Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: The Return Part 8 - "Gotta light?"

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 8 - "Gotta light?"


Through almost my entire history of watching Twin Peaks, I've watched it alone. I saw the first two seasons on my computer screen, with headphones, in the summer of 2008. Fire Walk With Me soon became one of my most memorable solo viewings of any movie, a visceral experience I had to write about as soon as I finished, because it was so overwhelming. I immediately rewatched much of the series, writing about each episode - again, by myself. When I rewatched Twin Peaks six years later (aside from one episode with a friend, after buying a used VHS tape at a dying rental store), it was again a private experience; I finally saw a screening of Fire Walk With Me at a local library, with a crowd and my cousin (a newly-minted Peaks fan) but by this point I'd seen the movie a half-dozen times and had plenty of opportunities to think about it. The new series, initially, followed suit. I was visiting a friend in New York for the premiere, but he'd never watched Twin Peaks and didn't want to start with The Return so he sat in the other room focused on his own work, only poking his head back in when I yelled loudly at the glass box monster.

Tonight, at my parents' house after a long week spent with family,  I was surrounded by other viewers including an aunt eating Cheerios, the aforementioned cousin, my mother - who quickly left the room (around the time the dusty ghost monsters were ripping up the bloody doppelganger) - and a visiting sister who just watched the finale for the first time a few days ago. My sister hadn't even had time yet to watch the film, let alone any new episodes, so I was prepared to occasionally catch her up to speed when old and new characters appeared. As it turned out, that wouldn't be an issue. We sat spellbound for much of the episode, but also talked, noticing details, drawing comparisons, occasionally just marvelling (or cringing), laughing at jokes and asides. On the one hand, this would seem a wildly inappropriate way to watch one of the most immersive, meditative, visual pieces (not to underplay one of Lynch's most evocative soundscapes) of...well, cinema (the televisual aspect seems almost incidental) in the past hundred years. And indeed, I may wake up early tomorrow, before work, to pull a chair up much closer to the TV and rewatch the whole hour alone, soaking it in without any company or distractions.

Yet to be honest, this feels like the perfect time to make Twin Peaks communal. Not only are we all - recent, veteran, and brand-new Peaks viewers - equally lost in uncharted waters (this is radical new territory for an already radical series) - we are also undergoing one of Lynch's deepest dives into world history and mythology. This is, somehow, the history of the human race, and the modern age, and we're all in it together.

Beginning in the early minutes of the episode when evil Cooper is shot dead (the earliest, and gentlest, of many surprises), I was constantly reminded of E. Elias Merhiges' Begotten, a grisly, hypnotic 1990 experimental film shot on high-contrast 16mm black-and-white reversal film. The ghostly figures gyrating around Cooper, while seemingly gutting him, were the first reminders; Begotten opens with a figure (described by the filmmakers as God) disemboweling himself...so not just the movements but the actions of Twin Peaks' creatures evoked the earlier film. Of course, "Gotta light?" proceeds to evoke Begotten in appearance and shape as well, while also evoking Stan Brakhage, John Whitney, and many other experimental filmmakers who treated the cinema screen much as twentieth-century painters treated their own canvases. (To touch on representation again for the moment - is this the first appearance of a movie screen in Twin Peaks?) I'm not sure Lynch has ever treaded further into pure avant-garde abstraction in his feature work; hell, I can't recall many stretches even in Lynch's animation or his digital shorts which fly so freely from representational forms.

The sequence also resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey although Lynch's images feel looser, wilder than Stanley Kubrick's trip through the wormhole. Like 2001 (and unlike the work of the more strictly abstract underground filmmakers who influenced Kubrick's own sequence), Twin Peaks roots its kaleidoscopic light show in a particular physical context. In this case, as in Terence Malick's Tree of Life, the experimentation is linked not just to an actual historical event - the first explosion of the atomic bomb in the White Sands desert on July 16, 1945 (set to "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krzysztof Penderecki) - but also to a human community located in the postwar American West. Bookended by...well, somewhat comprehensible events, Twin Peaks' avant-garde tangent doesn't feel restricted by this context, so much as it seems to be liberating them by proximity, reminding us how strange and inexplicable nuclear destruction (and even, for that matter, isolated small-town life in the fifties) actually is.

This hour of The Return is additionally contextualized in a way neither 2001 nor Tree of Life are, relating itself (however obliquely) to a pre-existing mythology created by its own earlier chapters. Again, while the giant, a convenience store, electrical energy, and Laura's and Bob's faces can offer us something to hang on to, the overall effect is less to reassure us with the familiar than to expand our understanding of the familiar, opening up new sensations and larger meanings through this iconography. And no part of Twin Peaks has cultivated a greater sense of a larger Lynchverse, a frame of references and touchstones that feel like part of a vast cosmology. The early passages are Lynch's starkest callouts yet to Lost Highway, with its nighttime driving shots, roadside apparitions, and bluish-white light cast across dazzled faces. The reference is assisted by a musical callback to Lost Highway: an aggressive, abrasive performance by Nine Inch Nails - which is nearly the most conventional part of the whole hour! If I'm not mistaken the giant - still credited as ??????? - and the woman - credited as Senorita Dido - appear in the Silencio theater from Mulholland Drive. Meanwhile, the extensive black-and-white work may well be Lynch's most sustained foray into monochrome since The Elephant Man; certainly the explicitly 1956-set sequence which concludes the episode is Lynch's most extended period piece since that film.

To return to Begotten, it's important to remember that even that abrasive experiment has been related to a particular genre: horror. And so much of part 8 plays as a horror film, or varieties of horror films. The ghoulishness of evil Cooper's resurrection works with that vibe in a modern sense (hell, so does the intense Roadhouse performance - which my cousin described as a "seance for Bob's rebirth"), perhaps with a touch of giallo, but the dustmen-descend-on-a-desert-town scenario hearkens back to older examples of the genre. Shot in gorgeous grays that linger between starched white and inky black, situating itself within an aggressively all-American setting, presenting its horror not in terms of all-too-human serial killers but through otherworldly monsters (who are still played by people in costumes), and uneasily couched between camp and terror, this is a tribute not merely to postwar B movies but to the way we half-remember, half-dream them. And if so many of those films toyed with atomic age allegories, this one makes the connection overt.

Finally, since Begotten keeps emerging as a key reference (for me at least; I have no idea if Lynch and Frost ever saw it, and suspect they did not), let's note that its seemingly random, free-associational chain of events actually carried very specific themes and references. Wikipedia manages to boil this down to its most succinct, so I'll just quote them here and let you mull everything over:
"The story opens with a robed, profusely bleeding "God" disemboweling itself, with the act ultimately ending in its death. A woman, Mother Earth, emerges from its remains, brings the dead body to arousal, and inseminates herself with its semen. Becoming pregnant, she wanders off into a vast and barren landscape. The pregnancy manifests in a fully grown convulsing man whom she leaves to his own devices.
The "Son of Earth" meets a group of faceless nomads who seize him with what is either a very long umbilical cord or a rope. The Son of Earth vomits organic pieces, and the nomads excitedly accept these as gifts. The nomads finally bring the man to a fire and burn him. "Mother Earth" encounters the resurrected man and comforts him. She seizes the man with a similar umbilical cord. The nomads appear and proceed to rape her. Son of Earth is left to mourn over the lifeless body.
A group of characters appear and carry Mother Earth to another place, where they dismember her, later returning for Son of Earth. After he, too, is dismembered, the group buries the remains, planting the parts into the crust of the earth. The burial site becomes lush with flowers. Grainy photographs of God Killing Himself are shown. In a final scene, "Mother Earth" and "Son of Earth" are seen again in a flashback, this time wandering through a forest."
What - or who - is the creature that crawls into the young girl's mouth at the end of this hour? (Well, it's definitely a callback to Lynch's digital animation Bug Crawls, which calmly observes a similar figure in a similar landscape.) Perhaps the most obvious conclusion, given its grotesque appearance and the ominous way it is introduced, is that this is the egg of Bob spotted floating through the mushroom cloud, hatched eleven years later and entering its/his first victim. I am not too thrilled with this idea, for reasons I can and can't articulate right now (on the most mundane level, we've been told that Bob has already entered Leland around this same time.) I kind of prefer to think this is Laura's egg - the one we saw produced by the golden cloud released by the giant (the cloud that my cousin pointed out looks like a uterus) - and that this creature is Laura's spirit entering a young Sarah Palmer. Yes, this seems an alarming, uncomfortable way for a force of good to enter the human world but that's one of the things I like about it: I'm always pushing against the idea that unsettling/disturbing = bad in the Lynch's work. There's also something fitting about Laura entering the girl as she drifts off following a romantic, longing date, given Laura's own tumultuous struggle with sexual desire, guilt, and curiosity. If nothing else, this is a striking visualization of romance and/or sexuality entering a young person's consciousness at a critical moment; it's almost as if the whole town has fallen under a spell that arises from her own adolescent awakening.

And this is the note I want to end on: the idea of this bug as the embodiment of Twin Peaks itself, hatching due to some combination of electromagnetic energy and the consequent pain and sorrow, spiritual intervention, and one very specific person's dream life. There's a famous eighties television series that ended (and pissed off many viewers) by revealing that the preceding story was all the fantasy of a little boy staring into a snowglobe (there's also a certain famous Lynch film which draws, more abstractly, a similar conclusion). Perhaps in one sense, a sense that doesn't obscure or obstruct the many other possibilities and actualities, Twin Peaks is the dream of a young woman in an isolated town saturated by toxic manmade energy (a direct predecessor to mass murder on a scale the world had never seen before), experiencing the pangs of young love as she drifts off to the strains of The Platter's "My Prayer."



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