Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Twin Peaks and the Metaphysics of Evil



Well, after 27 years of waiting and a good 18 months of hype it's finally here. Showtime aired the two-hour Twin Peaks reboot premiere and posted the first four episodes (the premiere was broken in two) online. I binged the first three as soon as they went up and the last episode the following morning.

My first impression? Ye gods, it's weird.



I mean, even on the David Lynch sliding scale, it's weird. How weird? Well, it makes the weird bits of Mulholland Dr and Inland Empire play like Days of Our Lives. Some door in Lynch's unconscious seems to have gone well off its hinges. 

It's also maddeningly inconsistent, veering from long, flabby scenes where nothing seems to happen to random bursts of truly disturbing horror and violence. There are a number of high profile cameos that range from the numinous (the more-radiant-than-ever Madeline Zima) to the far less-so (Michael Sera comes across as the pretentious kid in your ninth grade drama club) and an extremely confusing subplot with a Dale Cooper-alike in Las Vegas, not to mention the actual Dale Cooper and his demonic doppelganger.

But you know me, this shit's right up alley. I was at turns bored, riveted, horrified and embarrassed but I'm counting the hours to the next episode (which will go live on June 4th).

But the rest of the country? Maybe not so much.

Since we live in a culture that measures the quality of art in dollars and demos the big story on Twin Peaks was the tepid ratings it got. From Vulture:
The owls are not what they seem, and neither was viewer interest in a Twin Peaks revival — at least if Nielsen ratings are your metric for success. Per the ratings giant, Sunday’s quarter-century-in-the-making Twin Peaks: The Return attracted just 506,000 same-day viewers to Showtime via the network’s main linear channel.
But same-day is an archaic metric, isnt it? I'm sure the overwhelming majority of the audience will be consuming Twin Peaks online. We cut the cord a while back and haven't missed it. No one was actually watching the cable feed anyways. Vulture again:
First, it’s worth remembering the 506,000 viewer number reported by Nielsen Tuesday represents only a fraction of the audience that will ultimately consume Peaks across various Showtime linear and digital platforms. When measured over the course of weeks, rather than a single night, it’s quite common for premium cable series to end up with three, four, or even five times as many unique viewers as the same-day Nielsen ratings suggest. The actual audience for Sunday’s Twin Peaks resurrection will likely end up in the 2–3 million viewer range — no doubt less than what Showtime execs hoped for when they green-lit the project, but not quite as minuscule as these early numbers suggest.
But do note that the Twin Peaks premiere was watched by a mind-staggering 34 million Americans. But the blush came off that rose fairly quickly, especially during the second season when the series was relegated to the death slot. Even so, it has to be said that David Lynch has never been box office. Instead his audience is "more selective," as Ian Faith might have it. From Forbes.
Although David Lynch has always been something of a critical darling and a cult hero, the quality of his work hasn't necessarily translated into box office dollars. Yes, Mulholland Drive got rave reviews and was even voted best film of its decade by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (full disclosure: I'm a member and did not vote for it, feeling that as a rejiggered TV pilot it wasn't as deep as people were giving it credit for). But in terms of box office, it only generated $20 million international. His follow-up,Inland Empire, was way down from even that, at merely $4 million international, less than $1 million of which was domestic.
Just how selective it can be is evidenced by this frankly arrogant passage in the Variety review, written by Sonia Saraiya:
The bankable popularity of “Twin Peaks” also makes for an inexplicably stupid scene at the Bang Bang where the indie-electronic band Chromatics performs to a room of middle-aged townies taking tequila shots. Nothing says rural, small-town, faded glory like an impossibly cool synthpop band.  
What time period is Saraiya living in? First of all The Chromatics are an 80s revival band so it goes without saying that they would appeal to the "middle-aged townies" who grew up on synthpop. Second, Twin Peaks is set in the Pacific Northwest, which last time I checked was pretty hep to pop culture. Third, Lynch has been using synthpop in his projects since Blue Velvet. 

The Forbes review seems to get it:
 (The)Chromatics, as well as whatever industrial band it is that plays underneath footage of a car journey at night, fit effortlessly into the Lynchian soundscape.
But overall I think the more savvy viewers will adjust themselves to the jumbled narrative Lynch is putting on the table. As agog as I felt during long stretches of my binge I came out of it with a strong sense of theme. 

Lynch sets up a number of different arcs in different settings. The story ranges from Twin Peaks to Manhattan to South Dakota to Las Vegas. Plus, what looks like outer space but may be some other dimension entirely. And oh yeah, the Black Lodge.

In Twin Peaks a phone call from the Log Lady to Deputy Sheriff Hawk reopens the Laura Palmer case. It's here where we get the strongest hit of that old time Peaks religion and a serving of familiar faces (maybe a little too generous a serving in some instances). We also get some rather stunning photography that would fit proudly on anyone's demo reel. Plus, an owl.



The story in Manhattan centers on a young man whose job it is to sit in a secure room and stare at a glass box on behalf of some shadowy billionaire. He's being courted by a gorgeous young woman (Zima, turning on her native charm like a flamethrower) who is inexplicably curious about his job.

Unlike some other reviewers I won't spoil this arc. But I will say you could cut out those sequences and have yourself a very fine Stevens-Stefano Outer Limits tribute on Lynch's part. I'm thinking "The Galaxy Being", "OBIT" and "Don't Open 'Til Doomsday" were spinning in very heavy rotation somewhere in Lynch's head, unconsciously or otherwise.

The South Dakota storyline updates us on the Dale Cooper doppelganger introduced in the final moments of the original series. There's another murder mystery on the menu and a very Twin Peaks undercurrent of small town sexual intrigue when a high school principal is accused of murdering his mistress. 

The Cooperganger comes across like Frank Booth on Xanax but no less lethal. To show us just how lethal he's featured in a murder scene that is frankly pretty hard to watch.

We encounter the original Cooper, still trapped in the Black Lodge. Which seems only to have gotten more insane in the intervening 27 years. Michael Anderson has been replaced by the One-Armed Man so you don't really miss a beat (Anderson disqualified himself after hurling some pretty wild insinuations against Lynch on his Facebook).



And plus there's a talking brain-tree thing which refers to itself as "the evolution of the arm" (Michael Anderson's character referred to himself as the Arm). Which is probably the least bizarre thing in the Cooper arc.

I mean, strap yourself in because the Cooper-Black Lodge arc goes absolutely bugshit, even more so than anything Lynch has ever filmed. If you thought the lodge stuff was crackers, you literally have seen nothing yet.

Although all these arcs might seem unrelated-- and most probably completely bewildering to anyone not acclimated to Lynch's surrealist vision-- I am sensing a very strong thruline here.

I may be projecting all over it but it feels to me that Lynch is presenting a new metaphysics for evil. 

There's been a debate as old as humanity about the origin of evil, whether it's an innate reality or an invader from without. With the Bob arc from the first series and now with the juxtaposition of the Black Lodge and the Glass Box Lynch appears to arguing that evil is in fact a foreign presence, a metaphysical force that intrudes into our reality to look for hosts. 

As if to concretize this we see that the evil Cooper is not of our Earth and once the real Cooper escapes from his imprisonment (a spoiler, but come on) he is weakened and himself imprisoned.

I would argue then that Twin Peaks is a narrative about the flowering of evil. 

It presents evil as an outside force that invades and sets up shop into our environment then goes about finding suitable hosts to express itself through. It destroys lives, ruins families and communities for no apparent reason then moves on. 

This theme was explored in the thorny and divisive Fire Walk With Me, with Laura Palmer's descent prefigured by her dream of the Black Lodge and with her father's possession by the evil spirit Bob (what a great name for a demon).

Of course, Lynch may well move onto other themes before the series is finished so this is a provisional analysis. But Lynch seems to be fairly consistent in his fixations if you get past the whimsy. 

A lot of people accused Mulholland Dr and Inland Empire of incoherence but they both make perfect sense when you figure out their secrets. They're also essentially the same film told from two different perspectives.

Anyhow, I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on the series so far and any speculations you might have where all this is headed. I just hope the media doesn't just see it all as a numbers game.

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