Thursday, April 9, 2009
Twin Peaks (1990 TV Series) By David Lynch and Mark Frost
Every episode of Twin Peaks commences with the same sappy, tacky credit sequence, one that manages to act as the kind of cozy pleasure that is so often established only to implode upon itself in David Lynch's work. Angelo Badamalenti's sentimental keyboard anthem rings over featherlight shots of the woods, a gentle stream, a classic town welcome sign, and the giant waterfall that rages beside the town's inviting hotel, "The Great Northern". There are also tight images of the gears pumping away in the local lumber mill, which gently asserts itself as the backbone of the entire series, aesthetically and narratively. Twin Peaks has a very mechanical, strained quality to it, as clearly a product of human creation as the gears and saws that spin inexorably in close-up. This is nothing new in Lynch's work, as his films often extend laughably "over-directed" scenarios, but his work on this early 90's television show is some of his most deconstructive in terms of the creation of his own cinema and cinema in general; the bulk of the show is set up like a nauseatingly melodramatic small-town murder mystery, but in Lynch's unceasingly creative world there is biting parody, and, to disrupt the comfortable flow, the cryptic surrealism he is most loved for.
Over its 30-episode run, Twin Peaks tells two different stories, interchanged midway through the show's run. The two directions the show takes are loosely linked and are best looked at separately. In its first few episodes, the show presents Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, who is the knight in shining armor throughout, a quintessentially "good" character and a moral prototype for the rest of the town), who arrives in the northwestern town of Twin Peaks to investigate the shocking, incomprehensible murder of the well-respected high school homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. The initial season depicts Cooper gradually unlocking the cumbersome, elusive mystery, which is finally solved a few episodes into the second season. After this, the plot line branches out into a yarn dealing with the mystical powers of the Twin Peaks' woods and a battle of wits between the corporate king of the town, Ben Horn (Richard Beymer), and the sly owner of the lumber mill, Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie). A legion of fanzines would avidly discuss theories on who killed Laura Palmer, so when the momentum that the show carried for so long disintegrated into a new act, Twin Peaks undeniably lost critical and commercial steam. To add to this, Lynch himself became disgruntled by the network airing the show (ABC) and therefore ceased to direct many of the episodes that followed the revelation of Laura Palmer's murderer.
In the pre-revelation stages of the show, Lynch molds the plot around rather conventional soap drama/mystery tactics. As well as advancing the expanding mystery, half of the time is spent simply finding a firm footing in the kind of sanitary small-town environment Lynch is known for being attracted to, evidenced most tellingly by Blue Velvet. A laundry list of characters is introduced (far too many to mention here) that all seem to know each other personally. People act in an uncommonly cordial way, and their motivations and interests rarely extend further than their tightly knit community. For instance, there is Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who is devoted solely to running the town smoothly and loving his mysterious Asian girlfriend with sinister ties, Josie Packard (Joan Chen); the town's angelic diner manager, Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), who never fails to speak in a soft, reassuring manner to her customers; and Donna Hayword (Lara Flynn Boyle), the loyal best friend of Laura Palmer who transforms from sincere investigator to femme fatale and back again without ever losing her interest in understanding the town's myriad of secrets. The bulk of Lynch and co-producer Mark Frost's characters have a hilarious quirk or two, Cooper's being his boundless enthusiasm for simple pleasures such as black coffee and cherry pie. Elsewhere, Jack Nance, whose sullen face permeates Lynch's macabre debut, Eraserhead, plays Catherine Martell's down-to-earth husband Pete but still manages to project surreal, awkward character traits that rub off on those around him. Perhaps the oddest of them all is the "Log Lady", an uptight woman with thick-framed glasses who shows up everywhere with a log slung across her bosom and provides before the start of every show kitschy musings or nonsensical anecdotes that outline in some way the theme of the coming episode.
From very early on, Twin Peaks declares its intentions: Lynch does not want it to be an average television show. In the second episode, Agent Cooper has an outlandish dream that provides clues that assist him in his investigation. Of course the clues are vague and nearly unworkable (as they are in all of his hallucinations), but Cooper is whispered to by a somnambulistic Laura some sort of divine knowledge that allows him to pursue the case intuitively. Within this dream, some of the most memorable images of the show and indeed of Lynch's oeuvre are introduced. A seemingly never-ending labyrinth of red curtains and alternating, jagged black and white floor tiles are home to the spirits of many of the characters involved in the case, only they are bereft of any life and speak in a jumbled, disconcerting manner (which is achieved by the actors learning their lines in reverse and the sound being manipulated later). A well-primped midget dances smoothly around the rooms to Badalamenti's dreamy jazz tunes, speaking in a coded language to a now elderly Cooper who just stares intently in hopes of picking up any semblance of cogency. The first time we enter this dream world, titled "The Black Lodge", it is as unexpected as it is thrilling. Unfortunately, it does not return until the final episode, which certainly contains the most brilliant moments that the show has to offer. Granted, it was Lynch's return to direction after a disappointingly prolonged leave of absence.
Periodically, yet only when Lynch is at the wheel, Twin Peaks does drift back into dream logic. The no-name directors who attempt to insert Lynchian surreality into the plot only end up achieving lukewarm thrills, incapable of harnessing the unabashed originality of Lynch's vision. Several times Cooper is also greeted enigmatically by a giant wearing suspenders who moans inexplicable clues like "without chemicals, he points". The entire set that Cooper is inhabiting tends to darken and the soundtrack shifts to a deep synthesizer hum to signal the arrival of the giant, who fades in a la superimposition and stands toweringly above Cooper via baroque camera angles. His two most stunning appearances come during the performance of a jazz singer in deep red lipstick (think Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet) at a midnight show and in Cooper's hotel room after being shot and greeted in a cheery yet oddly insincere manner by an old room service attendant (a hilarious example of Lynch's use of deadpan comedy). Unsettling as these scenes are, they don't show up often enough to balance out the amount of otiose melodrama that is present in the episodes.
One of the almost painfully dull attributes of the show is the numerous romances that are glazed over. Donna Hayword has what seems like an eternal pact with the gleaming, virile, hopelessly grave and contemplative James Hurley (James Marshall), formed out of their mutual lament for the death of their close friend (and in James' case, lover) Laura. The two of them share a love song that James sings 50's style, utilizing only a guitar and a microphone drenched in reverb. Their relationship comes across as schmaltzy and unrealistic, two high-school students with an unbelievable amount of insight into the metaphysical aspects of friendship and community, and the mawkish music that accompanies their scenes together does not help. Another waitress at the town diner, Shelly Johnson (played by the beautiful Mädchen Amick), leaves her malicious trucker husband Leo (Eric DaRe, who is involved in much of the sinister underworld of Twin Peaks) to be cheaply wooed by the typically rebellious high school football captain Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). While these cheeky romances are usually overtly hammed up in the interest of parody when Lynch directs, they feel as if they are common ground for the other directors that grace the show, and therefore do more to degrade than to provoke laughter.
The problem with aiming for art on television is that television is available to such a wide range of viewers that networks do not want to risk airing a program that could be considered daring or provocative. The open-ended finale of Twin Peaks is just that, although it's rather bittersweet considering the span of episodes Lynch seemed not to be heavily involved with. Upon realizing that the program was dipping itself into ever deeper mysteries that seemed unnecessary to package up, Lynch took it upon himself to finalize the show's run in a boisterous fashion. Unfortunately, this results in several ambiguities regarding expedited relationship quarrels that were introduced in the concluding three episodes; Donna's confusion over her real parents, the stress of James Hurley's father's wife Nadine- who'd been in a nostalgic trance for a lengthy amount of time after an attempted suicide - after springing back to life only to realize her husband is with another woman, Bobby and Shelly's relationship future, Sheriff Harry S. Truman's jumbled state following the death of Josie, and Pete and Catherine's uncertain marriage are all left dangling to be ruminated on by the audience. However, it is difficult to say what impact these unanswered questions have on the meaning of the story as a whole, if any at all. It feels like a "get-out-of-jail-free" card played by Lynch out of desperation to finish the work he started but was getting fed up with. The undeniably interesting ambiguity is the complete and utter reversal of Dale Cooper due to being hosted by the menacing enigma "Bob" (the snickering evil, manifested by ominous owls, indirectly responsible for the deaths of both Laura Palmer and Josie Packard, and the threatening injuries inflicted upon Cooper's newly developed love, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham)) following his trip to the eerie woods of Twin Peaks.
On the whole, Twin Peaks is thoroughly engaging, comedic, and frightening if only sporadically shameful and sentimental. The cult status it achieved feels wholly reciprocated given its unusual credo of television as art. In its finest moments, the show does come the closest I've experienced to American television, even major network television, as art. The contributions across the board are inspired and unique; of course Lynch's direction is wholesome and visionary, Badalamenti's score is terrifically coherent (if at times annoyingly intrusive), MacLachlan's acting is top notch, Nance's character is hilariously histrionic, and the screenplay work (divided up between Mark Frost, Lynch, Barry Pullman, Harley Peyton, Robert Engels, and a few others) is invigoratingly complex and takes a number of ambitious turns. Although you'll spend half the time scratching your head trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer and subsequently becoming bothered by the story's new direction, you'll eventually become swept up by a whole new string of mysteries inside the seemingly perfect world of Twin Peaks.