Friday, September 15, 2017

See You At The Curtain Call: Twin Peaks – The Return (2017)

Despite my best efforts, there are a few unavoidable spoilers within

“'We are like the spider,' said the king. 'We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe. That is why it is said, "Having created the creation, the Creator entered into it.". This is true for us. We create our world, and then enter into that world. We live in the world we have created.'"
– Thomas Egenes & Kamuda Reddy, Eternal Stories from the Upanishads

"We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” 
– David Lynch

I think it's safe to say that there hasn't been anything on television close to what director David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost unleashed the last few months in their 18-part serial Twin Peaks – The Return. More than being simply a sequel to the original 1990 ABC series, Twin Peaks, which focused on the murder investigation of the high school senior Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or a mere continuation of the follow-up 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which examined the circumstances leading to that murder, Showtime's Twin Peaks – The Return was an abstract murder mystery that resisted solutions and begged even more questions. It was like finding yourself seeped in a David Lynch compendium where you experienced the full body of his work – including Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – as one long amorphous trance as plot lines vanished, dramatic moments imploded, and nightmarish visions suddenly erupted and took hold. Twin Peaks – The Return was the source of much frustration because within that Lynchian theme park of devious delight were also hours of flattened-out kitschy comedy that not only tested your patience, but drew some of his worst instincts, those that had already been on display in Wild at Heart, and parts of Lost Highway. Yet the baggy unevenness of Twin Peaks – The Return wasn't simply a case of the director's intuition taking a holiday and intermittently going wrong. Lynch, who works almost entirely from his unconscious, seemed to be refusing to make any kind of conscious judgement over the material. It was as if he'd decided instead to run the table with whatever came into his mind (bad or startlingly good) to see where it might lead him – and also, of course, the viewer. Knowing that there was an audience out there both nostalgic and fiendishly curious to return to Twin Peaks after such a long hiatus, Lynch turned this epic tale into something more than a conclusion and resolution to the story. Twin Peaks – The Return was a turbulent meditation on the past, on the nature of nostalgia, on the tropes of television serial drama, and on death itself.      

The series broke the wall of serial television, which – in both good and bad shows – tends to provide for us the predictable dramatic arcs, climaxes and cliffhangers which in the age of streaming gives us full comfort and safety in the familiar. It also provides the freedom to binge-watch. But who could binge-watch this? Time itself became something close to elastic on Twin Peaks – The Return, where even stasis was sometimes a twist in the story. But I'm going to resist rehashing the plot, not just to avoid revealing spoilers, but also because it would hardly help to explain where the show reaches both its transcendent heights and dives into its impenetrable lows. What I will say is that Lynch and Frost begin by taking us back to the conclusion of the original series where Dale Cooper is possessed by the evil spirit, Bob, and has now become two Coopers – one a noirish psychopath wearing the emblematic leather coat of Dennis Hopper from Blue Velvet, and the other a catatonic, nebbish doppelgänger, Dougie Jones. Cooper ultimately has to become whole again in order to confront the murder of Laura Palmer (dramatized in Fire Walk With Me) and attempt to erase the crime in order to set the future right. While we have to endure long stretches of tedium resulting from both unsatisfying character plots and quirky melodrama, there's no question that when Lynch ultimately enters the same pulsating and nightmarish obsessions that once permeated Hitchcock's Vertigo, the show becomes terrifyingly electric and eerily moving. 

The cast and director David Lynch (photo by Marc Hom and retouched by Werkstette).

Most of the bad stuff concerns the story line of Dougie, which doesn't even make much dramatic sense. While Lynch and Frost's story is supposed to operate in the realm of the irrational, and therefore cured in a comprehensive dream logic, they mistakenly take a more naturalistic tone with this savant insurance salesman. As a result, these scenes come across as baffling since nobody seems to notice that Dougie is in a walking stupor – including his wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts), who spends most of the show acting exasperated with Dougie's behavior but not acknowledging that her spouse is about as animated as a turnip. Most of these episodes are played for comic effect, but their attenuated style resembles the kind of numbing satirical longueurs you see in a lot of Wes Anderson's films. Within the Dougie subplot, a number of actors end up being reduced to grotesque parodies, including Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi as Las Vegas gangsters and casino managers and Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a pair of self-consciously verbose assassins who appear to be a nod to Quentin Tarantino. Lynch is always at his most effective dramatically when he opens up a Pandora's box of subliminal desires and fears (as he did in Blue Velvet). But in these moments (as in Wild at Heart), he simply stuffs that box with caricatured props who carry unpleasant associations with the pageants of late Fellini movies.
Lynch masterfully fuses our pop dreams and nightmares (and with surreal precision) in episode eight ("Got a Light?"), which goes the full distance in twisting our expectations for and perceptions of what a television episode actually is. Beginning with a mood of contemporary noir right out of Mulholland Drive, this installment quickly shifts without warning into a terrifying and slowly building sonic landscape of atomic horror that exists both in the real world and in the world of our worst imaginings. In that space, where Lynch creates a seductive but inescapably unnerving synergy, he takes us back to 1945 in New Mexico where the first nuclear bomb is set off. Nine Inch Nails create a searing metallic-static soundtrack ("She's Gone Away") ultimately married to Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, but we soon enter the haunting fifties pop of The Platters' "My Prayer" on a radio station in a sleepy American town. Filmed in black and white, dark apparitions of radioactive horror descend on this placid locale as lovers and listeners to the song sway to the soft harmonies of this pining vocal group ("When the twilight is gone and no songbirds are singing / When the twilight is gone you come into my heart / And here in my heart you will stay / While I pray"). While Lynch may be uncorking a slight joke in featuring The Platters since one of their original members was a singer named David Lynch, the song, written in 1939, serves the same purpose as Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" did in Blue Velvet. Within the quiet moments of this song, as The Platters hatch the angels of their romantic pursuits, Lynch reminds us that there are also demons that can take our pop dreams apart. 

Listening to The Platters' "My Prayer"

Most of the best moments of Twin Peaks – The Return touch on our fragile desires to undo the potential dread of loss (an anxiety that informs and underlines both "My Prayer" and "In Dreams"). You could say that this goal is also the aim of the show, not only in terms of how the series ultimately concludes, but in our knowledge that many of the actors from the original series were either already dead (Frank Silva, David Bowie), or were in the process of dying during the shoot (Catherine E. Coulson, Miguel Ferrer). Lynch comes to immortalize all of them on film, as ghosts from a past that are suddenly inhabiting the present. But he is simultaneously making us aware of their fleeting presence, where they become faint flickers that will soon vanish into the past once we arrive at the curtain call. In the concluding two episodes, which takes us from the ponderous plot lines that once again inhabit the show after "Got a Light?," Lynch regains his strength. As Cooper becomes once again consolidated into his full self, he finds his assistant and former lover, Diane (a luminous Laura Dern), whom he hopes to return to by literally recapturing the romantic idyll they once shared. But before they attempt to cross over in time, Cooper must first return to the scene of the original crime of Laura Palmer's murder. When he does so, Lynch magically takes us back to the climax of Fire Walk With Me, where Laura Palmer (after discovering the identity of her abuser) meets up with her killer and faces her fate. In a moment that cleverly references The Wizard of Oz – the scene not only morphs from black and white into colour, but also invokes the notion that there's no place like home – the present-day Cooper enters the footage from the 1992 film and attempts to intercede and save the girl from her death. Lynch also returns magically to images from the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, where we revisit those familiar images of Joan Chen looking pensively in a mirror and applying make-up to her face, and the late Jack Nance telling his indifferent wife (Piper Laurie) that he's goin' fishin'. By changing the past as he reminds us of it, Lynch removes that horrifyingly cold image of the body on the shore wrapped in plastic. Nance is seen, for the first time, doing what he never got to do in the pilot episode – casting a line into the water to catch fish rather than coming across the body of a murdered high-school girl.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
Both the prayers of The Platters as heard in their hit song and the dreams of Roy Orbison as heard in his have their shadow side, which the final episode assuredly reveals. Going home again, Lynch reminds us, or even revisiting the beginnings of a cult TV show, is never the same. When Cooper appears to fail in his task to save Laura from the woods on that fateful night, he attempts instead to reignite his romance with Diane. But they discover that after they have sex (to "My Prayer"), they're different people in the morning. They are no longer the same couple who once shared a romantic passion. Their names have changed, and she disappears, abandoning the room they just shared and leaving him a goodbye note. Under his new identity, Cooper no longer reminds us of the straight-arrow detective we once knew, but instead he seems to be an uneasy combination of Dougie and his noirish nightmare twin. He locates Laura Palmer and attempts to take her home again. But she too has changed: she is no longer the frightened teenager of the past but a middle-aged housewife with a different name and in a different town who has no knowledge of a Laura Palmer. Since she has apparently murdered her husband (whose body sits rotting on the couch) and is looking for a way out of town, Cooper offers to take her back to Twin Peaks to face the past and undo Laura's murder. Like James Stewart's detective in Vertigo, MacLachlan's Cooper tries to retrace the steps of a narrative in order to alter its consequences while inadvertently creating new ones that becoming equally haunting. (The scream heard from Sheryl Lee at the end joins Kim Novak's from Vertigo, and Nancy Allen's in Brian De Palma's Blow Out: cries that are impossible to purge from memory.) 

It would most definitely be satisfying to travel back into the earlier scenes of Twin Peaks – The Return to excise the drudge and get to the kernel of what makes the show unforgettable, but somehow I don't think it would work. In a strange sense, those unpleasant moments of dramatic repetition, tawdry comedy, and bloody violence may have been steps Lynch needed to arrive at this more satisfying destination. He once again appears in the show it as the hearing-impaired FBI director Gordon Cole, who is asked at one point if he is going soft. "Not where it counts," he replies with confidence. Though that remark could be taken as a coy double entendre, it may well speak to David Lynch's attempts to just lay everything out in this series, as if the missteps we have in life walk right alongside and often lead to our firm understanding of what life actually offers us in the end. Twin Peaks – The Return is filled with endless strings of plot, and forgettable characters who go nowhere, maybe like people we sometimes encounter in life and quickly forget. But we're left in the end with the one voice that kept us hooked all along – a scream from a frightened young woman who is still very much alive in our memories even if that scream tells us that she is about to return to the spirit world.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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