The Word Viewed—A Reading of "Twin Peaks: The Return"
Chris Marker on "Vertigo," Destiny-Machines & Dream Factories, Mapping Consciousness, Michael Snow, Laurel & Hardy, Video Games, Hidden Literality, and other related matters.
For a time, a third season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks was the domain of the dreamers—it existed only for those who dared to imagine and invent. It is one thing to contend with the knowledge of objects damaged or lost (The Magnificent Ambersons), or to yearn for those works locked away, kept out of reach by conspiratorial market forces (as was the case, for a long time, with Jacques Rivette’s Out 1). But it is quite another to hold onto a phantom image of the future and place one’s hopes in something only vaguely promised (“I’ll see you again in twenty-five years…”), as time slowly turns what were once clues into shared signs of the faithful.
But unlike so many a cult prophecy, the dream came to pass. Twin Peaks happened again, and had to reckon not just with its own televisual legacy, but with all the transformations of the intervening quarter-century—not least the cognitive shifts and rifts wrought by Internet-era technologies and cinema’s decisive turn towards the digital daemon. The third season of Twin Peaks (henceforth, The Return) entailed a resynchronization of an astounding order, a challenge Frost and Lynch rose to by developing a cosmogony vaster and more complex than anything in the first two seasons or in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), while at the same time continuing to draw out the show’s elusive center. And as if turning oracles back into detectives, it posed to viewers the same challenge presented to Don Murray’s Lucky 7 Insurance executive Bushnell Mullins: “Make sense of it.”
However one went about doing that, it was clear that a great number of people wanted something from The Return, and the show’s consensus reception as a masterpiece—a unanimity matched only by the sheer improbability of the thing—suggests that most got whatever it was they were looking for. Which would be cause for concern were The Return’s fulfillment not such a peculiar, uneasy sort of fulfillment, and if it didn’t so consistently unsettle any attempts to comprehend and master it. The experience of viewing this astonishing return from week to week on Showtime was not entirely unlike that of Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly), lost in the wilderness for most of the season, eventually happening on a spectacularly sustained flash of lightning, some Abrahamic sacrifice that he glimpses through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. When he’s later picked up, he seems to have gone mad, claiming that his binoculars “killed somebody.” It is not entirely clear that our own endpoint is any more fortunate.
A Free Replay
Before examining The Return’s uncanny forms in any more detail, however, we would do well to first revisit that most seductive, all-consuming of spirals: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film that Geoffrey O’Brien once described as “Hollywood spectacle seen through the wrong end of the telescope.” More specifically, we might look at Chris Marker’s indelible reading of the film, “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo).” Though originally published in Positif in June 1994, it is to date the most succinct articulation of the fearsome power of The Return’s two-part finale. For its relevance, it’s worth quoting at length:
The vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent—the vertigo of time… Where [Gavin] Elster reduces the fantasy [of a ‘perfect’ crime] to mediocre manifestations (wealth, power, etc), Scottie transmutes into its most utopian form: he overcomes the most irreparable damage caused by time and resurrects a love that is dead. The entire second part of the film, on the other side of the mirror, is nothing but a mad, maniacal attempt to deny time, to recreate through trivial yet necessary signs (like the signs of a liturgy: clothes, make-up, hair) the woman whose loss he has never been able to accept.
Vertigo’s resonances with Cooper’s own journey to the other side of the mirror in The Return are clear enough. But in this, three particular passages stand out for their staggering spectral force: the sequence in Part 17 where Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) bears a bewildered Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) away from her fated February 23rd, 1989 itinerary, the forest setting and its flash to colour recalling the shimmering, otherworldly glow of the Californian redwoods where roam Scottie and Madeleine (and Judy, who is not to be talked about); the motel-room encounter between Diane (Laura Dern) and Cooper in Part 18, which takes the famed circling camera of Vertigo into the realm of cold, carnal completion; and the final scene, where the particular slant of Maclachlan’s body when he asks “What year is this?” before Sheryl Lee lets out a blood-curdling scream, echoes Jimmy Stewart’s pose at the end of Vertigo, his arms akimbo as he stares out into a yawning abyss.
Scores of critics have previously noted Lynch’s relationship to Vertigo, and scores more have observed the film’s “dreamlike” character. But the unique force of Marker’s essay—and the reason for its relevance to The Return—is that it goes further to posit an explicit dream reading of the film’s second half, with a decisive break set forth by Midge’s final words to Scottie at the hospital (“You don’t even know I’m here…”) and her subsequent disappearance, which Marker calls “probably unparalleled in the serial economy of Hollywood scripts.” In short: “We were tricked into believing that the first part was the truth, then told it was a lie born of a perverse mind, that the second part contained the truth. But what if the first part really were the truth and the second the product of a sick mind?”
Much in the same way that Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) seems to linger for Lynch mainly in the image of a detective falling asleep in an armchair near the portrait of a dead woman, finding himself later awakened by her very likeness, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the director is even aware of Marker’s reading. Lynch’s films, not to mention his fascination with dreams, attest to the fact that it’s the interpretation he accepts, consciously or not. It is no small matter, either, that Marker’s experience of Vertigo is intimately bound up in the notion of the return—an ancient and persistent form, if his invocation of the Orpheus myth is any indication (“... one doesn’t look back at Eurydice”). Of watching the film at Berkeley in the early Eighties, “when everyone had forgotten the movie… and the word was that it was just another minor thriller,” he recalls “the audience gasping with amazement on seeing the panoramic view of the city which opens the second part… And it was only twenty years ago…”
But perhaps even more shocking an anachronism comes later, when Marker writes: “What do video games, which tell us more about our unconscious than the works of Lacan, offer us? Neither money nor glory, but a new game. The possibility of playing again. ‘A second chance.’ A free replay.” That Marker should so explicitly invoke the lexicon of video games is significant, for he was writing in 1994, following the popular rise of home video formats and the proliferation of video game technologies. That is, in an age where “replay” quite simply meant something different to the public than it did in 1958, the term’s proprietary connotations being but one salient aspect. In this, there’s an acknowledgement that, just as an awareness of San Francisco’s changing face undoubtedly alters one’s experience of Vertigo, such technology-driven shifts in consciousness ineluctably modify one’s experience of a film, casting its shifting planes and obsessive trajectories into a different light. It takes nothing away from Marker to conclude that his perspicacious reading was perhaps not possible at the time of Vertigo’s release—hence that he’s not discovering uncharted depths to Hitchcock’s endlessly spiraling masterpiece, but simply revealing another angle, an alternate face.
In Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, David Bordwell observes that “Vertigo constitutes a thoroughgoing compilation/revision of 1940s subjective devices.” This is a historical, chronological account of the film’s existence—and a useful one, to be sure, well worth considering alongside its evidently unremarkable contemporaneous reception. (Paramount production manager C.O. Erickson in 2013: “We had no sense that Vertigo was special.”) But as Marker’s provocative essay suggests, it may be just as useful to take an explicitly achronological line of approach, one that brings to bear all of the shifts—in technology, taste, social awareness, or urban planning—that have occurred in the time since. Implicit in this pair of views are two measures of a masterpiece: one grounded in the shock of a work’s initial appearance, the cracks in consciousness it precipitates upon its release; the other rooted in its inexhaustibility, its persistence—the way it mutates and morphs over time, not so much laying bare its hidden depths, as reconstituting itself into novel forms made possible by new technologies and ways of seeing.
Some masterpieces succeed in both measures, others such as Vertigo in only one. It is my contention that The Return exceeds in the first by precisely, profoundly examining the nature of the second. A work of immense breadth, it traverses ever-expanding planes of possibility where matter is at once stubborn and highly reactive, where language undergoes strange and vivid transformations, and where conventional circuits of understanding are thrown into confusion. As the world of Twin Peaks comes unmoored, The Return reveals itself to be a quest for order and sense, one that continually, audaciously folds in on itself, finally locating its achievement not in any depthless notions of truth, but in the way that it surveys its own serialised shape and ever-shifting forms, tracing its multiplying movements back to the house at the heart of the world.
Destiny Machine, Dream Factory
Part of the uniqueness of Twin Peaks is that taken in totality, it is for Lynch both ur-text and summation, both a point of origin and an outer limit. It occupies a place in his oeuvre roughly analogous to that of the Mabuse movies in Fritz Lang’s filmography: two installments made relatively close together, and a third iteration released over two decades later, with each new entry reframing each previous work, while also pushing into new avenues of exploration. This is not, however, to suggest any stylistic affinity between the two filmmakers; of great living directors, there are few less “Langian” than Lynch. But the German director’s conceptions of modernity, in the Mabuse movies especially, later systematized into what critic Tom Gunning calls the “destiny machine” (i.e. “a metonymy, a fragment which stands in for the whole systematic nature of the modern world”), are nigh-inescapable, their blueprints having been endlessly replicated in both cinematic form and the now-dominant systems of contemporary life. It’s a Mabusean world, and Lynch, like the rest of us, is just living in it.
Lang’s relevance to Twin Peaks, then, is the extent to which it operates according to the question first laid out in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922): “Who is responsible for all of this?” Every mystery or thriller is founded upon this question, and the initial arc of Twin Peaks, explicitly centered around the tagline “Who killed Laura Palmer?,” is no different. It’s been frequently pointed out, not least by Lynch, that Episode 14, in which Laura’s killer is finally revealed, was the moment the initial run died, its terminal point. But the reveal of BOB (embodied by the late Frank Silva) was no small matter—for just as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) posited mechanisms for potentially infinite extension, the nature of Leland Palmer’s possession created in Twin Peaks the analogous possibility of perpetual continuation. Tasked with wrapping up an already solved murder-mystery, Frost and Lynch delivered the Season Two finale “Beyond Life and Death,” designating MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper as the new host, and seeding the show with the conditions for an eventual return.
Given all this, it should be unsurprising that The Return emerges into a world ruled by surveillance, its images threatening in their uncanny digital clarity, the air thick with conspiracy and paranoia. In Part One alone, a through-the-trees handheld shot sees Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) receiving a mysterious truck delivery; a young man named Sam Colby (Benjamin Rosenfield) watches a strange glass box in a spacious New York City loft funded by “some millionaire”; an insurance salesman makes an attempt to see Sheriff Truman, only to find out that there are two and neither is in. Who is responsible for all this? Initially, the answer seems to be Cooper’s doppelganger (henceforth, Mr. C), first introduced driving along a darkened road, and who, over the course of The Return, functions as a kind of shadowy Mabuse figure controlling his own empire of crime, providing the show with its sense of forward impulsion. The South Dakota scenes in the season’s two-hour premiere operate as a kind of soap opera/murder mystery in miniature—a dead librarian, a sordid small-town affair, a husband-wife-lawyer love triangle—and it’s no coincidence that Mr. C literally emerges from the curtains to close the circuit of this mini-narrative (“You did good. You follow human nature perfectly,” he tells a woman before gunning her down). By the end of Part Two, it’s not much clearer what he wants—as he clarifies to George Griffith’s Ray Monroe, he doesn’t “need” anything—only that he does. As Lang long ago established, the question of what Mabuse wants is never a simple one.
The comparison only goes so far though. In Lynch’s work, narrative rarely proceeds along chains of cause and effect: story possibilities aren’t so much discarded as obviated, and his editing patterns rarely operate according to question-and-answer patterns, and instead render the elements on either side of the cut with a certain autonomy, if only in retrospect. Such is the case with the aforementioned Dr. Jacoby scene, which initially seems of a piece with the episode’s ambient unease, but later floats free of the mystery/thriller template. Over the course of The Return, this pattern will become a familiar one. So if Mr. C initially comes across as the prime mover of the Twin Peaks universe, the show progressively complicates that view, moving away from asking “Who is responsible for all this?” and towards the query voiced by Monica Bellucci in Gordon Cole’s black-and-white Parisian dream in Part 14: “Who is the dreamer?” A different schema is required.
The rest of Bellucci’s lines, from which The Return’s central query proceeds, are taken from the Upanishads: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” The quotation could well be the foundation of Lynch’s cosmogony, so it’s no coincidence that he used it to introduce screenings of Inland Empire (2006), the film that distills his preferred modes of construction into their purest form. Emblematic in this regard is its film-within-the-film project On High in Blue Tomorrows starring Dern’s Nikki Grace, for though it is ostensibly contained, we are also told that “something got out from inside the story,” so Inland Empire proceeds not so much by narrative embedding or recursion as by narrative addition, each successive story unit retaining only the barest traces of the former. The result is not a mise-en-abyme of films within films, but rather a kind of digital-age exquisite-corpse, a film-AND-film-AND-film structure in which individual units are concatenated by the operations of a veritable dream factory.
So, Mabusean destiny-machine and Lynchian dream-factory: The Return initially operates along this dual construction, with the two mechanisms in apparent conflict, as if the latter were continually producing units that the former were trying (and eventually failing) to subsume into a larger architectonic structure. And if Mr. C is the representative of the destiny-machine, providing The Return with its story momentum and sense of a controlling narrative, then it is Dougie Jones who comes to be identified with the dream-factory, mindlessly pulled along through Las Vegas and its twin economies of gambling and insurance, hitting jackpots all the while. The interactions between this pair of dominant operations become ever more complex as The Return unfolds—conventional regimes of significance, value, and responsibility are continually called into question and overturned—but they offer a preliminary sense of what it means to be a player in this world. The prototypical Mabuse figure was a game master, actor, gambler—and Mr. C is nothing if not that. But then, insurance agents are merely players and gamblers of a different sort, and attempting to beat them at their own rigged game is, well, a bit like trying to take control of someone else’s dream.
Re-synchronize and Repeat
This sense of a mind (or minds) in conflict runs through all of Lynch. So rather than approach the notion of the “Lynchian” in terms of iconography (Fifties Hollywood melodrama, film noir), particular juxtapositions (as in David Foster Wallace’s well-known macabre/mundane formulation), or specific audiovisual cues (the hum of a radiator, say), it may be more useful to look at his style as portraying thought, mapping consciousness. Eraserhead (1977) is, after all, the story of a man reckoning with being responsible for another creature (“Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!” says fiancée Mary), another consciousness. If it is, as Lynch has said, his “most spiritual film,” then this is because it involves reckoning with what one could call the responsibilities of the soul, observing as Henry is confronted with a series of developments—the baby’s birth, Mary moving in, the woman across the hall—and forced to assimilate all this into himself, or else risk the nightmare scenario of his head being cracked open and put through a machine. Eraserhead’s ending is unresolved and ambiguous in every respect but that of Henry’s consciousness, which attains something that’s not quite, but not unlike peace. Not coincidentally, it’s also well-described by Lynch’s account of his first experience of Transcendental Meditation (TM), which he took up during the film’s protracted shoot: “It takes you to an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness. But it’s familiar; it’s you. And right away a sense of happiness emerges—not a goofball happiness, but a thick beauty.”
All of Lynch’s films involve a confrontation with something that can no longer be ignored, a knowledge that impinges upon, shatters, or overwhelms a previous conception of the world. The remaining runtime then revolves around a process of readjustment, rediscovery, and/or resynchronization, where this knowledge is assimilated into a renewed consciousness. Such mental operations are not unique to Lynch—most every narrative occurrence necessitates them in some form—but he is singular in the degree to which he lingers on such moments (often leaving performers suspended in immobility), and the consistency with which he gives them narrative pre-eminence, even when working with pre-existing material. Blue Velvet (1986) remains the shining exemplar, while The Straight Story (1999) is probably the most grounded instance of this trajectory. This paradigm is likewise evident in The Elephant Man (1982), with its public/private terror of self-revelation, Dune (1984), with its emphasis on prophecy and fate, and Wild at Heart (1990), with its reconciliation of personal Wizard of Oz–inflected fantasy in the context of a marriage. And it’s arguably even clearer in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire, where specific occurrences (Bill Pullman’s visions as Fred, Naomi Watts’s audition, Dern’s on-set rehearsal) practically shatter their respective film-worlds, leaving the viewer to pick up the pieces.
The usefulness of approaching Lynch in this way is that it accounts for his taste for extremes—in sexuality, violence, and otherwise—beyond merely cataloging his filmic forebears. In mapping consciousness, his filmography charts out points of breakdown, in style and subject both. The underlying assumption is that previous conceptions of cinema can no longer contain James Mason’s patriarchal terror in Bigger Than Life (1950) or the white-hot hate of Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and thus, as in Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway respectively, the world itself must come apart at the seams. The car chase in Blue Velvet, in which Jeffrey and Sandy are pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, is particularly illustrative, echoing the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but stopping short at Dorothy Vallens’s bruised, naked figure. A confrontation with the (formerly) unrepresentable, the scene could even be said to prepare the viewer for the crash at the head of Mulholland Dr. or the unexpected burst of GoPro footage when Mr. C loses control of his car in Part Three of The Return, as the curtains of the Black Lodge open passage to the waking world.
Lynch’s soundscapes are likewise calibrated to convey such rifts and instabilities in consciousness, requiring its hearers to somehow account for their particular thrum, even irrationally—as in Eraserhead’s radiator or Inland Empire’s echoey soundstage—or else risk madness of a different sort. The Return offers a telling variation on this with Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) and his new secretary Beverly (Ashley Judd), who together investigate a strange ringing in the Great Northern. The source is not identified, and the golden glow of the room and its ambient thrum becomes a liminal space where both linger on the threshold of their desire, but choose not to act upon it. (The anguished analogue to this is Nadine’s long-running ambition to invent silent drape runners, since the effective source of her soul's irritation, her loveless marriage with Ed, is for a long time unacknowledged.)
In this rough schema, the murder of Darya (Nicole LaLiberte) at the hands of Mr. C, which lingers on her having to accept her impending death (“Yes, Darya,” he whispers), is no less “Lynchian” than the disorienting blue near the end of Part Seven, following the FBI’s visit to Mr. C; the blackmail of the prison warden; or the initiatory arm-wrestling ritual of Ray’s gang, whose leader confronts the realization that he cannot win. That it is often MacLachlan’s malevolent figure who precipitates such moments is no coincidence, and again the Mr. C/Dougie Jones dichotomy proves instructive: the former forcing all that he meets to reckon with some intolerable knowledge, resulting in scenes of abject terror, the latter a hollow unit, illustrating the lengths people will go to avoid acknowledging a genuine change. In one, a terrible tragedy of knowing; in the other, a blissful comedy of detachment.
The cinema is made primarily to express matters of the mind, the inner consciousness, not by a succession of images so much as by something more imponderable which restores them to us with their direct matter, with no interpositions or representations.
—Antonin Artaud, “Witchcraft and cinema”
The ‘problem’ of thought in cinema is of course not a new one, so it’s worth briefly considering a kindred spirit from a different time: the French dramatist and sometime-actor-screenwriter Antonin Artaud. Though there are potential links to be found in his Theatre of Cruelty, his enthusiasm for cinema, while short-lived, is the more direct and productive pathway. Indeed, a striking aspect of reading Gilles Deleuze’s account of Artaud in Cinema 2 is the extent to which it might be said to anticipate Lynch, whose films might well have restored the artist’s faith in cinema. In particular, Artaud’s belief that cinema was “essentially suited to reveal this powerlessness to think at the heart of thought” comports well with the Lynchian paradigm, which precisely confronts characters (or “seers”) with the unthinkable, arresting movement and transforming space into a stage for consciousness.
In accounting for the peculiar force of Inland Empire—its tenebrous, labyrinthine liminalities that trace impossible circuits of nullifying self-recognition—one could certainly do worse than cite Artaud’s belief that cinema was invested “not with the power of making us think the whole, but on the contrary with a ‘dissociative force’ which would introduce a ‘figure of nothingness,’ a ‘hole in appearances.’” The film’s relatively unconstrained production—starting from a lengthy monologue, successively added to over a couple years—may suggest an affinity with Surrealism, a movement that frequently crops up in discussions of Lynch. Without rejecting this genealogy out of hand, it should also be said that Surrealism, specifically as it manifested in the European films of his time, could not provide what Artaud himself sought from the cinema, but which Lynch’s films seem to me to fulfill. That is, “psychic situations which wedge the mind in and force it to find some subtle means of escape”—a “visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by the action.”
Psychology devoured by action: a succinct description of the scenes in The Return in which spatial fixity and psychic flux are combined into moments of nigh-unbearable force, such as when Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer is horrified by a new brand of turkey jerky in the checkout aisle of a supermarket, a space that becomes an affront to her very presence, only to be escaped from. Or, when Fat Trout Trailer Park manager Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), after a rare moment of golden serenity, is faced with the cruel sight of a young boy being killed in a hit-and-run accident. As in the nerve-shredding traffic confrontation with an unhinged Mike (Al Strobel) in Fire Walk With Me, which unfolds in the same intersection, Lynch here pushes performance into extremity (the amateurish stiffness of the bystander reactions) and confronts the viewer with a psychic spectacle where thought becomes impossible. But there is some solace: Stanton’s Carl, who’s accepted that he hasn’t much to look forward to “except the hammer slammin’ down,” tilts his gaze upwards, where with amazement he sees the boy’s soul rise into the skies. Perhaps he has never seen such a thing before, perhaps he has and is only shocked that no one else seems to notice. In any case, he then moves towards the grief-stricken mother, whose own escape from the unthinkable is still yet to come.
If Blue Velvet remains the ideal entry point into Lynch’s filmography, this is because it redoubles this confrontation with the unthinkable in both character and narrative, focusing on a generation just coming of age, and operating, like Rear Window (1954) before it, at a tangent to the detective story. (Lynch on Rear Window: “There’s such a coziness with James Stewart in one room, and it’s such a cool room, and the people who come into this room—Grace Kelly for instance, and Thelma Ritter—it’s just so fantastic that they’re all in on a mystery that’s unfolding out their window.”) That mystery occupies such a central position in Lynch’s art is unsurprising, but given that Twin Peaks is the only work of his that fully belongs to the detective story lineage, it’s worth drawing this connection out in more detail.
Specifically, one might consider the detective story’s very particular relationship to objects. In its classical form, with Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as representative figures, the detective retained a more or less stable position of mastery over the signs and objects of the crime, able to discern their value, assign them meaning, and thus arrange them according to a proper, fixed pattern. If objects were to speak, it would only be at the detective’s behest. But with the hard-boiled school of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, objects begin to regain a certain independence. Beyond its eponymous statuette, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), a representative novel if there was one, contains a revealing, tossed-off anecdote: about a man Flitcraft, who, because of a near-miss with a falling beam, simply walked out of his previous life and established a new one cross-country, an act he felt commensurate to the absurdity of the occurrence—as if a failed silent comedy gag, unable to find release in either laughter or a balanced physical reaction, instead exerted an unbearable psychic pressure on its subject.
As B. Kite and Bill Krohn observe in their 2005 essay on Richard Fleischer’s serial-killer touchstone Follow Me Quietly (1948), the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet represents a crucial development in this trajectory: In his early work, the independent force of objects is no longer in question. Nominally about a detective who returns to his hometown to investigate a murder, his debut novel The Erasers (1953) ends not with a closed narrative circuit (as classical form would dictate), but with multiple, coexisting spheres of possibility, the stubborn solidity of its materials resisting resolution. This approach intensifies in The Voyeur (1955), whose narrator displays a detective’s maniacal attention to itineraries (maps and timetables) and physical detail (exhaustively delineated décor and environment), but also a willingness to follow stray tendrils of thought, which often leads the novel to surface in strange places, dissolving space and time into matrices of de-psychologized description. Despite not being a consistent practitioner of the detective fiction form, Robbe-Grillet can lay claim to having pushed it in the direction of his third novel Jealousy (1957), which Roland Barthes called “objective” in the sense of “turned toward the object.”
Twin Peaks is not easily placed along this development. Throughout its run, there is a marked respect for the independent poetry of objects, and even past the initial reveal of Laura’s killer, the continued pull of specific items (Laura’s diary, foremost) was acknowledged. But Lynch and Frost have far less compunction than Robbe-Grillet about rendering objects with an aura of psychology, as in Part 11 when Hawk says: “This map is very old, but it is always current. It’s a living thing.” (The evolution of the arm offers an amusingly literal play on the notion of speaking objects: “I am the arm, and I sound like this…”) Likewise, the appearance of previously missing diary pages in The Return, and the subsequent unboxing of ancient evidence in the Sheriff’s Department conference room, suggest not so much an investigation as a kind of hard-boiled hermeneutic, complete with all the signs of a liturgy—no clearer than when Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) re-encounters Laura’s photo while “Laura’s Theme” swells on the soundtrack, piercing through the veil of decades past. If this is a regression from Robbe-Grillet’s modernist developments, it is unclear what, exactly, it is a regression to.
The concept of the MacGuffin may provide some clarity. For Hitchcock, it was an object of no significance to the audience, of interest only as a plot engine. But this definition was rooted in that director’s very particular interests, and another way of looking at such an object is that it is one powerful enough to be the center of its own cosmos—that it is capable of creating a world of its own. Classical detectives such as Sherlock Holmes (noted for his ignorance of Copernican heliocentrism) sought to discover such relations and thereby contain them, while later detective figures operated within such networks. But what happens when such object relations become subsumed into quasi-religious ritual? What happens when the moment of murder recedes into myth? In this, it’s not incidental that W.H. Auden saw the detective story as the “mirror image” of the Quest for the Grail, nor that the grail itself has been seen as an early iteration of the MacGuffin. In the Peaks universe, it is the blue rose (like Chandler’s blue dahlia, a thing that cannot occur in nature) that becomes the seekers’ shared sign—though its bearers have a peculiar tendency to lose themselves and forget what it is they are searching for, and what they had hoped to achieve when they found it. Stranded among the trappings of degraded and bastardized myth in The Return—Las Vegas’s Lancelot Court, Merlin Park, and Guinevere Lane—the sleeper has yet to awaken. Perhaps a flash of revelation is required.
Metaphors of Vision
The original airing of The Return’s eighth episode on June 25, 2017 was an event. From the moment of its appearance, Part Eight has been widely, rightly hailed as a landmark. An interesting aspect of the flurry of reactions that followed, though, was the sheer speed with which viewers managed to process it. Within days (even hours) emerged a de facto list of works cited, including, especially, experimental and avant-garde filmmakers such as Pat O’Neill, Peter Tscherkassky, and Bruce Conner, among many others. (New York’s Metrograph Theater later programmed an entire series around the episode.) Useful references, all—and for those who saw The Return as pushing TV towards the gallery, this hour-long episode no doubt stood as the show’s signal victory.
In a finely articulated piece in Cinema Scope 72, Kate Rennebohm says as much, asserting that “Part Eight solidifies The Return’s removal of narrative from atop the televisual hierarchy, unabashedly making clear that narrative serves here at the pleasure of the higher powers of the non-narrative: music, noise, colour, form.” But without diminishing the usefulness of these avant-garde reference points, the sheer sensorial impact of the episode, or the extent to which The Return as a whole pushes the boundaries of convention, a striking aspect of the episode, for me, was the extent to which it confirmed Lynch as, foremost, a narrative filmmaker.
This is not to somehow “reclaim” the achievement of Part Eight for narrative form, as if picking sides in some Manichean struggle between story and sensation were even possible. As Rennebohm goes on to say, the episode “somewhat surprisingly trades on the belief so dear to devotees of experimental film: that formally experimental images are not arbitrary, excessive, or obscure, but rather are irrevocably tied up with our ways of understanding the world.” True enough—and the episode’s four-movement structure bears this out. But it is less clear to me that by deploying such images in opposition to a larger narrative structure, Lynch has not in fact made them dependent upon, even subordinate to it. The long, long push into the Trinity Test mushroom cloud in White Sands, New Mexico, accompanied by Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima—easily one of the most thrilling sequences of the decade—arrives, eventually, at an image of BOB. And this inclusion is crucial, for it carries an implicit charge that seems opposed to much experimental practice: Extend the bounds of human discovery and sensation and experience however you will, all you will end up finding is your own image. The Return may ultimately be interrogating the all-too-human tendency to narrativize and/or anthropomorphize—and I take it as doing so. Like Brakhage, Lynch understands the drive to “imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word’,” to borrow from the former’s famed essay. But the fact that The Return gets at this ideal by negation is no small difference. So to take Part Eight’s astonishing imaginative extensions as chiefly non-narrative seems to avoid the audacious challenge Lynch and Frost are presenting: that in this hour-long threnody, one might hear the screams of Laura Palmer.
If this is a provocation, it’s a provocation with a history. For its length and timing, Penderecki originally titled his composition 8’37” (the estimated performance duration), a self-acknowledged Cagean gesture for a decidedly modernist, “contentless” piece. But the Polish composer eventually decided to go with a different title altogether: “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Jan Krenz recorded it and I could listen to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those ‘digits.’ I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.”
This is an astounding account. But it’s not difficult to imagine Lynch and Frost’s conception of Part Eight as proceeding in a similar manner. It’s typical to see Lynch’s characters as having their quotidian realities ruptured by ancient mythological forces (BOB, Jowday, etc.), a view that the episode might seem to confirm. But a more accurate picture would see these things as, precisely, a means of reckoning with an intolerable fact—the abuse and murder of a teenaged girl by her own father, perhaps. That Fire Walk With Me, in its position as prequel, is able to retroactively ‘confirm’ the existence of BOB is an unambiguous, forceful illustration of how we have become responsible for the causal meaning of our own suffering, of how we reach into the past, grasping for a sense of order, and in doing so construct the very notion of fate—and the film’s shattering force is a measure of this terrible responsibility. Now faced with the cosmic creation myth of Part Eight, we cast about for associations to lay claim to its sensorial charge and bring it into order, and in doing so we lock these movements (these “digits”) into a recognizable pattern, we make the unthinkable thinkable. Burdened with an inescapable need to “make sense of it,” we rise to the challenge—only too well.
It’s of no minor significance that Part Eight does not “break” The Return, that it does not precipitate a radical formal or narrative reorganization in the remainder of the season’s 18-episode run (cf. the audition in Mulholland Dr., the rehearsal in Inland Empire, or even the falling beam in The Maltese Falcon). That this spectacular interlude, detonated at the heart of The Return, should not engender such a rupture might seem unusual—perverse even. But then again, given the ever-widening circles of the Twin Peaks cosmogony, and the third season’s acute sense of mounting anticipation, perhaps not. As Maya Deren wrote in 1946, the year of Lynch’s birth, public inertia towards the bomb was precisely, “not a reaction,” but “the sheer persistence of an attitude already firmly habitual,” the A-bomb being merely the latest in a series of scientific achievements, some of which, like the radio and electricity (both of which feature prominently in Part Eight) “had far more the quality of a miracle.”
It takes nothing away from Part Eight to observe that we were in various respects prepared for it, for its rhetorical force is founded upon that awareness. And it is a mark of The Return’s achievement that we should accept so grand and terrifying a creation myth at its heart; that this re-ordering of the Twin Peaks universe should be made to feel like an inevitability. Drink full and descend.
Still, it would be unfortunate not to look in some detail at Lynch’s formal affinities with experimental practice, especially since, as Dennis Lim observes in his critical biography David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, the tendency is to default to “the Lynch persona as we have come to know it: the primitive artist of our most modern art.” This is an image that the Missoula, Montana-born media-hopping artist has, intentionally or not, cultivated over the years, and it’s not one that his close collaborators and relations have done much to puncture. (A typical account, from Isabella Rossellini: “From the glazed expression he often had in his eyes, I could always deduce when he wasn’t listening to me. I suspect he lingers in other dimensions.”) Reading such characterizations, one is assailed with images of the artist communing with tiny creatures floating beneath a sea of consciousness, later delivering his findings to the surface world for the delectation of a rapt audience.
Such portrayals, of course, reveal a metaphysic of both art and art-making, one that fails to account for, or even acknowledge, the total facts involved—not least the sense of art as work, craft, and labour. Without venturing into more explicit questions of genius or personal oddity, it can certainly be said that such views delimit one’s experience of the work at hand. Elsewhere in her wide-ranging essay “An Anagram of Ideas,” Deren lambasts those critics who would “imagine that the moral character of primitive societies is innocence” and thus find in the “‘modern primitive’ painter, some archaeological moral fragment, well preserved, of the idyllic time”—which might well be directed at those who would take Lynch’s direct, un-ironic approach to emotion (e.g. Sandy’s robin monologue in Blue Velvet) as a product of innocence or naivete as opposed to considered, hard-won belief or an intensive search for new tonalities. Related to this is the tendency to file Lynch’s methodologies under the banner of Surrealism or general weirdness, instead of treating them as formal extensions of his search for points of psychic breakdown and collapse.
With its proliferation of passageways and subterranean spectacle, Inland Empire is, among other things, a superb catalogue of early Internet-era thought, in some sense extending the URL-anchored, blank-room, torture-chamber possibility of Olivier Assayas’s demonlover (2002). So while it’s true that Lynch isn’t exactly au courant in the manner of Assayas, it would also be a mistake to stress the supposed insularity of his art life at the expense of his exploratory, forward-thinking procedures. And if there’s one thing that emerges from an account of his artistic development—from his high-school painting sessions with Jack Fisk in a small Virginia apartment to the gargantuan Dino De Laurentiis Dune production to the dissolution and reconstitution of Mulholland Dr.—it’s his intimate knowledge of the costs of producing art, or in other words the cost of space.
This awareness can be discerned, to varying degrees, in all of Lynch’s work—he is rare in having worked at such a range of project budgets—and The Return is no outlier in this regard, not least because it is itself a limit-case of contemporary television production models. And while this alone cannot determine an affinity with experimental practice, it points up to the alternate paths that Lynch takes to deal with similar questions of space and dwelling. The scenes between Sam and Tracey (Madeline Zima) in New York City, involving a mysterious glass box, have been variously read as some kind of wry comment on contemporary viewing habits—reasonably enough given that the designated viewing area is on a kind of dais, literally “platformed.” But more than any meta-commentary, these passages echoed for me an altogether different recording of a Manhattan loft: Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967).
Through radically different means, both films present the viewer with a space that is not inhabited—or anyway not properly lived in—and then offer a progression that explores what it would mean to master the space, to lay claim to it. Space is, of course, never neutral, and over the course of The Return, there are few places untouched by the forces that Dr. Jacoby decries in his spittle-punctuated webcast rants: the trailer park home where Becky (Amanda Seyfried) and Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) play out a sordid, familiar domestic melodrama, Norma’s Double R Diner franchises, and Big Ed’s desultory cash-only gas station. Likewise, the Manhattan loft, which young, fresh-faced Sam only works at in order to pay for school, and which might well stand in for crypto-global forces of modernity itself. In its elaborate six-camera recording set-up (something like a state-of-the-art update of Eadward Muybridge’s multi-camera experiments), there’s an understanding of the conditions that make this “pure” observational experiment possible, a recognition of its essentially proprietary objective: that by framing this cube of space, this window to the world, one might somehow own it.
But as Snow’s famous zoom attests, arriving not at an ocean of consciousness, but only the frozen surface of the sea, this is impossible—and the grisly end that Sam and Tracey meet serves as a warning to those who would consider similar undertakings. The moment in which MacLachlan’s suspended figure appears within the box, successively bounded by metallic frames, is an unambiguous affirmation that it is we who are inescapably bounded by space and time. Sam’s painstaking process of switching out, labeling, and then storing each of the camera’s SD cards must, in the end, be counted as a recognition of physical limitation, affirming what Lynch has understood since The Man in the Planet pulled a lever at the start of Eraserhead: that no matter how complex or simple the mechanism, somewhere down the line, a body must intervene. It is only by rejecting the idea of infinite possibility that we can activate our awareness of the world we inhabit, that we might create a space in which we might be able to truly live.
For a stylistic affinity between the two directors, though, one must look to Snow’s *Corpus Callosum from 2002, the same year as Lynch’s eight-episode web-series Rabbits. (It seems no coincidence that digital technologies should facilitate this relative proximity of practice.) A conceptually dense, fully digital film of remarkable ludic drive, *Corpus Callosum treats bodies and spaces as plastic and infinitely malleable—stretching, squishing, flattening, and otherwise distorting each in turn—and thus serves as a useful point of reference for Lynch, a director who, after all, first came to film as “a way to make paintings move.”
The visual effects in The Return, largely carried out with the French company BUF, are some of the finest in contemporary cinema tout court. As in Snow’s film, whose appeal hinges on the disjunction between the elegance of its conception and the intentional crudity of both its slapstick humour and early-2000s CGI, Lynch continually harnesses a sense of handmade roughness as a virtue, employing fluid verisimilitude when required (as in the pair of other-dimensional vortices that open up in South Dakota and Washington), but more often opting to let the seams show (such as with the collapse of the decoy Dougie tulpa, which literally crumples into itself in a transparently 2-D effect). The great lesson of Eraserhead was not just that trying to control every aspect of the frame was both impractical and prohibitively time-consuming, but also that there’s an atmospheric value to apparent cheapness (“apparent” because VFX technology now being what it is, there’s never really a sense in The Return that the director isn’t getting exactly what he wants). Lynch’s aesthetic isn’t what you’d call expressionist, but it derives much of its force from the expressive juncture it occupies in relation to normative sight and experience.
Not altogether unlike the object-oriented reversals of the modernist detective novel, much of the pleasure in *Corpus Callosum is predicated on overturning man’s assumed dominance over his environment, an approach that’s held in tension with Snow’s own CGI-enabled control. Throughout the film’s digitally stitched, endlessly looping office spaces, it is now human bodies that must bend to accommodate the world around them. One of its finest (and funniest) sequences sees a man and a woman trying to pass through a doorway, only to then merge into a shiny rectangular slab—any attempts to anthropomorphize the 2001 monolith are definitively deflected. There’s a certain cruelty to such methods, which in The Return find clear expression in the person of Las Vegas hitman Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), who carries on the legacy of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), where those once relegated to the order of objects and carnival spectacle (as in the era of The Elephant Man), might finally have their revenge. Mostly, though, Lynch employs such reversals and transformations in The Return for comedy.
In his essay “The Child in the Machine: On the Use of CGI in Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum,” Malcolm Turvey does the extremely valuable work of placing the film within the lineage of slapstick comedy, a genre explicitly based on assaulting the hero’s dignity. And though all manner of bodies meet grisly ends in The Return, none are put through such a range of environments and transformations as MacLachlan’s, which in the first three episodes is slammed onto the mysterious glass box in Manhattan, deposited with a satisfying plop onto the balcony of a seaside fort, and then stretched through an electrical socket (an effect that was originally, per the VFX artists, “too comical” for Lynch, who decided to add black smoke to the sequence). And it doesn’t end there: Charted out over the course of roughly 14 episodes, the Dougie Jones scenes constitute nothing less than a protracted assault on Cooper’s heroic dignity.
Turvey goes on to draw out the larger connections between experimental film and comedy, giving pride of place to Laurel & Hardy—a connection that is apposite to The Return as a whole (and not just because Harry Goaz’s Andy reminds me of Stan Laurel, especially when he’s crying). In Lynch as in L&H, there is a tangible sense of the world as sticky, stubborn, and intransigent—just so damn material. Every object becomes an obstacle, as in the ever-delayed picnic of Perfect Day (1929), where even the simplest of journeys becomes an impossible struggle. In this, the Dougie passages are again exemplary, following MacLachlan’s empty shell as he’s shuttled around Las Vegas (where is that large automobile?), his time mostly split, as in Snow’s film, between the spaces of work (the Lucky 7 Insurance offices) and home (the “red door” of his beautiful house in Lancelot Court), confounding comprehension all the while. (Well, how did he get here?)
In the Dougie arc as a whole, as in so much of Lynch’s comedy, there’s a general L&H-esque feeling that this may never end—hence the ease with which the proceedings can slip into outright horror. (There’s no one quite like Lynch for making you feel trapped.) This quality, which hovers just on the right side of unbearable, can likewise be felt in the scenes of Andy and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) going back and forth while shopping online for a red/beige chair, basically everything to do with Candie (Amy Shiels) and her molasses-slow movement, Jerry Horne waging war on his foot, and especially the scenes between Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and her husband Charlie (Clark Middleton), which like L&H’s Be Big! (1930), brings marital/gender-based conflict into the equation. When physical violence comes in, you end up with hit-man-and-wife Hutch (Tim Roth) and Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shooting out with an irate suburban resident over a foot of sidewalk, a standoff that’s something like a homicidal variation on Big Business (1928), where an escalating series of recriminations plays out between L&H and a belligerent homeowner as a policeman watches ineffectually from afar.
On the one hand, then, a renewed, technology-driven sense of (CGI-fueled) control over space, cinematic or otherwise (referring to an analogous tendency in the experimental filmmakers of the 1920s, Annette Michelson uses the term “ludic sovereignty”). On the other, the world reasserting its presence—comically, cruelly, justly—entailing human readjustment and re-learning. Same as it ever was.
Reaching Level Five
Such rigors of (re-)learning are an integral part of any game structure. And while in general, looking at cinema via a game analogy poses some risk of overreach, it’s a potentially useful angle of approach for Twin Peaks, especially given the third season’s governing notions of return, rediscovery, and replay, the elaborate rule systems and mythological mechanisms of its universe, and Lynch’s general inclination to seek out points of failure. The latter is of particular interest, as rule-breaking and limit-cases are just as integral to the act of play as rule-learning is. One of the great pleasures of extended seriality is that it allows artists more freedom to develop codified stylistic systems—to introduce the viewer/player to a work’s internal logic and then deviate from it to achieve specific ends. Two oft-mentioned, humorous instances in The Return are the let’s-not-call-it-Warholian shot of a man sweeping the Roadhouse floor (deviating from the previously established pattern of episode-closing performance) and the brief scene in Part 12 where we see Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon) throwing a baseball at Dougie, the only “development” of the Las Vegas arc in the entire episode (Mr. C: “Las Vegas?” Diane: “THEY HAVEN’T ASKED YET.”).
Whether one prefers to treat Twin Peaks as a puzzle-box to be solved, or tends to find such procedures anathema, preferring to subordinate plot to sensorial shock and awe, both these structural fillips probably registered—which in turn points up to the pitfalls of sticking to one approach at the expense of the other. The former tack risks flattening the viewing experience into an undifferentiated catalogue of signs and symbols, while the latter can obscure how Lynch employs structuring mystery to activate the viewer’s involuntary desire for a sense of gestalt, even if illusory. Though not a game master in the manner of Rivette or Ruiz, Lynch nonetheless understands the desire to construct logic-systems via imaginative projection, the degree to which meaning derives from mechanics, and the fact that our attempts at making sense of things are themselves a form of tactility. This intuitive multivalence is why Lynch’s later films tend to be unsatisfying when seen under the lens of totalizing interpretations, particularly psychological ones. As Mark Fisher wrote of Inland Empire: “the temptation to resolve the film’s conundrums psychologically (i.e. to attribute the anomalies to phantasms issuing from the deranged mind of one or more of the characters)… should be resisted if we are to remain true to what is singular about the film.”
So it goes with The Return. “Who is the dreamer?” is without a doubt its abiding question, but no single answer—not even Cooper, the fulcrum about which the two-hour finale turns—can even begin to account for the sprawling shape of the thing. Nor should it, given that Lynch’s fundamental (and fundamentally phenomenological) requirement of a good movie is that it must leave “room to dream,” a fairly handy picture that explicitly locates artistic value in a liminal zone between film and viewer. This is another reason why the notion of a player within a Twin Peaks game is an attractive one: it foregrounds the interactivity inherent to all film viewing, and in addition points up to a constitutive consciousness. An inextricable component of all art, to be sure, but of especial concern in those works that seek to obviate conventional determinants, to unmoor the viewer from their presuppositions and institute cycles of re-acclimation and re-learning. (Here again, Artaud’s ideal of a cinema where psychology is devoured by action—which could very well be a video game formulation—is both useful and ahead of its time.)
Robbe-Grillet’s aforementioned early novels operate in this way, and through his forays into cinema, one might chart a course to Alain Resnais, whose filmography offers a number of salient examples: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967) both operate according to periodic patterns of temporal shock and resynchronization, while the Robbe-Grillet scripted Last Year at Marienbad (1961) practically acts on the viewer’s resistance to its fictional processes, and includes among its free-floating realities a solved game of Nim. But for his generative relationship to various technologies and technological shifts, we might do well to return to the Left Bank director we started with and consider Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997), a movie that sets the viewer adrift in “a Sargasso sea full of binary algae.”
Whereas The Return lingers in the mind as so many colour-coded slabs of digital clarity, Level Five is all pixelated deliquescence and flux. It is, foremost, an attempt to dive in and reconstruct the past: a woman named Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) takes on the task of completing her late lover’s final work, a video game about the Battle of Okinawa, the final conflict of WWII considered by some to have “made the case for the Atom Bomb.” Throughout the undertaking, as she sifts through an ever-mounting trove of research, she records on her computer video diary entries addressed to her deceased lover, speaking at one point on the seeming futility of the project: “Did you really believe a player would be capable of spending his nights watching history repeating itself, and convincing himself that his own history would also just have a single way to be played?”
Marker being Marker, this is not the only game in play. Laura recounts how, with her lover, she used to categorize people in “levels” from one to five, according to their conversational sophistication: “The game became such a standard that we could do nothing unless we gave levels to everything in life. But nothing ever reached Level Five. I remember one day I said to you: ‘Must one die to get to Level Five?’” Later, with her computer, she tries the Marienbad game: “After a few moves the computer said: ‘I won already, but we may go on if you like.’ Death could say that.” And perhaps in revenge, she plays with the machine yet another, knowingly exploiting its limitations by giving it commands, but substituting nouns when it expects verbs, thus throwing up error messages like “I don’t know how to shoe,” “I don’t know how to baguette.” But amid these diversions, the Okinawa project takes its toll (“I get time-ache like headaches…”) and she is soon gone.
In the film’s coda, Marker himself narrates in a time after Laura’s disappearance: “The workshop seemed unchanged, the machines were on, as if she had just stepped out…” He types in her name. The computer returns the expected message: “I don’t know how to Laura.”
Around the dinner table the conversation is lively.
—Twin Peaks, Part Nine
To extend other-Laura’s game from Level Five for a moment, one might reasonably ask what various characters of Twin Peaks would rate on the scale. Despite Lynch’s regularly remarked-on reticence, his work is marked by a fascination with words, and Twin Peaks offers a particularly thoroughgoing examination of speech, from Josie Packard’s misuse of idiom (“On top of the morning…”) to Margaret Lanterman’s associative pronouncements (“Truman… true men”) to Gordon Cole’s various jokes (“Cooper flew the coop!”). Even ostensibly expository scenes trade on a certain linguistic fascination, as when in Part One, Lucy bewilders the insurance salesman looking for Sheriff Truman by replying: “Which one? It could make a difference.”
Elsewhere in The Man From Another Place, Lim writes: “In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature.” Fire Walk With Me in particular bears this observation out, and in the film one finds an echo of what Robbe-Grillet observed in his 1956 polemic calling for the new novel—that is, “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth’,” the notion that a writer might somehow capture the universe in a particularly unique adjective or word. The introduction of the word “garmonbozia,” ‘defined’ in the subtitles as “pain and sorrow,” is as clear an example as they come—for who can really claim that this gibberish, made-up word can really mean anything to someone who hasn’t seen Laura at breakfast with her parents, her father terrorizing her into a state of near-catatonia as her cereal slowly turns to mush. The film’s famous “Pink Room” scene—as hypnotic a passage as any that Lynch has ever directed—approaches the matter by an alternate angle, offering subtitles alongside inaudible dialogue, dissolving speech into aural texture.
But this only gets at part of the problem, as Lynch’s frustration with words is two-fold: not just that there’s terror in being faced with the abstract limitations of words (as in his 1968 short The Alphabet), but also that in attempting to communicate, one’s words might end up doing more than what one intends, that like the grandmother in The Grandmother (1970), a word/idea/seed might grow beyond one’s control. Lynch is about as far from proffering Godardian aphorisms as one could imagine—it’s not a stretch to think that his aversion to academic readings is because they pull away language from their ordinary contexts—but his resistance seems due as much to considered circumspection as to against-interpretation stubbornness. He mistrusts words not because they don’t mean much, but because they mean too much—more perhaps than he’s willing to take responsibility for.
So he tries to defeat meaning.
Though Lynch has spoken of himself as a kindred spirit of Kafka’s (see the poster of the author in Gordon Cole’s office), he is in this respect rather closer to Beckett. In both artists, one finds a particular fascination with language, and their methods might be said to explore our relationship to seemingly ordinary words, drawing out their strangeness and extraordinary character. Lynch’s interest in small-town America no doubt flows, in part, from the seeming alienness of extremely localized idiom; likewise, his tendency to include moments where figurative speech breaks down. Lucy’s confession about the chocolate bunnies in The Return is played for humour, but it’s not always clear in Lynch that the literal interpretation isn’t the right one.
Defeat of conventional language often takes on the aspect of negation. After Mrs. X and Mary flee the dinner table in Eraserhead, Mr. X asks, “Well Henry, what do you know?” Bewildered, Henry replies: “Uh… I don’t know much of anything.” Laurel & Hardy, to whom Beckett has not coincidentally also been compared, offer an earlier example in the 1933 Sons of the Desert, where Hardy’s attempts at idiom are repeatedly defeated by Laurel’s lolling literality. (H: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” L: “Who’s Jack?”)
But such transformations can take on the more positive aspect of discovery, too. Beckett’s Endgame offers endless examples of what Stanley Cavell terms “hidden literality,” a quality of phrases that seem obscure, absurd, entirely incomprehensible—that is, until one abandons figurative speech and accepts what’s been totally bare the entire time, freeing oneself with Buster Keaton–like shifts in referents of understanding. And like logs turning into gold, banalities transform into shining beacons. Detective stories often turn on such epiphanies, as is indeed the case towards the end of Twin Peaks’ second season, when Andy realizes that the Owl Cave petroglyph is in fact a map that’s been staring them in the face all along. Or in The Return, when Bobby, faced with the metal capsule that stymies Frank (Ray Wise), manages to open it by abandoning his investigative training, “reverting” to childhood, and recalling an old game he used to play with his father.
In considering an individual’s patterns of speech, then, Lynch would certainly reject the condescending notion of “levels,” preferring to treat these matters of difference as, simply, alternative categories, other ways of seeing and engaging with the world—no one expressly privileged above the other. The world is too variegated for us to think otherwise. It needs its Watsons as well as its Sherlocks, its Hastingses as well as its Poirots, its Andys as well as its Coopers. And maybe investigations would move quicker if, instead of breaking down in front of a dead body wrapped in plastic, more detectives would rush straight for the letter hidden under the fingernail. But what does it mean for one to become insensate towards a dead body? What does one do when the circumstances are not extraordinary, and just sordid and mean and commonplace? When they are, as seems to be the case with the festering corpse in Carrie Page’s Odessa, Texas apartment in Part 18, just so terribly, terribly ordinary?
It is true enough that figures like Andy and Lucy are not fluent in idiom or metaphor (hence the hilarity of their son, Michael Cera’s Wally Brando, who speaks only in figurative nothings). But they are rich in other ways, and the fact that they both serve such crucial roles in Part 17—and that Andy in particular is able to act while Hawk, Bobby, and Frank remain frozen in place—should disabuse us, once and for all, of the notion that they are not. For to deny this would be to deny that words and phrases can flourish in all manner of ways, and that their (extra)ordinariness is no more and no less than the contexts in which they are spoken. It would be to deny the seemingly ordinary lives that Lynch allows us to see anew. It would be to deny the very richness and multiplicity of the world that those such as Cooper have supposedly pledged to defend.
Questions in a World of Blue
But what does it mean to misuse words?
In all of Lynch, words take on an incantatory force, but Mulholland Dr. is the film where they are most directly invested with the power of life and death, the power to create and destroy. In Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley writes that with respect to critical analysis and interpretation, “words are the movie’s enemy—Lynch’s own pronouncements potentially being the deadliest of all.” Reasonable enough, given the tendency of critical treatments, both academic and amateur, to collapse its strangeness under a dominant interpretation. But regarding the film itself, it seems more revealing to say that words are not so much the enemy of, as the enemy in the movie. It could make a difference.
“This is the girl”: the line is spoken a total of seven times throughout Mulholland Dr. and takes on a different meaning with each pronouncement, becoming something like the film’s unstable center. To speak, to die. So it is with Watts’s Betty/Diane, who calls a hit on her ex-lover, sliding a photo across a diner table. In the case of director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), the danger is not to speak, or to speak in the wrong way (i.e. in reference to the wrong girl). As a hitman’s spectacularly bungled job makes amusingly clear, (a) silence(r) is no guarantee of anything.
The primary motif of Mulholland Dr., as expressed in Club Silencio (“No hay banda!”), is (a)synchronicity, and as the film unfolds, words float free of the world that’s been introduced: a remarkable audition transforms a turgid script, making us hear the lines as if for the first time, altering our perception of the actor; a performance startlingly breaks apart from a recording; the movie itself comes apart. In the Lynchian paradigm, resynchronization follows. So rather than attempt to suss out a definitive dream/reality split (Lynch is nothing if not withholding of the usual determinants), one might instead focus on how particular words/acts resonate amid the film’s myriad readjustments. The promised blue key is emblematic in this regard, for its significance does not derive from its apparent purpose (to ask what it opens is a non-starter), but from what it actually says/does (it’s the hitman’s response to Diane, confirming the job’s completion). It provides the illusion of yet another mystery, but this is mere distraction. Its true function cannot be denied.
The infamous scene with the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), then, is a brief reminder of the consequences of speech, of what it means for words to be out of sync:
COWBOY: A man’s attitude… a man’s attitude goes some ways, the way his life will be. Is that something you might agree with?
COWBOY: Now, did you answer because that’s what you thought I wanted to hear, or did you think about what I said and answer ’cause you truly believe that to be right?
KESHER: I agree with what you said, truly.
COWBOY: What’d I say?
KESHER: … That a man’s attitude determines to a large extent how his life will be.
COWBOY: So since you agree, you must be a person who does not care about the good life.
KESHER: How’s that?
COWBOY: Well, stop for a little second and think about it. Can you do that for me?
KESHER: [laughs] Okay, I’m thinking.
COWBOY: No, you’re not thinking. You’re too busy being a smart-aleck to be thinking. Now, I want you to think and stop being a smart-aleck. Can you try that for me?
You might say that the Cowboy is being pedantic; certainly he’s being didactic. More specifically, though, he’s attempting to teach Kesher that to say one agrees with something is not the same as agreeing, and that being able to repeat something (as in an audio recording) is not at all the same thing as meaning it—the difference, in both cases, being roughly that between Camilla Rhodes’s dispassionate lip-synch to “I’ve Told Every Little Star” and Rebekah Del Rio’s shattering rendition of “Llorando.”
The lesson doesn’t seem to take, but Kesher does learn something of the undeniable force of speech. As does Diane, who receives, in the end, the expected, irrevocable blue key. Lynch has before said: “Talking—it’s real dangerous.” Having seen the cost of it, we are inclined to agree, and the film ends on a blue-haired woman’s whispered injunction: “Silencio.”
They say intuition gives you an inner knowing, but the weird thing about inner knowing is that it’s really hard to communicate that to someone else. As soon as you try, you realize that you don’t have the words, or the ability to say that inner knowing to your friend. But you still know it! It’s really frustrating. I think you can’t communicate it because the knowing is too beautifully abstract.
—David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch
It should be clear by now that Lynch is plenty interested in words—not merely for their sound and texture, but also for the endless convolutions and contexts in which they appear and what these various situations might reveal about human experience, human limitations. The Return even establishes a methodology of sorts.
Over the course of the season, Dougie Jones periodically repeats specific phrases (“Confess,” “Make sense of it,” “Jade give two rides”) and often ends up triggering some sort of epiphany or transformation in his interlocutors. The joke, of course, is that our hapless hero isn’t investing these words with any sort of depth (the machine in Level Five could do what he does), but that they nonetheless reveal something about the person being spoken to. (The scenes with deputy Chad and the drunk in the Twin Peaks jail offer another variation: the drunk’s repetitions sound entirely mocking and condescending, which simply reveals that all Chad knows is mockery and condescension.) In this respect, the casino-set scenes of Part Three are a delightful précis of Dougie’s entire Las Vegas arc: Guided by glowing orbs, he shuffles around hitting the jackpot each time—that is, inadvertently enriching the lives of those he meets by giving them a greater awareness of themselves and the world that they inhabit. Or, to use programming parlance, he says: Hello(-oooooooooooo), world!
One could describe this as a process of “mapping the fields of consciousness lit by the occasion of a word, not through analyzing or replacing a given word by others,” which was what Cavell saw as J.L. Austin’s preferred means of attaining philosophical clarity in language. Which is not to suggest that Lynch is at all concerned with the practices of ordinary language philosophy that Austin is most associated with (any more than, say, Hal Ashby was when he made 1979’s Being There, whose “Chauncey Gardiner” Dougie has drawn comparison to). But it is to say that the operations that words and speech undergo in Lynch’s work are not at all incompatible with such philosophic procedures, precisely because it is the everyday-ness of speech that the director is interested in, that he demands so much from, and that he seems unable to take otherwise. He recognizes that speech, whatever else it may be, is never innocent.
Being constantly confronted with this fact can be maddening. In Kesher’s conversation with the Cowboy, one might even be persuaded that ignorance is the more tolerable option. But there are advantages to such heightened awareness, for when genuine understanding does occur, it is the sweetest thing there is. The instant rapport between Miguel Ferrer’s Albert Rosenfeld (whose jokes had previously fallen on literally deaf ears) and Jane Adams’s coroner Constance Talbot (whose own quips might as well have) simply has no substitute. As their mutual delight suggests, this is a rarity, and it is to be cherished.
But if such exceptional rapport isn’t possible, that doesn’t preclude a different kind of understanding—an acceptance of others, with all of their faults, knowing too that they are according us the same grace. Lucy’s great moment in Part 17 comes when she “finally understands how cellphones work,” completing something that began in the Twin Peaks pilot, when she rather confusingly transfers a call for a different Sheriff Truman. But the foundation for that climactic moment comes earlier, in the exquisitely touching moment when Hawk, before switching to a call that’s just come in, waits for Lucy to add the expected, but unnecessary note about “the blinking light,” and quietly smiles when no such addition comes. It is a sign that their worlds have come closer together. For what Lucy understands is not just the nature of her mistake (a minor, but persistent redundancy), but that for all this time Hawk had accepted it, had accepted her with unerring patience and grace. Neither party acknowledges this, or not with words anyway—for that would be another redundancy. Silence, you might say, is golden.
Such constancy, however, is itself a rarity—it’s hard-won and often not even an option. So how then is one supposed to communicate an “inner knowing,” a process that Lynch understandably finds so awfully frustrating? In that same interview, he offers at least one answer: poetry, which he credits with being able to “catch an abstraction in words and give you a feeling that you can’t get any other way.” His films offer yet another: performance, often musical performance, the tenor of which has in his films ranged from sinister (“Locomotion”, “In Dreams”) to mesmeric (“Blue Velvet”) to liberating (“Sinnerman”). One of the great beauties of the Club Silencio scene where Laura Elena Harring and Watts watch Rebekah del Rio perform “Llorando” is that one woman understands the words being sung, the other doesn’t. No matter, the performance leaps past such boundaries, and for at least a moment, they are completely in sync.
It is because of such passages that Lynch’s work is frequently said to reach for the unutterable, to inhabit a space beyond verbal articulation, where words push past meaning. But another, potentially more revealing way of looking at this is that his cinema, with its fulsome formal articulation of a world, creates an atmosphere where specific utterances (“Llorando,” say) come to feel entirely natural, as if they were the only possible expression—and hence, that their meaning is intimately, inextricably bound up in that world and not somehow “contained” in the words themselves. To think otherwise is what Lynch (and Robbe-Grillet, and Beckett, and maybe even L&H) would object to.
This is the reason The Return’s Roadhouse performances are so uniquely charged, for Lynch and Frost have staged them in more ways than one. They have made it so that the injunction to “Meet me at the Roadhouse after 9:30,” originally given by James to Donna in the Twin Peaks pilot, should decades later come to mean one thing—the only thing. That for at least one summer (and especially if you lived on the East Coast), that statement should be a sign that one could either reject or accept, and in doing so say whether or not one is, like James and Donna, a part of Laura’s world. Chromatics’s “Shadow,” Rebekah del Rio’s “No Stars,” Nine Inch Nails’s “She’s Gone Away,” to name but a few: Not at all redundant, these performances are offered to us for our acknowledgement, and that they do in fact resonate—that they should feel like the only possible expression—means that we are, in a sense, of this world. For as long as the performances last, anyway—a part of their beauty is that they do end (they would be something else if they didn’t), leaving us with the now-familiar curtain call, “Starring Kyle MacLachlan.”
These performances thus serve a precise double-function: In fixing us more securely in the world of Twin Peaks, while at the same time reminding us of our own, they are like anchors that keep us floating in place just a while longer, whose weight nonetheless reminds us that we are not of the sea.
Losing the anchor is where the trouble begins. Cooper’s rooftop ascent in Part Three, finding himself floating amid an endless, starry expanse, is a sensuous, spectacular image of being unmoored, though Audrey’s long-delayed dance in Part 16, where performance becomes something other than performance, is arguably even more startling in its implications. For it is not just a matter of feeling adrift, but of forgetting which side of the mirror one belongs on—or, as in the case of Jerry Horne at war with his foot, of losing all sense of where one’s body ends and where the world begins.
In these scenes, one grapples with what it means to exist in the world, what it means to acknowledge that the world exists at all. Periodically throughout The Return, Strobel’s Mike (now something of a benevolent sprite) continually appears to Cooper/Dougie, attempting to help him fulfill an earlier message: “Don’t die.” A rather hefty injunction, that. But not altogether unlike the urgent core of Lynch’s never-produced Ronnie Rocket, which Kristine McKenna describes in Room to Dream: “The detective in the story is counseled by a wise man on the importance of maintaining consciousness; in this story, to lose this is to die, and love and pain are the energies that allow people to remain conscious.” The echo of TM practices notwithstanding, there’s no assumption of a lone endeavour here, for “love and pain” cannot exist in solitude; their “energies” must flow somewhere. There’s always a danger in going at it alone.
The fullest relationships in The Return are founded on mutual acknowledgement. Margaret Lanterman’s missives would hardly be complete without Hawk’s respectful constancy, and the vigil held in the conference room as the lights of her cabin go out for the last time is extraordinarily stirring in its quiet grace. (The obverse of this would be the unnerving close-up of Amanda Seyfried’s drug high in Part Five, set to The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” where for a moment nothing and no one else exists.) As it unfolds, The Return confronts us time and time again with situations where acknowledgement is cast into doubt, made to seem outrageous and altogether impossible. The “tulpas” that populate the Twin Peaks universe make manifest this perpetual disorder, and the disconcerting power of not-Diane’s monologue about Cooper’s visit is founded upon it. Likewise, the Dougie Jones arc is nothing less than a complete absence of consciousness, and thus a complete failure of acknowledgement. There’s a certain pleasure in watching Dougie interact with characters major and minor over the course of the season, but it only goes so far. He is not awake to them—and we feel a lack.
Hence, the supreme release of Cooper emerging from his shock-induced coma in Part 16, which culminates with a series of acknowledgements. His awakening makes love possible—and with it, pain. Cooper’s goodbye to Sonny Jim and Janey-E (Watts), alongside the latter’s heartrending response (“Whoever you are… thank you”), gives us the aching fullness of both. For a moment, the pain may be so acute that it’s no wonder we’d avoided acknowledgement for so long, and we might even think of acknowledgement itself as a kind of violence. But as every tragedy going back to King Lear (and beyond) will tell us, this is false. There are far worse things than pain.
To have one’s pain denied, for one thing. Charlie and Audrey’s scenes are complex and freighted with history, but if the former’s “I’m so sleepy, Audrey” started out as a mere means of escape, its repetition rings with repudiation by the time of Part 15, an episode that closes on Charlyne Yi crawling on the Roadhouse floor, shaking and screaming and waiting for someone who never arrives.
To be denied the very capacity to acknowledge, for another. Nae Yuuki’s Naido, stripped of both sight and intelligible speech, is emblematic of this powerlessness, and the same might be said for Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, for whom existence has become something more like a purgatorial prison. Though in her inscrutable expression while watching feeding lions in her living room TV, there seems to be something other than resignation, as is borne out when she later ventures to drink at a bar in Part 14, bringing the episode to a gleefully grisly end. Where does your hidden smile lie?
Harsher than any violence in The Return is the negation of acknowledgement, and it’s no surprise that this show, which expressly began with an hour-long litany of tearful anguish, should place so much importance on the power of the eyes to express feeling. If mutual recognition of another’s tears, as in Mulholland Dr., is the ultimate acknowledgement, then the frighteningly hollow motel-room encounter between Diane and Cooper in Part 18, set to a reprise of The Platters, is the final denial. As in Vertigo, the anguish is to be seen but not recognized, and knowing this, one would rather block out the other’s eyes, as Diane does, hiding her own face. It is perhaps preferable to look above, even knowing that in a world without tears, prayer has no purchase any longer. Only a note remains: “Please don’t try to find me. I don’t recognize you anymore.”
For Ed (Everett McGill) and Norma (Peggy Lipton), though, the time for hiding is finally over. There are few moments in The Return as potent as seeing McGill with his eyes closed, seated at the Double R Diner bar, as Lipton’s hand slides up his left shoulder, the two then slowly turning to face each other. Certainly none more joyous. And it is joyous precisely because it refuses to deny the years long gone—it acknowledges that the significance of this moment is rooted in its cost, that their love is founded in pain, and that to deny one would be to deny the other. That the scene is set to Otis Redding’s Monterey Pop performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which Lynch has cherished since the time of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 concert film, could hardly be more apropos. Not just because too long is the glorious, aching cry of this union, but also because there’s nothing quite like a live performance recording to remind you that you were not there.
But you are here now, and that is what matters. In McGill and Lipton’s weathered faces, there is no uncertainty about where they stand in relation to each other or to anything else, no confusion at all about where their bodies begin and end. The world may not start anew, but it is as if renewed—for we are awakened to it as never before.
HAMM: What’s happening? What’s happening?
CLOV: Something is taking its course.
—Samuel Beckett, Endgame
Maybe things could’ve ended there.
But of course they don’t—for there is a drama to conclude, a game to complete, a story to end. Leaving Ed and Norma at the Double R Diner, we observe as Mr. C obtains a final set of coordinates from Phillip Jeffries. Back in Twin Peaks, James and green-gloved Freddie Sykes (Jake Wardle) are locked up after a bar brawl. Electricity is humming. The dream-factory has stalled. The destiny-machine is in whirring motion.
How can this story end? “See you at the curtain call,” is what Cooper tells those gathered at the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department in Part 17, following the final face-off with BOB and Freddie. But what exactly would that entail? Lynch has previously remarked that “endings are terrible things,” but The Return deals with the matter of ending as never before in his filmography, asking what it means for things to still be taking their course after all this time—a query that finds astonishing expression in Beckett’s Endgame, a play that’s frequently seen as taking place after an atomic war, and which, as Cavell puts it, grapples with the question of “whether enough men can divine the difference, and choose, between wanting this world to stop itself, and wanting all world to end.” As The Return approaches its finale, ticking away from the clock stopped at 2:53, it becomes clear that Cooper no longer knows the difference. One only wonders if he ever did.
And now you’re just a stranger’s dream
I took your picture from the frame
And now you’re nothing like you seem
Your shadow fell like last night’s rain.
So we return to Laura Palmer, whose image, a quarter-century on, still hovers over Twin Peaks, and who, at this third season’s start, opens her face to reveal a shining. That Sarah Palmer later repeats Laura’s gesture creates an explicit duality, turning both into beacons of a kind—as if mother and daughter were the moon and sun of the Twin Peaks universe, and all events contained therein were meant to be seen in their crosslight.
It is a terrible notion. But is it not one that Part Eight had offered to us, and that we had accepted so willingly? There is, as we’ve seen, an especial horror to being stripped of both speech and sight, to have one’s face distorted beyond all function, as is the case with the show’s most violent deaths, where heads are exploded, smashed in, and even displaced altogether. But Laura’s and Sarah’s predicament goes further: their faces have been stolen. Far worse than feeling trapped in one’s own body is the sense that one’s face is no longer one’s own.
Maybe it would’ve been better if Laura’s picture were turned away (a salient set direction from Endgame: “Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture.”). It may not be enough to end things—the anguish of seeing Sarah Palmer smashing her daughter’s photo towards the end of Part 17 was likely unavoidable. But it would’ve been a start. And maybe Hawk’s visit to Sarah in Part 12 would’ve turned out differently.
Perhaps a true end for Twin Peaks, this “story about the little girl who lives down the lane,” would be for the shadow of Sarah’s life and the light of Laura’s death to no longer exist as things to be used, as things that might give significance to random events, but as simple facts of this universe. It is one thing to acknowledge that the sun and moon exist, and to walk in their light. It is quite another to draw the meaning of existence from the myths of their creation. The world spins.
The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer.
—W.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage”
The peculiar position of the detective, as per Carl Rodd’s greeting of Chet Desmod (Chris Isaak) in Fire Walk With Me, is that he is “always too early or too late,” always apart from a state of innocence, however illusory it may end up being. Cooper is the law. He is the FBI. But as Auden writes, we were promised a return, a replay, a means of being restored to Eden and knowing love apart from the law. So the dreamer finds a way to transmute dreams, to seize control of the dream-factory, thwart the destiny-machine, and reorder the past so they can finally be right on time, stretch out an arm in invitation amid a darkened forest, and say, “We’re going home.”
But as ever, the machine malfunctions—or perhaps just reveals the limitations that were there all along. Cooper manages to maintain consciousness, and even seems to have mastered space, but his movements become locked into a pattern, frozen according to habit and impulse, as if programmed. He seems to have forgotten what it means to speak. He no longer seems to understand that “This is the girl” can be an acknowledgement as well as a denial, that it can mean life as well as death. When he shows up at Carrie Page’s apartment and says: “I think you’re a girl named Laura Palmer,” he might as well be saying: “I don’t know how to Laura.”
In Vertigo’s famed redwoods scene, Novak, tracing the rings of a tree stump, says to Stewart’s Scottie: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Cooper’s great crime is the same—a refusal to notice, to acknowledge. It is a refusal born of an infantile fantasy of omnipotence, the idea that one can master time and space, and bend it to one’s will. It is a refusal to accept that love cannot exist without pain. It is a refusal to accept that the replay Marker speaks of in Vertigo is not free. To think it so is his downfall, and rather than accept this finitude, he chooses to abandon the world altogether, willing its end.
It is these refusals that the Dougie scenes—for me the richest aspect of The Return on repeat viewings—are meant to correct. They are nothing less than an extended attempt to teach Cooper to notice, to be present, to help him re-learn what it means to exist in the world in all its (extra)ordinary delight and beauty, in all its love and pain and sorrow. And to teach us as well. For maybe we were tricked into thinking that we were being prepared for something greater, and didn’t take the moments that came as well as we should have, seeing them as mere staging grounds, dreamy detours on the way to destiny. The anguish of the Dougie tulpa’s reunion with Janey-E and Sonny Jim in Part 18 comes from our belated realization that it is yet another fanatical attempt at infinite extension, and, finally, a hollow replacement for a much deeper lack. We cannot claim to have been tricked any longer.
Many of the above considerations on The Return emerged from a long, rewarding engagement with Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say?, as generous, expansive, and illuminating a volume of essays as I’ve come across. But it’s in a particularly beautiful passage from The World Viewed—a singularly moving articulation about what it means to engage with a work of art—that these disparate thoughts crystallized into something of an ethic, a worldview.
Nothing is of greater moment than the knowledge that the choice of one moment excludes another, that no moment makes up for another, that the significance of one moment is the cost of what it forgoes. That is refinement. Beauty and significance, except in youth, are born of loss. But otherwise everything is lost. The last knowledge will be to allow even that knowledge of loss to vanish, to see whether the world regains. The idea of infinite possibility is the pain, and the balm, of adolescence. The only return on becoming adult, the only justice in forgoing that world of possibility, is the reception of actuality—the pain and balm in the truth of the only world: that it exists, and I in it.
Cavell was here writing about certain modernist paintings, but its resonance with respect to The Return is impossible to miss—yes, no matter where one stands on the question of whether its achievement belongs to film or television. In any case, the endless, vituperative conflict regarding The Return’s categorization did at least point up to the ways that Lynch and Frost have here crafted something of a challenge to ritualized systems of information delivery, engagement, and understanding.
That The Return creates a rich, variegated, phenomenologically inhabitable universe makes it a work of moving-image art worthy of sustained consideration. That it interrogates the very mechanisms by which we construct meaning in the world, uncovering and challenging the assumptions of time-based storytelling upon which its own edifice is built, makes it great. That it acknowledges the human impulses that drive the first, while also examining the human limitations that necessitate the second, makes it extraordinary.
Twin Peaks: The Return accomplishes what every ambitious work of art should: It penetrates our being, and becomes, in the fullest sense, a part of our world, so we leave it not quite the same, knowing that something has changed, but also acknowledging what we had to relinquish in the process, and in doing so learning something more of our own actuality. We would do wrong to deny it.