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

3: The Art/The Artist

One of the unexpected pleasures of this Twin Peaks was just how unexpected it was, how it didn’t seem interested in reheating an old dish in the name of “fan service.” (You can make the argument that being off-brand is in fact Lynch’s brand, but let’s not get too galaxy brain here.) This is most acutely evident in the previously mentioned withholding of the series’ beloved central character, Cooper, who only resurfaces as something close to his familiar self some 15 hours into the saga. While traveling the wending road to his rebirth, however, one encounters uncanny sights that damper any impatience to arrive at something like a destination. The first time that I encountered the image of Dougie in his signature lime-green blazer standing in the plaza outside of the Lucky 7 insurance agency in Las Vegas and staring up rapt at a bronze statue of a slender male figure wearing something like a ranger’s hat and taking deadeye aim with a pistol, I remember thinking that this right here was so far from anything that I expected to encounter in a rebooted Twin Peaks—and an image of uncommon emotional resonance at that, keening for the loss of an unnamed something, something to do with the distance we’ve come from the fresh and untrammeled outdoors, perhaps, or with a sense of duty, a feeling of ramrod-straight forthrightness and heroic possibility.

This Twin Peaks was distinct from its predecessor also in its delineation of screentime, brazenly evident in a two-and-a-half-minute fixed-camera sequence in episode 7 in which an employee of the roadhouse sweeps up last night’s detritus, but also in the protracted argument between Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and her husband, Charlie (Clark Middleton), whom she belittles and mocks through the course of a single night that spans four episodes, their scenes something like a parody of serial cliffhanger plotting that seem to exist in a timeline all their own. It is to be recalled that there was a brief showdown over budget between Lynch and Showtime, after the return of Twin Peaks had been announced, which ended with the initial order of nine episodes doubled—and thank God he held their feet to the fire until they were. Without knowing what script pages the Showtime brass were looking at, however, you can see how you could just about get all of the narrative into nine episodes, losing in the process only a few follies, kicker musical numbers, and the trancey, drawn-out, narcotic tone that persists throughout—that is, everything that makes Twin Peaks extraordinary.

The final disseverment in the chronology of Twin Peaks, which delivers Coop to Odessa and ends with the terrible hanging question “What year is this?”, is an attempt to outflank death itself—death, whose fell wind blows through the series. It is there in the natural attrition that has occurred in the quarter century between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and this third Twin Peaks season, which requires reckoning with but never concealing certain absences. Jack Nance, Frank Silva, and Don S. Davis had all passed on prior to the beginning of the shoot. Silva and Davis reappear here as talismanic floating heads, while a special effects artist’s approximation of Davis’s nude, decapitated body appears in Buckhorn, South Dakota, fitted with the noggin of a local high school librarian. Nance, Lynch’s Eraserhead, who went to bed and didn’t wake up the morning after a fistfight outside a Winchell’s Donuts, appears in a familiar-yet-strange replay of a scene from the pilot, from which a certain wrapped-in-plastic body has been removed. This is all inside baseball, but even the casual viewer couldn’t be unaware of the death of Fire Walk with Me’s FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries, David Bowie, who here has become a massive kettle-like tin machine, exhaling numerological clues. Ninety-one-year-old party animal Harry Dean Stanton, whose longevity defied all known laws of medical science, died two weeks after the series ended its run; he had survived to reprise his role as Fat Trout Trailer Park overseer Carl Rodd, who bears witness to a hit-and-run accident and the expiration of the young victim, the boy’s soul’s release accompanied by a crackling in the power lines overhead. (“Not much I got to look forward to at my age,” goes one of his finer deliveries, “‘cept the hammer slammin’ down.”) Ferrer, who plays Agent Albert Rosenfield, and Catherine E. Coulson, who plays the “Log Lady” Margaret Lanterman, both shot their parts, but were dead of cancer before the series aired. Ferrer looks, disconcertingly, sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle, while Coulson, whose scenes are limited to a handful of speaker phone conversations with Deputy Chief “Hawk” (Michael Horse), is clearly on the way out. In the end of an association with Lynch that goes back to his student film days, Coulson appears hooked to an oxygen tank in stoic, suffering Bergmanesque close-up, and the match of her plaintive bleat and the soft cadence of Horse’s responses makes for some of the truest and most piercing moments in the whole of the series. The original show’s Sheriff Harry S. Truman, Michael Ontkean, is also missing—alive and well but retired from acting, but even here there has been no thought of pulling a switcheroo like Fire Walk with Me’s Donna Hayward swap. Ontkean has been replaced by Robert Forster, five years his senior, playing Frank Truman, brother to the ailing Harry, and his recurring corrections of strangers as to his identity, as well as references to his brother’s illness, come to seem like a kind of inside joke, one of the many easily elided time-consuming bits of business that Lynch and Frost, pointedly, stick to like clockwork.

Not all deaths are mourned. There is palpable pulpy pleasure, for example, in the scene where Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), the serially-abused Laura’s mother, who has spent the last twenty-five years at the bottom of a bottle, is accosted by a barroom bully, and opens up her face on hinges as though it were the door on a cuckoo clock to reveal a toothsome grin set against a field of darkness, an insidious set of pearly-whites that fatally clack down on her interlocutor. Zabriskie emanates unadulterated fear, disgust, and indignity at the fact of being alive every second that she’s on screen, and she has a magnificent scene in which she’s struck aghast by sighting of a new brand of turkey jerky while at a supermarket checkout where the banal setting is suddenly perceivable as a ghoulish, hideous, intolerable affront. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to put in a time capsule.

Violence against women and the violence of women abounded in Twin Peaks: The Return—Sarah’s big bite; Diane recounting her rape by Cooper, her workmate, friend, and boss; the scene of a slumbering girl’s oral violation that caps episode 8. In this, too, Twin Peaks felt au courant, though there have always been some questions about Lynch’s troubled women and if they reflected some trouble with women. Still today I remember an accusatory turn in an essay titled “Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks” that I came across when writing a high school research paper on the original Peaks, in which author Diana Hume George responded to her self-posed question “What were Peaks freaks getting off on when we watched it?” with the answer: “I, we, the twenty-thirty-and-forty-something audience, got off on the sexually tortured, brutally murdered, mutilated body of an adolescent girl.”

The ante of sexual torture, brutal murder, and mutilation has been upped considerable in the new series, and on the top of its heap of bad men and women, king of the hill, sits the evil Cooper. In the criminal underworld that evil Cooper inhabits, jockeying for pecking order position is at the core of most interactions, a state of affairs encapsulated in the arm-wrestling face-off at the center of episode 13. The man who goes only by “Mr. C,” cool, steady, laconic, dead-eyed and broadly frowning, clad in creaking pleather, appropriately reptilian patterned shirts, and wearing a dank cowl of black hair reminiscent of a middle-aged Glenn Danzig, is a pure sociopath in the vein of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet or Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart (1990), made additionally dangerous by possession of steel-armed superhuman strength and the apparent ability to cheat even death. In the second episode, he is seen buttering up a young, double-dealing female accomplice, Darya (Nicole LaLiberte), lounging around a motel room in her underwear, before pummeling her into submission and blowing her brains out in businesslike fashion. He’ll later pull age and rank in ordering his protégé Richard off on a suicide mission, sending the boy off with an unsentimental “Goodbye, my son.” That’s the last of Richard, bleakly glamorous with glacial profile and planar cheekbones, seen taking a young woman at the roadhouse by the throat to hiss the sweet nothing “I’m gonna laugh when I fuck you, bitch” in her ear. A chip off the old block.

Counterpoised to this economy of violence there are the vignettes of spontaneous selflessness that one finds elsewhere in the series—Shelley (Mädchen Amick) proposing to treat a cash-strapped pie addict diner customer on her next visit, or Rodd fronting cash to a park resident preparing to sell his plasma—but such small kindnesses seem hard-pressed to redeem this purgatorial America. “What kind of world are we living in where people can behave like this,” says Naomi Watts's Janey-E, giving a dressing down to two small-time loan sharks in the process of squaring her husband’s debt. “Treat other people this way without any compassion or feeling for their suffering?”

Janey-E is one of several strident, screeching wives, mothers, and women in general who rage through Twin Peaks: The Return, matching in psychological terrorism the blunt-force physical aggression of the series’ bad men. (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s contract killer Chantal, the one woman who has an outlet in outright violence, is comparatively pacific, content as long as she’s kept in her Cheetos.) Their number include the taunting Audrey; the inconsolable Sarah; Hastings’s histrionically hateful spouse (Cornelia Guest); Ben Horne’s embittered ex, Sylvia (Jan D’Arcy); and Sheriff Truman’s wife, Doris (Candy Clark), who doesn’t hesitate to browbeat her ever-patient husband in front of his staff. After one such incident at the Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Sheriff Chad Broxford (John Pirruccello), a comprehensively vile creep aligned with criminal interests in the town, mouths off to his co-workers about the henpecking, only to be met with a withering stare by the dispatcher (Jodi Thelen). “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she tells him, “She didn’t use to be like this.” In this case the rage is symptomatic of trauma from the suicide of an enlisted son, and the absolute authority of Thelen’s dead-aim delivery delivers a simple home truth—whatever you have to say about someone, you probably don’t know the whole story.

That there are proven to be traumas behind the tantrums hasn’t excused Lynch from all scrutiny at a juncture that puts a premium on images of idealized empowerment. Regarding the role of women in Twin Peaks: The Return, it may be germane to look to an answer given by Fassbinder, whose filmography is every bit as loaded with wailing women as Lynch’s, to an interviewer from German Playboy in 1978 when asked about his perceived misogyny: “It’s really idiotic to always have to be saying ‘I’m not a misogynist, I’m not an anti-Semite.’ This is where I think this misogynist business comes from: I take women more seriously than most directors do. To me, women aren’t just there to get men going; they don’t have that role as object. In general, that’s an attitude in the movies that I despise. And I simply show that women are forced more than men to use some pretty revolting methods to escape from this role as object.”

Aside from a handful of films, television shows, memes, and what have you, this year in moving-image art will almost certainly be remembered as the year of the #MeToo moment, when scores of women and a few men went public with their stories of being at the receiving end of what has colloquially come to be called “sexual misconduct” in the entertainment industry. Any circumstance that results in certified sloshy-bag-of-spoiled-lard Harvey Weinstein being rendered a sloppy, unshaven pariah drifting through the boîtes of Scottsdale, Arizona, can’t be unwelcome, though it has been interesting to note how readily the cause has been taken up with zeal and alacrity by Pecksniffian thinkpiece-peddlers and far right opportunists who haven’t in the past been noted for their commitment to social justice, such as “Weird” Mike Cernovich, who in combative #Pedowood Tweets single out many of the same targets enumerated in Amanda Hess’s New York Times article “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women.”

Among the issues that Hess addresses is the old “separate the art from the artist,” traditionally regarded as province of those who want to preserve and protect the work of compromised figures while dispensing with the figures themselves. I am myself of a preservationist bent; I don’t want to see work—any work, whatever—removed from consideration, either explicitly or tacitly, while at the same time I believe that the art/artist cleavage is impossible, and that the implications of this fact are upsetting in a way that very little cultural criticism seems able or willing to address. Such implications are encapsulated in a 1995 Times review by writer Eric Bentley of a then recently published biography of the Swedish writer August Strindberg—a “legendary misogynist,” per Molly Haskell in her crucial 1974 study From Reverence to Rape, given his best recent screen interpretation in Liv Ullmann’s 2014 Miss Julie. Bentley draws out a comparison between the sick prophecy of Strindberg and the healthy morality of his Norwegian contemporary Ibsen (who, incidentally, becomes quite jaundiced when shot through Fassbinder’s lens). Of Strindberg’s work, Bentley writes, “the sexism was morally wrong but the power of observation was something that the morally right people, even the geniuses among them, did not have. Could they have had it?”

This hanging question is, at risk of understatement, not where the collective attention of the largely left-leaning commentariat is presently poised. In the winter of political discontent and disenfranchisement, being able to exercise hard power in the fields where that commentariat does hold sway—the culture industry and the campus, for example—has become a way to expend activist energy frustrated by the drudgery of realpolitik: you may not be able to win a governorship, but at least you can try to rout the problematic. (The other ubiquitous phrase is “toxic,” which imagines the commentator as working for an intellectual OSHA, quarantining the bad objects to prevent further infection.) Lynch has come under some measure of due scrutiny through the years, but he has, by virtue of venerable stature and his affable “gee whiz” persona, for the most part managed to remain a well-liked niche kook celebrity while at the same time turning out some truly difficult, trawled-from-the-psychic-sludge art, stuff with real bite, like Sarah Palmer’s hidden smile. He seems like a nice enough fella in real life, sure, but then that doesn’t mean much to the muses. Lovecraft, whose fiction was flavored by quack-scientific racialism and who died in penury with a bellyful of potted meat, is a crucial artist, and dear, sweet, perfectly progressive Guillermo del Toro, who has repeatedly announced his intention to film Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and will expire well-fed, filthy rich, and surrounded by memorabilia, is no kind of an artist at all.

If the future of whatever we’re calling cinema is more female or more diverse on the whole than the cinema as represented by the overwhelmingly masculine lineup of Room 666 then so much the better—I don’t know how anyone could look at the state of the art and think that the answer is more of the same—though I’m afraid that future will, when all is said and done, also be even more beholden to and at the mercy of a corporate bureaucracy that makes common cause with activist aims in order to cloak an expansion of market share under the guise of progress. A middle-class, managerial revolt proposes middle-class, managerial solutions, abetted by the criticaster caste whose M.O. Mark E. Smith memorably summarized in his 2008 memoir, complaining of a favorite film: “Pale-minded liberals have moaned the subtleties out of it, as is their wont.” If The Myth of the Artistic Genius is due for a bit of debunking, we might also do well to remember that it’s a stumbling block that many business interests would also be very happy to be rid of, save for the few cases where temperament has proven consistently and enormously profitable. These interests have every inducement to fail-safe intellectual properties from the tarnish of any one creator’s individual personal improprieties, when necessary separating the art from the artist and passing it along—a practice a bit like fitting a severed head on someone else’s body.

Continue to Part 4.