04 September 2017

A Convex Mirror: Twin Peaks


That is the tune but there are no words. 
The words are only speculation 
(From the Latin speculum, mirror): 
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. 
We see only postures of the dream, 
Riders of the motion that swings the face 
Into view under evening skies, with no 
False disarray as proof of authenticity. 
But it is life englobed. 
One would like to stick one's hand 
Out of the globe, but its dimension, 
What carries it, will not allow it.


1.
John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.

It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.

Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique position, which is the same reservation I have about Ashbery's unique position, is that it's unique. I wish a wider variety of artists were similarly free.



2.
Twin Peaks: The Return was a giant trunk of adjectives: fascinating, frustrating, thrilling, tedious, beautiful, ugly, hilarious, sad, enthralling, enraging, you name it. Nobody who's paid attention to David Lynch's work after the original Twin Peaks could have been surprised. This is the man who made Fire Walk with Me, a movie now regarded by some people as a masterpiece but which was loathed and mocked for a long time, especially when it first came out. If all you knew of Lynch was the original Twin Peaks, you would have been as surprised and upset by the new series as you would have been if you'd only known The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. I mean, his last feature film was Inland Empire...

As a David Lynch production, the only surprising thing about Twin Peaks: The Return is that it's as coherent as it is. There are lots of clues and allusions built in. I'm not very good at (or interested in) tracing such things, but fan websites have already blossomed with guides to every bit of trivia. Nonetheless, as the finale just showed us, this isn't like so many contemporary TV shows that spurt Easter eggs all over their fanbase or degenerate like Sherlock into teasing, manipulative love/hate games with the fandom. I expect David Lynch is grateful to Twin Peaks fans — they've helped make him a wealthy man, able to do just about anything he wants artistically — but there is no evidence in the new series that he has any interest in pitching his work in their direction. (I expect that's Mark Frost's job, but I don't know. I've cast him in my mind in the role of the person saying things like, "Okay, David, that's a great image with the guy who can't remove a green glove from his hand, but maybe we ought to have it do something in the story, right?" Probably unfair to both Frost and Lynch, but so it goes. Frost has certainly been the member of the duo most publicly adding something resembling sense to the dreamscape.)

Watching social media, I saw quite a few of my friends and acquaintances excited for, or at least curious about, The Return just before the first episode aired. The curiosity went away quickly, and a lot of the excitement disappeared, until by the time the new season of Game of Thrones started, it seemed only a few people I follow were still watching Twin Peaks regularly. Some tuned in again to see what the excitement around Episode 8 was about. But it didn't last. Throughout, I saw people publicly disavow the show for various reasons and countless crimes against their personal sensibilities. I almost ditched it somewhere around episodes 11 or 12, mostly because it felt like the whole Dougie Jones story had become a swamp the show wouldn't pull itself out of.

I stuck with it, though, and found the last four episodes in particular satisfying and powerful. Personally, I would have preferred the series at about half its length, but I could say the same of Inland Empire. However, I don't need either work to be a reflection of my own narrative desires. Part of my history of watching David Lynch's films has been a history of trying to wrap my mind around an aesthetic both highly appealing and utterly alienating to what I think I want. That's an essential part of the experience. Without the highly appealing elements, I wouldn't stick around any more than I stick around for any work that doesn't somehow connect to my own interests and imagination. Those elements — sounds, colors, phrases, bits of narrative, the evocation of moods — create the basically friendly attitude from which I watch, but the friendship always becomes difficult, always asks, "How much do you want this? And this? And this?" Sometimes the answer is, "I don't." That doesn't then redound upon the work, perhaps because of my generally friendly approach to Lynch, but at least as much, I expect, because his work so escapes most conventions that it's hard for me not to say, "It is what it is, regardless of what I think about it."


3.
Now and then I think of Roger Ebert's visceral hatred of Blue Velvet. The film clearly provoked an emotional response in him beyond anything he could really capture in words and ideas. We could, like Gene Siskel, argue the pros and cons of the film with Ebert, we could talk about fantasy and representation and what film does not only in our brains but throughout our nervous systems, we could talk about systems of value and systems of disgust — but it would all be discursive refuse. Somebody who has had a strong emotional reaction to a work of art can't be talked into feeling equally strongly the opposite reaction. (Can they?) I love Ebert's reaction not because I feel it myself (I would have to include Blue Velvet on any list of my favorite movies) but because it is such a testament to the power cinema possesses to get beneath our skin, to mess with our dreams and desires, to make us scream out: No!

4.
David Lynch has a different sense of time and duration from most people. (Read: Most people I know. Most commercial filmmakers.) All of his pacing, whether of scenes or conversations or shots, is at least a little bit different from what we expect of conventional narrative cinema, and sometimes it is radically different.

Part of the experience of Twin Peaks: The Return is the experience of its 18 episodes played out over the months of their first showing. Especially after Episode 8, we really had no idea what to expect with each episode. Maybe it would be an episode that moved some of the plots and sub-plots forward, or maybe it would just be 55 minutes of a single shot of a piece of pie. (It never was that. Sadly.) That experience of not knowing — or, rather, of knowing that any speculation, however grounded in knowledge of the show and its characters, could be completely and totally wrong — was one of the central pleasures of The Return. Narrative conventions are strong, and they're particularly strong when millions of dollars are spent on them. It is rare to be truly surprised by stories in a way that is not the "Gasp! You won't believe what happens next!" kitsch of soap operas (although that is also present in Twin Peaks, particularly the first series, given its roots in soap opera). I mean true surprise, of the variety that would make a 55-minute shot of a piece of pie plausible.

Conventional storytelling, in fact, is designed to keep such surprise away. The well-made story is not surprising. That's what makes it satisfying in the end: the pieces fit together into a whole. Plot point A leads to plot point B leads to plot point C. Characters are plausible and coherent in a way no actual human being are, but which our conventions tell us are necessary, likely because the true weirdnesses and unpredictabilities of life and its inhabitants are disturbing. In well-made stories, actions have purposes and consequences, people die for a reason, people end up happy for a reason, justice triumphs or fails to triumph but at least reaches resolution. None of this is true in life. Sometimes the only reason somebody dies is because they happen to cross the road at the wrong time.

It's become a cliché now, for instance, to say that most of what happens in the current U.S. government would never be believable in a work of fiction. A cliché, but a true one. Life is less subtle, more absurd, more coincidental, and in many ways more cruel than fiction.

5.
The extraordinary artistic paradox Twin Peaks: The Return created was that the only way for the conclusion to be unsatisfying would have been for it to be satisfying. Or, rather: Its inconclusive conclusion is a feature that keeps the series true to itself. To wrap up everything, to solve the mysteries, to give all the characters endings — to give most of the characters endings — would have been utterly unfaithful to the original Twin Peaks or the new series.

David Lynch can do conclusions; roughly half of his films conclude in fairly traditional ways of finishing off the story they have to tell. But he's also drawn, especially in the last 20 years, to ouroboric structures, like abstract expressionist versions of Escher drawings.

The Return is more rhizomatic than ouroboric, its characters and stories spreading like radiation across the landscape, sometimes mixing with each other, sometimes drifting away. This series, then, is at least as much about deferral as it is about conclusion. There are always other doors to open and go through, other stories to tell.



6.
To continue to think about:

*The universe of Twin Peaks (and much of Lynch's work generally) seems Manichean: it's full of people who are Good and people who are Bad, it's got twins, doubles, and reflections everywhere. Yet the force of the stories feels (to me) in opposition to that Manicheanism. It's not just that good and bad get muddled by each other, but also that the two sides to everything are only able to be kept separate by violence, hence the violence always lurking in Lynch's worlds, always cutting up and shattering unities.

*Sex brings demons and shatters borders. It is creative and destructive both. (The young couple in the first episode in the secret lab in New York have sex in the same position as Cooper and Diane in the final episode. The couple are destroyed by a creature from another dimension. Cooper and Diane slip to different worlds.)

*The characters in Twin Peaks are archetypes, caricatures, parodies, outlines, stereotypes — and as often as Lynch seeks to add some humanity to their forms, he also estranges their familiarity, one of his most unsettling effects. We know these people from countless old TV shows and movies (and, in the case of The Return, from the first series of Twin Peaks) and yet they aren't perfect copies, they're more like the jerky, broken, slippery images Lynch loves to insert. The effect of The Return then is a kind of weaponized nostalgia: We know these people, we even have a set of feelings attached to their forms, but again and again they don't fill those forms. I think here of Candie, trapped in a role so familiar that we don't need much time to have horror of it, and yet she is also somehow individual, somehow not a perfect fit, pressing against whatever binds her to the role she must play, and as with Cooper-as-Dougie, I desperately wanted her to wake up.

*Our desires are easy prey for Lynch and Frost, and though I don't think Lynch, at least, cares a whole lot about shaping his work to audience expectations, with something like Twin Peaks the expectations are in some cases so clear that they can then be tools to work with or against. We want to see old favorites, to find out what has changed over the last 25 years, etc., but again and again these desires are frustrated. When they are met, then, they have significant force — Episode 15 was wrenching for anyone invested in the original series, providing a happy ending (for now) to the story of Ed and Norma, then the death of one of the most beloved characters, Margaret Lanterman (the Log Lady), a death especially powerful not only because Catherine Coulson was herself to die shortly after her scenes were filmed, but also because Coulson and Lynch had worked together from the time when they were both young and unknown. Much of The Return feels like a summation of Lynch's whole career, with nods to just about every film he's made, and it must have been nearly unbearable saying goodbye to Coulson and to the Log Lady (they get separate memorial dedications: Coulson at the end of Episode 1, Margaret Lanterman at the end of Episode 15). For all the deferrals of viewers' desires throughout the new series, Episode 15 showed that Lynch can make those desires count when they most matter.

*From the first episode of the first series to the last of this new one, Laura Palmer is a figure of obsession: the town's, Cooper's, and the viewer's. Yet from Fire Walk with Me on through the new series, the character herself pushes against that obsession, pushes against all that is imposed on her and tries simply to be a human being. It is never allowed. Laura is a symbol of just about everything to somebody, a figure shaped by our own desires, whether sexual, narrative, ideological, psychological. What Lynch was smart enough to notice early on was that Sheryl Lee is an actress of real range and bravery, and though she'd originally been cast just to be a corpse, Lynch kept building her role up, not only in flashbacks and supernatural scenes, but also as Laura's cousin Maddy (whose death provides one of the most harrowing scenes of the original series). Fire Walk with Me showed us what Lee could really do, and we see that again in the finale of The Return. Laura keeps trying to escape the roles she is cast in, the desires that other people (and audiences) have for her, but she can't ever just be — she always has to go home, always has to return.



7.
I expect there is much to connect David Lynch's well-known practice of transcendental meditation with the shape of his stories, but I don't know enough about transcendental mediation to do that work. What I find in the deferrals of sense and conclusion in Twin Peaks: The Return, though, is something like what I associate with a meditative practice of seeking peace within uncertainty and even horror.

The only writing I've read so far about the finale is Emily Stephens' at the AV Club, and she gets at this quality well:
We try to tell make a coherent story of something that can’t be reduced to a simple through-line. We try to make tidy endings where none exist. Life is a mess. It’s a thrilling, disturbing, tedious, hilarious mess. It’s a glorious tangle of sense and nonsense, of coherence and incongruity. So is Twin Peaks. Maybe that’s why we see the newly created Dougie reunited with his family, but there’s no closure for Audrey Horne. It’s a bitter, brutal truth that closure is a luxury, not a guarantee.
Stories are consoling because they are a way of ordering the world. I, too, like that quality about them. I don't want always to be reminded of how random and inconclusive so much of life is. I like watching murder shows not because I want to fantasize about good police officers but because I want to fantasize about a world where horrors exist for reasons and order can be restored by a good, hard investigation. Anybody who's had any experience in life knows these are fantasies. Fantasies, though, help us get through everyday realities.

Real art, though, shouldn't be consoling. It's not what it's for. There's plenty of entertainment in the world to lift us out of realities and to give us necessarily illusions. We also need the sharp edges of deliberately unsatisfying stories, because though none of us would get out of bed in the morning if not for the illusions that promise us contentment and even occasional moments of happiness, we also need techniques with which to wrestle with what lurks beneath the illusions, the screams beneath the joys (the child of Omelas). Rational argument and careful philosophy can only do so much; irrational art is also a path toward some other way of feeling our way through the experience of living.



8.
Which is why nothing we say about Twin Peaks: The Return will ever be as meaningful as the experience of the show itself, any more than an exegesis of an Ashbery poem will ever reach the heights of the poem. Done well, such an exegesis will help us toward the poem, and will provide, like a good discussion of Twin Peaks, some framework for working through the ideas and feelings the actual encounter produces in us.

It is the encounter, personal as it is, that most matters.

In the end, I can't tell you what Twin Peaks means to me, because what it means to me is an accumulation not only of my experience of these many hours of TV watching, but my experience of watching the original series when it first aired, of rewatching the series in the weeks after my father's death, of watching and thinking about David Lynch's other works for many years, of watching and thinking about so much else — that's what I bring to the experience. And experience is exactly what it is. You will bring out of it a lot of what you bring into it — which may be nothing. Or it may be, like Roger Ebert with Blue Velvet, anger and disgust. Or it may be something outside of words, a new feeling of life that you could not, alone, have imagined.



9.
These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
Though this is only one example.