movies and miniseries. Many auteur careers through the decades, particularly in the years before the gradual privatization of European TV, have been underwritten in no small part by TV money, particularly when the national theatrical exhibition model in question hasn’t been particularly amenable to the sort of work being done (cf. Peter Watkins and Alan Clarke in the United Kingdom, Alexander Kluge in West Germany, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville with 1976’s Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication.). Lynch would have it that this is precisely the situation in the United States today, and has testified that in this “sad time for alternative cinema… the new arthouse is cable television.” And if this is how an artist of his stature reads the economics of his situation I am as willing to follow him to Showtime as I am willing to follow Tsai Ming-liang to the white box gallery. One of the jobs of the artist is to find the space that is most conducive to the practice of their art at the given moment; one of the jobs of a functioning cultural commentariat is to follow artists to those spaces.
Such questions as to the place of cinema per se in a world of proliferating moving-image stimuli are nothing new. I had recent occasion to revisit certain scenes from Wim Wenders’s Room 666, a film shot in a room at the Hôtel Martinez during the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, comprised of fixed-camera, direct-address “interviews” with participant filmmakers who are posed the question “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” and left to answer in solitude. Television and home video were at the moment the primary causes for concern, as emphasized by the presence in the frame of a TV set that goes on about flashing its images, oblivious to the parade of world historical artists passing in front of it. “We aren’t all that dependent on television,” says Werner Herzog, after settling in and taking off his shoes. “Film aesthetic is something apart and separate. TV is just a kind of jukebox, you’re never inside the space of a theater… Wherever life touches us most directly that’s where you’ll find the cinema.” Michelangelo Antonioni will have none of the pessimism inherent in the question; he mentions that he has recently completed a picture on videotape, and that he’s “sure that the range of artistic possibilities offered by video will make us feel differently about ourselves.” Rainer Werner Fassbinder, less than a month from his untimely demise, hastily outlines a distinction between “sensation-oriented cinema which tends to be colossal and bombastic,” “very individual cinema or national cinema of individual filmmakers,” and “cinema which is indistinguishable from television.” Room 666 was broadcast in June of 1982 on Antenne 2, the state television station that is today France 2.
Antonioni’s videotape movie, The Mystery of Oberwald, had premiered at Venice in 1980, and was never so widely seen or analyzed as his “proper” films, though in Chicago Magazine critic Dave Kehr correctly espied its importance, saying it was “the first time an established director has tackled a full-length narrative feature on video” and “a work that goes looking for an aesthetic proper to the new medium and comes provocatively close to finding it.” (I thought of Oberwald, with its castle keep setting and massive color balance shifts when watching the third episode of the new season of Twin Peaks, much of which takes place in a cyclopean fortress that stands alone in a vast, wine-dark sea.) Fassbinder, for his part, had already made two shot-on-video telefilms, Bremen Freedom (1972) and Nora Helmer (1973), the former a production of his own play and the latter an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, both for Telefilm Saar, one of the various West German TV stations to help finance one of the most earth-shaking bodies of work in postwar European cinema. In earlier interviews, given around the time of the release of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a 14-part, 15 ½-hour miniseries based on the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin that is near to Twin Peaks: The Return in runtime, scope and ambition, he went into detail on the distinction between his theatrical and telefilm productions. “They’re much more uncompromising,” he says of the former. “I wouldn’t have made them for television. I tell myself that someone who goes to the movies pretty much knows what awaits him. So I can demand more effort of him.”
A restoration of Fassbinder’s 1972 series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, whose five feature-length episodes premiered on Cologne-based Westdeutscher Rundfunk, has just had its North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, where recently the Twin Peaks revival was screened in full. The first two episodes of Lynch’s series were presented to thunderous applause at Cannes 35 years after Wenders made his film, 27 years after Lynch was viciously booed while accepting the Palme d’Or for Wild at Heart, and a full century after Marcel Duchamp displayed a porcelain urinal at Alfred Stieglitz’s studio on 291 Fifth Avenue. For a hundred years now it’s been possible to put a toilet in a white box and call it art, but God forbid you put a TV miniseries in MoMA and call it cinema.
Moved to the core of my being as I was by the 18 episodes of Twin Peaks that appeared between May and September of last year—as uncompromised and demanding as anything that Lynch has made for cinemas—I kept finding the mark of the series cropping up in the strangest places in the months after. At a show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris dedicated to the long affiliation between the artists André Derain, Balthus, and Alberto Giacometti, I encountered a reproduction of Giacometti’s lone piece of set decoration for a 1961 staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris: a pale, skeletal tree with limbs nearly bare but for a few withered leaves, it’s almost the spitting image of Twin Peaks’ “The Arm,” the new series’ replacement for the estranged Michael J. Anderson. Not long after that I read the conversation between a young P. Adams Sitney and Stan Brakhage that functions as an introduction to the latter’s 1963 manifesto “Metaphors of Vision,” reissued through the joint effort of Light Industry and Anthology Film Archives. In their talk, the men discuss the dead white tree that Brakhage schleps up a hill in Dog Star Man (1964), and relate it to Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, the Cretan coin, and a recurrent dream image in a paper called “Toxic Idiopathies: The Relationship between Hay and other Pollen Fevers, Animal Asthmas, Food Idiosyncrasies, Bronchial and Spasmodic Asthmas, &c.” presented at a 1920 meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine. (Brakhage, who suffered frequently and acutely from asthma, had a vested interest in pursuing such arcana.)
Twin Peaks: The Return felt as though connected to something ancient, like Brakhage’s tree, while it registered as contemporary in a way that few works this year did—not in that facile “the movie/TV show/painting/sculpture we need now” way, but as though it had sponged up something of the pestilential mood of the day: the crawling conspiratorial paranoia and the abundance of Boomers gone wild, from pot-panic-addled Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly) bugging out in the woods to Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) reborn as an angry-old-man spraying saliva on his webcam as he transmits anti-everything “Wake up sheeple!” vitriol in the online alter-ego of Dr. Amp. The pacing of the series, compared to the more usually dialogue-and-incident-rich world of serial television, is contemplative, but an ambience of free-floating anger lies over it, and the stretches of stillness are frequently riven with outbursts of hysteria. In episode 11, a leisurely game of catch between three young boys ends with the discovery of a bloody, badly-beaten woman crawling out of the undergrowth; a confrontation between Mädchen Amick, reprising her role as Shelley, and her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) nearly escalates into vehicular homicide; William Hastings (Matthew Lillard), an amateur paranormal investigator, has the contents of his skull emptied as though with a melon baller; and a gunshot shattering the glass at the Double R diner sends Deputy Sheriff Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) out to confront a surly, suspicious child in camo who reads at a glance as a future mass shooter; a shrilly shrieking woman leaning on her car horn in sheer panic, and her passenger, a young girl in the throes of some kind of fit, her mouth overflowing with viscid goo.
The middle-aged members of the original cast, some of them most famous as beautiful youths, like Tamblyn and Richard Beymer, both of the 1961 West Side Story, had gotten old. The teenagers of the original cast, like Ashbrook with his shock of white hair, had settled into middle age. Seyfried was among the new, younger generation of characters introduced, many of them in the way that meat is introduced to a sausage grinder. Among the series’ many casualties are a frisky young couple in New York, a feral Caleb Landry Jones, and Eamon Farren’s Richard Horne, the local dope runner who becomes understudy to his likely daddy, the evil Cooper—though the quarter-century-old murder of coked-up homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) retains its position of primacy. Drugs, always an essential part of local commerce in Twin Peaks, are bigger business than ever, rolling in over the Canadian border and inundating the entire country. Before bottoming out, Seyfried’s Becky is seen in lolling back on the burgundy upholstery of shitbag addict boyfriend Jones’s white Pontiac Trans Am to luxuriate in the bliss of being young and beautiful, and having the wind in your face while incredibly, incredibly high. The same episode introduces a minor character played by Hailey Gates, a stringy-haired young mother with a sore-pitted junkie’s complexion who’s barely roused from her stupor by the explosion of a car-bomb across the street in the Las Vegas-area Rancho Rosa Estates housing development, an environment sufficiently soul-sucking to drive anyone into the depths of addiction. Later, at the end of episode 9, the musician Sky Ferreira appears with the hobgoblin-ish appearance of the true meth-head, holed up at a booth in the roadhouse, digging her nails into a “wicked rash” in her armpit and talking about getting canned from her burger-flipping gig. Jones’s character is similarly introduced in the process of being bounced from his job, and little indicators of straightened circumstances are visible all over town. The kids aren’t all right.
The air of perpetual crisis felt correct. So too did this eating of the young, and the final episode’s scene shifting to the Texas burg of Odessa, though shooting wrapped in spring 2016, well before the onset of Russiagate. This isn’t a channeling of the zeitgeist so much as a faithful continuation of Lynch’s in-the-American-grain project, which had been acutely attuned to small-town dysfunction long before anyone had heard of an opiate epidemic or, only marginally less tragic, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is almost enough, nevertheless, to make you believe in the unfashionably mystical conception of the artist as a fine-tuned instrument that receives auguries, as exemplified in H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 story “The Call of Cthulhu,” whose narrator finds an uncanny correspondence in the testimonies that aesthetes, artists, and poets give of their dreams, each describing unmistakably the same abomination, whose image has been sculpted by Rhode Island School of Design student Henry Anthony Wilcox. “He called himself ‘psychically hypersensitive,’” writes Lovecraft of Wilcox, “but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely ‘queer.’”