Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: She is filled with secrets…

Can't you just hear the music now?
With a new season of Twin Peaks rolling out in 2017, I figured I’d jump in with some nostalgic thoughts about the series. I also realized that for being such a big fan of David Lynch, I’ve written precious little about his work on this site.

I admit, part of it is intimidation. Dissecting the multiple layers of his work is a daunting task. But it is one of the reasons I enjoy watching his films so much. I figure that Twin Peaks is a good place to start. Since this blog focuses mainly on movies, I’m not going to do a full series review. I’d be too tempted to do an episode-by-episode breakdown, and I’m sure there are other sites out there that can provide more insight than I can. I will review Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in the future. So I might as well talk a little bit about my first experience with David Lynch’s groundbreaking show.

The mystery that started it all.
Here is a quick summary for anyone who isn’t familiar with the series. It takes place in a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest called Twin Peaks. The homecoming queen’s body washes up on shore wrapped in plastic. Her death devastates the town. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) arrives to help solve the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). During his stay he meets all kinds of colorful characters who may or may not be involved in the crime. There are also a bunch of side stories unspooling involving various relationships, some other criminal activities and small town shenanigans. The more that Cooper and Sherriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) uncover the more complicated the case becomes. It becomes apparent that some kind of supernatural force is at work in Twin Peaks and that killing will not stop until it is confronted. But finding the nature of this force and the best way to stop it is one mystery that may never be solved.

Helpful townsfolk, good thing. Fish flavored
coffee, bad thing.
I came the party late. While Twin Peaks was all the rage I was trying to survive the jungles of high school. I didn’t watch much television at the time, spending more time hanging out with my friends, working at the video store and doing homework. Sure I heard about the show, and the famous tagline “Who killed Laura Palmer?” But the whole concept just didn’t’ grab me at all. At that point I had seen two David Lynch films: Dune which I enjoyed (and still do) and The Elephant Man which I saw as a little kid an it scared the hell out of me.

I really didn’t get into full David Lynch fandom until college, especially when I saw Lost Highway in theaters and it blew my mind. But I’ll save that for another post. After that experience, I searched the video store for everything Lynch related and watched all of his work I could get my hands on over the course of a year or so.

Father and daughter can't see eye to eye.
So for my first viewing of Twin Peaks was after all the hype died, and after the backlash that savaged Fire Walk with Me was forgotten by most folks. I watched the pilot episode that was the movie version released in Europe. This two-hour “movie” included an ending where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman catch up with Killer Bob (Frank Silva) and he admits to the murder. It is a strange surreal sequence (I will probably repeat that phrase quite a bit when discussing David Lynch films) that does give the movie an ending, but it was something that Lynch never intended as the true ending of the series. When the series was broadcast and rebroadcast, the movie ending was never shown. For many years, the only way you could see it was on that old VHS tape.

"Some day, my log will have something to say
about all this." 
I remember watching the pilot and being fascinated by the unusual characters, the way you get a real sense of place while watching the series, and dark mystery entwining everything. Mystery is a key element in all of Lynch’s work, and in Twin Peaks it is at its most accessible (especially that first season).

There was also a lot of humor in the show, and much of it just a little bit off. These days the humor in Twin Peaks is something that doesn’t seem so strange. Offbeat and absurd humor has permeated the television landscape. But back in the 1990s most television humor was of the sitcom variety, especially when this series first aired.

I watched all of the first season very quickly. When that final cliffhanger hit at the very end, I was dying to know what happened next. Lynch and Frost had managed to put every character into come kind of massive moral quandary or mortal peril. It was the ultimate soap opera season finale.

The trip into the Red Room continues.
There was only one little problem; the video store I worked at didn’t have the second season. I had picked up a book called Lynch on Lynch that covered some of the second season plot lines. It was very bare bones, and in a way that might have been a detriment, because I imaged something quite different from what I finally saw.

But I was able to watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. By this point I had seen Lynch’s work up to that film, so Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway were seared in my mind. Fire Walk with Me felt like a natural extension of those films, so stylistically it didn’t feel like such a vastly different thing. But the plot and extremely dark undercurrent to the film was deeply troubling. It felt like Twin Peaks but viewed threw a very dark lens (which makes sense considering you are following a very troubled woman through her final hours of life).

Agent Cooper's long walk begins.
The movie really disturbed me, more than any other film of Lynch’s. I admired and was a bit put off by the film all at once. I haven’t revisted Fire Walk with Me very often over the years because of those feelings.

I finally got around to seeing season two of Twin Peaks when it was released on DVD many years later. I went back and viewed the whole series over a month or so. I had to watch the pilot on VHS again (the original DVD release of the first season didn’t include the pilot for legal reasons). It was a fun trip diving back into that world, and enjoying so much of the first season again.

It all comes full circle.
What clicks so well about that first season for me is the delicate balance it strikes. Lynch adds that layer of dark mystery to the whole tone of the show and that first season really carries it until the final episode of the season. But the mix of colorful characters and absurd humor works too. Those characters get just enough screen time to make things fun. No one forgets the Log Lady once they’ve seen her. Most of the lighter moments don’t outstay their welcome and feel like they add to the overall atmosphere of place in the series. Then you get the final element of satire around the tropes created and perpetuated by evening soap operas. It is a crazy concoction that shouldn’t work but Frost and Lynch really manage to pull it off. Twin Peaks in its first season is a place you’d like to visit, as long as you stayed away from the woods.

Double R Diner is double cute!
Season two is the very definition of mixed bag. It has some strong episodes at the start and the end of the season, but the middle is a mish mash of tonal incongruities, aimless story arcs and character moments that never come together. Gone from the middle of the season is the dark sense of mystery and it is replaced by strange to be strange. I know a lot of folks accuse Lynch for doing that all the time. But I disagree. The imagery in a David Lynch production always feels like it follows a dream logic of some kind. Especially when you see more of his work, you spot trends in those images and they create a language that makes sense. In season two, we lose that language and stuff just happens because someone thought, “well this is Twin Peaks so any old strangeness will work”.

The humor goes from absurd to just being silly at times. Pulling off absurd humor is tough and requires an ability to see things in a fractured but humorous lens. Instead we get humor that is kind of dumb and falling in along those more traditional sitcom tropes. Also they end up beating a joke to death a few too many times. Season two had a rough production history  with Lynch have very limited involvement. Some of that was bound to impact the final product.

Sadly, Earle is rarely this calm.
Then there is Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). When you first hear hints and whispers about him early in season two, it sounds like the set up for something really interesting. He was Agent Cooper’s old mentor and partner at the FBI, but something snapped within the man and he killed a few people and attempted to take Cooper down too. Cooper describes him as a genius of cold calculating intellect. Pitting him against Coopers more intuitive powers of investigation would have been a real duel of minds.

When Earle shows up it is like the writers forgot all the set up for the character and turned him into an over the top mad man who is anything but cold and calculating. A few episodes he is directed to go over the top with ridiculous disguises and crazy antics. They tone him down a little bit over time, but the set up for this character and the execution couldn’t be further off. I don’t blame Welsh for the issue, he’s a fine actor. I just think the writing and directing of his episodes had a very different idea in mind for the character than the one Lynch hinted at in his episodes. It was a real disappointment to me on the first viewing of Season Two and one of its biggest missed opportunities.

The final episode of Twin Peaks second season has Lynch back in the helm. He takes a similar approach to the one he did for the season one finale. He drives all the key characters to extreme moral quandaries or mortal peril. He places the beloved Agent Cooper deep in the heart of the darkest depths of Twin Peaks and leaves him there. He takes that cliffhanger trope and pushes it hard into Lynchland territory. It is a beautiful thing.

You got a little something there on (in) your head Coop.
Nearly a third of the final episode takes place in the bizarre and disturbing Red Room. Cooper faces himself (literally), the Killer Bob, the small dancing Man from Another Place, Leland Palmer and Laura Palmer. The dead speak (backwards) the heavy red curtains blow in a breeze, and nothing feels safe. It certainly foreshadows the tone of Fire Walk with Me in many ways.

I can see how this episode grabbed some viewers and completely alienated others. It becomes very obvious what Lynch liked about working on Twin Peaks and what other elements didn’t interest him. He liked playing with the television format. He liked telling continuous stories. He liked diving into the dark elements of the characters, but also highlighting the absurdity of their lives. But he didn’t have time for some of the silliness that surrounded some of the plot lines. Especially in that odd and explosive way he handles Audrey and Pete in the bank.

To end a show like that was going to only leave people feeling angry, especially the ones that had hung in there through the middle of the second season when it felt like the wheels were just spinning and we weren’t getting anywhere terribly interesting.

Twin Peaks on DVD! Cooper thinks it is damn fine.
So maybe this third season of Twin Peaks will give some closure to those final mysteries. It will certainly give a chance to revisit this very unique and special place and meet up with some of these infamous characters. But with Lynch going solo in the director’s chair I get the feeling this will be a much darker and surreal journey this time around. David Lynch has transformed quite a bit as a filmmaker since the second season of the series. And Fire Walk with Me is an indication of just where the third season may end up. I’m fine with it, but others may find it all a bit too dark.


In any case, I urge anyone who is interested to at least check out the first season of Twin Peaks if they haven’t seen it before. It is really an entertaining series, especially if you are familiar with those old evening dramas from the 1980s. And the music… damn…

3 comments:

  1. Some elements of pop culture become so embedded in the social psyche that they influence people second and third hand. Even people who have never seen any of the relevant movies (and I have met some) still know that you don’t talk about Fight Club, it was Beauty killed the Beast, and that we’ll always have Paris. If you say something reminds you of Twin Peaks (perhaps another show, or a dream state, or an actual town), people know what you mean even if they (like myself) didn’t watch the series. The theme will probably go through their heads at the mention of it, too. That has to count for something.

    By the time I became really aware of the show as a cult phenomenon, it was well under way and I was hesitant to play catch-up. (This was harder in the early 90s than today.) So I remained aware of it only second-hand at the time, and, for no real reason I can give you, haven’t tried to watch it from the beginning since then. Perhaps 27 years later is time to rectify that. “I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”

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    1. Yeah I say give the first season a shot. I've seen it on Netflix download and Hulu, and it includes the pilot episode.

      I did have one of my film score pals try to watch it and couldn't get into it. But he was too young to remember the 80s evening soap opera tropes the series was sending up. So parts of Twin Peaks just felt way to silly to him.

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  2. It's funny at the time of broadcast I didn't think of Twin Peaks being similar to Dallas or Dynasty, but in a way I guess it was. As I was reading your post I couldn't help but think of the Coen brother's Fargo series. It just had the finale this past week on the FX Channel, and it was a good season (maybe the last one?). They've all been very good, some of the best things on TV for me, along with Breaking Bad. But they owe a lot to Lynch I think. I've never noticed that before either, but it makes sense.

    You get the same oddball characters, side tangents, some odd surreal moments, some wtf moments, great dialogue, some black or absurd humor, odd framing devices with the wide range camera shots, even these pregnant pauses that sort of stop the film if just for a few moments to--I'm not sure, help the viewer to digest what went on before, act as a art device, I'm not sure, but it's unusual and works.

    But yeah, all this adds up to better television at least for me. It makes a LOT of TV seem like a wasteland with inept scripts and mundane characters. It raises the bar quite a bit.

    I may have had my first encountered Lynch's films through The Elephant Man, which I thought was brilliant and humanistic. I then may have rented a copy of Eraserhead. I didn't know what to think of that film, and still don't to some degree. It's pretty experimental, dark, arty, but pretty much Lynch at the same time. Then I saw Dune which like you, I still love, and whatever else that came after. I'm glad he's still around, and producing.

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