Lost in the Movies: Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere

Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere

("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Duwayne Dunham
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"It's like I'm having the most beautiful dream and the most terrifying nightmare all at once."

Actually, I could have chosen several memorable quotes to lead this entry. There's Cooper delicately sipping his morning cup of Joe and declaring with characteristic brio, "You know, this is - excuse me - a DAMN fine cup of coffee." Or grinning as he advises a fellow FBI agent (shortly after discussing the autopsy of a brutally murdered teen) to check out a local diner because "they've got a cherry pie that'll kill ya!" And who could forget Pete Martell barging in on his guests (as they sip freshly poured coffee) to warn them that, "It's the damnedest thing...there's a fish in the percolator!" Sliding further into camp, we have a dreamy flashback of Laura with James as she asks him why she's so happy, and he speculates: "Because your skin is so soft and you smell so good?" If it's the creepy-yet-campy mood you're going for, why not that bizarre freeze-frame of Laura's face in the home movie, as a voice on the soundtrack moans, "Help...me!" And for unmitigated creepiness and terror, we could go with Laura's mother's incantation, "I miss her so much!" repeated five times before her eyes widen in terror and she sees...wait and we'll get to that. Anyway, it's Donna's line to her mother which I chose, because it best sums up the hard-to-pin-down mood and tone of "Twin Peaks," a quality that only makes the show more fascinating.

In addition to the ethereal and frightening elements Donna evokes, there's also a lot of quirky humor. Cooper's dialogue takes on a heightened hard-boiled yet cornpone tenor, Humphrey Bogart by way of Andy Griffith. Wackiness abounds in the first few scenes. First, there's a long pan around Cooper's room in the Great Northern hotel to reveal him hanging upside down, and speculating about who killed JFK into his tape recorder. Then Cooper sits down for his first (of many) onscreen coffee chugs and a flirtatious encounter with teen sexpot Audrey Horne. And when he heads over to the sheriff's office to discuss the murder case at hand, quirk still rules: everyone in the station is eating donuts and can only speak in mumbles. Following all this good cheer, Dr. Hayward opens up a portfolio to the picture of Laura's corpse, Angelo Badalamenti's score darkens, and we're reminded that not everything on the show will revolve around food jokes and eccentric characters.

The first regular episode of "Twin Peaks" is directed by Duwayne Dunham, who edited the feature-length pilot, and written by the show's co-creators. It feels very different, though still of a piece, with the premiere. Dunham has a good feel for pace and fluidity, and he keeps the show rolling along for its 45-minute runtime. Gone is the almost comically slow, methodical approach David Lynch used in his direction, replaced by something stylistically much closer to conventional television production. But within the limits of the form, Dunham does an effective job: he even manages to stage some quietly impressive long shots, particularly one which takes Audrey's sexual slow burn and ratchets it up a few notches. We see her dancing in her father's study and he comes in to scold her; all the while she keeps her back to him, and we stay on her to observe her coy, teasing, but defensive demeanor with daddy. There are only slight readjustments for framing, no cuts. This scene, accompanied by her earlier flirtation with Cooper, elevates Audrey from the pin-up doll nymphet she embodied before. Now she's a more complicated and compelling girl, whose psychological bruises manifest themselves in a throaty, self-absorbed sexiness.

Aside from that stellar scene, Dunham mostly sticks to the rulebook - but this only highlights the screenplay's idiosyncrasies. Though authored by the same duo, this episode's script is both more conventional and more startling than the previous venture. It starts like a sitcom (a circa-'00s sitcom, sans laugh track and three-walled set), turns into a police procedural (every time Cooper's onscreen he's questioning someone about Laura), and throws in some dashes of soap opera (the playfully overwrought seduction/conspiracy scenes with middle-aged power players Ben Horne and Katherine Martell). But lest you think the genre-baiting show is nothing more than a postmodern send-up of TV conventions, the scenario suddenly shifts into left field with a scene that is more inexplicably terrifying than anything I've ever seen in TV or in movies.

From the firelit bedroom scene of Katherine & Ben's "Dynasty"-like conspiring, we cut to a dark image of the Palmer house, with a dark, craggy tree in the foreground. In the living room Laura's parents are on the couch, with Mr. Palmer awakening his wife from her grieving stupor to announce a guest. Donna waits in the wings and sits down with her dead friend's mother, offering comfort. Immediately the scene registers an offbeat tone because, unlike almost everything else we've seen till now, it doesn't seem to serve a specific point. There's no plot development advancing, no character being explained, or clue being planted. Just Laura's mother, bereaved and moaning, as her daughter's best friend finds she has nothing to say.

We cut back and forth between close-ups of Donna and Mrs. Palmer while quietly foreboding music creeps into the background. The dialogue is simple but strange:

MRS. PALMER: I don't know what I'm going to do. I miss her so much. Do you miss her?
DONNA: Yes. I miss her so much.
MRS. PALMER: I miss her so much. I miss her so much. I miss her so much.

Cringing, crying, Mrs. Palmer moans the line over and over until it becomes a mantra. The shot-reverse shot editing takes on a subtly hypnotic rhythm in conjunction with the repeated dialogue and is then interrupted by a close-up of Donna reaching for Mrs. Palmer's hand. Mrs. Palmer looks into Donna's face, her eyes widen, and the wind-like ambiance that has been brewing beneath the music increases in volume. There is a cheesy, but weirdly effective superimposition of Laura's face on Donna's as Mrs. Palmer grows confused and murmurs, "Laura? Oh, Laura. My baby, oh Laura, baby..." and embraces Donna, holding her tight. We are still close in on her face as she gasps for breath and then her eyes focus on something, they open wide, her mouth drops, she gasps again...

A gong sounds, we hold on this man's face for about a second, before pushing in ever-so-slightly for another second. We've never seen him before. He has no place in the "Twin Peaks" universe. That bed he's crouching behind isn't even in the room that Mrs. Palmer is sitting in. And of course, this strange, terrifying man is staring directly into the camera the whole time. No, not into the camera - into us. Mrs. Palmer screams about six or seven times, her husband rushes in to comfort her and then we cut away; the show will continue on its regular track for another ten minutes.

This episode was my first exposure to "Twin Peaks" a few years ago, when I rented the series only to discover the pilot was not yet on DVD. So this came first and as I watched I wasn't sure what to make of the series. The campy send-ups were amusing but I could only faintly detect Lynch's touch in the proceedings. Then came this scene, and this shot. I know for certain that I yelled out at the top of my lungs in unmitigated, unpreventable terror. And from then on, I was hooked.

I had already experienced that scene in Mulholland Drive where the two men walk in back of the restaurant to find out what lives behind Winkie's, but somehow this was different. That scene had built up an ominous sense of dread, and still managed to frighten the audience that was primed to expect something, but this long-haired man staring into our souls emerged from the ether, a manifestation of our worst nightmare. He doesn't make sense spatially in the scene, he doesn't make sense in the context of the show or its style, he is irrational terror personified.

Eventually I would stop watching "Twin Peaks" because I wanted to have the whole experience, starting at the beginning. When the pilot was released, I started over but when I arrived at this scene, knowing what to expect, I was still terrified and reacted with a loud gasp. Even returning to the episode the other day, pausing and breaking down the sequence to see what makes it tick, the shot still gave me a shudder. It really is one of the most effective and powerful cinematic moments I've ever experienced, and one that taps directly into the subconscious, or rather stabs into it like an ice pick.

Now we know that "Twin Peaks" will not disappoint in the promise of its suggestive, but evasive, opening - or in that ethereal yet creepy admission of Donna's. The episode continues as Donna has James over for supper and they tenderly hold hands over the dinnertable. (I admire the show's each-episode-a-day-later structure, but it does make their relationship seem a little rushed - didn't their friend just die the day before?) Then there's a tease to reel us in next week: Dr. Jacoby pops in a tape and Laura's voice coos to him over earphones. "Remember that mystery man I told you about..." Could it be...?

Things are very strange, indeed, but they're about to get even stranger.

Next: Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer (season 1, episode 2)
Previous: Twin Peaks (the pilot)

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

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