Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: The Return Parts 1 & 2 - "My log has a message for you."/"The stars turn and a time presents itself."

Monday, May 22, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return Parts 1 & 2 - "My log has a message for you."/"The stars turn and a time presents itself."


High in the skyline of New York City, ignoring the blinking lights of Manhattan to focus his attention on a box within the room, a young man waits patiently for something to happen. The box is some cross between a sophisticated scientific experiment, characterized by advanced technology, and a magician's crystal ball (closer to a crystal cube), summoning presences from beyond. He's been told to expect an apparition inside this framed glass, and has even learned that others witnessed this visitation themselves while refusing to pass along any details. Perhaps the vision must be experienced personally to be understood. When ..."something" appear, pacing inside the frame like a prowling lion before leaping violently toward the screen, the watcher releases a loud yelp and jumps from his seat. It is happening again.

Unfortunately, no cute, curious girl arrives with a tray full of coffee to keep him company (she's my favorite new character so far - I hope she's ok though that's an awful lot of blood). On the other hand, he can count his blessings: the fantastic, ferocious specter does not escape its cage. Or does it? Remaining physically trapped within its frame, it nonetheless insinuates itself in his, or - why continue the conceit? - my imagination. As I watched the premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return in a friend's Brooklyn apartment, the image of a character gazing at, and recording his experience of gazing at, a giant glass box (not a television in his case, but some sort of teleportation device) certainly felt like a bit of a funhouse reflection. And I would imagine others, watching in places more geographically distanced from Manhattan than me, could also taste the resonance.

It would be difficult to imagine a scenario - urban, high-tech, sci-fi - further away from any preconceptions we might have had about Twin Peaks going in, yet somehow it perfectly encapsulates the experience of watching it.



If you're looking for someone to explain what you just watched, to offer a framework that clearly ties everything together, noticing and adding up all the details like a psychic detective sharpened by three cups of damn fine coffee, you've come to the wrong place. As much as I enjoy analyzing past Twin Peaks, my takes on The Return will be less about making sense than relaying my own experience, meditating on what I just watched (and heard!) in a more impressionistic, casual manner. I probably won't be remembering character names, I won't be recapping the plot in any methodical fashion, and there's a good chance I won't mention your favorite parts. This is a first draft, constructed in real time, of my own return to Twin Peaks. Here's what struck me tonight.

Just after "The Stars Turn and a Time Presents Itself" concluded (incidentally, I have no idea where Part 1 ended and Part 2 began), I almost tweeted, "I enjoyed the new episode of Mulholland Drive." Too ambiguous to be effectively cheeky, so allow me expand here. The first hour of the series feels more like David Lynch's most acclaimed film than anything we'd previously seen on Twin Peaks. There's certainly a lot of Inland Empire there too, but the expansive crosscutting between multiple, enigmatic, seemingly disconnected storylines clearly evokes Mulholland Drive's narrative style, cascading across the whole continent rather than confined to Hollywood. We are not properly introduced to most of these characters; we enter their stories with the intriguing sense that we'll have to tease out their initially oblique purpose. We'll return to some of these stories later on, while others disappear in a moment of intensity, even after a single glimpse, perhaps never to return.

Some sequences riff almost directly on the non sequiturs of that film (which, let's not forget, was originally intended as a pilot, its loose ends purposefully open-ended to make room for future developments). The guy at the desk in Las Vegas - played the fellow who collapsed behind Winkie's in Mulholland Drive - acts like one more brutish link in Mr. Roque's chain of command, grumbling ominously about the power and danger of the unseen man he works for. That large lady with her little dog leads us to an apartment that hasn't been accessed for days, where her neighbor's rotting corpse is curled up in a bloody bed. This is clearly reminiscent of a chilling moment in Mulholland Drive, the new victim's severed head an escalation of the dead body in Diane Selwyn's residence. Even the detective in this sequence, unless I'm mistaken, is one of the detectives briefly glimpsed in that movie.

Much has been made of Lynch's desire to continue what he started in Twin Peaks, but perhaps this is true for Mulholland Drive as well. He turned it into a two-hour film, by many counts the most acclaimed of the twenty-first century, but he was never able to follow up on many threads. In some ways, the powerful conclusion of that film weakens the earlier fragments, turning them into amusing blackout sketches subsumed by a larger framework. It will be interesting to return to Mulholland Drive after tonight's parts which may restore the magic of those early scenes for me, a magic lost when the shape of the feature crowded everything else out. Lynch shot The Return as one long movie, but the emphasis should perhaps be on long rather than movie. This is going to be a narrative so big that we can crawl into different parts of it, get lost inside of corners that turn into corridors, float forever in a moment without quite understanding it. Such a structure provides room for the mystery to breathe, in a way tighter feature films cannot.

Mark Frost's touch can be felt as well, perhaps most notably in the conspiracist, quasi sci-fi elements of the glass box in New York. There's also a Frostian purposefulness to Hawk's journey into the woods at the behest of the Log Lady (touchingly played by the late Catherine Coulson, who is very apparently near death). What's surprising is the structure Frost discovered with Lynch; as noted, it's very much in the vein of Lynch's eclectic, now-this now-that format in his last two films and thus something of a departure for the more linear Frost. When the new series was announced in 2014, Frost observed that he and Lynch had learned an important lesson from their experience on Twin Peaks' second season decades earlier. Detours and perhaps even occasional dead ends were fine, but there must be one single clear path through the woods. No doubt, for the creators there is. But the path is surprisingly obscured for viewers.

About a half-hour into the new series, I was personally absorbed in the rhythm and scope of the material but I also suspected that the warm buzz surrounding the show over the past week (actors' appearances with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers, the cheerful gathering on Good Morning America, the magazine covers and billboards on the side of buses) would rapidly dissipate in the heat of cryptic, undiluted Lynch. After watching the whole film, though, I'm no longer so certain. Doubtless, a slew of new or casual viewers won't follow the show going forward. If they weren't sold on Twin Peaks to begin with, chances are the we're-not-gonna-pause-to-explain-any-of-this ethos of tonight's new entry only alienated them further. I'm also positive that many old fans are disenchanted. There were some worries this wouldn't be much like early nineties Twin Peaks. Well, it sure as hell isn't.

Tonight's episode(s) could be called the "anti-pilot." Twin Peaks' debut in April 1990 unfolded in a deliberate, almost clockwork fashion. A dead body washes up shore, and the news of her death spreads through the town scene by scene, introducing us to different characters through a central, intriguing device. Cooper's arrival offers an even clearer throughline for the audience. If someone asked you what that episode of Twin Peaks was about you could answer, "A popular teenager is killed, and an FBI man comes to town to investigate." If someone asks you about tonight's episode? "Well, there's a couple waiting for aliens or something to appear inside a really weird building in New York and another guy who maybe decapitated a librarian in South Dakota and an old woman calls a cop who wanders into the woods, oh and also this guy with long hair who kills some people in the Southwest and that same guy but with short hair is also in a psychedelic video-game landscape talking to one-armed men and giants and...um, a glowing, talking brain on a tree?"

To put it simply: there is no one, clear hook for Twin Peaks: The Return. This was a complaint people developed over time with the original Twin Peaks, as it got weirder and less focused. By comparison, however, those "confusing" episodes could be written by Robert McKee. Going into tonight, the media had no "Who killed Laura Palmer?" tagline to seize upon, so it converted this uncertainty into a new soundbite: "What is Twin Peaks going to be about?" Who knew that would still be the central question two hours later?

And yet...the reason I'm no longer predicting a broad backlash is because there are so many tantalizing elements to draw viewers in. It's like reading an anthology of short stories but instead of finishing one after another, you read a few pages of each, jumping back and forth between them. Difficult perhaps, but each story is intriguing and their association makes us wonder if and how they'll come together. The question is if viewers are willing to invest that energy in a show without being to articulate what it's about. I already used early Twin Peaks as an example, but think how this applies even to the edgiest shows in this age of "Prestige TV." All have crystal-clear premises and pride themselves on the discipline of working within that.

Can viewers tune into "appointment television" with the same open-minded receptivity with which they scan through radio stations on a long car ride? I compared Lynch's work in Inland Empire to channel-surfing (or rotating through a series of YouTube videos - though the caught-in-the-middle-of-something vibe fits the first example better) and that certainly applies here. Of course part of the appeal of channel-surfing is that the viewer is in control of the experience. Lynch raises channel-surfing to a fine art - imagine a friend so good at navigating between hundreds of programs that you'd hand them the remote the second you sit down at the couch, readily submitting to their instincts. The feel of Lynch's work is wide-open yet firmly controlled. It's a rich combination, one I find intoxicating.

There were questions about whether Lynch would return to his roots or continue in the direction he's been heading in for decades. There is far less distortion of the image in The Return than in Inland Empire, but in most other ways it feels very late Lynch. Despite a black-and-white opening that pointedly evokes Lynch's 1977 debut, the tight concision of Eraserhead is cast away for a dreamier feel, more disorienting than claustrophobic. This is definitely Twin Peaks filtered through the late Lynch sensibility. The use of a wandering narrative alongside a sense of aesthetic restraint, or even modesty (at least outside the Red Room), also coincides with a narrative trend I've enjoyed in twenty-first century cinema. I haven't quite noticed it in Lynch until now but find it in the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who has, in turn, cited Lynch as an inspiration), Jia Zhangke, and Mariano Llinas. Jacques Rivette (especially the Rivette of Out 1) is probably a notable antecedent.

These filmmakers all employ a whimsical sense of storytelling alongside a style that doesn't impose itself, although it can range from formally rigorous to disarmingly casual depending on the auteur. In a way that I'm having trouble explaining (sorry!), this sensibility allows the nature of the storytelling to rise to the surface, establishing itself as an element of style just as much as any audiovisual elements. This particularly struck me during our first scene in Twin Peaks, when a delivery arrives at Dr. Jacoby's trailer in the woods - with its distanced camera, and placid pace, it almost feels like an outtake from Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century. This style also bears the mark of digital cinema, which breathes a bit easier than old celluloid - imposing fewer restrictions on the filmmakers and encourage a sense of free exploration.

This is a very digital Twin Peaks, not just unapologetically but proudly, defiantly digital. I worried when I saw a few stills suggesting the Red Room might be CGI. However, Lynch uses this capability not to simulate a never-quite-reachable reality but to explode our sense of direction and gravity: shattering the curtains, ripping apart the chevron floor, opening up a pool of light behind Laura's face. None of this attempts to look "real" anymore than most modern painters (of which Lynch is one) try to kid us into thinking we're looking at a photograph. I'm sure this will piss off craftsmen and enthusiasts who praise the versimilitude of computer animation, but to my mind this is by far the best way to use digital effects, highlighting the artificiality in a way that goes beyond artificiality into a kind of uncanny art.

Speaking of which...how I love "the evolution of the arm!" God, what a gloriously ridiculous and galvanizing twist (I laughed out loud when I saw it, but it's as dazzling and unsettling as it is absurd). I don't think I've ever encountered an image in a Lynch film that feels more emphatically as if it was ripped from one of his paintings. And it has a doppelganger! The more I think about all of this, the giddier I feel.

I also really, really liked Kyle MacLachlan's performance as Cooper's doppelganger. I had my doubts about this element; if we're really going to separate Cooper into two different characters, one of whom is purely bad, doesn't that feel a bit reductive and undramatic? But the evil Coop is impressive, first of all as an iconic image (who knew MacLachlan, whose roles in recent years have tended more toward henpecked or goofy than powerful, could step so readily into Chigurh's shoes?) but additionally through MacLachlan's physical bearing and especially his vocal delivery. This is an entirely distinct character from Cooper, who toys with being equally compelling. And yet - it isn't quite an entirely distinct character, at least not in theory. How the show will reconcile that remains to be seen (there's definitely no overlap in personality at this point).

The doppelganger's desire to avoid a return trip to the Black Lodge touches on elements of the season two mythology attributed more to Frost than Lynch (the Lodge as a place with physical coordinates, accessed through technology - hell even the name "the Lodge" itself). Yet the literalness of these conceits feels of a piece with the intensity Lynch brings, pitching everything on a plane that resonates with our world but doesn't entirely overlap with it. There were other surprises for me too: I had a hunch that we wouldn't visit Twin Peaks early on but that was based on the assumption that there would be a more linear, singularly-driven narrative (I even once predicted that we would focus more on a single protagonist than on the old series - oops). I thought Naomi Watts or Laura Dern or one of the younger actress might patiently lead us back to Cooper and eventualy back to the town. Again, I misjudged the shape of this series, and I'm glad I did.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about the Twin Peaks stuff. The Ben/Jerry scene, for example, is cute (with one of the show's first topical references, to Washington's increasingly cannabisized capitalism) but feels like a throwaway. This is a Twin Peaks whose "missing pieces" will mostly be included, for better or worse. It was great fun to see Lucy again, and learn a bit more about how things have progressed with Andy (they mention their son and the placard on her desk reads "Lucy Brennan" which brough a smile to my face) but welcome as these moments are, they do read as addenda. And while I'll never complain about the miraculous appearance of the Log Lady, I do hope Hawk visits her in the next installment so we can get some material where she really gets to thrive.

Aside from the wild Red Room sequences, which carry on the Lynchian energy of his online digital projects in the zeroes, so far everything set in the familiar world of Twin Peaks feels surprisingly tangential to The Return. The heart of the drama is located more in evil Cooper's desert sojourn, the extradimensional portal on 33 Thomas Street, and the South Dakotan principal's jail cell meltdown. Incidentally, the casting of the manic teenage serial killer from Scream - who seems to have aged much more than twenty years since 1996 - is a stroke of brilliance. He's only slightly less creepy than the man encrusted in black paint - or soot - who vanishes into thin air when the camera pans across his grinning visage; to compose a tangent within a tangent, that had to be one of my two or three favorites moments tonight.

Aside perhaps from a short, silent, vivid visit to the Palmer house (in which Sarah watches an extremely violent nature film), my favorite Twin Peaks setpiece was the final one. It captured the best balance between telling a new story and revisiting old friends, as James and Shelly mix with unfamiliar characters in the Road House. (Shelly's line to one of her pals - "James was always cool!" - feels like a pointed and hilarious rebuttal to a decade or more of intense fan hate.) This is where I really got the sense of a community in which time has passed and the present perpetually casts our memories in a new light. There's even a hint of the old series' mostly-gone soapish melodrama, as Shelly worries about her daughter's boy troubles. The Chromatics, a young band but perfectly in keeping with the Road House legacy, swoons and croons as the credits begin to roll (after all the explosive moments, it feels weirdly appropriate to close so casually).

We're home again. But we're a lot of other places too. The vision of Twin Peaks: The Return is both restless and calm; a God's eye view that knows how to burrow within the moment and gaze with preternatural calm at the big picture. The creature may not have broken out of the TV, but I think I've entered into it.


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