Friday, June 02, 2017

Twin Peaks (David Lynch, 2017)

A stranger's dream

A little over a quarter century later.

The gum you thought would never come back.

It is happening again.

There's no berry pies served, no coffee until the fourth episode where a cup--maybe--plays a crucial role. There's donuts--boxed and labeled (apparently from a wellknown franchise) not spread out in sumptuous display--and at one point a beautifully pointless pun involving the little crullers. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) does appear but she's older now ("I'm dead yet I live") having somehow aged in the confines of the Black Lodge. Most of the characters have visibly aged, reflecting the physical condition of much of the audience ardently watching.

Ladies and gentlemen welcome--back--to Twin Peaks.

True Lynch hasn't made a feature in eleven years--the barely categorizable Inland Empire--and if we're talking a film with reasonably conventional narrative line (barely) then he hasn't made one in fifteen. Does it show? I think so, and in my book that's a good thing.

The first season of the original Twin Peaks I submit presented Lynch on the small screen in relatively audience-friendly form, a deft balance of his bizarre sensibility and the usual soap melodrama (or sly parody thereof); the second season was practically cut adrift and substituted an interesting meta suspense narrative: can Lynch after leaving the show for other projects come back to save it? I think he succeeded with the last episode (too late to prevent cancellation alas), and with a feature film prequel (Fire Walk With Me) expanded the series' grimmer themes.

This third season I'd say he's attempting several things at once: exploit the intense nostalgia felt by audiences; expand the show's visual language; mine (you might say stripmine) his past work for imagery and tone; push the boundaries of what he's done and what multi-episode television has done past already expanded limits.

Hence the lack of pies. Hence the eponymous town sharing only partial onscreen time--among others we're following the story of a mysterious glass box in a Manhattan office building, closely watched by Sam and Tracey (Ben Rosenfield and Madeline Zima); of the possessed Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) and his efforts to avoid being sucked back into the Black Lodge; of a school principal named William Hastings (Matthew Lillard) accused of murder in Buckthorn, South Dakota; of the FBI's investigation into the New York murders, and Agent Cooper's reappearance in South Dakota (Connected? Why not?); of the real Cooper's attempts to leave said Lodge; and of a third Cooper lookalike named Dougie Jones, lying in bed with a prostitute named Jade (Nafessa Williams, gorgeous).

Many of the series' most beloved characters are still here: multimillionaire Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) and his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly); Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse); Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and his girlfriend-now-wife Lucy (Kimmy Robertson); the still enigmatic Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn)  spraypainting shovels in gold. Yes there's still a Sheriff Truman--this time Harry's brother Frank (Robert Forster)--and yes Michael Ontkean's softspoken presence is sorely missed. Yes Andy and Lucy are silly as ever, Sheriff Truman tolerating their comedy routines with practiced patience, then striding into the back room where the real police work is done: through younger deputies (though among the new faces I spotted marvelous but rarely-seen Jodi Thelen) using relatively more modern tracking and communications equipment. Is this the status quo in the new Peaks: a nostalgia show out front, sleeker more efficient activity humming away in the rear? 

The first conversation we hear that takes place in the town proper responds I submit to that question:

"I'd like to see Sheriff Truman!"

"Which one?"

"Sheriff Truman isn't here?"

"Well do you know which one? It could make a difference."

"Uh no ma'am."

"One is sick and the other one is fishing. It could make a difference."

"It's about insurance."

"I'm not sure I will be able to help you."

"I'd like to see Sheriff Truman!"

The stranger barging in to demand to see all the old characters. Lynch can't immediately help him; the newcomer is reduced to repeating his initial request. He must learn to sit patiently while the difference is sussed out, maybe pick the one that went fishing. 

Or as One-Armed Mike puts it succinctly: "Is it future or is it past?"

This interleaving of nostalgia and new is expressed visually by the effects. The first episode opens with a black and white sequence, of Carel Struycken (listed as 'Giant' in the original series, now as '???????' in the new season's credits) addressing Cooper; the agent blinks in response, flickers, vanishes. The moment is suavely executed with state-of-the-art digital but comes across like an old-fashioned TV glitch--a signal fluctuation say or momentary power failure. 

We see this again and again throughout the series' first four episodes, the mix of high and low tech, sometimes high tech emulating low tech. Laura Palmer pulls off her face and an unearthly glow shines forth; Michael Anderson as Mike's arm has evolved into a sapling tipped with a fleshy blob (Brain?), electric flashes running up its branches like thought impulses down dendrites--both effects smoothly digital. On the low end: the zigzag floor below Copper breaks up and pulls apart; Cooper falls through dark water into a shuddering star field--looking at times like stop-motion animation, at times like Lynch had MacLachlan lie on paintspattered canvas and shook the camera in his face. 

Cooper drops into The Purple Room (just a room shot through tinted filters) meets a woman with no eyes (Gummed closed stitched shut or simply born without?). She moves in stutters--as if the playback speed kept changing, or your streaming service kept drying up on you. Later a man's head pops (Eraserhead anyone?) releasing black smoke and a gold ball; flash and thunder and the rest of his body disappears, the ball dropping onto a seat cushion--your online nightmare turned alarmingly real.

What gives these effects conviction is Lynch's soundwork, which blare and clang and growl in the ambient silence, my theory being that you can put anything amateurish onscreen (for example Cooper slamming back and forth in the mysterious glass box) but it's the noise generated--presumably the noise an object makes as it pops in and out of existence, displacing air--that cues you to its solidity (helps that Lynch's cinematographer Peter Deming--who's worked with Sam Raimi in Evil Dead 2 and Drag Me to Hell, with Lynch on Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive--keeps most interiors at a maddeningly low light level; you stare and stare and stare trying to figure out what the hell you're looking at, and just when you're starting to form a notion Lynch cuts away).

Lynch's sound enhances not just effects but atmosphere--Cooper gazes at a lavender sea and you hear distant surf yes but over that surf the soft roar of a vast air duct, an airconditioned basement the size of the world. He seems able to describe his spaces best that way: one interior feels smotheringly small (the walls thrumming with electric current); another agoraphobically huge (the swirl of faraway air currents in the expanse). He has a collection of sparking fissuring spitting noises to indicate electrical shorts (that or imminent supernatural activity), not to mention all the low-frequency throbs and beats and booms to suggest either large unseen machinery or nameless ongoing dread.

Sam and Tracey quietly make out in front of the big glass box, the silence punctuated by soft moans and the whisper of cloth sliding from flesh; later when the two are being attacked you hear the terrible whirring sound of blades cutting into flesh--like a tenderloin steak dropped into a food processor. While Hastings sits in jail waiting to be interrogated he holds his head in his hands his fingernails digging scalp; rasp rasp rasp--you almost expect bloody furrows and you know however maddening the sound can be from outside it probably sounds worse inside his own tormented skull. 

Then there's the music, and not just the lush melancholy of Angelo Badalamenti's score. After the end of episodes 1 and 2 (the segments that premiered in Cannes) and the ends of each succeeding episode the action returns to The Bang Bang Club, the roadhouse at the outskirts of Twin Peaks (just right past the welcome sign) where we sit at the performance of one band or another--a dreamy capstone to each segment, but also a way to hearken back and comment on all the recent action. The Chromatics' "Shadows" for one refer to someone being "nothing like you seem" (possessed Cooper?) whose shadow "fell like last night's rain" (original Cooper?). The Cactus Blossoms' "Mississippi" mentions an "angel" (Laura Palmer?) with "wet hair" and "sandy gown," "somewhere on the shore waiting for me" (The Purple Room? Maybe one of the two women there?). Au Revoir Simone's "Lark" declares: "Sometimes I want to be enough for you / Don't ask / Know that it's done no good," which could refer to Dougie's abandonment of his family for three days, same time the words "There's not enough of me" seems like an ironic aside to all the Coopers running around--which when you think about it could be Lynch's reference to Playtime, masterpiece of his beloved Tati.  

Catherine E. Coulson appears as The Log Lady--the very symbol of Peaks' rural eccentricity and folk mysticism--and she's near unwatchable, not because she's bad but because she's so intensely poignant; Ms. Coulson died in 2015 but filmed her scenes beforehand, handing out cryptic warnings to Hawk--to you--over the phone like cries for help. Other reminders of the passage of time--grayer beards, deeper wrinkles--can be seen but most disturbing is the cost of that passage on the possessed FBI agent. Cooper was always impeccably dressed and groomed; the possessed version's hair hangs in greasy tresses, his face puffy and dissipated, his eyes exhausted (he only looks alive when toying with the expectations of someone he's about to kill). MacLachlan could have played the character any number of ways, but showing him like this--a thug near the end of his long rough life--is almost moving. It puts a human face on his malevolence in a way Lynch never managed with his previous villains (his most memorable, Frank Booth, pulses with Dennis Hopper's horrific energy, but is more brass caricature than persuasively modulated portrait).

O and as for the original Cooper--folks don't seem to appreciate turning him into an amnesiac naif, but I like it. Cooper's irrepressible Boy Scout persona set the tone and pitch of the original show: "Diane if you ever come here you must try the blueberry cobbler!" "Oh Diane I almost forgot; got to find out what kind of trees these are, they're really something!" "That's damned good coffee!" Cooper's imposed hush through much of these first four episodes is deafening, a thunderous announcement of the director's intentions, his almost perverse need to both reference and subvert previous material. Whatever you may think of this Cooper he's got your undivided attention.

Besides Cooper's new parroty silent-film self (I've heard him called 'Rain Man Coop') makes for interesting contrast with his more evil self. Take away the natural eloquence and you learn that he's still basically decent and sweet-natured (if totally clueless)--he helps an old lady pocket a little disposable income, comes home to his faux Jones family (Naomi Watts as his bundle-of-nerves wife Janey-E, Pierce Gagnon as his more-perceptive-than-average son Sonny Jim) with enough cash to pay off as-yet unspecified debts.

This Cooper more than justifies himself in the sublimely comic sequence where (to the tune of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five") he sits down to a typical Jones breakfast, tie hanging over head. Sonny Jim chuckles; the rare youth in a Lynch work, the boy seems aware that something's not quite right, and accepts that he doesn't fully know what's going on. 'Dougie' sips coffee (that most magical of black brews), spits it out; hopefully this is the turning point to his character arc (we can only take so much unspoken innocence), though I'm more than willing to admit I could be wrong.  

Lynch reports shooting the series as a single eighteen-hour film and cutting it accordingly; we've seen less than a fourth and I submit are as yet unqualified to judge the whole. What I've written so far are initial impressions and superficial suppositions: a proper more definitive opinion can only be delivered at a later date.

First published in Businessworld 5.25.17


Anonymous said...

Keen observations. Makes me want to see the thing.

Noel Vera said...