Friday, December 11, 2015

Twin Peaks (David Lynch and Mark Frost, creators)

That gum you like 

David Lynch and Mark Frost's murder mystery/spiritual horrorshow/police procedural/goofball soap opera Twin Peaks debuted on ABC Network April 8, 1990 and television hasn't been quite the same.  

O major filmmakers have done television before; several generations (from Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer to Steven Spielberg) graduated from the tube, a few--Alfred Hitchcock being arguably the first in the '50s, with Altman finding an alternative career in the '80s--sought to translate their style to the smaller venue. Lynch is perhaps the most experimental to venture into the small screen; of those active in the early '90s I'd say he was the least likely to take the plunge.
Which may partly explain why the show aroused so much interest--Lynch had already piqued curiosity for his nightmare urban enigma Eraserhead, won mainstream acclaim for the black-and-white fable The Elephant Man, provoked more than a little controversy over the sexual-sadism-in-a-small-town crime drama (black comedy?) Blue Velvet.

Call Peaks Lynch's expansion of Velvet's black comedy (crime drama?)--a chance to stretch Jeffrey Beaumont's bildungsroman into a seasons-long soap, tailor Kyle Maclachlan's applecheeked good looks to FBI agent Dale Cooper's dark suit (basically Jeffrey all grown up, an overgrown Boy Scout backed by federal resources and a smidgen of Tibetan mysticism). It was a chance to expand Velvet's insect underside (suggested by that memorable early shot of the camera shouldering past grass blades into a sea of teeming violence) into a demonic netherworld, part feeding into and part fed by the eponymous town's malignant attitude towards women. 

Somehow it works. In the pilot the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is communicated through several scenes, arguably the finest in the series: of mother Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) striding through her house in search of her missing child, of husband Leland (Ray Wise) interrupted in the middle of an important conference to answer worried Sarah's call; and of a grave Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean, wearing the ludicrous weight of his character's presidential moniker lightly) walking up to Leland with the burden of heavy news. One looks at the officer, the other listens to the silence over the line and everyone simply knows, like a ripple crossing a pond, like a hive mind realizing the loss of one of its own: Laura is dead, and the town--a living entity--reels from the impact. 

Lynch walks a delicate line between operatic intensity and comic grotesque: Sarah and Leland's pain is pushed as far as can credibly go, perhaps half a step further; folks say the pilot feels so serious but I submit it's as much deadpan as straight serious. You look at Sarah's twisted face, feel for her agonizingly slow and extended display of grief, same time an insidious voice in your head whispers: "She's taking so long. Is she putting us on? Is Lynch?"

Not really, but Lynch seems to take his cue from Blue Velvet: postcard images from a small town (the kids on the street, the fireman on his truck, the white picket fences, the blooming flowers) all rendered off-kilter by lyrical slow motion.  In Twin Peaks he takes the tropes of TV soap (the affairs, the bursts of violence, the characters in deep coma) and applies not slow motion but its real-time equivalent, an amble-through-downtown pace that takes in not just the main sights of the little burg but its more oddball details.  

At the same time and to no small effect Lynch makes a visual fetish of landscapes, objects, faces. BOB's feral snarl contrasts with Cooper's serene smile; cup after cup of coffee steam beside huge wedges of berry pie; monumental pines wave heavy pompoms in gale-force wind, and what seems like the only traffic light in the entire municipality blinks green yellow red, green yellow red with metronome regularity.

Does the show's quality fall sharply in second season, the balance upset between writer/producer Mark Frost's eccentric eloquence and Lynch's visual surrealism? Do the filmmakers fail to find an equally compelling mystery to replace Laura Palmer's murder past the second season's seventh episode? Well (skip the rest of this and the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen the series!) yes, but in response to the second question Laura's murder was never meant to be solved--never really meant to be the point of the series. When Frost and Lynch started working on other projects (Frost's Storyville, Lynch's Wild at Heart) and the show started lurching in one direction or another a differing overarching narrative emerges: would the series find its footing on its own or would Frost and Lynch come back in time to save the show? Will the cast's dissatisfactions about the show's new scattershot direction be definitively addressed? And the film--what was that all about? Not suggesting Lynch planned every twist and turn in the show's fate in advance but he must have been pleased at how all fell in place--how frustration from cancellation, Lynch's cliffhanger finale, the feature prequel's perverse obtuseness have kept the coals smoldering against the day a third season might come.

Meanwhile season two isn't all duds--James Foley adds noirish intensity to his episode ("Wounds and Scars"), Caleb Deschanel (husband to cast member Mary Jo Deschanel) a gorgeous sheen to his
("Realization Time;" "Drive with a Dead Girl;" "The Black Widow"). Lynch himself is a lively addition to the cast as affable hard-of-hearing Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole; David Warner makes a brief but memorable appearance as the malevolent Thomas Eckhardt and Jane Greer--yes that Jane Greer--delivers a small but memorable cameo as Norma Jenning's (Peggy Lipton) mother. 

As for the storylines...Ben Horne's (Richard Beymer) sudden detours into first the Civil War and then ecological activism seem unaccountably trippy until you realize the first was American history recast as psychodrama therapy (an inevitable end rewritten and redeemed), and the second--the Save the Pine Weasel campaign--effectively blocks his adversaries' Ghostwood real estate scheme. Audrey Horne's (Sherilyn Fenn) sudden transformation into loyal Nancy Drew daughter feels enervating, but if she must blossom beyond her Lolitalike femme fatale persona this character turn is actually a (barely) reasonable outgrowth, even--if you're open-minded enough--a somewhat poignant one (Our little girl has grown up!). Leo Johnson's (Eric DaRe) Frankenstein monster impression is grotesquely funny--from menacing drug dealer to Wyndom Earle's (Kenneth Welsh) pet anthropoid--and shows how much more dangerous Agent Cooper's arch nemesis is supposed to be (supposed, not always successful). Leland Palmer's passing is Grand Guignol melodrama turned high tragedy, as Agent Cooper helps him face the full horror of his deeds and somehow find some kind of redemption, forgiveness.

By series' end Lynch does come galloping to the rescue; the finale works--for me at least--not by restoring the Frost-Lynch balance of the first season but by tossing out (along with chunks of Frost and company's original script) any pretense of balance, acknowledging the darker style of storytelling Lynch had developed from making Wild at Heart, hanging yards of red curtain to suggest an endlessly repetitive strobelit scarlet hell.

Fire Walk with Me--which opens with the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks (BOB's previous victim), then covering the final seven days of Laura Palmer--is I think an extension of that impulse. Without Frost's moderating influence Lynch's prequel feels like Peaks with the ragged edges left unsanded, with the town of Deer Meadow playing Twin Peaks' dark twin in a series brimming with doubles (Laura/Maddy, Good Dale/Bad Dale, Black Lodge/White Lodge). If the series' skewed humor is missing that may be because Lynch has chosen to tell the one story left untold, Laura's--and considering what has happened to her and what will happen in the near future, I don't see how the tone can be anything but grim.

The film is a corrective, I think; it sketches for us the kind of person Laura was, considerable flaws and all, and why we (along with most folks in Peaks) should mourn her passing. It also (with a neat little timey-wimey trick) suggests what happens after the series finale (Lynch plays fast and loose even with the rules governing prequels). It also drags the subtext of rape and abuse--couched on the small screen in all that soap and surreal humor--out in the open, with perhaps one of the most unwatchable scenes in '90s cinema being the Palmer dinner table, when Leland scolds Laura for her dirty fingernails.

Strange but the film for all its explicit sex and disturbing violence is also more hopeful than the series--Lynch fashions a final image literally out of nothing that manages to be pure inexplicable joy, despite all the suffering that comes before.

Whither Peaks? Good question--Lynch was never big on resolution, or satisfying an audiences' desires (that's part of his fascination). All I know is: the filmmakers have won a third chance; I'm interested in the results, even if said results are as inscrutable and impossible as before (if not more so). That traffic light swinging softly in the deep night? Stuck for so long in red--twenty five years, almost--the signal may finally change. 

First published in Businessworld, 12.4.15

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