Master of surrealism belatedly returns to his greatest triumph
The recent announcement by the American broadcaster Showtime that it has secured a contract with the surrealist film director David Lynch for a third series of his landmark 1990-91 TV programme Twin Peaks will be seen by cynics as another instance of the “nostalgia factor” that dominates the entertainment industry in the US. But with the nearly 70-year-old Lynch slated to direct all nine episodes, unlike most tiresome TV and movie remakes, unpredictability is the only plausible expectation.
In 1990, when I was beginning to work on my PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, season one of Twin Peaks took American popular culture, including those of us who professionally studied art and culture, by storm.
The apparently idyllic town it depicted was populated by seemingly lovable, quirky characters, but beneath it all lurked an irrepressible darkness. As with Blue Velvet, his 1986 neo-noir thriller, Lynch seemed to be tapping into a fundamental aspect of Reagan-era America in Twin Peaks.
After Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, stagflation and an atmosphere of national “malaise”, Ronald Reagan’s invocation of a carefully crafted “nonchalant” optimism and “small-town values” – as beautifully unpacked in Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – promised to somehow magically roll the clock back to a supposedly earlier, simpler American era.
“I really like Ronald Reagan,” Lynch frankly admitted about the first Hollywood president. But undoubtedly this attraction was heavily ambivalent since both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks focus on uncovering the dark realities beyond the white picket fence. Both deftly echoed how the early optimism of the Reagan era gave way to scandals and the sinister intrigue of the Iran-Contra affair, contrasting a crafty and conscious faux-naïveté with the grim secrets that lurked beneath.
In 1990, the United States reverberated with the programme’s central mystery: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The girl, murdered and wrapped in plastic, was a seemingly perfect all-American teenager who turns out to be filled with secrets. Lynch adores conspiracy theories, both extant and imaginary. As the programme’s protagonist, FBI special agent Dale Cooper muses idly to himself: “What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?”
The public was also gripped by the all-American iconography of the programme – “damn good” apple or cherry pie, washed down by endless mugs of piping hot coffee that were “black as midnight on a moonless night” – while only slowly realising it was being seduced by a hideous tale of not just murder, but incest as well.
Perhaps even more astounding at the time was the unprecedented artistry of the programme, particularly the Lynch-directed pilot, a beautiful and haunting film in its own right.
For the first time, cinematic techniques and standards were being applied to an American network programme, filled with still unsurpassed meta-televisual references. In the bizarre, surrealistic “red room” scenes, and the terrifying killing of Laura’s cousin Maddy, Twin Peaks still contains some of the most creative and harrowing television yet produced.
After a spectacular beginning, things started going badly wrong. The turning point came early in the second season when Lynch succumbed to pressure from the programme’s network, ABC, to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer (her father, who had also been abusing her for years). Lynch was using the Laura “mystery” as an elaborate ruse around which the rest of the narrative was constructed. Predictably, with its cornerstone kicked aside, the narrative meandered aimlessly and the programme soon folded.
But Lynch remained haunted by the story. He clearly felt that neither he nor the Twin Peaks programme had done justice to the central characters, particularly Laura, or to the depth of her tragedy.
He attempted to correct this in his 1992 prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Among other things, it depicts the last week of Laura’s life, but without the sly whimsy that made Twin Peaks so charming.
Indeed, Fire Walk with Me systematically repudiates everything that made Twin Peaks so popular, in favour of a much darker sensibility that is perhaps more suitable to the grimness of the basic story. Audiences and critics were outraged. Only in recent years has its terrible brilliance won more widespread recognition.
Lynch’s rage at television deepened when his 1999 pilot of Mulholland Dr, again for ABC, was rejected out of hand. After a period of intense bitterness, Lynch rejigged and expanded this pilot into what is now regarded by many critics as one of the greatest films of all time. Yet the avant-garde artist and usually lowest common denominator medium seem irresistibly, however incongruously, drawn to each other.
The return of Twin Peaks is the unlikely fulfilment of an old promise. In 1991, an angered and alienated Lynch returned to rewrite and direct the final episode. In it, the spectre of Laura tells Cooper: “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” The forthcoming Showtime episodes will be broadcast in 2016, exactly 25 years on.
Since then, Lynch’s love-hate relationship with the entertainment industry, including television, has only intensified, as Mulholland Dr and Inland Empire unmistakably demonstrate.
It’s risky for all concerned, since it’s almost impossible that the new episodes could have the impact of the first season. But Lynch and television have unfinished business. As the dialogue in Inland Empire keeps insisting, there is “an unpaid bill” to be settled.
And the Twin Peaks of the new millennium won’t be post-Reagan. It will be post-9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the calamitous fiscal meltdown of 2008. Even if the familiar quirky, charming town of Twin Peaks reemerges in the coming episodes, today’s nightmares are decidedly grimmer than those of a quarter-century back. It is, perhaps, high time for the ageing master of American surrealism to once again dive into the collective conscience and take a good, hard look at what lurks beneath the surface.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a long-term fan of Twin Peaks