Twin Peaks: The Return, or What Isn’t Cinema?
by Nick Pinkerton

4: Life Lessons

Writing in The Atlantic about about l’affaire Woody Allen, David Sims sounds a by-now-familiar note: “Hollywood has long been an author-focused industry that reveres great men, directors who win piles of trophies, give enigmatic answers to journalists, and express their deepest feelings through their art. It’s that poetic notion that has sheltered many a ‘problematic’ creator.” Setting aside the dubious proposition that Hollywood is now or has ever been a carte blanche for directors, it is safe to say that creators and their “content” are today being held up to a new level of audit for prospective problems, a state of affairs in no small part resultant of technological determinism—increased transparency, the ubiquity of the surveillance image, the rapid dissemination of information through a 24/7 cultural news cycle that generates consensus and then backlash in two blinks of an eye.

We have been here before. The respective rises of cinema, radio, television, and home video each, in their way, worked to internally rewire generations of cultural consumers, both as spectators or listeners and as individuals. Discussing the Lynch cult in his recent book about the director, The Man from Another Place, Dennis Lim notes that “It was not insignificant that many who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s—a sizable swath of Generation X—discovered Lynch in the intimate sanctums of their own living rooms or bedrooms, via a videotape of Blue Velvet or an episode of Twin Peaks,” the latter a text that encouraged “communal decoding,” which in part was undertaken on the Usenet discussion group on the then-fledgling Internet. A sort of tribute to that old, weird Internet surfaced as an Easter egg in Twin Peaks: The Return by way of the character Hastings, the principal of a Buckhorn school who spends his leisure time researching an alternate dimension and publicizing his findings on a blog called “The Search for the Zone”—shortly after the episode revealing this information aired it was discovered that a real “The Search for the Zone” website had been set up, vintage Geocities/Angelfire graphics and all.

This bit of fun aside, Twin Peaks: The Return has rather more to do with the Internet in its inescapable Web 2.0 manifestation, which has enacted a revolution of consciousness equaling and perhaps surpassing any of the abovementioned media sea changes. The devices that have altered the speed of life are present not only in Dr. Amp’s missives but also as the subjects of some of the series’ oddest, most protracted comic asides: Lucy and Andy (Kimmy Robertson and Harry Goaz) going back and forth over which color of nondescript chair to buy on a generic home goods website, or the lengthy ceremony that Sheriff Truman goes through preceding an online chat with Dr. Hayward (Warren Frost), involving a preliminary phone call, writing down the Doc’s Skype handle on a pad of paper, then turning a twig-shaped lever that raises a computer screen from his desk to log on, a clunkily overelaborate gadget of the sort that proliferates in ’50s sci-fi movies like Herbert L. Strock’s robots-run-amok thriller Gog (1954), an early manifestation of singularity paranoia that can’t entirely shake its era’s prevailing idea of a future that was going to be fun.

One might interpret the purpose of these scenes as Lynch’s way of showing how the ostensibly liberating technology of a new era not far from that which Herzog predicted in 1982, in which you can “choose vegetables in the supermarket by video camera,” has done nothing to simplify our lives. But he’s also after something very specific to our time. In the first episode we’re introduced to young Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield), and the large, empty glass box surrounded by surveillance cameras set up in a Manhattan loft that Sam has been hired to monitor by an anonymous patron only identified as “some millionaire.” The box has a single aperture that opens onto the outside of the building and shows something of the city lights. One night, while Sam is away, Coop, en route back to this terrestrial plane from the Black Lodge, suddenly appears suspended in the glass box, and as he does the rectilinear space appears to accordion into a series of increasingly small nested boxes, the result looking like nothing so much as the bellows of a folding camera.

These New York scenes have been interpreted as something like cheeky viewer instructions for the slow-paced Twin Peaks: The Return—be patient and watch the box in front of you and something may yet happen. They also introduce the motif of surveillance that runs throughout the series, and which has been a Lynch preoccupation since Jeffrey Beaumont first wangled his way into Dorothy Vallens’s closet. The technology has improved from those days, so along with surreptitious snapshots and stakeouts we have tracking devices, prison and casino cameras, and a gigantic state-of-the-art security monitor that turns the epic arm-wrestling match and subsequent execution into spectator sport.

Many of the ostensible good guys here are, not insignificantly, in the employ of the FBI, the agency responsible for laying the groundwork of the modern American surveillance state. Gordon, Albert, and Chrysta Bell’s agent Tammy Preston together constitute the high-casualty-rate paranormal task force called “Blue Rose.” The name is apt: A flower that occurs nowhere in nature, for a force whose duties include the pursuit of mythic manufactured beings, called “tulpas,” who walk in masquerade among men. The name is also laden with noir-ish implications: You might think of Fritz Lang’s Blue Gardenia (1953), a film unusual in its frank depiction of the everyday threat of sexual violence faced by an unattached young woman, or the real-life homicide from which it must have nicked its title, the unsolved 1947 murder of the “Black Dahlia,” Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old Boston native who’d come to Los Angeles for who knows what and wound up sawed in half on a patch of waste ground, with not even the dignity of a plastic shroud.

While the Blue Rose force watches the harried homefront, mankind in his folly is monitored and interfered with by remote intelligences. Amid the many screens that appear in Twin Peaks: The Return there’s just one that looks something like a proper cinema, a vast space whose rafters are filled with a mechanical confabulation like something from Lynch’s 1990 musical playlet Industrial Symphony No. 1. The location is the Baroque Revival-style Tower Theatre, on the former theater row along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The Tower had previously served for Lynch as Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive, and on first opening in 1927, it was the scene of the premiere of The Jazz Singer. It’s here that the looming, knobby-featured figure of the Fireman (Carel Struycken, like the cult Universal Studios horror movie actor Rondo Hatton, a sufferer of acromegaly), an other-dimensional being of uncertain allegiances, receives the image of the Trinity atomic bomb test through a sort of newsreel. What follows from this is quite fantastic, but scarcely less so than the idea that when ordinary, run-of-the-mill American civilians saw the first publicly-available footage of an A-bomb blast, quite a few of them would have watched it in an ornate, palatial space much like this.

Today the screens are smaller, but there are millions of them, and some of them look back. Whatever you’re doing now, wherever you’re doing it, you are being watched. This is, perhaps, a comfort: In August, Jeremy Lindholm, the actor who plays a disheveled resident at Fat Trout, was arrested in Spokane, Washington, after attacking his girlfriend with a baseball bat, and convicted on the basis of surveillance footage. It is also a kind of terror, for these little screens are always on, always impinging, interfering, irritating, like the persistent hum that haunts the offices of Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) at the Great Northern Hotel.

Even the formerly solitary act of writing has become, for those of us plugged in, a discordant party line “conversation.” The yearly ritual of list-making is an individual, subjective act that in theory lends itself to an idea of collective wisdom—though now as never before we can see one version of consensus forming in real-time by way of social media feed and review aggregators. That this has influenced the conduct of the cultural discourse in ways impossible to accurately quantify is something of which I have no doubt. My instinct is that it must inevitably manifest itself in the manner that Internet culture as a whole has, for good and ill—to give all who participate in it a sense of being perpetually on display, to create an observer effect epidemic which hampers unself-conscious speech and acts. In public life this may be ultimately salubrious—though in such an environment the open and unashamed voicing of blowhard vulgarity and worse can deceptively be perceived as “refreshing truth-telling,” and it seems that in actual practice the pricks are everywhere emboldened. In the arts, it is potentially catastrophic. We have been subjected to a Pavlovian training by a “Smash that RT, fam” attention economy, and one of the immediate results of this in the cultural field is an almost pathological elevation of people-pleasing niceness. Del Toro, by every account a real sweetheart, is just the latest high-profile mediocrity to benefit from this, while there is an increased risk that those artists whose processes rely on trawling the muck of their brainpans and parsing out the contents, however unpleasant, will be further marginalized, and my sense is that in both the production and discussion of culture we’re seeing more of what people want people to think that they think and feel and less of what they actually do.

Ranking the best of any medium in a given year is an activity performed, always, in varying degrees of ignorance, because no one can see everything. According to research by the FX Network, there were, between streaming services and broadcast and cable networks, 487 scripted original series aired in 2017; I am at present 485 shows short of a complete set, and God help you if you’ve somehow run the table. The story of anyone’s experience of a year in art is, as ever and perhaps more than before, only partially told by the ranking of work that happened to be made available to a wide public during a given twelvemonth. I say “perhaps more than before” because, despite all the shaping of year-in-review narratives, the access allowed by the Internet has disturbed the very concept of a calendar year, worked to unscrew us from the present. In 2017 I spent a great deal of my time with movies that were made a half-century before I was born and with music that was recorded when I was 20 and couldn’t see 40 off on the horizon and was not yet given to complaining about a recurring dull ache in my right knee and how disgusted I was with everything to do with the contemporary art jibber-jabber racket, the flag-planting and the unnatural unanimity followed by coy repositioning that makes things seem somehow both numbingly predictable and impossibly Balkanized, and the maddening, growing expectation that every work make the decency of its intentions explicitly clear.

This is, perhaps, nothing really new. Moral instruction has been the expected function of visual art in the west for the better part of the lifespan, any ambiguities or visual pleasures being fringe benefits that the commissioning tradesmen, nobles, and clergy of the Renaissance overlooked or pretended to. It is still widely and maybe increasingly seen to be such, even if the lessons being conveyed or the faiths adhered to have changed. This is one of the reasons sometimes cited for the newly acquired cultural capital of series television—its greater ability to engage with the conversation, that endless cloacal glug-glug of thinkpieces and recaps that proclaim “We Need to Talk About…” something or another and are written by individuals with whom I never want to talk about anything, ever.

A certain degree of alienation from and antipathy towards this discourse is perhaps not unexpected of someone of my particular genetic package and vintage—remember what I said about hardware earlier?—coming of age with repeat viewings of Crumb (1995), with its depiction of creation as an ipecac for the id, and re-readings of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, loaded with tidbits like “As an artist... your responsibility is to be irresponsible. As soon as you talk about political or social responsibility, you've amputated the best limbs you've got as an artist.” Lynch’s own formative guidebook, discovered when he was a teenager, was something called The Art Spirit, a collection of lectures and notes by the painter Robert Henri, a fellow Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alum, first published in 1923. Henri was associated with the Ashcan School painters, dedicated to flinging all of the muck and mire of modern life onto a canvas, though his book is something like a paean to that bugbear the Myth of the Artistic Genius, insisting “The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life.”

There were, it should be said, socially redeeming lessons in Twin Peaks, for those who cared to look for them, or were paid to. When Cole sits with his Chief of Staff, a transgendered woman played by David Duchovny, and recalls a dressing down he gave to the “clown comic” co-workers who mocked her transition there’s little question that the artist, literally, is telling you, the viewer, something that he believes, and believes that you need to hear: “Fix your hearts or die.” Lynch has also been a public advocate for Transcendental Meditation—Bell, new to the series, is a musical collaborator of Lynch’s and a fellow TM enthusiast—and you can perhaps descry its influence in the way that Coop, as Dougie, embarks on an ongoing odyssey of discovering the world in dazed wonderment, winning allies along the way with his total lack of guile, or the moment where Everett McGill’s “Big” Ed Hurley, at the counter of the Double R Diner, closes his eyes to reconcile himself to the loss of the love of his life, only to bring her back to him instead.

Lynch’s concern with LGBTQ rights or TM, however, only go a little way toward explaining what, exactly, he’s on about here. On the surface it couldn’t be clearer: the duality that is Lynch’s central motif is built right into the series’ title, and the story is animated by two Coopers—one good, one evil—moving in slowly tightening concentric circles towards a final confrontation and reckoning. Twin Peaks does function as a morality play of sorts, pitting the forces of dark against light—The Wizard of Oz (1939) remains a primal point of reference for Lynch. But throughout the series events transpire to throw the alignment of the two poles out of whack, and then also Lynch so often seems suspiciously enamored of shapes perceived in the glittering dark, taking a positive glee in badness that’s evident from the rumble and swagger of the evil Coop’s first appearance, and in the havoc that he sows. One may recall, in compiling a dossier of incriminating evidence against Lynch, Isabella Rossellini’s description of her director being wracked by uncontrollable giggle fits off camera while shooting the brutal sex-slavery scene in Blue Velvet. In the behind-the-scenes footage included with the home video release of Twin Peaks: The Return, you can see Lynch conferring with female actors with evident tenderness, intimacy, and confiding care, as well as the same man excitedly instructing Christophe Zajac-Denek, playing small-of-stature hitman Ike “The Spike,” as to how he should dispatch a woman with an ice pick: “ARC YOUR HAND WAY BACK AND SLAM THAT THING IN THERE!”

The moral compass here is confused, and likewise the series’ grand, architectonic narrative structure, the attribute on which rest many claims that television has achieved parity with the novel, is rendered unsightly through the addition of impractical porthole windows, gargoyles, inaccessible chambers, and other vanities of no discernible purpose. Who are these people that Elizabeth Anweis and Ana de la Reguera are talking about, and am I supposed to know who they are, and come to think of it have I ever seen that “Billy” that Audrey keeps howling on about? What is Charlyne Yi doing crawling across the roadhouse floor, desperate and shaking and shrieking and somehow unnoticed? What possible reason can there be for Cooper’s face to be superimposed over most of episode 17, and is his expression an enchantment or an imponderable sadness?

Such frissons of disorientation are exhilarating—obscurely reaching to the heart of matters, that place where life touches us most directly, which Herzog gave as the coordinates where cinema would be forever located. When I hear the clamor of voices demanding, in language that sometimes scarcely bothers to disguise the intent, that art be rendered down to the instructive and affirmative and self-defining qualities, I wonder what these people watch or read or listen to when they have to reconcile their disobedient mind with the idea of themselves that they project, or when they are trying to cope with a life that seems like a litany of thwarted desire on the way to the grave, or when they are simply, totally lost. Maybe they never do feel that way—but Twin Peaks does: Running through the series like a refrain is the image of Jerry Horne flailing and thrashing through the wilderness, uncertain even if he’s pursued or pursuer. Here is how Angelo Badalamenti, the series composer, describes the instructions that Lynch gave him when improvising “Laura Palmer’s Theme”: “We’re in a dark woods now and there’s a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees and there’s a moon out and there’s some animal sounds in the background and you can hear the hoot of an owl and you’re in the dark woods; just get me into that beautiful darkness.” Here is the opening of the first canto of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” We are back in the Renaissance again, appropriately—for there is much of Twin Peaks that has the leer of the memento mori death’s head.

Who can say what might be done in a future that, if it resembles today, will be desperate to recycle any and all identifiable intellectual properties, but it’s certain that when David Lynch dies—and his latest work suggests that the prospect of this has not been so very far from his mind—any possibility of a true continuation of Twin Peaks will die as well. This tells me to my satisfaction that he is the principal author of these 18-odd hours of what he calls cinema and Showtime memorandums call content and awards-giving bodies call television. No work of art is born in a vacuum, but Lynch here has placed himself in a position to exercise comprehensive control over his mythology in a way that allows possibilities far in excess of those open to, say, Rian Johnson, caregiver for what has become the pop culture equivalent of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or a hired hand working according to a showrunner’s series style template. (Even if television as a whole hasn’t drawn closer to cinema, the franchise-dependent “extended universe” era has brought much cinema closer to series television.) Twin Peaks is his, as Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is Fassbinder’s or 1975 ABC TV movie Love Among the Ruins is George Cukor’s or black bourgeoisie soap opera Personal Problems (1980) is Bill Gunn’s or the Arte-produced telefilm US Go Home (1994) is Claire Denis’s or the multi-channel installation work Primitive (2009) is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s or the suite of music videos The Urgency (2014) is Jacob Cicocci’s or “Smokers Allowed” (2015) is Nathan Fielder’s or VR “experience” The Sky Is a Gap is Rachel Rossin’s or the premiered-online 215-minute opus The Republic (2017) is Robin Schavoir and James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s or, maybe, Mosaic is Steven Soderbergh’s—I haven’t got around to watching it on my phone yet.

Authorial provenance is in other cases less readily verifiable along strict auteurist lines, a conundrum not unfamiliar from cinema in its classically recognizable form. Raymond Durgnat crunched the numbers in his essay “Who Really Makes the Movies?”, submitting that, for example, “Duel in the Sun is 80 percent Selznick and 80 percent Vidor—total 160 percent.” On the same lines I might submit that something like HBO’s Vice Principals (2016-17) is 100 percent Danny McBride, 60 percent Jody Hill, and 40 percent David Gordon Green, for a total 200 percent, or Netflix production Sandy Wexler is 95 per cent Adam Sandler and 5 per cent director Steven Brill—maybe a better mind than mine can break down the Lynch/Frost equation. Without signing up with the most vociferous believers in the ascendance of prestige television, which rarely escapes the principle of serial perpetuation to achieve real self-contained integrity, I believe that a single cut-and dried TV aesthetic of the kind that Herzog and Fassbinder refer to—implicitly, the sitcomic three-camera system—is today hard to identify. While many of the most vaunted instances of quality television direction epitomize the flashiest and emptiest elements of “cinematic” razzle-dazzle, I’m at a loss to find a clear precedent for, say, the glitched-out editing style of various Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim projects.

Whatever their disparate qualities, what ties together the short and feature film, the animation, the television serial, the gallery video installation, the expanded cinema piece, and the Internet art URL is the property of motion, or the potential for it, in the image. Lynch, whose fame rests largely on his work for cinema and television, has always maintained a multihyphenate practice that includes sculpture, photography, and painting, and the discovery of possibilities of motion are crucial to his own origin myth—he was inspired to jump into filmmaking while studying in Philadelphia, struck while reworking a canvas late one night by an overwhelming desire to see its elements come alive.

The young Lynch’s willingness and ability to shuttle between categories of artistic practice has not, in the main, been shared by the critical commentariat, including even the more intellectually adventurous of cinephile writers. The cinephilic insistence on viewing cinema as a species apart—as indeed it has been for so many years—has helped to create a bulwark against the worst impulses of the movie journalism racket, retaining at least a smidgen of seriousness in its commitment to film form in the face of box-office obsession, celebrity worship, and pseudo-moral claptrap, but the cost of this protection has often been to keep cinema in isolation from the other arts, even kindred moving-image arts, as though in a horror of recognizing some mestizo consanguinity. There have been exceptions to this state of affairs, among the more prominent cases being those of Serge Daney, who left Cahiers du cinéma in 1987 to become the all-purpose “media critic” at the daily newspaper Libération, or Raymond Bellour, a frequent contributor to the Daney-cofounded journal Trafic who throughout his work has explored the egalitarian effect of heterogenous media mixing together on television and the interplay between the discreet phenomena of “Cinema” and “Nouvelles images.”

While some academics have long ago started work on developing a methodology for mapping what has in some corners been dubbed a post-media age, the rest of us are still trying to untangle the skein—or buffer the barricades. For Bellour, “cinema” in its purest theatrical form remained something apart, inviolable, attached to the filmgoing ritual—presumably made-for-TV movies like Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) or Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), when given a theatrical run, become cinema in the process. Godard, once drawn by the radical potentialities of television, came to see in its total ascendance only further signs of decadence and decline—in his Histoire(s) du cinema he can be seen discoursing with Daney, blaming the small screen for shuttering the movie palaces like the Tower Theatre, and thereby “reducing the giant sky of the shepherds to the level of Tom Thumb.” Kent Jones, writing in Film Comment in late 2016 in a piece evaluating “The Marginalization of Cinema,” draws a distinction between the TV showrunner and film director, identifying the quality of “compression” as one that “lives at the core of cinema,” and that “in the compressed time frame of a movie, every choice becomes charged and interacts with every other choice in the momentum towards a defined end point, as opposed to a cliffhanger in a series that runs for six episodes or six years.” While under Jones’s definition the episodic form of Twin Peaks: The Return precludes its inclusion, in total, as cinema, I would argue that that charge is apparent throughout. (And, quite literally, an electrical current runs through the show.) I’ve joked that anything that I turn the lights off in my apartment to watch is cinema and anything that I don’t is television, and I’m not entirely kidding—but at this point we’re getting awfully close to assigning cinema Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

All of which is to say that I don’t know what, precisely, constitutes cinema at this current chaotic moment, but I do know that if the average run of year-end lists supposedly represent the best that the medium has to offer in a theatrical run than there is no order worth preserving in the current definition, that when pickings are so slim, the franchise needs to be expanded. And if the distinctions between the different categories of moving-image art seem murkily defined, the distinction between frictionless committee-vetted pap and engaged, exacting, knotty, problematic idiomatic art, as represented by Twin Peaks: The Return, is quite clear, and I hope that every time I’m on the side of the latter against the former.

A series full of mistaken identities and roving impostors, Twin Peaks: The Return is a heads-up to look for cinema in places other than where it’s alleged to be found—maybe what’s Coming Soon to a Theater Near You isn’t cinema at all, but a stand-in, a doppelgänger, manufactured for a reason. When a year of watching new movies proves such a thoroughgoing drag, it’s worth asking where the problem lies. Am I burned out? Asking too much of cinema? Well, I’m happy with lots of different things that it can offer—the pleasure of a well-turned trick or the sound construction of a world obedient to its own logic or the snug matching of means to ends, a laugh or a little idiot bliss or a stab of recognition. And then occasionally I need to be reminded that there is in fact the possibility of something great, because if there isn’t, I’ve wasted my one and only life by investing it in this nonsense. It was Twin Peaks, with a handful of other works, that provided that in 2017. It was a reminder, if needed, that “cinema”—as defined as a thoughtful articulation of time and space in light and sounds and moving images in which every decision shows the imprint of a presiding creative intellect—can be found outside of the designated places we’re supposed to experience cinema. A reminder that daunting and uncomfortable and nasty work has the potential on occasion to access insights and verboten zones of experience that more scrupulously correct work does not. And a reminder, in the blood-curdling scream that concludes the series, ringing in the ears of white knight Coop, of the terrible wrong that can be done with the best of all possible intentions. Do you still hear it, too?