Culture

Film & Television

Cinema is dead, yet it lives

By Luke Goodsell
David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ shatters the tedium of prestige television

“Coffee!”

The word erupts in religious ecstasy from the lips of FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), giddy at the sight of the damn fine cup he’s been missing for a quarter century in limbo. Yet after one eager sip – approached with the zeal of a man who’s just regained the ability to taste – Coop sprays the liquid grotesquely all over a suburban kitchen floor, its tar-black contents looking less like a comforting cup of joe than toxic alien goo. Welcome back, unsuspecting fans of quaint TV Americana, to the new, 25-years-overdue season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Of course Cooper, like those proverbial owls, may not be what he seems. In this episode of Lynch’s long-awaited third season, which began streaming this week, the disorientated, barely cognisant lawman is fumbling his way desperately – and hilariously – back into the “real” world after his fateful trip to the Black Lodge during the unresolved cliff-hanger end of season two. (Turns out being possessed by Killer Bob may affect one’s appreciation for hot beverages.) But the coffee spit take – a Lynch comedy favourite – is a telling moment. Those anticipatory parties you’ve been to all weekend, with their hot mugs and cherry pie and doughnuts and pretty girls dancing dreamily to lounge jazz and snoozy synth pop? Well hold on to your two-tone saddle shoes. That gum you like is coming back, alright – as a talking, pulsating head of pus atop an inter-dimensional space tree.

If Lynch’s first series of Twin Peaks (1990–91) predicted so-called “prestige” television, then this new 18-episode run (of which the first four parts are available) is his triumphant return to save us from the small screen’s congealed mediocrity. He’s not so much taking back the form as turning it inside out and upside down all over again. In doing so, Lynch has performed something of a magic act: taken his late-period avant-garde cinema and smuggled it right into the living rooms and devices of people who’d otherwise never go near a terrifying phantasmic entity invading an installation art cube – to name but one of the wild new occurrences here. Twin Peaks is destroying TV to save cinema.

We’ve been here before. The seeds of season three were planted with the smashed TV set that introduced 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lynch’s alternatively abrasive and tender prequel that erased all traces of cuteness from the series. The film’s commercial and critical failure helped inaugurate one of the great runs in modern cinema – including Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006)but also meant Lynch was eventually priced out of the movie market. He’s spent the past decade burrowed away in his Hollywood Hills studio, making art and occasionally bemoaning the state of cinema. The absence made him more of a legend.

Twin Peaks’ hyper-anticipated return (it’s The Force Awakens for weird kids) threatened a kind of victory dance for prestige TV; a final lap around the corpse of cinema by reclaiming one of its most cherished auteurs. Except that the Golden Age of TV – as media hacks have insisted we’ve been living through for at least a decade – has almost nothing in common with the cosmically strange series Lynch unleashed on commercial television back in 1990. While it’s true that the quality of the medium has “improved” – attracting stars and filmmakers alienated by the disappearance of the studio indie and the prospect of broader audiences – TV remains a slave to low-stakes ambition: soapy storytelling, puzzle plots, and dreaded character arcs dedicated to short attention spans. Instead of filling the space between commercials, TV shows now function as #content for the 24/7 entertainment news cycle, tailor made for pointless recaps and thinkpieces. As one of the filmmakers cast adrift by cinema’s changing model, Lynch, too, came to see television as the viable format to make art.

It’s a relief to report that Lynch – having negotiated complete creative control of the new Twin Peaks – is back on no one’s terms but his own. Episode one casually recaps Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) cryptic season two farewell to Cooper, before plunging into a sprawling, multi-city tapestry in which the malevolence – the Man From Another Place voice garmonbozia – has spread outward across the country. Seems the host of this disease is Cooper himself; or rather “evil Cooper”, absurdly styled with obsidian contact lenses, leathery skin and a mane of hair. He’s like a combination of Nicolas Cages from Wild at Heart and the aborted Superman – his snakeskin shirt a symbol of his individuality and belief in killing anyone who gets in his way. Meanwhile, a grad student in New York City guards an ominous glass box designed to capture rogue astral entities, a grisly murder sparks a manhunt in South Dakota, and glimpses of returning cast members offer precisely zero nostalgic continuity.

So much for – and frankly, so long to – the pretext of cohesive plot.

If the original Twin Peaks paid cursory heed to the tropes of television, with its audience-baiting twists and commercial fades to black, 2017’s model barely acknowledges their existence; even the original series would be hard-pressed to offer an extended opening scene that mixes Guy Maddin frame-skipping and bravura, giant-floating-head surrealism. (The director’s bizarro concession: ending each episode with a musical guest act, like we’ve just seen The Tonight Show with David Lynch.) It’s all as arrhythmically dense and wonderful as Inland Empire, yet moves, despite frequently distended scenes and dialogue, at an intoxicating glide. Textural weirdness abounds, visually and aurally (Lynch is the credited sound designer), as do the filmmaker’s beloved wormholes, doppelgangers and his lifelong obsession with transcendental states. In more than one flashback – or are they flash forwards? – Cooper and Laura Palmer, still yapping in the red room’s phantom zone, wither physically but morph into beings of pure light. Literally, in Laura’s case. “I am dead, yet I live,” she says, before promptly removing her face to reveal a blinding white beam. Fuck it – mask off.

The thing you notice is the silence; the emptiness and the dread, but also the hope – the unified field, as Lynch might chirp in his famous “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” cadence. The show’s wide-ranging sandbox, with its surveillance cameras and inexplicable murders and dark world spirits dematerialising in jail cells, suggests a universe shared with the shapeshifting phantoms of Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. There’s an immediate, though vague, sense of the interconnected, with characters tumbling in and out of various selves – Cooper’s rabbit-hole journey back to reality evoking Laura Dern’s in Inland Empire – and a tableau of locales that form a geographic and psychic landscape. You feel like you’re there and not there. As a friend messaged me soon after the show, “I had nightmares. It was really happening to me.”

Part of that uncanny feeling involves the returning characters, now so much older but curiously fixed in their roles, as though no time and all time had passed. There’s a touching sadness to them, always one of the series’ hallmarks: Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse), left alone to pursue his old friend Cooper; the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), perishing under the psychic weight of her visions; and bad boys James and Bobby (James Marshal and Dana Ashbrook), overgrown teenagers forever haunted by the murder of their classmate Laura. The inimitable Grace Zabriskie has one scene as Sarah Palmer, bathed in the sickly blue-and-black glow of her new digital flatscreen TV. It will wreck you.

And – lest it be forgotten in the endless conversations around Lynch’s “darkness” – it’s also really funny. Lynch has always had an underappreciated gift for comedy – recall Angelo Badalamenti’s espresso disdain, Willem Dafoe’s stocking-over-the-head routine, rabbit sitcoms – and it’s let loose across episodes three and four especially. Watching Cooper awkwardly learn how to exist on the human plane (not unlike the alien imposter in MacLachlan’s The Hidden) is almost slapstick terrain for Lynch. It’s beautiful, goofball stuff. And Michael Cera’s appearance – Marlon Brando by way of Kenneth Anger – is a deadpan joy that sits perfectly in among the de riguer tonal crisscrossing of the filmmaker’s world.

In other words, it’s unfiltered David Lynch cinema. You want prestige television? Well here, Lynch seems to be saying: how about Agent Cooper emerging through a power outlet like an inflatable doll? It’s a rollercoaster of a lucid dream. I can’t wait to see more.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

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