Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls


SEASON 2, EPISODE 7
-Episode 14 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost


"We don't know what will happen, or when, but there are owls in the roadhouse."

"It is happening, again. It is happening, again."

The eye of the storm is calm, just as the ground of all being may be the void. Which is another way of saying that as it reaches the apex of its mystery, "Twin Peaks" achieves a discomforting Zen, an almost cold coolness within which violence is enacted and, hence, demystified. Even before we reach the climactic murder, by which the show's violent genesis finds its twin in a new and illuminating killing, there is a quavering depth to the proceedings. Oddly enough, the film version of "Twin Peaks," Fire Walk With Me, is raw with nervy intensity and acute pain, but in episode 14 of the series, as in Blue Velvet, director David Lynch finds a terrifyingly brutal emptiness at his story's center. The romance of the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer's death does not have a correspondence at the source, at least if this episode's follow-up murder is any indication. In this way, Lynch pulls the rug out from under the lurid bloodlust of his audience: you want murder and evil and terror? I'll give you murder and evil and terror. And we get it.

Lynch often holds back, distancing us from the scenes at hand. Though his films (especially of this period) are generally too polished to be truly reflexive, there is something Brechtian about his television work. Take the opening shot of this episode. It's all one take, a wide shot that fades up on five characters in the sheriff's station. They all stand rigidly against the wall, as if in a police lineup, each sipping coffee and munching on a donut. Not much is said at first. Sheriff Truman enters from the right and discusses the impending visit to the Great Northern. This launches one-armed Mike into a soliloquy on the hotel which is either exceedingly metaphysical or absurdly literal. When he concludes, the characters continue with their quiet breakfast. Because our senses are not juiced with cuts and close-ups, and because Lynch likes to heighten the room tone, the settings seem oddly empty. This can have two contradictory effects: on the one hand, the various rooms seem more like sets when presented this way, raising our awareness of the show's artificiality; on the other, the lack of slickness gives the scenes a patina of realism - they at least seem to be unfolding in real time, with all the requisite dead air.

Lynch follows this lineup with the waterfall near the Great Northern - a standard establishing shot for the show, though this time it's cloaked in evocative early-morning mist and shadow. Then Lynch dissolves to an ornament decorating the hotel's interior - it represents the water running down the falls with cascading soft lights. This is unusual enough, but Lynch follows it with a slow pan to an extreme close-up of Mike's face as he looks around and utters one distressed "No" after another. And the soundtrack is filled with a strange and abrasive barrage - eventually revealed to be sailors bouncing rubber balls up and down as they move about the lobby. Meanwhile, a series of figures are being paraded before Mike, who shakes his head over and over: none are Bob.

Suddenly Mike becomes agitated. This coincides with the approach of Ben Horne, who is storming down the hallways with a demonic cigar puffing in his clenched jaw. Never has he seemed so sinister - even the camera is pushed back by his roving menace. Mike clenches his right stub and collapses to the ground, shown in a direct overhead angle, followed by a receding camera movement that pulls back through the crowd of ball-bouncers as the one-armed man writhes in agony.

The episode proceeds with disturbing calm, a style at once laconic and intense. Bobby and Shelly are presented realistically - as a couple overwhelmed kids, saddled with a table full of bills and the vegetative Leo (whose comatose state is also presented realistically - no cute party hats this time; instead Leo exhibits caked oatmeal on his chin while spitting, drooling, and chirping "New shoes!"). Elsewhere, Maddy stares at the painted portrait of a stag (inscribed "Missoula, Montana") - and then sits down on the couch with her aunt and uncle and informs them that she's returning to good ol' Missoula first thing tomorrow morning. The entire scene is presented in one long, unbroken take, scored to an alternate version of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and captured by a slowly moving camera, which tracks laterally across the room, eventually allowing the raised cover of the record player to - briefly but ominously - cut the family off from our view.

Inside the diner, Shelly informs Norma that she's quitting her job in a teary - and surprisingly poignant - farewell. The two actresses and a portion of the counter are all we see; our vantage point is restricted and again our outlook is pared down to what is essential. Shelly becomes distraught and Norma's concerned, benevolent expression oddly resembles that of a beatific frog. Big Ed and Nadine enter for a chat and while their storyline is generally useless, there's an undercurrent of bliss, fear, and eventually violence which makes the scene work. Meanwhile, Harold Smith's suicide is presented in slightly ethereal fashion: Hawk discovers his legs hovering in the greenhouse window and later finds Laura's secret diary amidst the colorful debris the recluse littered across his floor before hanging himself. And back at the Great Northern, Audrey reveals to her father that she was the masked prostitute he pawed at the other night; his reaction is one of the character's most humanizing moments. Audrey also pries an admission from Ben: not that he killed Laura, but that he loved her.

The diary, which tells Cooper that Bob was "a friend of [Laura's] father" and warns, "someday I'll tell the world the truth about Benjamin Horne," begins to edge Coop closer to his suspect, and Audrey's arrival at the station, where she reveals all her father told her, seems to confirm the FBI agent's suspicion. A posse is rounded up, and it proceeds to the Great Northern where Ben, in the midst of a crucial deal with the mysterious Mr. Tojamura, is humiliated by a very public arrest. Tojamura exchanges an enigmatic glance with his henchman and soon after, he is unmasked as Catherine in disguise. It's a marvellous revelation - Tojamura kisses an astonished Pete in his own home - though anybody who's been paying attention has probably figured it out by now.

With all the ancillary subplots disposed of, "Twin Peaks" dedicates its final third to the central matter which has been haunting the series all along: who killed Laura Palmer? Though Coop and Truman have their suspect, they also have a visitor at the station: the Log Lady, who directs them to the Bang Bang Bar, otherwise known as the road house. There unfolds one of the finest sequences, perhaps the finest sequence, in "Twin Peaks." That mysterious singer is at it again, draped appropriately in red. Her mystically-drenched tunes seem to have descended on the town like the displaced collective unconscious, come home to roost. Donna and James sit together, discuss Harold's suicide and Maddy's impending departure, and then allow their silence to speak volumes. Eventually Donna looks, almost timidly, into James' eyes and softly mouths the words which Julee Cruise sings onstage: "I - want - you - to rocket back - inside my heart..."

Coop, Truman, and the Log Lady sit at a central table, eat peanuts, and wait for something to happen. Coop notices Bobby and the doddering old waiter at the bar nearby. Cooper has been uneasy all episode. Though I've focused on Lynch's direction, the teleplay is credited solely to Mark Frost. As always, Frost shows himself an adept weaver of the series' different threads, but he is usually most deft in his handling of Agent Cooper. Funny, then, that Coop seems so withdrawn and uncertain in this outing - we know that Lynch and Frost can solicit any performance they desire from Kyle MacLachlan, so it must be intentional. It strongly suggests that, for once, Coop's detective work is going against his instincts and intuition. Now he is waiting, with growing dread, for his psychic attunement to prove his investigative logic wrong.

Across town, a record skips endlessly in the playout groove. The Palmer living room is deserted. No Leland. No Maddy. But there's Sarah, sliding down the stairs, apparently in a pill-induced delirium. As she crawls across the floor, she pauses and stares up in amazement. A luminous white horse, cloaked in bright light, appears before her, and seems to wink in her direction before vanishing once again. As Sarah slips into unconsciousness the camera lifts to the still-clicking record. Then a new angle of the record player and another slow pan to Leland, seemingly oblivious to all pain and distraction, fixing his tie in the mirror.

Back at the road house, the singer croons, "the sun came up another day," and then she fades away. A bright light descends on the stage, and simultaneously on Cooper, as the giant reappears. He informs Cooper, deadly earnest, and strangely sympathetic, "It is happening again."

We dissolve to the Palmer household. By now, a queasy expectation has set in. We may sense what's coming. Leland stares into the mirror with a calm expression, but it isn't exactly his usual self-absorbed dementia; there's something weirdly confident about him here. From a two-shot (so to speak) of the back of his head and his reflection in the mirror, we cut to a close-up of his face, smiling with a disturbing sureness. And back to the two-shot, which really is a two-shot now: in place of Leland's reflection is the reflection of long-haired, grinning, dirty, evil incarnate Bob. To make the point even clearer, we return to that close-up of an almost smug Leland which smash-dissolves (if such a term exists) to Bob's cackling visage and back to Leland again. Leland Palmer calmly removes gloves from this pocket and stretches them over his fingers.

From the other room, Maddy calls out curiously: "Aunt Sarah? Uncle Leland? What - what is that smell? It smells like something burning!" She emerges into the living room, into a patch of bright white light - like that which surrounded the horse, and descended upon Cooper and the giant in the road house. But here it's sickeningly bright, overmodulated, drowning the poor girl in its illumination. Stumbling across her aunt's body sprawled on the floor, she gasps, looks up at Leland and shrieks in horror: in place of her uncle she sees Bob, positively salivating in anticipation as he rubs his gloved hands together. Screaming, she flees the room and Leland lunges after her. We recall the one-armed man's warning - "This is his true face. Few can see it - the gifted...and the damned."

The scene that follows alternates between overexposed, blurry, slow-motion close-ups of jean-jacketed, grungy Bob baiting and pouncing upon Maddy, and more conventional shots of Leland, crushing Maddy in an almost sympathetic embrace, at times weeping and calling out his daughter's name. He also punches Maddy in the face, throws her onto the couch, and eventually cackles, "Leland says, you're going back to Missoula, Montana!!!" and proceeds to smash her head into the picture frame we saw earlier, rendering his verdict morbidly true. The crushed Maddy lies broken on the floor, and Leland slips a tiny letter under her fingernail, the final clue - as if any doubt remained - that he has been the killer all along.

As I indicated in my opening, this is not a very cathartic scene. Though it may be unseemly to say so, violence often serves a cathartic purpose in art, but here there's something exclusively chilling about it. I don't find the scene engaging even in a tragic sense. Lynch lingers over every bloody detail but I don't think he's enjoying it, even in a sick and twisted way. Instead it seems like a true assault and after watching it, I don't feel saddened or frightened or even disturbed, just drained.

Most of the time, "Twin Peaks" dances around the violence at its center. When a 1990 magazine named the dead, wrapped-in-plastic Laura Palmer as one of the "women we love," its coyly macabre sensibility echoed the show's (albeit with a bit less complexity). There are some terrifying moments on the show and some quick flashes of bloody mayhem (think blood-soaked Laura screaming at the end of the season opener) but for the most part brutality is eschewed. It's gruesome, but not so gruesome that you can't discuss the details at the water cooler the next day. This is part of the show's fascination: hinting at the darkness just offscreen but never fully taking us there.

When Leland Palmer kills his niece, it's ugly and bloody (how this was ever allowed on prime-time TV remains the greatest mystery of all) and it's in the face of all us viewers who have been getting off on vicarious thrills without paying any price. As such, the scene indicts the spectator - and by retroactively casting the killing not just as brutal murder but possible incest as well, its indictment carries even more weight than could have been expected. This isn't to say people can't interpret the Maddy murder as mere entertainment - on one of the DVD sets' documentary features, a "Peaks" fanatic attends a convention dressed as "Murdered Maddy," complete with bloodstains. But this kind of dark humor misses the point, I think. Maddy's murder doesn't belong to the show as a whole; it stands outside of it, its deadening ferocity almost negating the pre-existing blend of humor, pathos, and melancholy.

Because of the discomfort incurred by Maddy's torment (she gets no relief here, just a merciless, and prolonged, execution), it may be hard to feel anything other than shock and weariness as her body drops onto the living-room floor. If there's catharsis, it arrives afterwards, once we dissolve back to the road house and the giant disappears. The singer returns and the band's music reaches a crescendo. Donna begins to weep uncontrollably, and James leans forward to comfort her. At the bar, Bobby just looks stunned, without quite understanding why. Next to him, the old waiter gets up and slowly shuffles towards Cooper. In the season opener, his doddering gait was played for laughs, but here it simply underscores the sadness that has unexpectedly descended upon the bar, sweeping in like a gale from the north.

As the waiter approaches Cooper, the agent lifts his hand to his midsection as if to stem a sharp, growing pain. The waiter leans in, and speaks softly: "I'm so sorry." The singer lowers her head and Cooper stares, in disbelieving impotence, at the site of his overpowering vision. His uncomprehending expression dissolves into the red curtain - of the stage, or of that mysterious room he visited so long ago in that dream? Either way, his cheerful optimism has been extinguished - good, however determined and beautiful and moving (as it exists in this crowded room at this moment), has been defeated by evil, a nameless, bottomless evil which cackles and giggles but cannot even enjoy the seeds of misery it sows - it devours the garmonbozia as mindlessly and voraciously as a maggot. The owls may be in the roadhouse, but there's a parasite in the Palmers' living room - and it's feasted once again.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

Next: Twin Peaks: Drive With a Dead Girl (season 2, episode 8)
Previous: Twin Peaks: Demons (season 2, episode 6)


For more on Twin Peaks:
Jim Emerson
Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club

On this site:
That gum you like is going to come back in style...
Twin Peaks in context
Twin Peaks (the pilot)
Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere
Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer
Twin Peaks: Rest in Pain
Twin Peaks: The One-Armed Man
Twin Peaks: Cooper's Dreams
Twin Peaks: Realization Time
Twin Peaks: The Last Evening
Twin Peaks: May the Giant Be With You
Twin Peaks: Coma
Twin Peaks: The Man Behind Glass
Twin Peaks: Laura's Secret Diary
Twin Peaks: The Orchid's Curse
Twin Peaks: Demons
*Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls
Twin Peaks: Drive With a Dead Girl
Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law
Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (the movie)
Critical idiocy vis a vis Fire Walk With Me

2 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

I agree with you. I don't know how this bit of violence ever made it onto broadcast TV. I like to fantasize that ABC's executives were so caught up in the mystery themselves that they forgot to send it to the censors.

Had the show ended with this episode, especially with the end credits roll over Cooper's face half-dissolved into the red curtains, it would have been almost a perfect TV series. The end is so poignant because of the previously superheroic Coop's utter failure to catch the right guy. But alas...

I still like the series from here on... just a little less. I guess more like a fanboy than as a serious critic. It gives me the chance to further immerse myself in the quirkiness of the characters and town I love so much.

MovieMan0283 said...

I know what you mean. I like the next two episodes ok but the five or six episodes following that were just such an incredible letdown - I honestly thought the series would continue to explore the mystery of the woods, using Laura's murder as a springboard to delve further into the supernatural. But other than the Maj. Briggs storyline, they didn't expand on the things that made Twin Peaks so interesting to begin with. I just can't understand why, of all the options they had, they chose things like the feuding old brothers or James' romance with the older woman or the Billy Zane romance. Even Windham Earle I'm not that crazy about - I don't find him very frightening, though at least he's more intriguing than most of the initial story ideas they came up with.

But you're right - even the next couple episodes, which still deal with the murder, aren't quite in the same class. Even the numbers work out - the pilot plus seven episodes in season one and seven episodes in season two. Everything afterwards is slightly superfluous.