Twin Peaks: The Return, or What Isn’t Cinema?
By Nick Pinkerton
2: Myth Makers
Lynch’s oddness has always been part and parcel of his reputation, and if it’s an affectation, it’s one that began a very long time ago—a 1979 video interview with the filmmaker, giving a tour of Eraserhead shooting locations, is in every respect familiar as an early draft of the still-against-interpretation Grand Old Man subject of the 2016 documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, though he hasn’t yet taken to buttoning the top button of his shirts.
A newly minted cult director, the then-33-year-old Lynch’s future was very far from certain. Among the odder bits of Star Wars universe lore involves George Lucas extending an invitation to direct Return of the Jedi (1983) to Lynch, then known only for his midnight movie phenomenon and his widely praised period piece The Elephant Man (1980). One can, on YouTube, view an on-stage palaver in which Lynch describes his wooing by Lucas, replete with a visit to the Skywalker Ranch, where, while battling a slowly tightening migraine headache, Lynch was feted with Wookiees and other exotic creations. As Lynch recalls: “He showed me many animals and different things.”
I was thinking about this story while watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Rian Johnson–directed eighth installment of the core Star Wars film series, and the second to be released since the October 2012 deal in which The Walt Disney Company, in pursuance of Chairman and CEO Bob Iger’s policy of investing heavily in character properties, purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, divided between cash on the barrelhead and DIS stock. I thought of it because The Last Jedi features Laura Dern, an actress whose career is inextricably connected to that of Lynch, from 1986’s Blue Velvet to her role in Twin Peaks: The Return as Diane Evans, Coop’s secretary, often addressed but never seen in the original series. In both The Last Jedi and Twin Peaks, Dern appears with surprising hair—a lilac wash in the former, a bobbed platinum blonde helmet of a wig in the latter—though the resemblance between the characters stops there. For Johnson she is a beatific martyr of the Resistance fleet; for Lynch she is a wounded woman addicted to vodka and gel manicures with as many ways of saying “Fuck you” as Eskimos have words for snow.
If one is so inclined, there are other parallels to be drawn out between the two franchises. Both have created worlds which revolve around a Manichean struggle between hopelessly commingled forces of light and darkness: Jedi and Sith in Star Wars, the White and Black Lodges in Twin Peaks. (The Last Jedi even has a “Red Room” of its own, occupied by the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke.) Both also have roots that reach into the rich, loamy fundament of humankind’s collected mythology. In the case of Star Wars, the mythic connection is a willful and premeditated one—franchise creator Lucas has spoken at some length on the influence on his film by the ideas contained in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the case of Twin Peaks it is somewhat harder to gauge with any accuracy what Lynch’s references are, for he is infamously mum on such matters, but consciously or unconsciously he too is drawing from the wellspring of lore and legend.
The superficial thematic similarities between the Star Wars and Twin Peaks universes aren’t brought up here with the intention of creating the impression of some equivalency. I consider Twin Peaks: The Return to be an epochal work of moving image art, while The Last Jedi is lugubrious offal almost entirely lacking in merit as art or entertainment. The third Peaks season is handcrafted, idiomatic—the uncompromised work of the 71-year-old Lynch and 64-year-old Mark Frost, his partner on the original run of the show. The Last Jedi was written and directed by a man who was six years old when the first Lucas-directed Star Wars movie was released—it’s an industrial undertaking in what, with the exit of Lucas, has a revolving-door franchise. Speaking of Lucas in the abovementioned interview, Lynch regarded the director as a peer: “I always admired George. Y’know, George is a guy who does what he loves, and I do what I love. The difference is, what George loves makes hundreds of billions of dollars.” Lynch had his own brush with attempted blockbusterdom; the movie that he directed instead of Return of the Jedi was 1984’s Dune, a ravishing folly adapted from Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name. Dune was made under the auspices of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, a Hollywood outsider who came from a Neapolitan family in the pasta-making business, and his daughter Raffaella, and for all its airs the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation was essentially a family business, as unlike the contemporary Walt Disney Company as was the Lucasfilm of 1977 or the scrappy little start-up at the Hyperion studio in Silver Lake that toiled for three years to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It flopped resoundingly, but Raffaella still cut that check for Blue Velvet. Would Bob Iger?
Much of what is dearest in cinema can be credited to brash buccaneers and independent operators working at the periphery, though few are the film artists, like Lynch, who can maintain freedom of the margins without falling off the radar entirely or being buried alive by success. Regardless of what one thinks of Lucas’s directorial output—and I don’t think of it very often—he is a creative artist and a visionary of sorts, though working a very different bailiwick than a Lynch or, especially, a Brakhage. The work of the latter appears to be among the many influences synthesized in the infamous eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, the large part of which is occupied by a headlong dive into the undulant stem of a mushroom cloud blossoming over the White Sands Missile Range, which renders up a whorl of buffeting abstractions set to Krzysztof Penderecki’s cacophonic 1960 composition “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”: dye whorls and a locust-like swarm of dancing pinpoints and a lazy rain of ash preceding a grand finale of particolored explosions and a plunge into a lake of fire.
Lynch’s uncanny eye defamiliarized the suburban scene in Blue Velvet; here he does the same for the atom bomb—something which, come to think of it, we really ought never have gotten used to—appearing here quite literally as though for the first time. Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon were constant preoccupations for the American experimental filmmakers, like Brakhage, coming of age in the 1940s and 50s, as most obviously manifest in Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976), comprised of sensuous slow-motion replays of the Operation Crossroads Baker nuclear test at Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946, the year of Lynch’s birth. Not without cause could you say that, with its occasional recourse to images of atomized chaos, the “New American Cinema,” as branded by chief publicist Jonas Mekas, was linked obscurely but essentially to the explosion of the hydrogen bomb, which likewise left in its aftermath the withered, wan, white tree of Giacometti and Beckett.
While Twin Peaks was underway there was a feeling—I had it, at least, and I discussed it with others at the time who felt the same way—that all was going to be revealed, that the entire occult history of the United States in the 70-some years since VJ Day would be delineated, that the spell would be broken and we would understand as the transmission was cut on the incantatory broadcast that we’ve unknowingly been in thrall to for the whole of our lives: “This is the water, this is the well…”
Nothing of the sort happened, of course, but Twin Peaks’ very ability to generate that anticipation is a testament to its achievement. In scope, it goes far beyond anything in the original series, expanding its purview from a medium-small town in the Pacific Northwest to take in a nationwide epidemic afflicting Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Buenos Aires (briefly), a dreamed Paris, many of these established by aerial shots that somehow buck the cliché of the aerial establishing shot by just sort of… hanging there, drifting slightly as with the breeze. (Most of the actual shooting of the series, however, was done in Washington State and in the less scenic corners of Los Angeles County.) And then, in episode 8, we are transported to White Sands on July 16, 1945 to witness the Trinity nuclear test, and to a strip of New Mexico desert in 1956 to witness, presumably, its aftermath, the hatching of an egg from which emerges something slithering, hybridized, with the haunches of a bullfrog and the humming wings of a fat fly.
These scenes, the first period work that Lynch has done since The Elephant Man, revisit the world of his youth—the filmmaker is a privileged son of postwar victory culture, the Superkids to whom Tom Wolfe issued a melic ode in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, products of “America’s tailfin civilization… feeling immune, beyond calamity.” (Lynch has echoed Wolfe’s hosannas, describing the America that he grew up in as a place of “euphoric 1950s chrome optimism.”) The photographer William Eggleston, an artist every bit as invested in documenting peculiarly American textures as Lynch, named one of his most powerful portfolios of work “Los Alamos,” after the location of the lab where the Trinity test was prepared. To my knowledge none of its 75 dye-transfer color images, shot between 1966 and 1974 and taking in very contemporary supermarkets and drive-ins and signage and an abandoned gas station rather like the one that plays a crucial role in Twin Peaks: The Return, were taken there, but the name fits, for these images document the new plastic-and-polyester beauty of a post-atomic world. (Lynch is an avowed fan of Eggleston, who has taken the director’s portrait.)
That old chrome, tail-finned world is likewise that of George Lucas’s youth, memorialized in his American Graffiti (1973), and the period left an indelible stamp on both men—doomed, as we all are to varying degrees, to run on the hardware installed during our formative years. Both were marked by the car culture of that era, with its exuberantly designed land-cruisers and juiced-up deuce coupes—Lucas turned hot-rodders into X-Wing pilots, while Lynch gives a star turn to the 1960 Cadillac Series S2 convertible that ferries Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway (1996)—and the doo-wop and rock 'n’ roll radio piped from the dashboard console. Lucas’s little ensemble film made a folkloric figure of DJ Wolfman Jack, while the rich, sumptuous reverb that was such a crucial element of the aural wallpaper of Lynch's adolescence—the Duane Eddy guitar twang and the high school bathroom acoustics of the era's vocal groups—would become a hallmark of the "Lynchian" sound, from Badalamenti's scoring to the roadhouse band bookings. Blue Velvet, the movie that fixed Lynch’s future trajectory as a filmmaker, took its name from a 1963 Bobby Vinton tune, and in no small part helped to reignite interest in the music of Roy Orbison, onetime resident of Odessa, Texas. In Twin Peaks: The Return, Becky’s coked-up bliss-out is set to “I Love How You Love Me,” a Phil Spector-produced tune by The Paris Sisters, while in episode 8, a sinister, murderous tramp known as The Woodsman, who looks a bit like an Abraham Lincoln impersonator dunked in motor oil, invades New Mexico radio station KPJK, rudely interrupting the revolutions of a 45 of The Platters’ 1956 recording of “My Prayer,” a song that begins: “When the twilight is gone and no songbirds are singing.”
The original Twin Peaks took place in the early 1990s but was suffused with elements that suggested the Eisenhower era, from James Hurley’s sighing, breathy composition “Just You” to Audrey Horne’s cardigans and saddle shoes. After the show was canceled, Lynch and Frost’s next project was a single-camera 1950s-set period sitcom, also for ABC, called On the Air, depicting the production of a live variety show for the fictional Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company, whose president was played by Peaks star Miguel Ferrer. The postwar years were a fulcrum on which American culture completed a pivot from folk to pop culture that had been underway for decades, and built into Lynch and Frost’s work together is an awareness of the role played in this by broadcast technologies—both radio and television. The result was a paradigm shift creating a new world that’s all most of us have known, and a period of incredible cultural ferment in the United States, giving forth the first rumblings of the New American Cinema and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction stories and the Beats and the Method Actors who both seem to be burlesqued in the figure of Twin Peaks’ Wally Brando (Michael Cera) and the coalescing of a film style that was concerned with the proximity of calamity to daily life, that group of American thrillers which would eventually be designated as film noir, another crucial point of reference for Lynch.
The influence is evident in Lynch’s recurring recourse, not only in Twin Peaks: The Return but in both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (2001), to the amnesia plot. A time-tested story hook whose popularity reached saturation point in the noir years, the theme of identity-loss even works its way into the lyrics of the 2016 Nine Inch Nails song “She’s Gone Away,” written for the show and performed by the band in full at the roadhouse: “I can't remember what she came here for/I can’t remember much of anything anymore.” The “her,” we may surmise, is Laura Palmer, who takes her name from the title character in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a murdered girl who’s discovered to not actually be dead, and Lynch’s FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole’s handle comes from a minor character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a movie centrally concerned with confronting the illusionist image of beautiful youth with the real ravaging of time—it’s hearing the name “Cole” aloud that helps bring Cooper, finally, back to himself.
There is also a touch of down-market noir in the look of the new series, swarming with cops and hitmen and shadowy syndicate bosses with the sobriquet “Mitchum” and even an ex-prizefighter, 88-year-old Don Murray’s Bushnell Mullins, who looks like he last stepped in the ring in the days of Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). (A poster advertising one of “Battling Bud”’s bygone bouts hangs over his desk, a relic leftover from a rowdy working-class past that stands out strikingly in the antiseptic white-collar setting.) This doesn’t mean that Twin Peaks looks like it was shot by John Alton—could anything made today approximate that look?—but rather that Lynch understands that the 2017 equivalent of a noir aesthetic must be a matter of an affinity that goes beyond chiaroscuro and backlit cigarette smoke and tricks cribbed from Karl Freund in his Ufa years, before he went to work on I Love Lucy. Lynch has the gift that precious few have of making his influences seem original to him. The late Mark E. Smith, another artist-seer in the Lovecraft/Lynch mold and the governing curatorial intelligence of band The Fall, had it too—with his heavily accented Sprechgesang delivery over a guitar sound drawn from the skittering, spidery stylings of hillbilly axe men like Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup he transformed early American rock ‘n’ roll into something that seemed native to the Manchester docks, the so-called “country and northern” sound.
Better than the hordes of directors who smother the spirit of cult homage in money, Lynch has always understood the atmospheric values of cheapness, the sense of potential danger that it conveys, and with Twin Peaks’ often bargain basement VFX—those Red Room beacons over the slot machines!—and cut-rate set pieces using handheld waggle to juice up green-gardening-gloved superheroes doing battle with CGI orbs, he has created something like a Poverty Row aesthetic for the digital era. A case can be made that these touches are evidence of laziness on the part of French VFX house BUF rather than authorial intention, but it must be remembered that this is the same Lynch who, when shooting a happy ending for Blue Velvet in which the night has passed and the songbirds are singing again, made use of a chintzy stuffed robin—an effect that consciously or unconsciously echoes a bathetic gag in George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966).
It is quite possible that Lucas encountered the work of the Kuchars during his time as a habitué of Bruce Baillie’s Canyon Cinema screenings in San Francisco that nourished his ambition to make movies. It remains unknown if the filmmaker, immured in his Marin County acreage, will ever deliver on his longstanding threat to turn to making “experimental films,” but he seems well and truly to have retired from directing tentpole projects, news that has been greeted in some quarters with relief. Recently while watching an episode of a Netflix-produced miniseries about iconic toy lines dedicated to Kenner Products’ design and manufacture of Star Wars action figures, I was hung up on a tossed-off line from the bubbly narrator, describing the return to normalcy signaled by the sequel trilogy after what was widely received as the disappointment of the prequels. The franchise, we’re told, was now “All in the safe hands of Disney’s creative teams.”
That such a phrase can be delivered as received wisdom indicates the degree to which so many have become chillingly inured to the concept of corporate bureaucracy acting as a guarantor of the public good. The idea that an author is the owner of the intellectual property that they produce is a relatively young one—as a legal concept its origins line up roughly with early 19th-century Anglo-American Romanticism and its conception of the artist as individualistic Promethean creator. The collaborative nature of film of course made the designation of hero-artist credit somewhat trickier, and continues to do so, but from quite early on the director was considered the best candidate, a common assumption codified in auteurist polemics. In the history of industrial filmmaking—among other things the history of a struggle between creative workers and the front office—the ascent of the celebrity director was a P.R. win for the artists. Subsequently, however, a reorganized, restructured, and far more risk-averse front office has, in Lucasian language, struck back, redirecting attention with great success from directors to properties. As a result, we today have fanboys eager to rejoice over the merger between Disney and Fox and chummy exchanges with personable, wisecracking, shitposting corporate Twitter accounts.
Being of the world, cinema must always be compromised by the world; we know this. And cinema, we know, can be born and even thrive in seemingly hostile climates—but I would venture to guess that just below out-and-out despotism and the guidance of an all-powerful state, the safe hands of consensus-seeking corporate creative teams, as distinct from the old atelier-like studio model, provide just about the worst possible midwife for it. True and worthy work can be made in such an environment, just as a tree can grow out of an abandoned parking lot, but the circumstances aren’t exactly optimal. Taking the historical long view, which offers plenty of precedent for the present sad state of affairs, should not diminish the fact that theatrical cinematic offerings have rarely ever been worse than they are right now. “These giant multinational corporations are filled with monstrous vermin, poisonous, vile murderers, and they eat, drink, and shit money,” to borrow one of Dr. Amp’s rants, splenetic sales pitches for gold-plated shovels.
Entertainment conglomerates deal with flesh-and-blood artists by necessity, but what they love most of all are cold, pliable intellectual properties with a time-tested appeal—hence the imposing roster that Iger has put together at Disney, and hence the rampant rebooting that both The Last Jedi and Twin Peaks are, after a fashion, symptoms of. Both are oriented toward the past and the relationship, frequently unsettled, that their characters have to it. “It’s time to let old things die,” Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren proclaims in The Last Jedi, but his rip-it-up-and-start-again proposition is countermanded not only by Daisy Ridley’s Rey, beholden to tradition, but also by the film’s coda, in which a preadolescent generation of potential Resistance recruits recount the legend of Luke Skywalker among themselves, like Christians in the catacombs. Continuing the renovation job begun by J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Johnson’s movie kills off more of the original cast while slowly ceding the narrative to younger characters, a bid to continue the franchise into perpetuity with a transfusion of young blood. The lore is the thing, the interpreters only incidental, like clerics through the ages, and the popular culture of your youth will be the popular culture of your middle-age. “Is it future… or is it past?”