“Return to Twin Peaks, or, Experimental Cinema Comes to American Television”
As the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return begins, good Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) sits trapped in the Black Lodge. His doppelganger, also played by MacLachlan, but now with horridly long, greasy black hair, so disturbing compared to the G-man’s trim hair style, has been roaming Las Vegas committing murder and mayhem.
One can only imagine the horrified audience of Twin Peaks longing for the virtuous protagonist and his quirky comedy. Only in the last minutes of the pilot, when we visit the Bang Bang Bar, is the nostalgic appeal of a rebooting of Twin Peaks allowed to breathe. A band, The Chromatics, sings a moody tune by Angelo Badalamenti, the composer of the original show’s haunting tunes, including the ballads—“Into the Night” and “The Nightingale”—sung by Julee Cruise. We see the now gray-haired James Hurley (James Marshall) longingly looking at the women of Twin Peaks across the crowded dance floor. We can finally reflect upon the poignancy of the absence of these beloved characters from our lives for a full quarter of a century.
In the opening of the second episode, the show again unmoors from the expected. The good Agent Cooper has been sucked out of the Black Lodge into a glass cage embedded into the side of a skyscraper in Manhattan. In the previous episode, we see a man charged with watching the transparent enclosure, brutally murdered by some form of spirit or space alien.
Agent Cooper arrives in a different space, a room with a woman with no eyes. While at times positioned on a chair like Laura Palmer, she seems to have Asian traits, making me suspect that she is Josie Packard (Joan Chen), also sucked into the Black Lodge in the original show. We last see Josie screaming in pain embedded in a drawer at the Great Northern Hotel. In the present show, this figure, whose eyes appear to have been removed and the sockets sutured, leads Cooper up a ladder to a metallic roof floating in space.
The sequence, which lasts a little under fifteen minutes, could function as a stand-alone experimental film. It is shot in such a way that the color is almost completely drained from the image. Its sound design foregrounds the best of David Lynch’s 1970s work in installation art, done while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
One of his pieces, Industrial Symphony No. 1 was performed in 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a play featuring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern, with music by Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. In Twin Peaks: The Return, the industrial soundtrack, with loud metallic clanging, is the only aspect that provides coherence to the images, as at least we see objects in the frame that look metallic.
Otherwise, Lynch is skipping backward in his career, past the narrative coherence of Blue Velvet (1986), even beyond the feature-length experimental film, Eraserhead (1978), to his installation art in the 1970s. Some of that work is captured on the DVD, The Short Films of David Lynch. In The Alphabet (1968), a little girl recites her ABC’s amidst a tortured world of horrifying images and disturbing sounds. In short, at the opening of episode two of Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch has brought abstract, high modernist art out of the museum and onto American television screens.
Twin Peaks: The Return is a sequence of experimental films, never as such seen on American television, and every bit as compelling as the work of the great practitioners of museum-based video installation art, Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. Indeed, Bill Viola’s The Passing (1991) shares quite a bit thematically with Lynch’s short film, The Grandmother (1970).
What does it mean for Showtime to be airing experimental video art? I think something quite profound. In 1990, Twin Peaks represented the last dying gasps of postmodernism, an art movement which used genre contamination (mixing of slapstick comedy and intense drama) to fuse high and low culture. The problem with the “posts” in art and critical theory is that they leave very few options for understanding the future.
What might a post-post modernism be, for example? Twin Peaks: The Return suggests something different. The logical response to the dismantling of modernism by popular culture is a re-assembling of modernism within that very popular culture. On Showtime television in 2017, Lynch has brought the installation into people’s homes, and it is a most welcome visitor in my living room.