I’ll admit it, I’ve been having great difficulty sleeping soundly. Some evenings, I toss and turn, my mind racing on some minutiae that has no right to live rent free in my subconscious. I can’t quite blame the turbulence of the times, no pandemic or systemic upheaval can irritate me quite the same as this atrocity — David Ehrlich’s (maybe the most insufferable living film critic, managing to have an even poorer success rate on takes than Ebert) absolutely dogshit take on David Lynch’s definitive work, Blue Velvet:
“so this probably won’t be my most popular opinion (my most popular opinion = spoons are good to use to eat pudding), but like… doesn’t TWIN PEAKS largely negate the need for this movie? aside from Dern, Hopper, Rossellini, and ‘Mysteries of Love?’”
However surprising, I agree with Ehrlich on the central premise. Twin Peaks does operate under the same general thesis as Blue Velvet — a Newtonian view of morality that underneath suburban charm, there is a lecherous underbelly equal and opposite in magnitude. Blue Velvet earns its title as one of the great American films by taking Hitchcockian conventions and filtering them through the unique grammar of hypnogogia, granting profundity to the mundane. Prom dances become religious awakenings, Roy Orbison’s lovelorn paeans become calls to violence. Through this inversion, Lynch articulates the flaws within the American experiment are indelibly intwined with its successes. Twin Peaks, while coming from the same starting position, expresses this thesis in a less effective form, creating an inferior work as a result.
The Twin Peaks creation myth is well-worn territory. A generational talent taking advantage of ABC’s deep pockets to smuggle in a subversive examination of America packed to the gills with arthouse flourishes, a hagiography applied to everything from New Hollywood to Eastwood apologia. In actuality, Twin Peaks is not some landmark achievement. In actuality, it is possibly the most accurate manifestation of the anti-Lynch strawman, the founding text being Ebert’s infamous pan of Blue Velvet (essential watching, one of the many times Ebert showed his ass on national television). Ebert’s indictment rests on the idea that the film blunts its own impact, “defus[ing] it by pretending it’s all part of a campy in-joke.” This sentiment is far more resonant with the Twin Peaks project in which one is forced to invest in the murder of Laura Palmer, but within the show, such brutality is almost on the back burner. Instead, the bulk of the content being a relatively toothless, smarmy satire of daytime soaps. Of course, one could easily dismiss such a critique as authorial intent, especially given Lynch’s own intent to never reveal Laura’s killer; the true focus being the eponymous town’s human drama all along. However, this line of thinking betrays an even more horrifying reality — Twin Peaks is not a noble misfire, but rather exploitative dreck. A show that uses violence against women as an aesthetic crutch (a claim that could be leveled against Lynch regularly, particularly the puerile Wild At Heart), creating lazy intrigue for audience buy-in for the comparatively mundane corporate skullduggery and secondary school social politics that occupy its universe. This line of thinking cannot even be excused as a failure of imagination — Lynch’s charming but forgotten (and arguably superior) TV follow-up On the Air as well as The Straight Story are examples in which the director’s humanist tendencies are able to conjure great drama from the everyday, making Laura’s murder a needless catalyst for the resulting daytime TV drama.
While most of this can be attributed to network censors blocking the depiction of more libidinal concerns, most of the weak spots of Peaks tend to be attributed to a period of Lynch’s absence, absolving him of the narrative nadir in absentia. Lynch himself has gone a long way to embrace this apologia, saying “the second season sucked” outright. However, I would contend the abject failures of the show come not from an absence of his influence, but rather an unchecked embrace of Lynchian whimsy. The oft-maligned second season with its ridiculous b-plots, languid pacing, and shaky writing after Lynch left the series to focus on Wild At Heart (somehow an even poorer decision) builds off the same substance-free absurdity of the first season, but the lack of aesthetic panache reveals the weaknesses the series had all along. Ben Horne’s confederate delusions, Nadine’s super strength, this absurdity was an extension of the previous material. A collage of pure Americana made perverse, set against a tranquil, bucolic town, all straight out of the Lynch playbook.
Beyond the structural issues stemming from the mores of network television programming, the efficacy of Lynch’s style in a primetime medium is another rub. In broad strokes, the method of his best works (Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, Eraserhead, and to an extent Lost Highway) is using the language of dreams to communicate primal fears, communicating through a dialect only spoken within the subconscious. For all its detachment from reality, the opening of Eraserhead accomplishes this exercise perfectly; the diseased Man In the Planet tugging on a phallic rod to control bizarre sperm creatures, communicating the negative valence of sexual impropriety, an anxiety within the viewer from moment one. Lost Highway takes it a step further, taking the outside context of Robert Blake’s uxoricide and the omniscience of video cameras to transmit the idea that a guilt of that magnitude cannot be escaped through adapting the artifice of a new identity, telegraphing the climax from moment one. In Peaks, even its most famous moments of Lynchian indulgence are masturbatory exercises in abstraction. The oft-cited Red Room/Black Lodge iconography has no real metaphorical depth, instead hoping the viewer finds a leisure suit-clad little person kooky and unsettling, exploiting ableism to get a cheap squirm from mom-and-pop pairings across the country. This focus on shock value is at the core of Ebert’s critique, allowing transgression to masquerade as insight. When the imagery isn’t focused on abstraction barren of substance, its use of dreams is completely literal. The most effective case, Cooper’s encounter with Laura Palmer in the Red Room, materially amounts to no more than thinly veiled allusions to the gory details of her death. There is no artistic merit there, it is simply using an insufferable Freudian literalism to avoid the wrath of the FCC, that in order to exist in the medium the integrity of the art must be compromised.
Now there is still an elephant in the room: the presence of Mark Frost, regularly the scapegoat for many failures throughout the Twin Peaks project. Often credited for being behind the greater lore of the series, as well as the dominant narrative scribe, it becomes quite easy to pin the lack of focus, the jumping of the shark, and the lack of constructive transgression on Frost’s architectural role. However, one key document illustrates that much of the complaints previously raised have little to do with Frost — “The Last Evening” (S01E07). Quite frankly, “The Last Evening” (one of the rare episodes solely written and directed by Frost) is the best episode of the series, treating the subject matter with rare respect and emotional subtlety. From the opening sequence with Dr. Jacoby and Maddy brings about true anguish, reckoning with her absence as tragic instead of fodder for absurd nervous breakdowns or teenage horniness. Leland’s visit to the hospital is a resonant statement on the greater thematic argument up to this point, positing the darkness once unleashed can consume what little grace and purity remains. Even the more meat and potatoes elements concerning Cooper’s investigation are taut and suspenseful, with Frost’s Hill Street Blues chops making themselves very apparent. Frost’s vision of Peaks is much closer to a successful rendering, treating its content with a tenderness often missing, refusing to indulge in the dismissive irony utilized elsewhere in the series.
Rendering the shortcomings of its televised counterpart even more frustrating is the unqualified triumph of its cinematic companion piece, Fire Walk With Me. Dispensing with the slapstick and snark, Lynch crafts something closer to Passion of Joan of Arc or Vincent Gallo’s opus The Brown Bunny than the original series, spinning a complicated yarn of survivorship. Laura Palmer is given a presence and voice, her pain made real rather than a past tense justification to gobble down donuts and dance under the fluorescent diner lights. The film strips away the twee trappings of its original text, reducing the fat until only the ugliness is left. A fascinating exercise, outperforming the original series run and providing a superior version of The Return and its climax by doing away with the hopelessly indulgent exercise of fan service orgasm denial. While one could pooh-pooh FWWM’s merit as simply saying the quiet part out loud, the film is able to make a grand statement in two hours on systemic abuse as well as paint a harrowing portrait of psychic torture; accomplishing in two hours what the series failed to do in 48.
This is not to say Twin Peaks is irredeemably bad, in fact as far as network television goes, it is quite good, even great. However, it would be equally as valid to say its influence towers over its merit, and an outsized cultural importance is the result. Twin Peaks is a success in that it provided a precedent for authorship within television, broadcasting difficult images throughout the nation, intimating that television could be more than drivel. However, it is the very failures I have laid out are why it has had such profound cultural staying power. Its aesthetics of accessible transgression become an easy reference point for artists in all other mediums, reproduced easily when there is not much substance to interpret. Badalamenti’s iconic score has certainly done the show a great service in its longevity, becoming another object of cultural affection. David Lynch has become less of a filmmaker and more a cultural signaling point, an art school evolution of the “NORMAL PEOPLE SCARE ME” t-shirts after the Tumblr cohort aged out of schlock. As a result, a cult of personality has erected itself almost overnight, throwing a never-ending pentecostal revival, speaking in tongues over a man who makes profound statements just as often as he makes blundering, often problematic failures. A television show that combines the great dopamine rushes of soapy love triangles and procedural mysteries with avant garde credentials, Twin Peaks and its continued relevance makes much more sense in a neoliberal hellscape in which consumption and commodity signals personal identity, but as some sort of unrivaled artistic triumph, the worship rings less true.