Lost in the Movies: Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer

Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer

("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"Through the darkness of future past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds:
Fire, walk with me."

When David Lynch directs an episode of "Twin Peaks," idiosyncrasy rules. The show is certainly quirky to begin with, but that quirkiness occasionally takes on a familiar tone, as if we could understand and even be wryly amused by the town's eccentricities. With Lynch at the helm, that comprehension drops away. On the first official episode of "Twin Peaks," series editor Duwayne Dunham delivered a crisp, efficient, polished 45 minutes of television, which veered deftly from tone to tone, balancing the comedic with the ironically maudlin and the genuinely tragic. It also contained one masterful moment of shock which exposed an irrational, dreamlike realm beneath the show's mystery. Lynch's episodes tend to revisit that realm and stretch that moment out until it encompasses most of what we see onscreen.

This was only the second episode of "Twin Peaks" I'd ever seen, and from the first shot I thought it was a far more fascinating and absorbing piece of work than the previous episode. We open with a high-angle, wide-lensed view of a family at their dinnertable, chewing in silence. A fire crackles in the background but otherwise the only audio is the commonplace sounds of silverware clanking on plates. Well, except for that fellow crouching on his chair, wearing a full Indian headdress, and issuing a series of grunts. No explanation, no dialogue, no action, just this bizarre tableau, over which the credits unfold for a couple minutes, concluding with the title "directed by David Lynch." Even before the appearance of that signifier, we know we're in the hands of a truly imaginative filmmaker: he has the ability to surprise you with every frame. On first viewing (having missed the pilot) I didn't even know that the Indian was the wealthy Horne family's black sheep, 27-year-old Johnny who has "emotional issues." Knowing this doesn't make the staging any less brilliant or the scenario much less strange.

Then Benjamin Horne's brother Jerry bursts in, baguette in hand, raving about how good the bread in Paris is. He leans in to kiss Ben's wife, who turns sharply towards her husband and screams, "Benjamin!" Jerry and Ben bite into their baguettes, talk with their mouths full and the willful perversity of the episode only escalates from there. Ben tells his brother that Leland Palmer's daughter has been murdered and an important business deal fell through (Jerry reacts with astonished disappointment to the latter news, and belatedly registers the former, struggling to feel some sort of emotion before muttering in lackluster fashion, "I'm depressed.") To cheer up his sibling, Ben takes him to One-Eyed Jacks, a backwoods bordello which features a red room stocked with creatively attired prostitutes. It's all completely unpredictable and thus exciting - but the episode will end with another red room that makes One Eyed Jacks look as safe and comprehensible as Mr. Rogers' living room.

What's immediately apparent from this episode is that Lynch has unerring instincts for delivering memorable scenes, even within the limited confines of television. His shot selection never feels wasted, and often holds the thrill that comes with making just the right choice. This precision has its peers in Hitchcock and Polanski. It's always bothered me when Lynch's detractors call him a bad director. Say what you will about his penchant for surrealism, his comfort with obscurity and perversity, but the man is a born filmmaker. His sense for visual composition and shot selection is remarkably tasteful (though there a few too many exaggerated angles in this episode - particularly the high angle in the sheriff's station when Truman confronts FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield). His staging, sense of timing, and juxtaposition of effects is never bland - and for someone who takes so many chances, he rarely misfires.

There are examples of this throughout the next 45 minutes - within almost every scene, Lynch finds a point of interest and a center from which his camera can operate and his characters interact. When Bobby and Mike go into the woods for a drug trade with Leo Johnson, everything is illuminated by flashlight, including Leo's face in an effect both cheesy and creepy. Leo's speech patterns complement the visual scheme by heightening both his ridiculous and intimidating qualities. Meanwhile, as James and Donna whisper and then make out on Donna's couch, Lynch alternates between extreme close-ups, wallowing in the pulpy but romantic tones of teenage puppy love, before cutting away to an ominous grandfather clock to bookend the sequences. And before the show's big set piece, we catch up with the Palmers as Leland's sanity appears to falter for the first time. He places a cheerful, snappy record on the turntable and starts dancing with Laura's framed portrait; Lynch holds on him as Mrs. Palmer rushes in, tries to pull the picture away and ends up smashing it, cutting Leland's hands with the glass shards. Leland wipes the blood from his hands on the immaculate portrait and begins to weep.

In all these scenes we have an uneasy but compelling balance between camp and sincerity. The previous episode achieved this balance between scenes, while Lynch finds the equilibrium within each scene; he manages to make the show both campy and sincere at the same time. Occasionally, he fluctuates from moment to moment in a sequence: observe Shelly Johnson, bruised from the previous night's beating by her husband, as she shuts off the over-the-top soap opera "Invitation to Love," disgusted by its romantic fantasy. Then secret lover Bobby barges in, caresses her face and soothes her with language straight out of a soap opera - in fact, the dialogue bears a remarkable similarity to the faux-melodrama Betty auditions for in Mulholland Drive ("If he finds out about us, he'll kill us both," Shelly coos as Bobby kisses her).

This isn't to say the episode doesn't occasionally lapse into pure, unadulterated quirky humor. The "Tibetan method" provides a good example: charming and amusing, but also lending itself to charges of "randomness for its own sake" (charges which were often hurled at "Twin Peaks" as a whole). Agent Cooper pontificates on the plight of the Tibetan people and then demonstrates an investigative method which arrived to him in a dream: standing in the woods, he tosses rocks at a bottle while Sheriff Truman reads off the names of suspects. This serves as a neat summary of what we've unearthed so far and is also a nice example of Cooper's offbeat sensibility. Interestingly, it also posits the murder mystery as one of the lighter elements in the show's makeup; most of this rather dark episode does not directly involve the investigation.

The episode is dark in a literal sense - more than half the action occurs at night. Breaking with the morning-to-nightfall timeline of the previous two episodes, Lynch starts at nighttime on the second day after Laura's murder and continues through to the evening of the third. The nighttime motif is appropriate given the last segment of the show, which is devoted to one of the most memorable dreams in TV history. There's absolutely no way to predict what's coming if you're not clued in and as such, it registers an uncanny thrill on first viewing.

As Cooper tosses and turns beneath his bedsheets, "Twin Peaks"' most cheerful, sunniest character enters into a world of darkness. He sees the one-armed man who pronounces, in a rich baritone, the verses which I printed at the start of this entry. Upon which he introduces himself as Mike and says, "He is Bob." Cue the staring, long-haired man from last episode, who tells Cooper that he "will kill again." There's more: something about living above a, how do you say, convenience store, and hacking off a left arm that was touched by the devilish one. A circle of candles are extinguished.

And then Cooper is sitting in a chair, his face wrinkled, flanked by red curtains. A dwarf, also dressed in red, has his back turned to Cooper and is vibrating in the corner, almost as if he's having a seizure. Turning slightly, Cooper sees Laura Palmer sitting in front of him. She touches her nose. The dwarf stops vibrating, sharply turns around and growls in a warbled, slurpy intonation, "Let's rock!"

Rather than describe this hypnotic hallucination, I'll step aside and let you view it for yourself (sans the Bob scene, which I don't especially mind):

Where did this mad vision come from? According to Lynch, he was editing the pilot, stepped outside for a cigarette and, bam, the little man and the red room zapped his consciousness, materializing from somewhere in the ether. He shot the sequence (the Man From Another Place, as the dwarf is called, and Laura Palmer learned their lines phonetically backwards and performed backwards; the footage and recording is played back in reverse) and included it as the "closed ending" to the European version of the pilot. It's not much of a closed ending, and actually in that context it sticks out like a sore thumb (though the "25 years later..." title does explain why Cooper is made up as an older man). It's a waste of a brilliant sequence, which fits in much more nicely as Cooper's dream.

Eventually, believe it or not, all these random clues and obscure statements will be exposed and revealed. But it's impossible not to believe that the explanations came after the fact. What holds and sustains the scene is the air of dreamy freedom - anything is possible and the effect is liberating. It takes a director as accomplished and controlled as Lynch to pull off this narrative fluidity (matched by the graceful fluidity of the dollying and booming camera as it traces the dwarf's dancesteps to the blinking blue strobe light, stabbing into the lush reds of the drapes and furnishings). The air of anything-goes idiosyncrasy which he has been sinking us into since the first shot pays off as the Man From Another Place tells us, "where I come from the birds sing a pretty song, and there's always music in the air." Lynch's music is weird and unpredictable, but oh so right. We don't know where it's going next, but we know we'll tune in next week to find out.

Next: Twin Peaks: Rest in Pain (season 1, episode 3)
Previous: Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere (season 1, episode 1)

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



Totally understand what you mean about the Lynch episodes.

You can just tell it's him right off the bat. The use of the wide-angle lens. The odd character quirks. It was always a treat when I saw Lynch's name as director while re-watching the series.

Joel Bocko said...

One of the enjoyable parts of watching the series for the first time was guessing. I was usually right although I occasionally misjudged. That one that starts with the long zoom-out from the wall I pegged as Lynch (it wasn't) and another one that didn't have such a bold start was. But I always felt a little twinge of disappointment when it wasn't his name that popped up.


Yeah me too. I always felt kind of let down when his name wasn't under the DIRECTED BY credit.

I guess he only really directed four or five of the 30 anyway, but still. His were soooooo much better!

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