Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Twin Peaks: Can You Go Home Again?



Back in 1990, the Boston Phoenix ran a review of the first few episodes of Twin Peaks along with the plot of the sitcom Wings. 


It was an odd juxtaposition, intentionally so, contrasting David Lynch's highly-anticipated boutique series against a paint-by-numbers half-hour comedy. But the reviewer was a cynical bastard, and cast a jaundiced eye on the potential of a quirky auteur like Lynch to appeal to a mainstream television audience. 


The verdict was that Wings would stick around but Twin Peaks would not, its tone and style too idiosyncratic for a medium that, at the time, counted its audience in the tens of millions.


I tuned into the first season of Twin Peaks-- a miniseries, really-- but found it to be a bit too much of a compromise between Lynch's surrealist vision and the narrative demands of mainstream television. There was also a creeping absurdism that sometimes threatened to undermine the grim procedural drama that framed it.

I had high hopes for the project, having been brain-seared four years earlier by Blue Velvet. The first time I saw it I almost had an out of body experience- and not the pleasant kind- since it seemed so disturbingly familiar to me. Frank Booth was like any number of dangerous men that floated through the edges of my world, strange presences in bars in Weymouth Landing or Quincy Center. 

Frank Booth also reminded me all too much of a recently-released ex-convict my friend's mother had taken in as a boarder; a volatile alcoholic who drove a big old Cadillac and who, presciently, believed that cable TV was being used to spy on people.


A few years after seeing Blue Velvet I'd work for a woman who was close friends with Dennis Hopper's daughter Marin, who I'd later meet. I was told that Hopper wasn't actually acting in Blue Velvet, that that was basically his behavior on any given night before he rehabbed. Hopper told Lynch as much while auditioning for the part, insisting that he was Frank Booth.

Frank Booth was the black hole of Blue Velvet, the irrestible center of gravity around which the rest of the film revolved. I saw Blue Velvet twice at the Waverly Theater on Sixth Ave in Greenwich Village, and once Hopper blasted off you could feel the physical pressure descend upon the room. People walked out, not just a few, that's how intense it was. I brought two friends the second viewing and their knuckles were white the whole time. 

They were from Braintree, so they knew.


Twin Peaks didn't have nearly as compelling a focus, not Leland Palmer, not Bob, not anyone. Given the strictures of early 90s broadcast television it couldn't have. Instead the show went for mood and atmosphere and slowly-building tension. That, the lush scenery, appealing cast and seductive Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack were enough to sustain the series at first. 

But it failed to answer the central question ("Who killed Laura Palmer?") in its initial miniseries run and subsequently lost a lot of the curious and more besides. (AMC's remake of The Killing would make the same mistake more recently).


Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost distanced themselves from the series in the second season, for a number of varying reasons, including Lynch's work on Wild at Heart, which would star Nicholas Cage and Lynch muse Laura Dern. 

Even so, Lynch would direct episodes at the beginning and end of the season. But the spell the series had cast had been broken. The new production team didn't quite get a handle on Lynch's mix of darkness and whimsy (as if anyone else really could) and the new episodes seemed to lapse into self-parody without the author's oblique ability to square the contradictions.


But there were glimpses of a deeper magic, including cryptic subplots dealing with an alien satellite, demonic possession, doubles of dead characters and scenes inside the mysterious extradimensional portal, the Black Lodge. In short, the second series had a ton of potential on the conceptual end but a lot less so execution-wise. Plus, it was all a bit too challenging for network drama then. It would probably be just as much so today, which is why it's being revived on Showtime.

By the time it was cancelled Twin Peaks had been moved to the Saturday night death-slot and had slumped badly in the ratings. Lynch wanted another crack at it, however, so a spinoff film was planned. But Kyle MacLachlan felt betrayed that Lynch and Frost had bailed out on the show's second season (and by its resultant quality slippage), so after initially turning the picture down he agreed to a limited role. Chris Isaak, then a hot property, stepped in to play a ringer. Lara Flynn Boyle opted out for the same reasons as MacLachlan, forcing Lynch to recast the role with a non-lookalike replacement.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is one of those special kinds of films that has garnered a type of cult audience that tends to overlook what a total catastrophe it was in its initial release. Fire was outright butchered by the critics and didn't even earn back half its production budget in the US. Twin Peaks Fever had long since, uh, peaked, and the movie doesn't even try to meet a mainstream audience halfway. 

There's no wondering why: it's an incredibly dark and polarizing film and can be as hard to watch as Blue Velvet, if not for different reasons.


But it certainly follows a vision; it's not a cash-in on any level. It may not be light entertainment but in the long run it didn't hurt Twin Peaks' rep, in fact it undid most of the damage inflicted on the franchise by the frivolity of the second season. 

Even so, it would five years before Lynch would release another feature, 1997's Lost Highway. That too would be a deeply polarizing commercial disappointment.




It's been 11 years since Lynch released a feature film, 2006's masterpiece, Inland Empire. That in turn came five years after another masterpiece, 2001's Mulholland Dr. Both films are deeply informed by the vision Lynch cultivated on Twin Peaks, even if they bear little resemblance thematically, or even stylistically. It's more a feeling.

Mulholland Dr -- which Inland Empire models itself on in many important ways-- also began life as a TV pilot for ABC and was only morphed into a feature after the network passed. 


For my money, Mulholland Dr and Inland Empire remain Lynch's best, most fully-realized works. Like all of his creations they mine dream reality to a level of numinosity that most film-makers are incapable of reaching. It's both telling and damning that he's either been unable to secure financing or unwilling to jump through the requisite hoops needed to have followed up on them. 

I really don't know if Lynch felt a burning desire to return to Twin Peaks but I do know he's a better artist now than he was when he worked on the series. However, the power of a brand name trumps artistic vision in this environment. In that Mulholland and Inland are just as much elegies as films.


Judging from the press releases for the revival it seems Lynch's absence from longform film-making hasn't been for lack of energy. He directed all 18 episodes, wrote a 400 page screenplay (whether this was for the first episode or the series itself is unclear) and cast 217 actors. So both the spirit and the flesh seem to be willing in this case.

But is his mind in that space? This is the danger of the revival syndrome. 


It's been 27 very long years since the series first aired and we're living in an entirely different world now. The 1950s world that informed Lynch's vision isn't even a memory anymore. And the actors are no longer young, hot unknowns; many are more than twice as old as they were back then and some have come out the wrong end of Hollywood's merciless grinder. 


The inherent promise of the revival (or the reunion) is that the intervening years will melt away and we can vicariously return to the Garden, back to our innocence. It's not only the promise but the danger; woe betide you if you don't fire up that time machine for your audience. With an artist as quirky and unpredictable as David Lynch that danger only multiplies. Exponentially.

Lynch has already proven himself unwilling to pander with the Twin Peaks franchise, having unleashed a film as caustic and uncompromising as Fire Walk with Me. You get the sense he bores very easily, and might well use this opportunity to unleash all kinds of ideas he's been warehousing for other projects. That's both exciting and worrying. Exciting creatively and artistically, worrying critically and audience-wise.

Last year we saw Chris Carter use the X-Files revival as a soapbox for some truly confrontational storytelling, and the similar hype parade we're seeing now for Twin Peaks is giving me a bit of deja vu. But The X-Files was a bonafide cultural phenomenon, a game-changer. It's part of the common lexicon, worldwide. 

Twin Peaks is more a cult thing, an artifact of the Curator Era. Lynch could bring his absolute A-game and still confuse the hell out most of his new audience. And in the Internet Age that could go south very quickly.


Twin Peaks may have been a high point for Lynch as far as visibility but it also presaged a difficult stretch for him creatively, commercially and critically, with Wild at Heart and Lost Highway-- as well as Fire Walk with Me-- damaging his rep as an auteur. He restored his glimmer starting with The Straight Story but, frankly, he's a weird guy and you never know where his muses will carry him.  

The story of Twin Peaks, the franchise, is one about a boatload of potential that was never fully realized. Here's hoping Lynch closes the deal this time around. That will make it a story for the ages.


People.com has a documentary on the revival here.


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