5 March, 2018Issue 36.5Film & TVThe Arts

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White Noise, White Space

Jessie Munton

Twin Peaks: The Return
Dir. David Lynch, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.” These words introduce the deceased central character of the first series of Twin Peaks, as an unsuspecting fisherman discovers a most conveniently packaged female form, the naked body of Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee): homecoming queen, troubled teen, victim of a brutal sexualised murder. Her prom photo haunts all three series, an image infected with the peculiar grainy air characteristic of photos of victims of such crimes, captured in the eddy where purity and depravity meet, where we no longer know what we want, or why we’re still looking. Palmer’s murder brings FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to the small town of Twin Peaks in Washington State, near the Canadian border. Cooper greets each new day with fresh-faced cheer and enthusiasm for coffee and cherry pie, and has the kind of sexual charisma that’s strangely compatible with the possibility that he might have no genitals at all.

Twin Peaks first aired in 1990, and attained cult status almost at once, but was cancelled after an increasingly chaotic second series aired in 1991. The original series does not answer the question of who killed Laura Palmer, though the second series, and prequel film Fire, Walk with me,released in 1992, do so with grim and vivid clarity. Summer 2017 saw the return of the franchise after a hiatus of twenty-five years, in the form of Twin Peaks: The Return, an eighteen-part series written by the same duo as the first two series, David Lynch and Mark Frost, and directed by Lynch.

It’s hard to offer a precis of a plot as loosely knitted as that of The Return. Suffice it to say that Agent Cooper (MacLachlan) is back, but for most of the series he is stuck in another identity in a quasi-fugue state. Unable to talk properly, or look after himself, he surfs along playing life on the easiest setting, with supporting characters surprisingly ready to facilitate needs as basic as peeing. Like Odysseus entranced to Calypso, the hero is, for much for the series, stuck in a sort of limbo, beholden to the pleasures of pie, coffee, and Naomi Watts, blonde, pert, trim, quintessentially clean, fucking him cheerfully whilst he lies passively crucified on the bed, his arms bouncing in time with her movement. Surprisingly, this grown man’s inability to go to the bathroom unattended, let alone drive a car, get dressed, find something to eat or string together a coherent sentence, in no way impairs his capacity to satisfy his employer and his wife. It would be nice to read such details as a deliberate commentary on the ease with which men can come to lead lives resembling those of children, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Happily, for the sake of the series’ capacity to sustain our interest, Dale Cooper has an evil doppelgänger, also played, impressively, by MacLachlan. The double is headed back to Twin Peaks, where there are some rum goings on. And there’s nasty business afoot in the rest of America too, for that matter. Let’s hope that Good Cooper returns to himself in time to defeat Bad Cooper. Because at the end of the day, everyone’s on a journey homeward, if you will, the sort of homecoming for which the Ancient Greeks used the word nostos (νόστος).

A twenty-five year interval elapsed between the second series of Twin Peaks and The Return. During this quarter century, the series has become synonymous with a particular kind of “indie” artistic identity and aesthetic. Lynch’s own profile has steadily grown thanks to his intervening film work and the undeniable cult of personality that has accompanied it. For although all three series of Twin Peaks are co-written by Frost and Lynch, it is Lynch’s direction with which the show is most often associated. Lynch is a multi-talented sort of a fellow. Trained and actively practicing as a painter, in addition to creating films and television, he writes and performs music (including some of the shoegazey, dreampop songs that conclude many episodes of The Return). He is a passionate advocate of transcendental meditation, and has his own brand of coffee. The man is a performer: you can, if you so wish, watch a twenty-minute black and white Youtube video of him instructing you on how to make a quinoa salad in real time. “Start with a pan” he instructs (a very good place to start). “I’m going to go over now and fill this pan at the sink with some fresh water,” he continues. But it’s as a filmmaker that Lynch is primarily recognised. His commitment to creative method is storied: he allegedly dissected a cat during the filming of his first film, Eraserhead, to give him inspiration for the film’s visual textures. If you’ve seen the film, that doesn’t come as a great surprise.

Lynch is a storyteller, a master of suspense and spook in particular, but like real life, he’s frustrating and elusive: the true significance of events shifts and wavers on the horizon, fading as one gets closer. In this respect, Lynch has always been a tease. His genius is to imbue the ordinary with a certain significance, a weight that grows ominous, then terrifying. The results stay with you: at the end of an episode, possibilities are altered, shadows are deeper and more labile, ordinary objects imbued with a sinister salience. Going to the bathroom at night, one is left fearing the faces one might find beside one’s own in the mirror. Through the lingering of the camera, its seemingly indeterminate direction, the wait, the abnormal character of the light, Lynch promises meaning, and one never knows if he has delivered or not. Plot isn’t straightforward in his works; rather, it curls and circles back and peters out and starts again, stripping away the usual constraints on how suspense or horror might unfold: there is nothing mundane in his filmmaking. Instead, what might be mundane becomes strange, grows tense, lurks.

The distinctiveness of much of his work and the convention-defying nature of his plots leaves the viewer uneasily disoriented, uncertain as to his intent. Can one unravel the plot to reveal the “true meaning” of the work? Can one learn to read the repeated symbols? Is the viewer a fool for not “getting it”, or for believing that there was something to “get” in the first place?  Lynch’s refusal to reveal anything, to say one way or another what, if anything, his work means has often convinced his audience that there is a hidden meaning behind the hard-to-parse assemblage of elements. I’ve always hoped there was nothing there to get. Lynch’s cinema is radical partly for its refusal to offer easy answers, its willingness to disorient and frustrate.

The Return offers much of what makes Lynch so beloved by his fan-base: ambiguity, non sequiturs, deeply surreal (even nonsensical) elements, and a willingness to dwell on bizarre images that horrify and fascinate: a woman with her eyes covered over with flesh (are they sewn shut?) in an isolated room that rises from a surreal monochrome seascape, shapes that emerge from atom clouds, dislocated noises and atonal music. Whole minutes pass in which nothing happens, and there are long periods of white noise. There are heavy doses, too, of the now-familiar uncanny tropes that marked the first two series: the device of a kind of parallel world, a “red room” in which characters’ speech is distorted (the result of actors saying the syllables backwards before playing the result in reverse), moments at which the fabric of reality warps and gives way, allowing movement between different times and dimensions. It’s also beautiful. It’s visually and aurally rich. And it’s frequently funny, even (and sometimes especially) at its moments of horror. There is nothing else like this in mainstream television, and it is immensely gratifying that television this surreal and, at times, stunning and effective is being made.

A feeling characteristic of my youth was the particular mix of discomfort and boredom that presages the realisation one is a third wheel to two people who are interested only really in each other. There are few things duller than flirting that does not concern you. Sometimes I detect a similar boredom in myself watching The Return. Oh look, the red room, yes, very nice. The people talk backwards, yes yes. Lynch is flirting, albeit lazily, and it isn’t me he’s flirting with. The pace of the earlier episodes is so slow, its once ground-breaking tropes now repetitive. But the provocation of boredom is itself of interest these days. Part of Lynch’s appeal is that he dares to bore his viewer. Equally, he can afford to be boring, having the luxury of a fan-base that trusts him to bore them. But the result is less daring than it was when that wasn’t the case. This is an important discontinuity between the original series of Twin Peaks and The Return. Previously, Lynch’s gloriously bizarre television was broadcast directly into the living rooms of unsuspecting viewers. That’s probably what got the series cancelled. But it was also part of what was so invigorating about it, that Lynch could make mainstream television this surreal. By contrast, since The Return was released on Hulu Plus, an on-line subscription streaming platform (not a development of the popular potato snack), viewers must choose to show up to it, and those who show up, and in particular those who show up consistently for 18 episodes, are Lynch Fans. They know what they’re in for, and Lynch knows that they know (and want) what they’re in for, and there’s something a little too comfortable about all that mutual knowledge. What is the intended effect of the ostensibly bizarre when it has become its own hallmark? Lynch and Frost move creatively, like their characters, in a world with few absolute constraints, and sometimes insufficient friction against which to push. The movement between parallel universes, the sudden abandonment of one plot strand for another, sometimes never to be resumed, can leave the viewer disinterested. It’s hard to build tension when there are no limits on what is possible..

Yet at its best I am as infatuated as the truly faithful. Lynch makes television that could be cinema, cinema that moreover rewards careful and repeated viewing. He has made choices. He wants the experience to feel a certain way for you and has paid attention to the details. Artistically, Lynch remains deeply radical: the eighth episode, for instance, is one of the strangest pieces of television I have ever seen, comprising almost no dialogue or obvious narrative.

But in The Return it becomes increasingly clear that, although creatively radical, Twin Peaks is in other ways deeply conservative. That comes out in its aesthetic: the cars, the uniforms of staff waiting in the diner, throwbacks to the paraphernalia of Lynch’s 1950s youth. The town of Twin Peaks has enjoyed a streak of stability in its employment surely unmatched across America: twenty-five years later, the same staff work in the police station, the diner and the gas station. Is this stasis a fear or a fantasy? For Lynch, it seems in no small part a fantasy. Change is often symbolically bad in the series: the town’s diner has been sold to a profiteering franchise who are pressuring its manager and original owner, Norma, to compromise her high standards for local organic ingredients, and to name the diner after herself. But Norma is pure, and Norma is selfless, and Norma still dresses like she did twenty-five years ago (and it’s admittedly a damn fine look), and in a triumphant moment she resists and take back ownership of the diner.

This conservatism doesn’t just manifest in the series’ aesthetics. The Return is deeply preoccupied with the loss of purity, and a tangible evil that flows from it. A curious sequence takes place at the location of the test of the atom bomb, which took place on  July 16 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico (Lynch himself was born in 1946). This event sets off a kind of chain of evil, in part manifesting in the form of hobo-like figures wrapped in rags who slowly penetrate the nearby town, violently destroying its inhabitants as the latter pursue their innocuous activities. This invasion is accompanied by an almost crassly symbolic loss of innocence: a young girl has just allowed a boy to walk her home and kiss her outside her house. Inside, dressed in her nightie and listening to the radio she is suddenly overcome by sleep as the repetitive gravelly voice of evil takes the place of the ’50s music she listened to a moment earlier. As she sleeps, a huge cockroach-like beetle as large as the open oval of her mouth enters the room and forces itself between her lips, its wings and legs clicking and whirring as it disappears inside her, the metaphor of lost virginity too clear to be clever, but the horror visceral nonetheless.

Nor is it hard to hear the implication that America lost its innocence with the test of the Atom Bomb, that a palpable evil has been unleashed and is spreading out across the country. Are we to read the peculiar and horrible brutality in The Return as one of its manifestations? The Return is notably more violent than the earlier series, frequently shockingly so. Faces explode, blood gushes, and a crazed little person stabs a random woman to death with a screwdriver. Children physically abuse their parents and grandparents, not infrequently under the influence of drugs. In one scene, a young man violently robs his grandmother and grandfather; the latter, suffering from dementia, gagged and strapped to a chair, grows ever more distressed as he, like us, is powerless to stop the violence against his wife, whilst the repetitive electronic voice of a lit object he watches to calm him blends with classical music to form a surreal, soaring soundtrack for an unstinting piece of sustained brutality that is genuinely hard to watch. It’s like Hesiod said, 2800 years ago: the younger generation are a mess and it’s downhill from here, not like it was when he was young and the youth had some respect for their elders. As the character of Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), one-time analyst to the murdered Laura Palmer, rants on his podcast marketing the gold spray-painted shovels he now sells: “We all live in the mud! In the shit! Shovel your way out of the shit!” Sometimes the violence in Twin Peaks does seem to respond to a disgust at the human body: its fluids, its failures, its width and solidity, its ultimate destructibility.

This conservatism is also evidenced in the peculiar faith Lynch places in authority figures. There are Baddies and there are Goodies in this universe, and the Goodies are consistently figures of authority: the overseer of the town’s trailer park (Harry Dean Stanton’s ears bring a lot to the part) looks on the chaotic lives of its inhabitants with compassion and understanding, making right what he can, overseeing, protecting. In the Twin Peaks police station, the unflappable Hawk, the Native American police chief, brings wisdom and calm to the troubled lives of lesser mortals. Lynch himself plays an eccentric figure high up in the FBI, an unlikely Goodie in this day and age. At one moment of crisis, the hero, Agent Cooper says “I am the FBI” and that makes everyone feel OK.

One of the most grating ways in which The Return harks back to a different era is in its portrayal of women. Few are safe in Lynch’s universe, but some are less safe than others: those with higher BMI get short shrift and little dignity, and those in a state of undress are frequently in physical danger. The oddly retrograde presentation of women is one of the least satisfying elements of the series. Time and again they are eye-candy. Take the three blonde women dressed in bunny girl costumes who serve as lackeys to two gangster business men. They lounge against a wall waiting for their command, make them drinks, carry light objects when necessary, and generally provide a Fun Time for all. And then there’s Agent Preston: honour’s list at high-school, dean’s list at MIT, and top of her class at Quantia, or so we’re told. And yet her role in the action is negligible: she is more attractive secretary than agent. We see her hips wiggle, but we never get to see how her mind works. “Coffee Time!” pronounces Lynch, and off she goes to put the kettle on. Thank God for Laura Dern, whose character has backbone (we know because we see it: Lynch’s preferred angle on a sex scene, it appears, is the female back).

But women aren’t just relegated. They are violently and graphically squished and smashed. They get decapitated, and incidentally stabbed to death with a screwdriver, and strangled and asphyxiated. Smish smash splish splash. This violence is frequently sexualised: in each of the first two episodes a woman meets her gruesome end in her underwear as she prepares to have sex. The second time we know it’s coming, and the suspense builds and builds, the dread, the fear, but also the eroticism of that moment: isn’t death ultimately a more satisfying consummation than sex? Why settle for a petit mort when you could go big? Too often women, and in particular violence against women, are primarily an aesthetic event for Lynch. This isn’t new: the power of the original Twin Peaks was always underwritten by the sexualised murder of a teenage girl. But the violence of The Return is more graphic, more relentless, and the intervening passage of twenty-five years casts the state of female representation into uncomfortably stark relief.

Something similar has happened with the depiction of race in the series. Mr Lynch likes his space like he likes his noise: white. The geographical scope of The Return is so much wider than a small town in Washington State, and as a result it’s harder to justify the extraordinary whiteness of its spaces. There is, early on, one notable appearance by a black character, played by Nafesa Williams. But she appears naked, playing the prostitute with whom Dougie Jones has just slept. Then there’s Hawk, the ever-wise, spiritual-lite Native American police chief. Beyond that, it’s an almost entirely white-washed landscape, and one barely recognises America in Lynch’s vision of the country.

Is Lynch self-aware on these fronts? In a clunky interchange with a trans character, Diane (David Duchovny), who is also the head of the FBI, Lynch’s character concedes that he is “old school” when his predilection for sleeping with young women is raised. When he’s accused of “going soft” he responds “not where it matters.” There’s a peculiar dissonance here: artistically Lynch is so very much not old school. But in The Reutrn it seems we’ve hit a limit to his imagination. Lynch is radical, but not so radical that he wants to break away from norms of whitewash and violence against women. Why not imagine a major character who isn’t white? Why not take the same titillation in violence against a man that Lynch invites us to take in violence against women? Why not enjoy the bloody explosion of force against the trembling curves of a naked male form? What if men were taught, as women are through this kind of art, to see themselves as aesthetic objects fit for the receipt of pain? I should like three bunny men in pink satin to carry my hors d’oeuvres for me. There – I imagined that, it wasn’t so hard now, was it? At least, not in the way that matters.

The change in geographical focus is the biggest single break with the first two series. Gone is the claustrophobia and the cosiness of Twin Peaks. The Return takes in huge swathes of America: New York, the badlands of Dakota, Las Vegas, Texas. There are road trips, the road trips we dream of: headlights on highways, empty roads through the desert, disused gas stations, dusty tracks in the hot sun. It’s a love song of sorts. And like many love songs, it sounds for something that has already been lost. Like any nostos, The Return seeks an America that is past, both in the fictional and real worlds.

America, not Africa, is the true lost continent. This is true now more than ever as both sides of a frighteningly deep political fracture, the remnants of an unfinished civil war, seek to find their way back to a lost purity of one kind or another. America has a dual life in the imagination: endlessly edenic, yet simultaneously ever fresh from the fall, be it the Wall Street Crash, the atom-bomb, a reassessment of its neo-colonial foreign policy, or more recently the increasingly transparent fact that the Civil War isn’t over. There’s a deep nostalgia across both sides of the political divide in America currently: among conservatives for a simpler time in which they didn’t have to acknowledge the reality of those who were structurally incapable of winning, and among liberals for a time when at least a narrative of progress was available.

Lynch, too, seeks throughout the series to make his way back not just geographically with his characters to Twin Peaks, but temporally, and in some sense morally. Perhaps it’s this nostalgia which gives Lynch’s piece the feel of a finale. Death is a recurrent theme. One of the most moving moments is when the Log Lady, played by Catherine E. Coulson, foretells her death. “Hawk, I’m dying”, she repeats. “You know about death that it’s just a change not an end….There’s some fear. Some fear in letting go….. The wind is moaning. I am dying.” And indeed Coulson was, of cancer, as she knew, and as Lynch and Frost knew. She did not live to see the season’s completion. She had worked behind the scenes with Lynch on his first film Eraserhead and acted in the first two series of Twin Peaks.

The series ends with a fantasy of return, a road trip at night from Odessa, Texas, to Twin Peaks, Washington. Some of these final road trip scenes are extraordinary for the length of their silence. It’s here, if anywhere, that America is to be found, as Thomas Wolfe, perhaps the quintessential Great American Novelist recognised in his appropriately titled novel You Can’t Go Home Again, posthumously published in 1940. In that novel, written with a deep concern for the rise of fascism in Europe, Wolfe speculates that

Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.

But it’s in light of his exposure to rising fascism in Europe that George Webber realizes: that the dark ancestral cave, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back — but that you can go home again”

It is as true in The Return as anywhere that you can’t go home again. The series’ ending suggests that Lynch knows that, and yet the whole enterprise, and its idealised pockets of stasis, rely on a certain blindness to this fact. None of us can go home, despite the hope that drives the pursuit of eighteen hours of astonishing television: neither Lynch, nor his characters, nor the viewer, nor America. We’re all out here on the lonely endless highway whilst the wind blows through the firs and the traffic lights creak and bob in response.

~

Jessie Munton is a Bersoff postdoctoral fellow in the Philosophy department at New York University.