Saturday, April 23, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #16: TWIN PEAKS
One drug-induced night during my sophomore year of college, I cozied up to a very unusual double feature: Gregg Araki's THE DOOM GENERATION and David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS pilot. The evening made a lasting impression on me. I spent the next several weeks listening to Slowdive (a British band that is prominently featured in all of Araki's films) and reading everything I could find about David Lynch.
I've only re-watched THE DOOM GENERATION once, and it didn't live up to my memory of it. On repeat viewing, I found it more annoying than harrowing... I couldn't sympathize with any of the characters (though I was perfectly happy to watch Rose McGowan), and it seemed to me that their overbearing cynicism stifles the often remarkable subtleties of lightning and art design. That said, I remained impressed mostly impressed with the neo-noir aesthetic and the music. Araki always picks exactly the right music to convey the emotional content of his scenes.
I couldn't tell, at first, if TWIN PEAKS was a similarly mixed bag or if it was a work of freakish genius. I was certainly intrigued by it, but it left me worried that the show might ultimately provided answers I couldn't be satisfied with. (When I saw the pilot, the entire series had already come and gone on television... so mercifully I didn't have to wait long to find out.)
TWIN PEAKS is a delicate balance of Lynch's brand of horror and co-creator Mark Snow's brand of melodrama. At times, the balance is so tenuous that the show veers into random parody (a one-armed man in a TV murder mystery... really?). The soap opera elements mute some of the horror elements, creating a sense that every scene is filled with deep, dark secrets. After watching the pilot for the first time, I started reading books and articles on David Lynch like I was searching for sacred text in the Mona Lisa. I instantly understood why the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" had been as important to some people as "Who killed JFK?" The fact is that TWIN PEAKS isn't a simple murder mystery. The question and the answer to the obvious murder mystery are one with the larger mysteries of an entire culture. The brilliance of the pilot is that it sets up that culture - the physical, emotional and psychological world of a rural town on the edge of nowhere - within the space of 94 minutes.
Because I saw TWIN PEAKS for the first time on video, I got an extra dose of things to come. The VHS version featured the 116-minute "European pilot," which included a longer version of Agent Cooper's dream sequence from the end of episode 3. The extra footage appears completely out of context - as a "solution" to the murder mystery that offers no real answers and about six hundred new questions. Bits and pieces of Cooper's dream sequence, about Mike and Bob and Mike's cousin and the dancing midget, were unraveled over the course of the series... but when I saw the pilot, I wanted to know immediately: What the hell does it all mean? This is where a viewer who needed a linear narrative and straightforward answers would have thrown in the towel... and where a viewer like me gets helplessly drawn in.
I immediately recognized some thematic similarities to Lynch's film BLUE VELVET, which had raped my unsuspecting eyeballs a few years earlier. Most obviously, the hero in both projects was played by Kyle McLachlan. In his TWIN PEAKS role as FBI Agent Dale Cooper, McLachlan seems like a wizened version of BLUE VELVET's Jeffrey Beaumont. BLUE VELVET is about the way that the hero's curiosity leads to the end of innocence. TWIN PEAKS is (at least partly) about the way that the hero's otherworldly experience might be used to protect the innocence of others. Of course, no one in the town of Twin Peaks is completely innocent. Every character in the show is guilty of something. It would be too simple to say that "everyone's a suspect" in the murder investigation. Instead, TWIN PEAKS might be summed up like this: "Everyone has a secret... some, even from themselves." Laura Palmer's murder just brings everyone's secrets to the surface.
Laura was a pretty, popular, well-liked teenager who spent her afternoons tutoring a mentally-handicapped boy and her nights freebasing cocaine and selling her body. When she'd found dead, friends and family learn that she was involved with at least two different lovers... like everyone else in the not-so-sleepy town. No one in Twin Peaks is loyal, but nevertheless all of the citizens remain likable (from a viewer's perspective) because they are all either deeply enigmatic and/or emotionally vulnerable. The fact that the show has an impeccable cast (including Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilynn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Peggy Lipton, Jack Nance, Piper Laurie, Russ Tamblyn and Sheryl Lee) obviously helps, but what really sets the show apart from everything that came before and everything that's come along after is David Lynch's unique storytelling sensibilities... or, perhaps more accurately, his personal obsessions.
Lynch's stories, from ERASERHEAD to INLAND EMPIRE, are not so much about conventional narrative as about impressions made on his psyche. Lynch is an artist, and his canvases are filled with conflicting images and ideas: urban vs. rural environments; industry vs. nature; mechanical vs. organic; spirit vs. electricity, etc. One need not look too far to find testimony about Lynch's lifelong fascination with the rural Pacific Northwest ("Ghostwood" is an appropriate designation used in TWIN PEAKS, reminiscent of Steinbeck's story about The Dark Watchers) and with the dualism of 1950s American suburbia. Throw all these things in a blender and what have you got? Beats me... TWIN PEAKS is like a ridiculously cute suburban lawn gnome with blood-stained fangs.
Just as music holds Greg Araki's warped vision together in THE DOOM GENERATION, so the music of Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise holds the madness of TWIN PEAKS together. Badalamenti's main theme is elegiac, but his other tracks alternate between bone-chillingly foreboding ambient and distinctively quirky elevator music. Cruise's ethereal vocals bring humanity to Badalamenti's warmest and most haunting creations. Lynch knows exactly how to use the soundscape to complete his landscape, always producing something that defies expectations (who else would put Cruise's ethereal vocals in a rowdy biker bar?) and reinforces the kind of mystery that doesn't come from whodunit-type plotting, but from undeniably real characters in hypnotically surreal situations. And, of course, this is just the beginning...
Labels: David Lynch