At this point, the insight that limitations are often the makings of great art has crossed the gap into becoming truism. Single locations, shoestring budgets, or amateur actors have yielded great results within the realm of filmmaking. But rarely do these restrictions ever materialize as mechanical. The Dogme 95 movement springs to mind, emphasizing handheld camerawork and natural light as requirements, but these prescriptions lessen the burden on the operator to encourage experimentation before mandating restraint. In terms of a perfect example of obstruction breathing life into film, one exhibit towers above all others — David Lynch’s Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. A 55 second short part of the Lumiere and Company anthology film, the film was shot on the anachronistic cinematograph camera, given three takes to get any given shot, using only natural light, barred from shooting synchronous sound, and an arbitrary mandate that once the camera starts, the take must be finished out. Through this chaste framework, Lynch was able to translate his ideological project into silent tableau vivants, creating a work both succinct and purposeful, an true outlier in the Lynchian corpus.
The assault of images within Premonition are so convoluted it almost evades explanation — police approach the body of a dead woman, a worried housewife in a kitchen, a woman distressed arising from a bed, men in a hellish factory setting engaging in steampunk sadomasochism, brought full circle by the police emerging into the kitchen of the worried housewife. Lynch distilled down to his most pure essence, this image assault can be unpacked with the director’s auteurist mission statement of “I love factories and nude women,” assembling a greatest hits of imagery throughout his career. The opening of police happening upon a brutalized body among bucolic window dressing, immediately reminiscent of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic in the Twin Peaks pilot. The suburban interiors evoke the interstitial scenes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet’s daytime sections, and its final horrors unmistakably Lynchian (it seems of no coincidence to me the tormentors in the short are in jumpsuits buttoned to the collarbone, their distended skulls resembling a wild pompadour, for once Lynch willing to indict himself rather than hind behind folksy aphorisms).
While almost incomprehensible in summary form, it coheres to form the same statement it took Twin Peaks 30 hours of network television, a feature film, and 18 hours of premium cable indulgence to form, and still not stick the landing. Much the same as the show, it eventually reveals that underneath suburban purity lies a powerful evil, that perversion exists in equal and opposite abundance in the sunniest of settings. Much like Fire Walk With Me, Premonitions presents a full sampling of the Lynch auteur fixations in a compacted form, a Tik-Tok length condemnation of Americana, and quite possibly his most fully realized work.
A lot can be said about David Lynch’s unruly, passion driven Wild at Heart , but one thing I couldn’t let go unspoken in regard to this film is the catalog of looks that were served throughout. While my mind scrambles to find the relation between runaway lovers being unknowingly chased by hitmen and The Wizard of Oz, my eyes feast on a myriad of tight leather ensembles and flamboyant outerwear. The south is HOT, it only makes sense that the outfits should follow suit.
Lula and Sailor, despite being destined for absolute chaos and disaster, are completely dedicated to one another. They are true to themselves and each other above all else. What I love about them is not only their unapologetic relationship, but also their equally unapologetic sense of style. This sentiment is best put by Sailor in his iconic line, “this is a snakeskin jacket. And for me it’s a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom.” Words that deserve to be embroidered on a pillow. I too would find it hard to be anything but confident and reckless when donning a snakeskin jacket with every outfit– something I think we should all aspire to. It’s a fail-proof and timeless formula: basic top (T-shirt/ button up) + black jeans & belt + statement jacket = looking like a million bucks. Lula is also no stranger to making a statement. For a night out, she is sporting a black leather bralette, black lace capri-leggings over pink underwear, black cowboy boots, and her staple red lip. As a couple, they never cease to give the viewer something to gawk at. It’s evident that they’ve never had to have the “what are you gonna wear?” conversation in preparation for an event. This is self expression at its purest!
It only gets hotter from here. Isabella Rossellini as Perdita Durango displays my favorite looks of this film. From head to toe there is so much to indulge in. The juxtaposed blonde wig + peeking brunette hairline look is something I did not know that I needed. It sounds like a mess in theory, but in practice it is oddly transcendent, like oregano on sandwiches. Or it may just be that Isabella Rossellini is hot and can pull anything off, but I’d like to believe that it’s both. The skin-tight leather set accompanied by the bright pink lip and red shoe is a look that almost seems to embody the entirety of southern heat. This scene left me secondhand sweating.
Another thing that I really eat up in Wild at Heart is the attention and care that went into the accessory choices. The mismatched circle and sword earrings are powerful enough on their own, but the way that they were utilized– along with the blonde wig and thick brows– to identify Perdita and Juana (Grace Zabriskie) as working for the same forces was a delicious detail. At the same time, they both encapsulated the essence of their own characters perfectly by style of dress, with Juana’s disheveled presence being captured through her unconventional shoe pairing and sashed suede dress. Also, obviously not the main attraction here but we love to see a turtleneck and blazer combo.
Last but not least, a note on Bobby Peru, perhaps one of Lynch’s sleaziest characters to date. Accomplice to Perdita, it’s only fair that he also have a showstopping appearance. There is not an inch of wasted space here. From the slicked back hair to the prepubescent mustache, disturbingly small teeth, and chain smoking, it is immediately clear that Bobby Peru is going to be up to some antics. The color palette may be neutral monochromatic, but once again, accessories do all the heavy lifting. His leather fringe jacket serves a similar unspoken purpose as Sailor’s snakeskin jacket, bringing a true touch of rowdy Texas personality to Bobby’s look, along with the classic bolo tie. I may or may not have howled upon first seeing Willem Dafoe walk into frame sporting this ensemble… It’s menacing and well-constructed all the same to give a sense of misplaced confidence. The body language here says it all! All in all, the 90s were not ready for this masterclass in fashion and self expression.
Twin Peaks’ southern-fried, hyper-sexualized cousin who smells bad.
A unique entry into the Lynch pantheon, Wild at Heart sees Lynch take on the great American road trip film trope with Nic Cage and Laura Dern starring as the fiery couple on the run from the police and a murderous mother. There is clear backtracking for Lynch with Wild at Heart’s echoing of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks’ motifs of putting a demented and trauma-fueled mystery underneath a classic American veneer. Additionally, Lynch steps forward with the less linear storytelling and the concept of a hit being put out. However, Wild at Heart does not capture the magic of either of these Lynchian staples. The explanation for this miss still eludes me, however I will attempt to explicate my thoughts and come to some sort of conclusion for this phenomenon.
One major aspect which separates Wild at Heart from Lynch’s other films is the setting. The South may simply not agree with Lynch’s formula of presenting a pleasant exterior only to reveal the evil beneath due to the inherent flaws of the American South. The kooky South Lynch creates feels too silly at times of trauma while being unable to woo me with Lynchian charm in its softer moments due to the characters being icky. This makes the messaging of the film feel much more ham-fisted than other efforts from Lynch. It is simply an impossibility for me to feel the same way about a side character who wears a trucker hat with a Confederate flag than one who wears flannel (despite them likely voting for the same party). The lack of Lynchian magic in Wild at Heart brings to light how Lynch was truly at a crossroads with how he wanted to tell his stories because although it dips its toes into both types of Lynch presentation, it doesn’t fully commit to one or the other and is fair at best when it comes to plot.
Another puzzling aspect of this film is the characters and the way they are performed. On paper, this is a dream lineup. Nic Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton-how could one go wrong? When breaking each performance down, things become a bit clearer. Nic Cage’s performance left me a little mixed. I loved the moments of pure Cage insanity, but they were so few and far between they started to feel unwarranted whenever they showed up. On top of that his accent was very funny but I’m not sure if that makes me enjoy his performance anymore. Laura Dern balls out though, no question. Even though she also sounds silly her moments of pain, grief, and suffering all come off as incredibly real. Willem gives an undeniably great performance, but his character is so forthrightly gross and sinister that he doesn’t captivate me the same way Frank from Blue Velvet does. Harry Dean Stanton’s performance is solid, but his character illuminates the huge lapse of great storytelling Wild at Heart suffers from. I can handle a subplot I barely care about in a TV show, but one in a two-hour movie feels cheap and truly useless.
So, there you have it, a summation of all of my mixed and lukewarm opinions about David Lynch’s least important full-length entry in his filmography, yet I still feel hollow. It may just be that I’m not used to seeing one of my favorite directors let me down in such a unique way. This feeling which I am experiencing can only be likened to missing an open three in your hotspot. David has been stroking this shot all game, nothing but net. He’s lined up just how he likes it, he even spins the ball in his hand and takes a dribble. Lynch rises up like he has many times before and lets the ball fly, only to be met with a resounding CLANG from the rim and the shot not falling. David would go on to make many more shots from that spot, but I will always remember witnessing that strange miss from that strange man.
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.