Friday, September 8, 2017

On the Return, at Its End

It's probably safe to say that, as an adult-type human being, I haven't invested as much of my fannish energy and enthusiasm in any fictional property as much as I have in Twin Peaks. During the original series' run, I had just hit 30 years old, was not all that many years married, Deathrealm magazine was going strong, I was writing fiction like a madman, and I semi-frequently enjoyed special times with my brother, who was also an avid Twin Peaks fan. Put all that together, and one might conclude I have positive associations that may have colored my judgment of the show (just a little!). Its characters, setting, atmosphere, music... virtually everything about it hooked me from the get-go. Even the second half of the second season, which, by any objective measure, went south when it should have gone... well, in any other direction... offered considerable entertainment value. But then came its finale. That wonderful, haunting, mind-bending, cliffhanger of a finale.

It's been a love affair ever since. At the time, I was keen enough on the David Lynch films I had seen—Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune (yes, I have a strange fondness even for this one), Blue Velvet, and a passel of his early short films. Since then, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have taken their places as two of my all-time favorite films. I never cared as much for Wild at Heart, and Inland Empire, alas, did not connect with me. At all. Someday, perhaps I'll give it another try. Someday.

When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me came out, I can't claim to have much understood it, but I loved it. And I seemed to be a minority of one, at least among the Twin Peaks fans I knew. Something about the early scenes—those in Deer Meadow, with Special Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland), and at the FBI office with Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie)—struck me as crucial, as if these plot elements, cryptic as they were, held the key to Twin Peaks' secret heart. Over the years, as I watched, re-watched, and read various impressions and interpretations of the movie—particularly the sequence in Gordon Cole's (David Lynch) office—I became convinced me that it, not the play-by-play of Laura Palmer's murder, was the crux of the film.

Twin Peaks: The Return proved that there was indeed more going on in that early part of Fire Walk With Me than many fans and critics gave it credit for. Long before the new series' premiere, when I discovered that events and concepts from Fire Walk With Me would feature prominently in it, that was all she wrote. Showtime, here I come!

While there are no doubt spoilers here, I won't recap episodes, as recaps are ubiquitous in the blogland, and if you've read this far, you already know what happened, inasmuch as any of us actually know what happened.

If there's any word to sum up my reaction to the early episodes of The Return, it would be impatience. Now, obviously, I know how Lynch works, and I expected much of what he served up, but it was hard to get past feeling frustrated and impatient—for so many disparate plot elements to show some cohesion, for even a hint of an answer to some of the endlessly mounting, nagging questions. Would anything come of the glass box in which we saw the manifestation of what was to be called "The Experiment," which killed observers Sam and Tracey? Would we ever learn the identity of the "billionaire" who made the box—and for what ultimate purpose? When would Audrey Horne appear, and under what circumstances? Might we again hear news of Special Agent Chester Desmond, who disappeared upon finding the ring in Fire Walk With Me?

Would Dougie Jones ever "wake up?"

So many loose plot threads, both from the early days as well as the new season, which piled them up higher and faster with each episode. Lynch and Frost intentionally trod the line with viewers' patience, working us up to the breaking point, certainly to the point where the less devoted would throw up their hands and decide it wasn't worth hanging in there for some nebulous dramatic reward that might never come. Indeed, according to Showtimes' stats, viewers jumped ship in no small number over the course of the series.

In some ways, I can't say I blame them. But never say die, say I.

Rather than propel the action, or deepen the characterization, much of each show's running time was spent on just-this-side-of-tedious (sometimes crossing into tedious-beyond-belief) static shots, drawing out scenes to thoroughly ridiculous degree—a prime example being the scene in episode 12 where Gordon Cole parts ways with a young French woman for an ungodly percentage of the episode's running time. Now and again, such show-stopping moments could be remarkably funny, or even profound, such as a two-minute-long scene in episode 9 of Diane Evans (Laura Dern), Tammy Preston (Christa Bell), and Gordon Cole standing together waiting for Albert (Miguel Ferrer) to conclude his business with the local coroner. During this scene, Diane smokes a cigarette, Gordon reminisces on how pleasant it was when the two of them used to smoke together, while Special Agent Preston fidgets nervously the whole time. It's a wonderfully revealing, amusing two minutes, perhaps the scene that made me more conscious of every little subtlety going on during these weird, extended pauses. The scene wasn't just about killing time; it was about making you feel each moment. The more willing you were to feel, to experience the frustration, the rewards, the mysteries, these endless red herrings, the more willing you were to accept that David Lynch and Mark Frost were in the driver's seat and taking us via the most scenic of scenic routes... somewhere. Not necessarily where any of us thought we might be going. Take your eyes and mind off the destination (something that, as a writer, I find terribly hard to do) and take a good gander at the scenery as we ride.

Not many artists could get away with such self-indulgence, and for many, I'm sure, it's arguable whether Lynch actually did. I can't count how many times, knowing that co-creator Mark Frost favored a tighter narrative structure than Lynch, I wished Frost's hand would become the more dominant, and at times, I suspect it did. Particularly in the later episodes, we actually got a number of narrative dumps that addressed various loose ends, tied them up, and tucked them away. The triangle between Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), and Nadine (Wendy Robie) at long last found a happy resolution. We received a definitive answer on the significance and origin of the "Blue Rose." We discovered what happened to the missing pages of Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) diary and how they tied into events in Fire Walk With Me. We experienced, with true grief, the passing of Margaret Lanterman, a.k.a. "The Log Lady," almost in real time with actress Catherine Coulson's death. We witnessed, in one of the most vivid, dreamlike odysseys ever produced for the screen, the release, if not the origin, of Killer Bob (the late Frank Silva) into the world, following the blast of the first atomic bomb at White Sands, New Mexico, in 1945. This, in episode 8, truly set the direction for the rest of the season.
While watching episode 8 as it was broadcast, I kept hoping against hope for more of the plot-propelling moments that had dominated the couple of previous episodes, and thus I deprived myself, at least in that short term, of appreciating the sheer fortitude, the sensual fulfillment, the brilliance of the vision unfolding before me. Mostly, I was, with remarkable accuracy and no little dismay, occupying myself with predicting the over-long running time of each segment of the episode: the journey through the A-bomb blast, the herky-jerky infiltration of the woodsmen into the convenience store, the sojourn at the White Lodge. Someone lurking outside my front door could have borne witness to considerable, sometimes loud swearing about the waste of screen time that might have been better utilized tidying up any number of the messes that had been made in prior episodes.

But I knew I couldn't leave Lynch holding a grudge. I had to re-watch the episode. I had to clear my mind of so many preconceived notions I should have known better than to harbor. And so I looked at it again. And then a third time.

Episode 8, the episode that, as it first ran, I swore I'd not watch again, became the one that dragged me fully into the deepest, darkest folds of Lynch's vision. As it stands now, I find that hour one of the most compelling events I've ever seen on a screen, large or small.

And that sums up much of my frustration with this incarnation of Twin Peaks and, to some extent, Lynch's work in general: I oftentimes cannot trust, or put even reasonable faith in my first impressions. I rarely experience the fullness, grasp the depth, or appreciate the spirit behind/within his work on first viewing. In most cases, my first impression of a work, while perhaps incomplete, is still the truest. I was editor of Deathrealm magazine for a decade, and I read mountains upon mountains of slush, and out of necessity, over long experience, I learned to trust first my impressions implicitly. Naturally, first impressions are just that—impressions—and subject to modification, refinement, sometimes reversal, but over so many years, they proved themselves sound over and over again.

Here comes David Lynch, who proceeds to beat me over the head with my own conceit. Make no mistake, I have countless times enjoyed journeying into other creators' universes, taken great pleasure in having my impressions re-molded, sometimes turned upside down and inside out, but I think I can say that there's no other creator that I would allow to manipulate me to the extent I have David Lynch (and, by proxy, Mr. Frost).
As we came to the end of the season this past week, I still desperately hoped there would be some closure, a conclusion as gratifying even as the open-ended finale of the second season of Twin Peaks or the surreal but emotionally charged ending of Fire Walk With Me. With both of those previous properties, I came away feeling energized, hungry for more yet still satiated.

But no. We would have none of that. The penultimate episode, #17, checked off a few items on the list, offering up some small moments of gratification. But so many compelling, crucial questions remained unanswered. How could we even begin to address them all in one final hour of Twin Peaks?

By diverting us onto a whole new road, that's how. By turning the series' history back upon itself, ostensibly even wiping out this intricate world constructed and developed over 25+ years. By giving us more, incredibly long static scenes—at least on the surface—and switching out the very identities of the most important individuals in the entire drama.

To say I hated it is an understatement. The morning after watching the finale, I woke up actually depressed, my first thought being, "Please tell me that was a bad dream."

We live inside a dream. But who is the dreamer?

As with episode 8, something told me I could not leave Twin Peaks holding a grudge. I had to go back, I had to re-experience the series final moments, I had to know what I was missing because, surely, the fault in this was mine.

And it was. Maybe. After going back, things I hadn't seen before came clear, or at least less nonsensical—subtle and even not-so-subtle links to important events, places, and characters we had experienced before. The sex scene between Cooper and Diane, rather than grotesque and tedious became disturbing and actually tragic. The long, damn near real-time time drive Cooper and Laura (or Carrie) make to the town of Twin Peaks, rather than interminable became tense and nerve-wracking. The last few moments, ending with Sarah Palmer's chilling voice calling for Laura, and that long, piercing, hopeless scream—it floored me with horror. This episode, and indeed, the entire season, was a jigsaw puzzle of an abstract work that had been scattered, with a few pieces still stuck together. The thing that came to mind, at last, was that this season seemed, by god, in so many ways, an 18-hour reinterpretation of Lost Highway, which I consider a masterpiece. A reinterpretation that took on an entirely new life and went in entirely new directions.

A splintering of characters into other characters. Loops in time and space. Jumps between physical dimensions. A trap or perhaps an arena set up by powers that exist in the realm of dreams, yet capable of exerting their influence on our reality, or some version of our reality. As with so many of Lynch's properties, theories do abound, and I have formulated a few, though nothing conclusively, if such is even possible—or desirable. Those will yet come with time.

No, I can't say that so many later revelations necessarily made Twin Peaks: The Return less frustrating or even less maddening. But I can say my love affair with Twin Peaks and David Lynch continues, enhanced and emboldened. Best of all, all these impressions, re-evaluations, and re-examinations actively affect how I approach the creative process for my own writing. That's something that always needs a good shaking up.

Here are links to a handful of sites that offer some insightful commentaries, particularly on the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return.

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