“Allegories of Television”
In his excellent book, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (1989), David James argues for a transformation in the work of Stanley Kubrick between Dr. Strangelove (1964), a rabidly funny, but nevertheless classical, satire, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), an aggressively stylized film which ends with astronaut Dave Bowman’s celestial drug trip. Episode eight of Twin Peaks: The Return, entitled “Gotta Light” makes 2001 look like The Wizard of Oz. The episode doubles down on Lynch’s experimental gambit, while simultaneously constructing a deft postmodern mélange incorporating recent, so-called “smart TV,” with 1950s science fiction.
The episode begins with evil Dale Cooper and his criminal crony, Ray, driving away from the prison that they were allowed to walk out of as a result of Cooper’s blackmailing of the warden. Things turn bizarre when Ray shoots Cooper, but a set of ghouls immediately work on repairing evil Cooper’s wounds. Lynch seems to be recombining the recent history of popular culture. Cooper demands secret numbers from Ray, evoking the first season of ABC’s Lost, a show demanding intense intellectual engagement by its viewership, something that would have been impossible without the influence of the original Twin Peaks. Just as in Lost, where winning lottery numbers show up on the hatch on the tropical island where the castaways are stranded, the meaning of the secret numbers in Twin Peaks remains a complete mystery. The ghouls, on the other hand, look like the wraiths that appear whenever someone puts on the ring in The Lord of the Rings.
After an extended performance of the rock band, Nine Inch Nails at the Roadhouse bar, the episode leaves behind narrative rationality. A superimposed title tells us that we have flashed back to July 16, 1945, the date of the American Trinity nuclear test at White Sands, just outside of Alamagordo, New Mexico. From an aerial position, the camera tracks forward into the mushroom atop the atomic cloud. We enter the quantum world, which Lynch films as if it were an experimental film made by Stan Brakhage. Particulate matter swirls inside, with Lynch alternating between washed out reds and yellows, and black and white. Flames burst and lights flash. The camera arrives at a bright, cellular nucleus.
“Gotta Light” fulfills David James’ analysis: the subject of the nuclear age, the focus of Dr. Strangelove, morphs into the science-fiction of 2001, by way of Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde filmmaking in the early 1960s, the most important of which for our purposes is Dog Star Man (1962), a rare experimental feature-length film. Lynch’s sequence is accompanied by music which seals the critical analysis of Stanley Kubrick films, Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (1960). While Lynch has frequently used Penderecki music in his other work — Wild at Heart and Inland Empire — his work is most famously deployed cinematically on the soundtrack of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). This reveals the hidden backstory of Twin Peaks: The murder of Laura Palmer has its roots in the creation of American evil, the development of atomic weapons.
A modicum of narrative comprehensibility returns as Lynch gives us a static shot of a convenience store with two gas pumps out front. One can only assume that this is the location Mike, the one-armed man, from the original Twin Peaks, spoke of twenty-five years ago. A convenience store was where Mike and Bob lived together before Bob came to the Pacific Northwest and murdered Laura Palmer. Lynch intercuts footage of the convenience store, perhaps located within or near the nuclear test site, with more experimental cinema.
The ghouls wander around outside, in black and white stop motion. Scratches on the soundtrack accompany their ethereal and threatening behavior. The sequence closes with a humanoid body floating in black space. His mouth spews white goo, inside of which is suspended eggs floating like isolated planets or cells. Out of the nucleus of one of these emerges a golden orb. The surrounding dots of particulate matter speed past us, again invoking the visual design of Dave Bowman’s trip through the star gate in 2001.
Unexpectedly, the now aerial camera speeds over an ocean, headed toward a rock tower, at the top of which is a futuristic fortress covered in a metallic sheen. Parenthetically, I am beginning to suspect that Lynch might be re-creating his four-hour cut of Dune (1984), a version disallowed by crass producer Dino DeLaurentiis. The journey across the ocean resembles Lynch’s depiction of Caladan, while the fortress is reminiscent of the world where the Harkonnen live, in Lynch’s adaptation of the beloved science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert.
Inside the fortress in Twin Peaks: The Return is the familiar Giant (Carel Struycken), who kept visiting Agent Cooper to aid him in his quest to catch killer Bob on the original show. The Giant enters a screening room to witness the American atomic bomb test. He sees the creature spewing out goo, noticing Bob’s face in one of the orbs. In reaction, the Giant ascends into the air. A woman on a couch emerges out of a spotlight and walks into the screening room. Bob’s face is frozen on the view screen.The woman is excited about something, her ardor accompanied now by romantic organ music. Golden light spews out of the giant’s head. A golden orb descends to the woman. She holds it in her hands. The orb holds the visage of Laura Palmer. After kissing the orb, the woman releases it into the air like a balloon. The orb travels into a floating tube. The tube dumps Laura’s ball onto a map of the Earth. The ball heads toward the Pacific Northwest. The scene fades to black.
While the aesthetic design of Twin Peaks: The Return seems trapped in the 1960s world of Stanley Kubrick and Stan Brakhage, it leads us narratively and thematically with great precision toward an explanation for the backstory of Twin Peaks. Lynch is retelling the story of the science-fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In that radical, Leftist film, aliens arrive from outer space, assigned to destroy the Earth because of our experiments with atomic warfare.
The alien ambassador explains to an Albert Einstein stand-in, that unless he can convince the world’s superpowers to cease their atomic testing, his people will be forced to destroy the Earth, in an effort to keep the rest of the galaxy safe. The scientist commits an act, which in the McCarthyite 1950s was seen as completely treasonous, collaborating with the alien to contact his colleagues in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Giant in Twin Peaks: The Return seems to be an alien whose job it is to intervene in Earthly affairs once the atomic bomb liberates Killer Bob from the primordial ooze. The unexpected weapon he delivers is Laura Palmer, not a heroic figure by any means, but a symbol of American tragedy.
In their book, Hiroshima in America, Robert Jay Lifton and and Greg Mitchell argue that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represents the foundation of American malaise. No longer the repository of freedom, but instead mass murder, the nation forced itself into historical amnesia. Filmmakers like Kubrick and now Lynch are antidotes to this process of repression, our one hope for redeeming the original project of the United States.
The episode ends in 1956, with a boy and a girl out on a date. Here, Lynch returns to the design of Blue Velvet (1986), in which small town America is besieged by film noir violence. In Twin Peaks: The Return, he extends the collision of quaint life in the United States, not this time with generic movie violence, but instead with global nuclear annihilation. One of the ghouls enters a radio station repeating the phrase, “Gotta light,” which seems not to be asked as an interrogative, as if wanting to ignite his cigarette, but instead as a declarative threat. Once the atomic bomb has been released from the genie’s bottle, we must burn.
The ghoul murders the receptionist and the DJ at the radio station, and takes control of the broadcast. His message, “drink full and descend,” causes everyone in the town to collapse. The girl, sitting on her bed after returning from her date, lies down and falls asleep. The episode ends with a bug-like creature, which crawls out of the irradiated desert like a lizard, climbing into the sleeping girl’s mouth.
I don’t know where this grotesquery will lead in subsequent episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, but I do know that this episode, a grandiose achievement in the history of commercial television, offers an antidote to the repression of our atomic culpability, something that has been very hard for the American populace to swallow.
— Walter Metz