Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: The Return Part 5 - "Case files."

Monday, June 5, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 5 - "Case files."


Two weeks ago, I wrote that Twin Peaks" The Return was going to allow us to crawl into corners of the narrative, to get lost inside of it. This is the part - or damn it, the episode - where that magic spell really hits. "Episode" is fitting because, despite the claim that this is all one big movie, more or less arbitrarily sliced into chunks to prolong the experience, "Case files." feels like a TV episode in the best possible way. This works as a weekly, episodic, self-sustained entry of a serialized drama. It takes strength both from its reliance on a larger canvas which we can't yet fully see and from its isolated joys and sorrows. We dip into at least a dozen different stories, check in with members of an expansive ensemble, intrigued by what we glimpse and (this is key) emotionally invested in their experiences. Some of these experiences - quite a few, actually - are set in the town of Twin Peaks itself and connected to familiar characters (either directly or indirectly), which heightens our engagement. Other are not, yet they connect with us too; possibly the most affecting image is the final one, set in Las Vegas and commenting directly on the discovery, loss, and re-discovery of humanity through art. Though it cuts even deeper, part 5's fast-paced, eclectic structure evokes the best of Twin Peaks' first season, a combination of visiting colorful characters, dropping breadcrumbs along a dark wooded path, and carving out moments of ecstasy, suspense, and raucous comedy. Celluloid or digital, feature-length or serialized into standalone entries, the essence of cinema is and always will be emotion. That was certainly the essence of Twin Peaks, no matter how that was buried or what it was packaged inside.



By the way, the old fifties/sixties vibe of the show (mostly absent until now) is back in several different capacities, with a vengeance and a twenty-first century retro twist. This is most obvious in the greaser hair and Thunderbird belonging to the hilariously degenerate boyfriend of Becky, Shelly's daughter. Becky (Johnson? Briggs?) is a character with tremendous potential. Played by Amanda Seyfried, her nervy, smoldering restlessness recalls Laura Palmer even more than her own mother, and Lynch's camera simply adores her, as evidenced by a sustained close-up in which the lighting and color saturation shifts while Becky gazes skyward in a coke-fueled reverie scored with a teen pop song straight out of Mulholland Drive. This calls to mind the flamboyance of Vincente Minnelli (I'm thinking of a particularly melodramatic exposure shift in Some Came Running), and it's as rapturous The Return - and probably Twin Peaks - has ever gotten. I suspect there's much more where this came from. Most blatantly evocative of the fifties teen culture, however, is its least sympathetic incarnation, a vicious pompadoured punk at the Road House who gropes and throttles a nervous teenager while her friends try to stop him, sneering "I'm gonna laugh when I fuck you, bitch!" If this wasn't enough to tell us we're dealing with another Frank Booth, he hands a payoff (undoubtedly drug-related) to a corrupt local cop (the one who made fun of the Log Lady last week, which should have tipped us off). The violent misogynist even looks a bit like a young Dennis Hopper (though also, it must be said, a young Matthew McConaughey); he seems to inhabit another space entirely than the carefree revelers around him, none of whom even notice his assault.

On a lighter note, elsewhere in Twin Peaks there's more than a touch of beatnik glory (and good old-fashioned American hucksterism) when Dr. Jacoby records his patriotic populist pitch for golden shovels to dig yourself out of life's shit. Jerry and Nadine are both shown watching this livestream on their computer screens; the effort is just as much zeroes/teens as it is fifties, a wink and nod to YouTubers as well as local broadcasters and radio hosts of the postwar era. This also works as a welcome reminder that Jacoby is not simply a wise old hippie; there's always been more than a touch of the charlatan about him. That said, I wonder if the actual idea for the golden shovels was Nadine's (with Jerry as an investor and Jacoby providing the craftsmanship). Is this her latest attempt at patent-queen glory? Far away, the much-maligned Tammy Preston (though some fans are warming to her, many winced at Lynch's leering gaze and/or Chrysta Bell's vampish performance) gets her own warm, beautifully lit, golden fifties moment. She stares with more than a hint of longing at a dreamy portrait of Cooper from twenty-five years ago, but the reverie is shaken - and her mode switches from besotted bobbysoxer to Dragnet detective - when she compares this photo to the Cooper captured in South Dakota.

Meanwhile, if good old "Dougie"'s home life evokes a chipper fifties family sitcom, his office adventure reconfigures The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit as The Fool in the Garish Green Jacket (this feels like a Lynch/Frost riff on Mad Men; leading me to wonder if - in addition to Lynch's entire filmography - the show will make of a point of referencing and tweaking most of the major Prestige TV titles influenced by the original Twin Peaks). This also feels like a nod to the Kafka portrait on Gordon Cole's wall but with a significant reversal; instead of a beleaguered nebbish bewildered by bureaucratic forces attacking him from every perverse angle, Dougie/Coop is buoyed through his life by dozens of helping hands. Many have remarked how insensitive Dougie/Coop's friends, co-workers, and even family members are - and this is certainly fair - but from another vantage point he taps into an endless stream of neighborly goodwill. The universe is helpful rather than hostile toward this bumbling man with his absurd clothing and vacant stare, offering him other people's coffee, declining to fire him (for now) despite his wildly erratic behavior, even offering a kiss while helping him into the ladies' bathroom (!). No one sees his pain or confusion, but they also bend over backwards not to add any more to his burden. This is an odd sort of limbo, almost as softly pleasant as it is melancholy.

There's something delightful about the Dougie conceit that I can't quite put my finger on or articulate. It has to do with seeing one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time in such an unusual setting, behaving in such an off-key way, yet somehow still himself. When he snaps out, "You're lying," perhaps because the position of the other salesman evokes Bobby across that conference table in the pilot, or as he gasps over the innocuously paper-cupped coffee he's gulping down, these sense memories are ours as well as his. They resonate because, in a way, Cooper was so perfect when we first met him. He debuted, fully-formed, as one of the greatest TV characters of all time, the work that got him there all in his offscreen past, already a complete man that very moment. To watch him grope his way back to his own distinctive identity, shimmering on the edges of the form we first saw him in, is like rewinding to catch a back story with knowledge of what's to come, a prehistory that also inhabits a sequel space. Fire Walk With Me, anyone? Something is stirring beneath the Cooper/Dougie surface, evident especially in two incidents. Early that morning, a tear rolls down his cheek as he observes a sullen Sonny Jim in the backseat, and as dusk settles over his office park he gazes at an unmoving, unspeaking statue whose state evokes his own. A wonder and sadness at the mystery of existence seeps into the moment, expressed acutely by Johnny Jewel's "Windswept" on the soundtrack.

This is an image of loneliness, contemplation, and yearning that could stand on its own as a work of profound visual art. At the same time, this scene is embedded within an intricate narrative. Until now, Lynch and Frost only collaborated nose-to-nose on the pilot of the original series; we're finally learning how their co-authorship truly expresses itself. There is a detail I noticed on my second viewing of this sequence, trying to capture a still in the slim space between the guard exiting the frame and the credits beginning to roll (the flavor of this moment reminds me of what Greil Marcus wrote about a similar split-second composition in Fire Walk With Me, which I've quoted at the bottom of my Chet Desmond/Sam Stanley piece, under "Additional Observations" - it's worth reading the quote in full). Anyway, the detail: Cooper, who lost his own shoes in his passage back into reality (or whatever this space is), is tenderly touching the shoes of the statue. John Bernardy, a Twin Peaks superfan who is rigorously writing up every single podcast in a weekly post, has speculated that Cooper can't truly return to himself until a certain one-armed shoe salesman returns his footwear to him.

Bernardy has also written a good deal about whether Cooper's doppelganger is actually Bob, and there's been much online discussion about whether Bob possesses evil Coop, is working with him, or is absent altogether. Part 5 answers those questions...kind of. In a surprisingly frank passage (no pun intended), the doppelganger looks in his jail cell mirror and triggers a series of flashbacks of the doppelganger laughing with Bob and then smashing his head in the mirror to reveal Bob's reflection. Lynch, it should be noted, has always possessed the ability to reconfigure familiar, already pretty terrifying footage in new and even more terrifying ways (think how, in dream montages of the original Twin Peaks, he returned to and manipulated shots of Sarah running down the stairs or Bob crouching behind the bed). The jagged cutting he now applies to that old Lodge imagery is deeply unnerving, in a fashion that manages to unearth their initial shock effect. When we cut back to evil Cooper's cell, though, it's still just him in the mirror. Then, horrifyingly, Kyle MacLachlan's face subtly begins to morph into the late Frank Silva's, never fully converting but going far enough to become obvious. "You're still with me," the doppelganger croaks. "Good." So Bob is DEFINITELY a part of what's going on; we can be sure of that now. But the visual presentation, and that single line, remains ambiguous as to how Bob is involved. The meaning I take is: this isn't just Bob inside a meat mask, and whatever exists in there is a mix. Bob is with the evil Cooper - a word Lynch himself used emphatically in an interview two decades ago.

I should note that I came into Part 5 in a totally different way than Parts 1-4, as (I imagine) did most Twin Peaks fans. For those first four hours, I was flying blind, equipped only with what I knew about the first thirty episodes and the film. In the two weeks since then, I have listened to hours of podcasts, and read pages upon pages of articles, recaps, tweets, and forum posts. I've watched the previous four parts at least twice, in the case of some scenes four or five times. They've become very familiar to me, as have the various interpretations and the speculation. It's exciting, but also a bit exhausting and even before tonight's entry I was toying with the idea of taking a week's break from Twin Peaks in the next seven days. I was even slightly worried that with all the noise (insightful and invigorating as much of it is), I wouldn't be able to sink back into that feeling of immersion in a Lynch work. It was already getting hard to remember what that felt like just fourteen days ago. Would some of the freshness be gone? The answer was clearly no, but not only because new material brings new sensations. This fifth hour also felt different from the previous four in a way that I think will sustain itself even better in the long run. For all my enthusiasm about The Return, there were some worries based on what I'd seen so far.

Dazzled by Lynch's filmmaking, and impressed by how avant-garde and unpredictable he and Frost were willing to be, I knew that I would not be disappointed by the new series. However, I did wonder if it would be able to move me on the profound level of many of the original show's strongest moments, let alone Fire Walk With Me, the emotional high point of Twin Peaks. Would this end up being a wonderful bonus, a Lynchian wild ride on premium cable, but not really an expansion of Twin Peaks - would it even seem slightly redundant compared to the thematic core and visceral resonance of that story? Observed right out of the gate, The Return lacked the humanism and romanticism that characterized Twin Peaks at its most potent, and while I was sure there was a reason for it, these qualities were missed. But part 5 has moments that are truly, touchingly poignant in fresh ways. Moreover, its style often evokes the impressionistic aura of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, which I feared Lynch had decided to leave behind. In old age Lynch is not simply looking back on the passionate intensity of his earlier work with a more seasoned, Apollonian view. He can still step right into that moment to feel it in his bones, and make us feel it too. This is, by the way, one of the most gorgeous hours of television I've ever seen, as unabashedly candy-colored and warm-hued as many of the early parts were purposefully clinical. But this impressive visual texture doesn't simply derive from its Technicolor palette; there is also a sharp, bold sense of composition in play. Lynch's direction is never, ever weak but the first few hours (aside from bold flourishes like the Purple Space sequence) were mostly more subdued, keyed in to a different type of aesthetic. These frames, on the other hand, you could hang on your walls with their dramatic contrasts and vivid arrangements.

Yes, The Return is telling one big story but we're also lingering for an hour, advancing slowly enough so that we can disappear inside this single slice as if it were its own entity. Most importantly, we are developing a particular type of character/situational investment. This blossoms most fruitfully through regular visits, with breaks in between, stretched out over many months during which we have room to change and reflect on ourselves as well as what we're watching. In other words, television allows us to grow alongside the experience itself, in a way few other art forms do (we can return to other works, but only a series evolves in real time with us). I watched Twin Peaks on DVD over the space of several weeks in 2008, alone, in the same place each time, not discussing the experience with anyone else until it had already ended (I didn't even write down my reactions at any length until I reached Fire Walk With Me). But I will watch The Return over an entire season, alongside many different people, in many different places - some even on opposite sides of the country (like the series itself), all as I inevitably go through major events in my own life. In that sense, as exciting as May 21 was, this feels like the real beginning of what the experience will be.



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