Twin Peaks Turns 20

This week, David Lynch’s groundbreaking ABC series Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991) turns twenty. As someone who watched the series when it was first broadcast, I find it almost impossible to believe so much time has passed. I remember that era like it was yesterday.

One great way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an inititative that changed the face of dramatic television forever is to head on over to J.D.’s great blog, RADIATOR HEAVEN, where the author and film scholar is presenting “Twin Peaks Tribute Week.” There, you can see some of the author’s favorite images from the series and read his excellent retrospective of Lynch’s program.

Also, to honor the series and its place in pop culture, here’s a snippet from my review/flashback of Twin Peaks’ pilot episode.

“One of the reasons this pilot stands up so well involves Lynch’s multi-layered approach to the material. In other words, Twin Peaks is concurrently a “thing” (a melodrama; a soap opera, a serialized TV series) and a parody of that very “thing.”

Specifically, melodrama — literally “a play with music” — is a drama of heightened emotions that concerns family crises, hardships, and domestic tragedies. In Twin Peaks, Lynch parodies this hot-house, emotionally-unrestrained genre, and in particular, the melodrama as it has existed throughout American television history.

Accordingly, Badalementi’s droning, monotonous, ubiquitous (but gorgeous…) musical score serves as the 1990s equivalent of the maudlin organs you might hear supporting a General Hospital or Guiding Light episode of the early 1960s. This exaggerated musical score is integral to the soap opera aura of Twin Peaks, and it constantly lifts the tenor of the pilot from grounded reality to a brand of rarefied, hyper-reality.

Tragedy arrives hard and fast in the Twin Peaks pilot with Pete Martell’s (Jack Nance) discovery of Laura Palmer’s corpse. Again, this is a terrible turn-of-events, especially for Laura’s parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). These fine actors weep and wail, shouting to the Heavens over their grievous loss in the earnest tradition of the soap opera or melodrama.

Yet, Lynch quickly and methodically distances us from that continual and genuine suffering, almost literally turning it comedic in the process. To wit, Sarah learns that Laura is dead while conversing with Leland on the telephone. Leland drops the telephone in shock at the news (reported by Sheriff Truman), but Lynch’s camera doesn’t follow Leland, as we might expect.

Instead, we suddenly get a close-up of the phone, and the camera pans down and down — ever-so-slowly — the long telephone wire, all-the-way to the dangling receiver. Emanating from that receiver are Sarah’s tortured cries, still audible even though nobody is listening. But those cries — now disembodied — go on and on and on, ad nauseum, and make the moment read as funny, not tragic. Again, this augmentation occurs in tandem with the overblown musical score. The crying has gone on so long, and with such sustained passion that it turns silly, and Lynch informs us that is so by removing the crier from the frame so we’re not actually laughing at the person’s pain; we’re laughing at the over-the-top reaction.

The deadpan, circular dialogue in Twin Peaks likewise adds to the strong sense that the soap opera form is being parodied here. Straight answers are given to straight questions, and yet everything about the interrogatives and their rebuttals are absurd. “Who is the lady with the log?” asks Dale Cooper. “We call her the log lady,” replies Sheriff Truman. Tell me, do you glean any important contextual information from that particular back-and-forth?

Again and again, Lynch undercuts the seriousness of the tale to parody the soap opera form. After the discovery of the corpse, he cuts to shots of a blubbering detective at the crime scene, a sobbing idiot named Andy. Again, this isn’t typical crime-scene behavior. Later, as Sheriff Truman is about to get the call about Laura’s death, his receptionist, Lucy, goes off on a sustained riff about how she is going to transfer that particular call. To that phone. By the lamp. The black one. On the table.

Again, the very serious form of the soap opera is successfully undercut here by Lucy’s focus on the picayune. The examples are too numerous to mention just in the pilot alone, but I must admit, I nurture a special affection for a very funny camera set-up in the local high school. Sheriff Truman is just about to arrive to tell the students of the bad news, but before we see him (in the background of the frame), a young high school student inexplicably and robotically moonwalks from his locker (on the right of the frame) to the left side of the screen. It’s unmotivated, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny as hell.

Later in the series, Twin Peaks further satirized soap opera forms in everything from crazy character contrivances (like Laura’s lookalike cousin Mattie…) to direct reference to the genre. In the latter case, the characters would often be seen watching a sophomoric soap opera entitled Invitation to Love. With Twin Peaks, Lynch seemed to be telling audiences how silly the form of the melodrama was at the same time that he was enticing the audience with a superlative example of the form.”

And finally, my review of the derided (but I think brilliant and captivating) Twin Peaks feature film, 1992’s Fire Walk with Me:

“David Lynch’s films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch’s cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state…) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is…well…irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze — unblinking and unbowed — at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch’s twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch’s productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.”

Jay Scott at Toronto’s Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me “a disgusting, misanthropic movie,” and compared a viewing of the film to “cocaine-induced paranoia.”

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but “as blank as a fart,” to quote one of the film’s quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the “underneath” in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this “typical” teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She’s a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film’s lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece’s content. We seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.”

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2 responses to “Twin Peaks Turns 20

  1. Sheryl Lee is a terrific actress, esp. in "Fire Walk with Me." I always hoped she would go on to have a tremendous career, but she never got the roles she deserved. (Naomi Watts fared much better after her Lynch showcase, "Mulholland Drive.")But I have to say that the dangling receiver in the "Twin Peaks" pilot did not play as a parody to me. While the pilot obviously had a parodic elements, what I remember most vividly about it (and I haven't seen it again since its first airing) was the incredible, drawn-out emotional intensity of the community's reaction to Laura Palmer's death. And that dangling receiver was one of the indelible moments that I still recall as devastating. Of course Lynch has always mixed surreal comedy and tragedy in his movies, but the emotional core of the pilot was very much the town's united sense of grief over a girl's death (just as the core of "Fire Walk with Me" was that same girl's traumatized and disintegrating mental state). Lynch extended the scenes of the townspeople's anguish in the pilot in a daring, stylized way, but in a way that for me made them more intense, not funny. That's what sets him apart from his "Lynchian" imitators–the primal emotions behind his best work.

  2. Count me in as another Sheryl Lee fan. I wonder if she's still bitter being dropped from the pilot of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES now that is has become a HUGE hit (she was to play the dead housewife who narrates the show – go figure)?Hell, I even enjoy her B-movie stuff like John Carpenter's VAMPIRES, probably her highest profile role after TWIN PEAKS. She needs to hook up with Lynch again, pronto!

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