Lost in the Movies: Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks


directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"She's dead, wrapped in plastic!"

And so she is, her hair spilling over the plastic wrapping like a bouquet of dead flowers. That's how poor Pete Martell finds her, fishing rod in hand. His last words to his wife, before he walks outside (where he'll discover the girl's body, washed ashore)? "Gone fishin'," - which are also the first words we'll ever hear in the town of Twin Peaks; and indeed director David Lynch, in his first stab at televisual filmmaking, effortlessly hooks us with this early scene. Yet even before the first lines have been spoken, or even before the show proper has begun, the bait has been set.

"Twin Peaks," the feature-length 1990 pilot for the show of the same name, begins with one of the eeriest title themes and visual montages ever to open a series. In later episodes, this title sequence will be shortened slightly, with the name of the show emerging over a shot of the town's "Welcome" sign with those titular mountains in the background. But this time "Twin Peaks" appears onscreen over footage of the lumber mill machinery at work, spinning saws rising, cutting, setting off sparks in a kind of synchronized dance. Like much of the industrial imagery in Lynch's debut Eraserhead, the visuals are unsettling and right away there's a suggestion of inhuman brutality. Once we move outside, to more natural locales like the town's waterfall, there's still something creepy in the way every location is so empty. The slow, dreamy quality of the transitions from static shot to static shot (until we reach the rolling waters which will deliver a corpse onto a rocky beach) pulls us deeper into the mystery.

We dissolve from the gently flowing waters of the title sequence to the image of a lodge on a lake (in future episodes we will fade to black before the show "officially" begins, but here the imagery is continuous). Again, there is something disturbingly placid about the establishing shots, but on the surface they are conventional, calm, straightforward. Then, our first shock: we cut to inside the lodge with a close-up of a figurine - two black dogs without faces, so sleek they seem like they emerged from another dimension, twins to Kubrick's stone monoliths. And, still in tight framing, we pan over to a mirror where a beautiful Asian woman applies makeup to her face. Who is she? What is an exotic beauty doing in this small town location? Where are we? What's going on?

From there, the show's uncertainty principle established, it's a short leap to the body on the beach. Resting nonchalantly under the great big sequoia sentinel which overlooks the lake, the plastic-wrapped corpse is as out-of-place in these bucolic surroundings as those black dogs inside the wooden lodge or, for that matter, the human ear lying in the field at the beginning of Blue Velvet (Lynch's previous film). Like that ear, the dead girl will have a rippling effect on the town's consciousness; as with a pebble tossed into calm waters, the aftershocks will spread outward, further and further until the placid surface has been thoroughly disturbed.

David Lynch's masterful but understated direction and the solid, meticulous screenplay written by Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost will follow these ripples on their outward trajectory, from the police to the immediate family to the friends, until the whole town knows what has happened. And unlike that ear, the plastic-wrapped figure will not remain an abstraction for long.

Pete calls the sheriff's office and we meet Sheriff Harry S. Truman, as solid as his name suggests, and Lucy, the ditzy receptionist whose rambling dialogue will introduce the first element of outright comedy into the show. Lynch will continue on this tack: as we move outward, meeting new townspeople, presenting new locations, and hinting at new subplots, Lynch will also be introducing fresh elements into the show's tone and style: a little humor here, a looming sense of tragedy there, a twist of quirk, a realistic texture. By the time everyone has learned of the murder, we have established the tone of the show, in all its distinct flavors (save one; more on that later).

The sheriff, the town doctor, and the sensitive deputy Andy (weeping as he takes pictures) show up on the scene, flip the body over and peel the plastic back. They are confronted by an ethereal beauty, still captivating in death, her skin an icy blue. "Oh, Laura," the doctor cries, the sheriff echoing, "Laura Palmer." So this isn't just any dead girl and already we're wondering not so much who killed Laura Palmer, but who is Laura Palmer?

As the word spreads around town, we tend to see reactions to the news rather than hear it explicated again and again. Laura's mother, introduced in the kitchen, casually smoking and calling to her daughter ("Laura, sweetheart, I'm not going to call again" - sighing, to herself - "Yes I am") is devastating in the guileless normalcy of her behavior. But when Laura doesn't respond, the mother runs up the stairs to look for her, in a low-angle, dimly lit shot that is creepy but functional; later it will be returned to in increasingly abstract ways, as if Lynch is drawing all the emotion to the surface with a magnet. The mother calls around, reaching her husband at work; he assures her that Laura is fine, but in the background a police cruiser pulls up. As the sheriff's eyes meet his, the mother screams and the father drops the phone.

Through these effective scenes, which Lynch slowly unfolds, we are also getting bits of information from Lynch and Frost: Laura has a boyfriend who's a bit of a rebel; Laura's father works for Benjamin Horne, the town bigwig; there's a shady land deal going through at the Great Northern Hotel. Details are conveyed offhand, subtly, just as characters are introduced in the middle of their daily activities, before the unexpected news throws them off-kilter. When we meet Laura's boyfriend, Bobby, at the diner, he gives waitress Shelly a ride home and they start to make out. It's our first secret revealed, and far from the last: there's a lot going on beneath the surface of this town, and teenage affairs are the least of it. But Shelly also has an "old man," her boyfriend Leo, and when his truck is unexpectedly spotted in her driveway, Bobby loses his bravado and freaks out. Again a new layer is suggested through the natural action of the scene (this Leo must be a really intimidating guy; hey, could he have something to do with Laura's death?).

Leland Palmer, Laura's father who we met at the Great Northern, is escorted to the morgue where he identifies his daughter's body, the final nail in the coffin. Now the stage is set for the public announcement of the sad news. We see the wind blowing eerily through the evergreen branches (an image Lynch used to sell network executive on the mood of the show) and move inside the high school. It's a weird pastiche of 50s camp (a ducktailed student boogies down the hallway) and naturally playful realism (the student's apathetic responses to roll call are small gems, especially bad girl Audrey's finger-quotes as she deadpans "here," and biker boy James' emphatic "Yo!").

Again, the shocking rumor of Laura's death whispers its way into the school like the breeze in those trees: a couple cops striding through the background, Laura's boyfriend called to the office, a word exchanged with the teacher, whose face drops, just as a random girl runs screaming through the schoolyard. Much of this is taken in through the eyes of Laura's best friend Donna, who glances at Laura's empty seat, turns fearfully to James and grabs her wrist with a pained expression. Here, as elsewhere, Lynch finds exactly the right gesture to convey the turmoil that's about to break forth (though James snapping his pencil in half touches down just this side of camp, which was probably intentional).

Meanwhile, the police confront Bobby with Laura's death, and then arrest him, in the show's longest sequence yet: an unbroken shot filmed with a subtly dollying, pushing, and tilting camera which reframes as the scene develops, the characters' relationships and reactions to one another going through mercurial shifts. The whole thing lasts nearly two minutes, and then the first act of "Twin Peaks" wraps itself up when the principal, voice cracking, makes an announcement over the intercom, the first public pronouncement, before shutting off the microphone and weeping. Throughout this first half-hour, Lynch has briefly focused our attention on objects in a rare interruption of the fluid, straightforward camerawork and editing. There was the foreboding ceiling fan, the phone hanging off the receiver as Laura's mother cries out over the line, Audrey's black-tipped shoes when she gets in the family limo, even the scissors (though not in close-up) Bobby's mother plays with as she speaks on the phone.

But if these objects served to create a sinister texture or off-kilter mood, the final image of the show's opening is the exclamation point to the entire sequence. Having already indulged in a slow dolly down the deserted high school hallway, Lynch turns his camera towards the school's display case and the glowing portrait at its center: Laura Palmer, perfect in prom queen regalia. We have seen her as a corpse, read the traces of her personality on those affected by her death, even heard her name incantated as a kind of totem, but here she is looking healthy, wholesome, and apparently happy. Again that question, who was Laura Palmer? Who killed her? Why? What's going on here?

These first twenty-eight minutes are so well-crafted and well-composed that not much else in the rest of the series will match their sense of purpose and control. But the mystery they have created will linger and grow over the rest of the pilot and the coming episodes, and the ripples sent forth by Laura's death will not subside any time soon.

The show continues with a Bergmanesque scene in the Palmer home as Laura's mother slumps, exhausted, on her couch, the clock quietly ticking in the background as the police question her. Portraits of Laura surround them; now that we've gotten our first good look at her pre-murder, Lynch doesn't hold back. Upstairs, our first clues: a diary and a video camera discovered in Laura's bedroom. We move on from that first distilled moment of grief as characters are exposed, other storylines emerge, and new developments kick in.

Then another girl shows up, alive but in shock, her dress torn, her hands tied by rope, blood dripping from her face. Her names is Ronette Pulaski, and in crossing the state line, she's made the case federal. Here "Twin Peaks" shoots off in a fascinating new direction. FBI Agent Dale Cooper, played with chipper but professional bravado by Kyle MacLachlan (the despoiled innocent of Blue Velvet) is introduced with one long monologue as he drives along, dictating his day's activities, no matter how trivial, into a tape recorder destined for the ever-unseen supervisor, "Diane." Up till now, the show has been primarily visual, restrained, tasteful. Cooper rolls into town and changes the whole dynamic in an instant. Though I've appreciated the show's masterful direction increasingly on every viewing, the first time I watched the pilot Cooper's arrival was like a breath of fresh air and I was relieved to see him. He's just fun.

He also straightens the show in an important way; up till now, little moments of humor and exaggeration (along with a pumped-up ambience/room tone coupled with very dramatic musical cues, which recalls soap opera video) have led us to wonder if what we're watching is meant to be campy or sincere. Cooper draws out the inherent humor, bringing it to the surface, and allowing the dramatic moments to stand on their own. Though he's often read as Lynch's doppelganger, I'd be interested to see what role Mark Frost (who had written for "Hill Street Blues") played in his creation. Cooper definitely livens up the investigation: suddenly he's pulling clues out of thin air, making connections, and giving the mournful town a much-needed kick in the pants. He's the yin to the town's offbeat but somber yang, full of fascinating ironies. Though his behavior and line delivery is far more bizarre than most other characters, he's the outsider, the stranger who needs to have town dynamics explained to him, like us; hence, for all his wackiness, it's him we identify with more than the level-headed sheriff.

And as Cooper enters the storyline, the style of the episode changes too. This generally means less subtle technical flourishes: shot duration is reduced after a couple very long takes introducing Cooper, and dialogue is captured in the standard language of shot-reverse shot, cutting between the speakers rather than allowing long takes which group them together as was the case in the early scenes. And an outright wackiness (on the light side) and weirdness (on the dark side) emerges in the plot. We meet Jacoby, a shrink who was treating Laura. Jacoby is downright strange in his tics and grinning, jokey demeanor (he wears a tie with a Hawaiian hula dancer on it and while talking, fondles the dancer under her grass skirt). But at the same time, we get our first sight of the creepy one-armed man and discover that Laura was emotionally troubled (Cooper also discovers cocaine residue in the diary and a pornographic magazine in her safety deposit box). It's almost like Cooper is Donald Kaufman in Adaptation, inserting himself into the story and suddenly opening up new avenues and tones by virtue of his personality (though Cooper's presence is far more welcome, unpredictable, and invigorating than Donald's). Yet the town's air of menace lingers.

There are some weak scenes in the second half of the pilot, particularly the circus music playing as Audrey coyly informs the Norwegian businessmen of Laura's death, ruining her father's business deal (it feels too early to play the murder for laughs). And none of the scenes with Big Ed, though he's a likable character, really go anywhere. But everything builds up steam in the end, when Donna sneaks off to the roadhouse to meet up with James and discuss Laura.

The roadhouse is a biker's bar that's unlike any biker bar you've ever seen. In a big wooden lodge, the stage holds a band performing in ethereal, otherworldly, almost Celtic style, led by Julee Cruise. As she sings the show's theme, with lyrics written by Lynch, it's as if the buried underworld of Twin Peaks has suddenly surfaced in all its mystical, oddly transcendent beauty. Angelo Badalamenti's score has lent a melancholy, mysterious underpinning to many scenes but now that this emotional and musical substream is out in the open, part of the fabric of what we're watching, it's quite disorienting. This is a reflexive moment, but one which actually strengthens the hold of that mysterious world onscreen.

This sets the stage for the final scene, after Donna and James have discovered their secret attraction and buried Laura's necklace (so that it won't be found on James, making him a suspect). James is arrested and thrown in jail (where Bobby, whom Lynch loves to burden with bizarre teenage behavior, barks at him from the other cell), while the sheriff pays a visit to Josie, kissing her (so even he has a secret!) and intoning, "here's where it happened, twenty-four hours ago." Then there's a secret phone call between Katherine (Pete's wife and Josie's enemy) and Benjamin Horne, but before we've had time to digest it, we're back in Laura's house, observing her mother. Again with the imagery of the dimly-lit stairway, now completely decontextualized and more frightening than ever, and suddenly Mrs. Palmer snaps forward in fear and terror. She senses something, and we see a gloved hand digging in the dirt of the woods to retrieve Laura's necklace. With this vision, the element of the supernatural has leaked into the world of Twin Peaks. The pilot episode has cast us into a deep and fascinating mystery, but unlike most promising beginnings, this one is just the tip of the iceberg.

Oh, and when Mrs. Palmer jerks up from the couch, take a look in the mirror behind her.

There's a man's face in that mirror.

Let the mystery begin...

Warning for first-time viewers: There is a very, very vague spoiler in the comments below but if you clue into it, it gives away a lot. Best to skip reading the comments sections on these posts until you've seen the whole series (and not just the episode I'm writing about). However, please feel free to WRITE a comment and share your own reaction to the show as it unfolds. I've written these entries to be spoiler-free and would love to hear back from readers who are experiencing the show for the first time. And even though this post is old - I've just added this addendum in 2015 - I always love to read and often respond to comments on old posts so don't let the date stop you.

Next: 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


Tony Dayoub said...

Small correction: "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" was written by Scott Frost, Mark's brother.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Tony - duly noted.

Farzan said...

Good review, it sounds pretty interesting. Cool blog by the way, keep up the good work

1minutefilmreview said...

This is too tempting to ignore, as we're just as enamored with the cult of 'Twin Peaks' as you are. So, if you could find it in your heart to be gentle when reeling us in, we'd be really grateful. Hey, what are we, salmons?! :-) Take the bait?... Anyway, we're glad to find a fellow fan of the series. We always say, "a 'Twin Peaks' fan is worth twenty 'Desperate Housewives' fans".

When it exploded onto our TV sets many moons ago, we thought we had just discovered religion. We wanted to be Agent Dale Cooper. He was the coolest human being ever manifested on television screens, Fox Mulder be damned (we'd like to add that Mulder was a cheap copy of Cooper)! The music of 'Twin Peaks'...excuse us while we imagine kissing Angelo Badalamenti's forehead..it fitted the series so perfectly!

In many ways, 'Twin Peaks' was the ultimate Lynch-ian experience for us, topping even many of his feature films in terms of how it made us feel. It made us fall in love, taught us to appreciate the oddity of life and gave us many lovely and also horrifying, chilling memories.

Bless your heart for revisiting the greatest event ever to have appeared on TV.

Joel Bocko said...

farzan & 1minute, thanks for the comments.

farzan, I am trying to write these write-ups without giving away too much about upcoming episodes (though obviously each post will contain spoilers about that particular episode). Fair warning - if I were you I'd start Netflixing it, and check out my posts afterwards - it's definitely worth being surprised while you watch.

1minute, did you see the "Twin Peaks in context" post - it's about the bonus features disc and I included some cool You Tube videos, including one of Angelo Badalamenti re-enacting the composition of Laura's theme. If you've viewed the bonus disc, you've seen it but it's worth revisiting.

wanderer said...

That's Maddy (brown hair) not laura in the picture

Joel Bocko said...

Jim, thanks for the catch. I think I assumed it was the bluish filter darkening her hair - plus the picture comes up under googles for "Laura Palmer Twin Peaks" - but I think you may be right. Accordingly, I've replaced the picture, and for some reason was compelled to switch it to the prom portrait. Makes the quote below more chilling, in a way.

Hope you enjoy the site.

Search This Blog