28 Nov 2017

no.1// Lost in Space: Twin Peaks 3 and Lynch's Late-Period Sublime

This is one of my ten short essays about Twin Peaks Season 3. Click this link to read my introduction to this series.

Disorientation sets in almost immediately. A glistening helicopter shot of the New York skyline wrenches us from the clearly circumscribed, immaculately dressed set of our Twin Peaks reboot fantasies, before it has even had the chance to materialise. This recurring, HD flight over New York, along with similarly pristine shots of Las Vegas, threatens to usurp the sea of shaking pines and slow-motion waterfalls as a representation of the trademark Lynchian ‘sublime’.

Twin Peaks 3 begins with a cut of 25 years: Cooper in the Red Room, sitting, waiting patiently, and then 25 years older, still waiting. Already, with this cut and the future shock that it elicits, we have a valuable key to appreciating everything that follows. Twin Peaks 3 is about the passing of time, seen not as continuous change but as a disjunction between two temporal points. A whole world is interrupted, frozen, shelved, and then reanimated with a jolt, 25 years later. Rather than glossing over this temporal lacuna, David Lynch and Mark Frost have made a whole show about it. ‘Is it past or is it future?’, we’re asked. And then, much later: ‘What year is it?’

One of the ways in which we might reconstruct those intervening 25 years is by retracing the development of Lynch’s sublime aesthetic, all the way back to the original Twin Peaks. In his monograph on Lynch, Michel Chion groups Twin Peaks together with Blue Velvet, under the title ‘Welcome to Lynchtown’. Chion discusses what has since become a cliché regarding the director’s most famous works: his construction of a fantastical cherry-pie, picket-fence, small-town America. This retro-’50s Nowhere Town is impossibly idyllic by day, but it possesses a ‘dark underbelly’ that in fact functions as a parallel dimension, porous but only fully penetrable at night.

Chion’s ‘Lynchtown’ fits firmly into what I consider a potential three-stage periodisation of Lynch’s work, based on the production, distribution and represtentation of space within his cinematic worlds. According to this scheme, the two-sided Lynchtown represents the second stage, sitting between the cramped and claustrophobic ‘insides’ of his early work (The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, even Dune), and the sublime ‘outsides’ of his turn-of-the-millennium trilogy (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire). While the characters in the early films are squeezed and crushed by their environments, and the characters in the later films are hopelessly lost in theirs, the town of Twin Peaks feels like a cogent, well-mapped and manageable space. It is true that Lynch and Frost invoke a decidedly Romantic sublime aesthetic, establishing the outside of this space as a vast forest of wild, lawless nature; nevertheless, this dark exterior manifests itself as a threat but also a limit. While we are teased with Gothic tropes, Laura Palmer is ultimately no Red Riding Hood. The town’s real dangers are native within it; its dark corners are immanent to it. The space itself feels relatively stable from scene to scene, but the logic or meaning of that space is contested, just as a sunlit exterior is transformed by nightfall.

One of the most striking aspects of the new Twin Peaks is its refusal to return to Lynchtown. This third season is Twin Peaks revisited in light of the director’s subsequent films. In different ways, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire all immersed the viewer and protagonists in a world that is all exterior, all forest, in which no orientation, no ‘home’, no ‘daytime’ is even thinkable. What really characterises these three films is the near-total impotence of their protagonists. Here, we might identify a shift from a ‘Romantic’ to a Jamesonian ‘Postmodern’ sublime. In the face of impenetrable conspiracies and vast shadowy networks of control and surveillance, even relatively motivated characters like Betty in Mulholland Drive and Pete in Lost Highway find it impossible to orient themselves within their surroundings and thus extract themselves from their perilous situations. What’s more, they are repeatedly taunted for their lack of agency.

Contrast this with the logic of Lynchtown. The protagonists of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks (Dale Cooper, Jeffrey Beaumont, Laura Palmer) are faced with double worlds: over and under, day and night, black and white. These characters must learn to move ‘between two worlds’ in order to maintain their agency. For Jeffrey, this is ultimately achievable; Laura and Cooper fail, but at least their failure is comprehensible. Once we arrive at Inland Empire, we lose all sense of what effective action might look like, and we even begin to doubt the consistency of the protagonist’s identity from scene to scene.

Twin Peaks 3 uses many of the same devices to submerge the viewer in a cinematic space whose dimensions are never clear: the endless chains of phone calls; the dark motorways that lead nowhere; films within films; names, faces and locations that we see once and never again. All of these moments feed the paranoiac sensibility behind Lynch’s approach to world-building. Every detail is received as a vital clue, promising the possibility of reconstructing a fragmented totality that never actually existed. Each dead end and loose thread is thus treated with suspicion and vague dread.

Lynch and Frost parody this effect in the very first episode of the series, in the voice of the quintessential Lynchian proxy, the Log Lady: ‘Something is missing and you have to find it’, she tells Hawk over the phone. With this brazenly arbitrary ‘meta-motivation’—the MacGuffin-as-MacGuffin, the quest to find the thing that we need to find—Hawk is interpellated as a weak analogue to the protagonists of the earlier movies. Yet, with the possible but equally unconvincing exception of Gordon Cole and his FBI team, Hawk is also the closest thing we get to a real protagonist in Twin Peaks 3. When the audience experience Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, as each narrative collapses into confusion, they are experiencing this confusion with Fred/Pete and Betty/Diane. When the audience experiences the nightmare of Inland Empire, they are similarly experiencing it with Laura Dern’s Nikki. In contrast, Twin Peaks 3 leaves the viewer alone with their disorientation; the overriding experience, for me at least, was one of distance.

In this way, Twin Peaks 3 completes a slow expansion of the cinematic world, from the bedroom of The Alphabet and the tiny apartment of Eraserhead, via the small town of Blue Velvet and the unfolding America of Wild at Heart and The Straight Story, to the vertiginous Los Angeles of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire—in truth, a kind of metaphysical abyss, still ‘America’ but infinite and impenetrable. In Episode 3 of this new season, we actually get to glimpse infinity in the form of the purple sea and the starry cosmos (and ‘infinity’ recurs as a motif throughout the show).

Crucially, this is not a process of relocation—packing up and leaving a smaller space in order to make a new home in a bigger space—but one of recontextualisation, dissolving boundaries and demolishing soundstages within soundstages, breaking through to reveal greater and greater orders of world. The disorientation caused by each ‘cut’ in spatial scale mirrors the shock caused by the ‘cut’ in time that leaves Cooper so totally debilitated. The final cut, from Inland Empire to Twin Peaks 3, cuts us loose from a central character, who might at least have oriented us to the unfolding disorder, giving us a sense of where the world should be as it crumbles beneath our feet.

Twin Peaks 3 leaves us stranded between non-protagonists and stillborn storylines in which real investment is impossible, even as we feel that some kind of investment is urgently necessary. And, as a final indignity, Lynch and Frost taunt us with the spectacle of our absent protagonist in a mocking parody of our own disorientation. Dale Cooper, an agent devoid of all agency.