The Return of ‘Twin Peaks’
“I’ll see you again in 25 years,” says the dead homecoming queen in 1991, before posing like a country club statue in the Red Room, a space between life and damnation. As things turned out, Laura Palmer just about kept her promise, one offered in backwards speech from across a zigzag floor. She reappears to us 26 years later.
It might have been sooner. Perhaps if Twin Peaks director and co-writer David Lynch hadn’t spent quite so much time sorting through his old Eraserhead props to make what might only be described as an electrified foetus tree – it’s the “evolution” of Mike’s amputated arm from season one, if you’re wondering – Laura’s ghost would have made it to us for a third season right on schedule.
No matter. The small-town gang from the early 1990s is back, with new pals. And, bless them, they’re more brutal and bizarre than ever.
Agent Dale Cooper now seems to prefer the taste of the human face to cherry pie. A woman with flesh lozenges in the place of her eyes lives inside a space station, with interior decoration done by a mate of Bram Stoker. Two lusty young naked people are eaten, mid-thrust, by a spectre in a glass box that looks as though it escaped from the emulsion on a Stan Brakhage short. There’s murder, blue roses and all the horrific Oedipal love scenes we’ve come to fear or adore, and then some.
This new Twin Peaks, available to view locally on streaming service Stan, was made for the subscribing adult by a guy who negotiated for final cut. Our auteur was finally at his liberty to let his freak flag fly, which he did, possibly after draping it over the corpse of a decapitated hottie. To call David Lynch’s latest work Lynchian is to truly understate the exquisite damage this man can do with a big enough budget.
If you feel you have no business tripping about in the refuse of the unconscious, you already know to avoid anything bearing the name Lynch. If, on the other hand, you enjoy being suspended in the ravine between desire and death, it’s a great, and gruesome, night in.
There can be little doubt that Lynch gorged on Freud as a young man; his has long been the art of psychoanalysis. Here, even a good man such as Agent Cooper confronts his capacity for perversion inside dreams. Here, even the decent viewer is prompted to imagine sexual and violent horror beyond that shown. This is a world in which the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” – answered well before the show was cancelled in 1991 – cannot be meaningfully addressed. You can follow the clues, break the code and chase down all the one-armed men. All that will be revealed is more code, which will inevitably point you to an ancient truth: the self is always at war with civilisation. We are all destructive monsters.
Critics are divided on the matter of Lynch’s psychoanalytic sincerity. There are those, philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the director himself included, who consider Twin Peaks a work that truly speaks from the couch. Žižek, a psychoanalyst and screen buff, has said that Lynch’s visual grammar permits us to see the true conflict between the desiring self and the moralising superego imposed on us by civilisation. Lynch, always very careful to come across in public like an artless child, has said that his work comes directly from his unconscious, which he famously accesses by means of transcendental meditation.
There are others who do not think him at all pure, rather a corrupting and indulgent beast. The late film critic Roger Ebert once called him “sadistic” and “cheap”. After viewing the Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk with Me, at Cannes, Quentin Tarantino said the director had “disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different” – quite the charge from a filmmaker himself so comfortable with inhabiting his own passage.
For mine, the question of whether Lynch is cynical or naive in his approach to illuminating our dark inner-life matters about as much as who killed Laura Palmer. Which is to say, I’ll certainly pay attention to the answer if it ever comes but, in the meantime, I’m quite happy to be disturbed by the interrogation. While it may be true that Lynch is a deliberate surrealist who relies more to stir us on what we all know about Freud – the symbolism of dreams, sexual repression, mistakes in speech – than what Freud himself knew – we have at our core inexorable, violent conflict – I’m not convinced that it’s a concern. Either way, the guy manages to move us out of our regular habit of watching and into a crazy dimension beyond everyday morality.
This might seem like a nihilistic thing to say, especially if you remember the bloody death of Maddy in season two – a scene so horrific representatives from the ABC network claimed they hadn’t seen it before it went to air. Women are always getting murdered in Lynchland, and the abuse of daughters by fathers is as dependable a feature of Twin Peaks as creepy noir saxophones and red curtains. It is not, to be clear, suddenly okay to represent the dismemberment of women. But Lynch is very unusual in that he does not represent.
It is, I venture, impossible to watch Twin Peaks, or any Lynch work save for The Elephant Man, and conclude “this is a representation of real events”. There’s no moral lesson to be learnt from inside the unconscious. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper has spent 25 years inside the Red Room, the limbo before the abyss of the town’s Black Lodge, and seems to have broken off both into a husk of a suburbanite called Dougie Jones, wed to an automaton played with glorious awfulness by Naomi Watts, and the demon who once possessed Laura’s father, Killer Bob. He makes it back to the conscious world through an electrical outlet before delivering one of American screen’s all-time great horror vomits – for this, we can thank director of photography Peter Deming, a guy who truly defined chunder in cinema with 1987’s excellent Evil Dead II.
Twin Peaks refuses the limits of Freud’s superego – also often called the conscience – as much as Lynch, commissioned by subscription TV, now refuses the moral injunctions of his nation’s Federal Communications Commission. This is not fantasy, like Game of Thrones, which simply imposes contemporary morality on an imaginary world. This is a vision of the real world as it always was for as long as we’ve been able to draw pictures of it: full of selves who build a civilisation to protect themselves from fear, doomed always to fear the protection that civilisation offers.
It is easy to understand, without condescension, the objections many might have to this careful nightmare in which blonde teen girls are torn apart. Even if a viewer can overlook what appears to be misogyny, Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost – the rational ego of the outfit, known for his straightforward screenwriting on network hits such as Hill Street Blues – provide us with many other reasons to be frustrated. The thing is strewn with symbols, numbers and a million MacGuffins that are sometimes useful guides to the “narrative” – we’re talking about a plot that often derives its logic and visual language from Agent Cooper’s primal drives here – and sometimes just a reminder that all attempts to break the code of human existence will simply reveal that human existence is always encoded.
There’s a woman, for example, who recites the number “119” in the new season. If you’re watching like the readers of the Twin Peaks fanzine Wrapped in Plastic do, you’ll notice this number soon appears on a police licence plate, and, perhaps, that it is the reverse of the United States emergency services number “911”, and – get this – the new Agent Cooper, just emerged from an electrical socket, has been told to “call for help”. Is this number a clue? By calling it backwards, will Cooper/Dougie reunite himself with his lost policeman double? Is Lynch sending a message that law enforcement, the superego of civilisation, is always necessarily in opposition to its own goal of control? Or, is it just something that seemed creepy enough to include in the script, an Easter egg for the ardent fans whose passions helped push Lynch back to television?
Frankly, I do not have a clue. And, unlike some Twin Peaks fans, I do not have the patience to learn the full order of symbols – owl rings, blue roses, arms – to help me “get it”. This is not to malign those who do seek to understand why there’s a vision of a red dress that appears above rows of slot machines, those one-armed bandits: I imagine it’s great fun to set aside a month for some Twin Peaks hermeneutics. But, it’s almost as much fun to float at sea in Lynchland.
This oceanic feeling can be very pleasurable, and I am (almost) certain it is one that the director himself actively courts. This sensation of being both happily detached from the confines of the adult self and connected to a wider idea of existence is consistent both with Lynch’s happy Buddhist view and Freud’s more pessimistic one about the primitive ego of the infant.
Either way, Twin Peaks, now better and more hypnotic than it ever was, can permit us a moment of suspension. Take its creator’s advice and watch it carefully, with the lights turned off.
THEATRE Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, June 16-July 9
VISUAL ART Victorian Watercolours
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until December 3
CABARET Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Venues throughout Adelaide, until June 24
LITERATURE Emerging Writers Festival
The Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, June 14-23
Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart, until June 25
THEATRE Black is the New White
Wharf I Theatre, Sydney, until June 17
VISUAL ART Artists of the Great War
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Logging back in". Subscribe here.