Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death


SEASON 2, EPISODE 22 - THE FINALE
-Episode 29 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels


"!wow, boB, woW"

As I sit here, wondering how to begin my final entry on "Twin Peaks," I'm reminded of the power of beginnings. This may seem ironic, since I'm here to close the curtain, not open it, on the brief but glorious TV series I've documented over seventeen episodes (and four months). But nothing satiates our anticipation like a good beginning. I recall several examples of this from my own viewing past. One derives from my immersion into Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales - as I popped Claire's Knee into the DVD player, aware of its marvelous premise but uncertain as to how it would extend this novel idea into a feature my curiosity was crystallized in an eager anticipation of the film's first scene. After the briefest of titles, Rohmer opened the film on a beautiful lake, with a figure in a motorboat speeding under a bridge, the camera following in admiring pursuit. Somehow this seemed thrilling, liberating - the journey had begun, and we, like the character onscreen, were the obverse of Fitzgerald's famous boater, borne ceaselessly into the future, rather than the past.

Another occasion which springs to mind occurred in a theater, surrounded by like-minded film lovers to worship at one of cinema's great Holy Grails: the 13-hour Out 1, unseen by all but a (self-?)chosen few in the history of film. How, I wondered, will Jacques Rivette pull us into the movie? What will we see first? How will he commandeer our attention, and initiate our descent into a world which exists partially onscreen, partially in our own imaginations? The thrill of cinema, and perhaps all art but maybe especially cinema, is that it unequivocally provides this answer; it is a mystery to which there is a certain, tangible solution, which we await with bated breath. And Rivette began with a jolt, a group of people bending over backwards to a clanging drumbeat, stretching their bodies in anticipation of a wild, spontaneous dance.

A similar anticipation gripped me when I launched the final disc of "Twin Peaks." This was the last time an episode would ever be able to surprise me, and knowing it was the series finale, I was almost certain that David Lynch would be directing. Recalling previous outings only heightened the suspense. The premiere with its eerie lakefront cabin and those mini-monolithic black dogs (never to be seen again; but for what it's worth, the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack informs us that they run at night). The "dream" episode which begins with a long (long, long, long) silent dinner, awkward but mostly ordinary except for the man in an Indian headdress perched atop a chair in the corner. The season two premiere with its painfully unproductive encounter between a wounded Cooper and an oblivious old waiter. The series climax, in which Laura's killer is revealed, and we open on an early morning line-up of our oddball good guys (from Hawk to Coop to the one-armed man) sipping coffee and munching silently on doughnuts.

All these first scenes featured certain commonalities: they were long, often extending for several minutes in one take; they were usually silent, allowing the credits to roll out before a character spoke; and they were distanced - wide shots, sometimes with several characters, sometimes with one character or object, but always held at a remove even (as with the premiere) when they were in close-up. So what's in store now? After the theme unfolds for the last time, over bobbing bird and spinning saw and flowing river, we fade up on...an establishing shot. It's the sheriff's office. Hmmm, a rather conventional choice for David Lynch, no? Actually, watching the episode a second time, I was surprised to see this, because all I had remembered was what came next.


Lynch barely holds the establishing shot - a second at most - rendering it almost a tease of normalcy, defying its very purpose, before dissolving to a most peculiar close-up. Two faces, pressed against one another, but staring off past the camera and certainly not into one another's eyes. Waiting in silence, as if for a cue.Of all possible characters, we begin with...Andy and Lucy?! The positioning of their heads is so odd, the tone so quiet (a humming room tone reminds us, one last time, of Lynch's fondness for pumped-up ambiance), their delivery so calmly paced yet sincerely nuanced, that we just know our favorite Uncle David is back in town for one last visit. Lucy recalls everything that happened at the end of the last episode, Andy tells her he would have helped her give birth "in front of God and everybody," and then the two finally turn towards one another and kiss. Angelo Badalamenti's score suddenly bursts in, swelling with dark tones, and for the next twenty or so minutes his music will not let up, dominating every scene, simultaneously juicing and undercutting the wrap-ups of all tangential storylines.

Oh, this is a Lynchian episode. Perhaps the most Lynchian episode of them all. And arguably the most consistently interesting 50 or so minutes of "Twin Peaks," period. (This was initially aired as the second half of the series finale, a 2-hour ABC Movie of the Week, but today it stands more comfortably on its own.) There are no weak moments, despite the lackluster season Lynch inherited. Indeed, the director finds a way to make every subplot shine for a brief moment, even as he highlights their ridiculousness scene by scene - beginning with the sublime kiss which wraps up a painfully drawn-out Lucy-Andy romance.

Big Ed and Super Nadine? A strange gem of a scene in which Nadine comes out of her trance and suddenly Ed's hopes of a renewed romance with Norma appears dashed - and everyone's future is up in the air. Ben as Donna's father? We get an overwrought confrontation between Doc Hayward and Ben Horne in the Hayward living room - a two-minute operetta in its intensity - and a weeping Donna who carries the emotion of the scene almost singlehandedly (Lynch even squeezes in a nice effect as we cut from the fire to the mournful countenance of Donna's crippled mother). Windom Earle kidnapping Annie? The rogue FBI agent, who has been the primary villain of recent episodes despite being more silly than scary, pulls his truck up to a quiet spot in the woods, shines a flashlight in his victim's face, then under his own, and proclaims with mock solemnity, "I am Windom Earle." It's funny, subversive, and seems Lynch's sly dig at the weak, self-inflated pomposity of post-Laura (and post-Lynch) Peaks.

Andrew Packard's attempt to explore his dead rival's safety deposit box? This is fused with Audrey's Ghost Wood environmental crusade in a superb Lynch scene which utilizes one of the filmmaker's favorite devices: the slow-moving, addled old man, captured in brutally slow-paced, wide-angled glory. This time the geriatric figure is a savings and loans clerk with Barry Goldwater glasses, whose senile disbelief is triggered first by the young woman chaining herself to his vault, then the reappearance of the presumed-to-be-dead Andrew. Andrew's Lazarus-like reemergence is short-lived, however (and his second demise will be be complemented by a bank guard receiving a phone call and shouting, "It's a boy! It's a boy!" The circle of life continues, I suppose). Upon opening the safety deposit box, Andrew and Pete (who comes along for the ride, if the script is to be believed, because Catherine was unavailable) trigger a bomb, and an explosion rocks the Savings & Loans building, flinging those Goldwater glasses through the air onto the branches of a nearby pine tree. Presumably, Pete and Audrey have been destroyed by the blast too, but since we never follow up on this scene, I prefer to believe they crawled out of the rubble frazzled, but largely unharmed. Stranger things have happened in Twin Peaks, and anything else would be a sadly flippant dismissal of our old friends.

But Lynch's heart doesn't seem to be in tying up loose ends, so instead he finds the weirdness - the real weirdness, not the faux-weird quirk that the teleplay drums up - in all these scenarios, intended as cliffhangers for a never-to-be-filmed season 3, but transformed into mini-denouements by the show's cancellation. Notice how, in all of the aforementioned scenes (except the first) Lynch leaves the characters unhappy, unsettled, either back where they began (Ed and Nadine), or unable to return (Donna and Ben). Notice too how Lynch's distanced camera placement, glacial pacing, and eccentric direction of actors maximizes the absurdity of situations while simultaneously exploiting a more earned poignancy from the proceedings (except for the bank explosion, which does seem shockingly casual).

There are a couple characters who end up in a kind of return to innocence: Bobby and Shelly, now allowed to show their affection openly, hold hands in the diner and make goofy noises (something like, "Arf! Arf! Arf!" as they rub their foreheads together). The German waitress, the one we haven't seen since the first episode, arrives late, and has an innuendo-laced exchange with the two young lovers...one which is word-for-word identical to the conversation featured in the premiere. Nostalgia, further evidence that Lynch knows this is curtains for the youngsters and their world - nostalgia delivered without a wink, at least until Shelly and Bobby turn towards each other and bellow in sync, "Again!" After all they've been through, they are once again conspiratorial kids, sharing in-jokes and too-cool-for-school bravado. The world turns, the sun will rise again...

And as Lynch's favorite couple rekindles their romance, Dr. Jacoby swoops into the diner clad in cape and 3-D shades, holding a wobbling Sarah Palmer on his arm. He escorts her to the booth where Major Briggs and Mrs. Briggs are having breakfast, and the good doctor informs the good major that the good widow has something to say. In an otherworldly rasping voice, Laura's mother transmits a message from the Great Beyond: "I am in the Black Lodge." We are suddenly floating down that famous black-and-white zigzagged pathway, flanked by rippling curtains...the Red Room, the Black Lodge, that interior space that doesn't actually exist inside anywhere, except perhaps Lynch's head - and his only.

Even when watching "Twin Peaks" on disc, one can tell where the show dips to black and ushers in a commercial break. It is notable that Lynch uses up these transitions early in the show this time, and the dip to black which follows that dolly down the Black Lodge corridor will be our last for a long while. Clearly, Lynch wanted the audience's sustained attention for what was to come, and as long as Cooper circulates through the Byzantine world of the woodland limbo, we will not have any distractions.

To bring Agent Cooper to the Black Lodge, the episode has him pursue Windom Earl to a grove of sycamore trees, known as Glastonbury Grove, and enter through a broad swath of red velvet, conjured out of the darkness to accept the agent into its fold. As Cooper enters that hallway, there's music in the air. Brooding, melancholy jazz. With lyrics: "I've got idea, man. You take me for a walk. Under the sycamore tree." Cooper enters the red room of his dreams and a sharp strobe effect kicks in. The little man shuffles through the folds of the curtain and dances around. A black singer stands in the corner, his tuxedoed hunched-over body clutching a microphone, while the clear-as-air voice soars like an androgynous clarion call: "The dark trees blow, baby. In the dark trees that blow. And I'll see you. And you'll see me. And I'll see you in the branches that blow...in the breeze. I'll see you in the trees. I'll see you in the trees. Under the sycamore tree." A lilting, mournful saxophone engulfs the airwaves, as Cooper is enveloped in this new world, a big little room without ceilings (no one ever thinks to look up) nestled under a sycamore tree somewhere in the forest.

We do not return to the Black Lodge until later, after the message has been delivered. At which point we're here to stay.

I could, based on repeated viewings and meticulous notes, relay the entire chronology of events. Instead, a few fleeting sensations, some suggestive phrases, an image or two, will suffice. The old waiter launches into an Indian war whoop followed by, "Hallelujah!" (a reference, I believe, to Hank Worden's role as Mose Harper in The Searchers - and while we're noting real-world correspondence, that singer was Jimmy Scott, an overlooked talent who first emerged in the postwar era). Cooper's coffee turns solid, then watery, then into a syrupy goop which piddles out of his smooth white cup onto the zebra-striped floor. Laura appears, cloaked like Elvira, winking backwards and snapping backwards.

"See you in twenty-five years."

That intense stare of the little man? He's never looked like this before, never so...evil. But not a cackling evil, though he'll be that later, just a spooky, eerily confident evil. As if he's stoned on his own malevolence.

He speaks - in a palindrome. A double, connected in the middle, reversing itself, like the double rooms connected by that hallway, populated on either side by doppelgangers.

"Doppelganger."

More and more doppelgangers, flowering in the different rooms (or is it the same room?) - pale blue eyes. A blue-eyed Laura who snarls and screams like a banshee. A blue-eyed dwarf who gyrates and rubs his hands and moans with ecstatic, barely contained wickedness. Even a blue-eyed Leland who grins at Cooper and speaks in loopy kid talk, still a man-child playing peekaboo with his own culpability. Most chillingly, a blue-eyed Cooper who dances backwards into the room and smiles with sickening glee, a manic joy which echoes and mocks and twists and sinks its teeth into Cooper's signature good cheer.

"One and the same."

Evil Cooper catches up with Good Cooper and grabs him. They tussle in the curtains.

None of this, by the way, bears much similarity to the written word of Episode 29's script. Outside of the Black Lodge, Lynch heightens the bizarre while generally hewing to the text. There isn't the slightest suggestion in the original stage directions of how Lynch will end up presenting Andy & Lucy's dialogue. The scene in the diner, from Shelly & Bobby, to the German waitress, to Mrs. Palmer's message, is all Lynch's invention (or at least, it's not in the teleplay he was handed). Nonetheless, many of the episode's scenes belong to the script.

Once Cooper enters through the curtains, however, the written word is tossed out the window and Lynch follows his own inimitable spirit.

The teleplay's Black Lodge scenes (which you can read here, courtesy of the A.V. Club's Keith Phipps) are, well, nothing like this. They are not uncanny, but rather baroque and flamboyant. They focus on Windom Earle (who makes only a brief appearance here in order to have his ass kicked and his soul sucked by the far more formidable Bob), and Cooper's interactions are primarily with new lover Annie and ex-lover Caroline, Earle's wife whose affair with Cooper led to her death. Some semblances of these scenes remain in Lynch's Black Lodge sequences, though he weaves them into his own distinct texture. I like the way he warps perspective: we cut from a medium shot of Cooper staring at the floor, to a wide overhead view of Annie lying on the ground - as if she is somehow very tiny.

These images evoke Alice in Wonderland, with its shrinking heroine, just as the mood and atmosphere of the Black Lodge evoke Alice's hyperlogical/antilogical leaps of faith and conjecture. Lynch leads us further and further down the rabbit hole, whereas the scripted teleplay launches a soft-shoe tap dance around its perimeter to the tune of "Anything Goes." Anything goes, sure, but with an undercurrent of dream logic which carries us ever forward, further into that mystery which I eagerly anticipated in my initial curiosity as to how Lynch would begin.

And how he would end.

Sheriff Truman, who waited near the clearing overnight, is rewarded for his patience when Cooper's body materializes next to a bloody, unconscious Annie. Spirited away to the Great Northern, revived in his old bed, Cooper seems discomfited, sharply rebuking the sheriff's and the doctor's whispers by proclaiming loudly, "I wasn't sleeping." Composing himself, he asks after Annie and is told she's recovering in the hospital (are Cooper's friends lying to him? Is she really dead?). Cooper says he has to brush his teeth and stumbles to the bathroom in his trademark blue pajamas. Something's not right. He calmly squeezes his toothpaste onto his brush before continuing to squeeze it into the sink. He smiles a fierce, crazed smile and then thrusts his head forward.

This motion begins in close-up but Lynch cuts at the exact moment Cooper's head smashes into the glass mirror, in which we can see the reflection of Bob. Cooper's head is now a bloody gash, but he can't stop smiling. It's like no smile we've ever seen from the special agent and as he cackles and repeats, endlessly, ad infinitum, "How's Annie? How's Annie? How's Annie?" the credits quietly begin to roll. That sound you hear is your stomach dropping at the unmitigated awfulness of Agent Cooper's defeat. When Bob cum Cooper sarcastically whines, "How's Annie?" while squinting and wheezing laughter through his own bleeding visage, he's not just mocking his friends, he's mocking us.

And so the episode, which began with two faces cloaked in an innocent, Edenic haze concludes in the clarity of the following day, with two more faces, now on opposite sides of the looking glass, equally corrupt. Again, the faces look past the camera, past us, into some unseen realm which holds their attention. So, in a sense, we end as we began, and as the show - with duality in its title, opening image, central characters, and woven into its thematic texture - has always hinted it would. And we watch in horror as the curtains draw.

Well, that's all folks. Time to go home, clear out, end of the line. Show's over. What's left to say?

"Wow, Bob, wow!"

Warning: The comments below include spoilers for the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Previous: Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law (season 2, episode 9)


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...

Interesting to note, that without Cooper's "defeat" at the end of this episode, there would be no redemption for Laura.

If one starts with the premise that the Black Lodge/White Lodge is outside the traditional notion of time, then one can assume it is because Cooper is trapped there in the series finale that he is there to usher Laura to a better place in the prequel (and what turns out to be sequel also), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

This theory is bolstered by Annie's appearance in the film where she delivers a portentous message to Laura.

So one could see this as a victory of sorts for Cooper, saving Laura's soul since he could not save her actual person.

MovieMan0283 said...

That may be true, Tony. For what it's worth, I was looking at the episode as the culmination of the series, and largely ignored its connections to FWWM so I didn't really investigate the movie's implications for Cooper's ultimate fate. But I remember seeing differing interpretations: your own - Cooper and Laura are stranded in the lodge indefinitely, and also that somehow Laura's death has secured Cooper's release, though this doesn't seem to be borne out by the film itself (which is why I'd say your reading makes more sense).