6 Dec 2017

no.7// The Blue Rose: TV as Performance Art

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

If there’s a true precursor to the seemingly unprecedented strangeness of Twin Peaks 3, it is the superb half-hour prologue to Fire Walk With Me: Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, etc etc. In his monograph on Lynch, Michel Chion makes the point that Deer Meadow, the setting of this prologue, is effectively the opposite of Twin Peaks in every way (its evil doppelgänger, one might say). On arriving to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, FBI Agent Chet Desmond discovers an alienating town with a hostile sheriff’s station, an unfriendly diner with bad coffee, and no discernible community spirit.

Deer Meadow and Twin Peaks seem to have merged together in this new series. Harry Dean Stanton’s eerie Fat Trout Trailer Park once seemed a world away; in 2017, however, we discover the trailer park transplanted like an organ into Twin Peaks without its being rejected. The two towns are overlaid and their differences neutralised.

There is an even more significant reason why this sequence is the spiritual precursor of Twin Peaks 3 though, and it has to do with Gordon Cole’s cousin Lil.

Gordon brings out Lil to perform a dance for Agent Desmond and his partner Sam Stanley before they leave for Deer Meadow. Later, Desmond interprets each element of the dance for Sam, with the exception of the blue rose pinned to Lil’s dress, the meaning of which he isn’t allowed to reveal. The dance is Gordon’s case briefing for the agents, yet there is no clear narrative reason why all this information must be relayed in the form of choreography. Rather, we should view it as a message from Lynch to his audience.

In the guise of Gordon, Lynch tells us to keep a look out for symbols and signs, and to expect meaning to emerge at a level removed from that of representative ‘reality’. Before long, Chet Desmond will disappear and we will be left to ‘read’ the rest of the movie on our own. But the message is also contradictory; Lynch/Gordon establishes a limit to this language of signs, in the form of the Blue Rose, which cannot be ‘read’. (In the new season, Albert describes ‘Blue Rose cases’ in terms of ‘troubling abstractions’.) Thus, not only does the Blue Rose prevent us from comprehending the ‘entirety’ of Lil’s dance/Gordon’s message, it also threatens the integrity of the entire system of signification or mode of interpretation that the dance appears to inaugurate.

The Blue Rose hangs heavy over Twin Peaks 3. It is the master-signifier: the empty signifier that binds the whole universe together. It gives a name and a form to the ‘outside’ of sense and coherence. When meaning collapses, we can at least say, ‘There’s the Blue Rose again.’ It serves the same purpose as the term ‘Lynchian’, in authorising the viewer to defer their final interpretive judgement. As such, the Blue Rose is the promise of a meaning and coherence yet to come. However, it can also be read as a meta-sign: a sign that institutes and regulates the system of signification through which all other meaning is produced. It is a symbol of the symbolic, but one that slips into and contaminates the very symbolic order that it governs—how to interpret a blue rose under the sign of the Blue Rose?

The Blue Rose punctures a hole in meaning and coherence, keeping the constitutive logic of the cinematic world melting, simmering and churning. In this way, it serves the opposite function to the sinister owl symbol, the meaning of which Hawk refuses to disclose to Sheriff Truman. Like BOB and Judy, the owl symbol is a plug to fill the fissures in meaning and logic that emerge in Twin Peaks. It serves quite simply as the figure of an absolute evil: the devil or death or the void. Like infinity, there may be ‘lesser’ or ‘greater’ orders of absolute evil—for example, Judy is a greater order of absolute evil than BOB—but all of these figures serve the same purpose of closing down interpretive plurality and polysemy.

Trying to think back over Twin Peaks 3, my mind reconstructs a fabulous landscape of gesture: small, precise moments punctuating the wreckage and ruin of genre convention and narrative tropes. Certainly there is physical gesture, in the spirit of Lil’s dance, present from the very first moments of the series (the callback to Laura’s finger click and hand pose from Fire Walk With Me). The extraordinary third episode introduces us to the eyeless Naido, whose anguished gesticulations are further abstracted by the glitchy editing that characterises her purple domain.

Having encountered Naido and materialised in Las Vegas, Cooper himself develops a very different language of gesture; in contrast to Naido’s urgent inarticulacy, he embodies a complete dissociation between action and intention (an early, amusing example being his shouting ‘Hello!’ at the one-armed bandits). Many of the characters encountered by Cooper and the other quasi-protagonists are similarly perched on the verge of gestural abstraction, at the point where caricature dissolves into pure form/movement. Obvious examples include the Las Vegas cops, the Mitchum Brothers and their companions (particularly Candie), the Woodsmen, and Gordon Cole’s French acquaintance, but this tendency towards abstraction affects all but the most grounded of characters.

Physical gesture is complemented by vocal and linguistic gesture in Twin Peaks 3. In that same book, Michel Chion pointed out the extent to which Lynch’s performers utilise the whole range of vocal dynamics, from shouting and screaming to whispering and muttering, all of which is clearly on display throughout the season. This is intensified by the extensive use of repetition, parroting and mimicking in this season, both physical and vocal. Beyond the obvious example of Dougie/Cooper, key exponents of this include Johnny Horne, the junkie woman living across the street, and the bleeding drunk in the Twin Peaks cell.

Most striking of all is the Woodsman’s repeated poem, broadcast over the radio in the black-and-white segment of Episode 8, which reminded me of nothing less than Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. As with that director’s work, Lynch’s interest in the deconstruction of convention and the exploration of abstract gesture shouldn’t be seen as absurdist nihilism: the affirmation of meaninglessness. The specificity of sense is largely replaced by a specificity of affect. As with musical difference, this bypassing of meaning can actually feel more specific as a result of its very abstraction.

It could get some wind for the sailboat and it could get for it is

Like Cousin Lil’s dance, Twin Peaks 3 can be read as a play of gesture, under the sign of the Blue Rose. Following the Wilson comparison, we might like to try out terms such as ‘post-dramatic television’, or indeed, ‘TV as performance art’. To be clear, by the latter, I don't necessarily mean televised performance art, as if each character/actor were involved in their own deconstructive ‘performance’. Similarly, while I would call Twin Peaks 3 a ‘post-narrative’ TV show, narrative, genre and the televisual medium are all still deeply implicated. I would argue that Lynch and Frost use the conventions (and the cultural context) of television as materials for their work, in the same way that performance art (or post-dramatic theatre) uses physical, vocal and linguistic vocabularies and practices. We are given the form of these conventions—standalone scenes, snippets of dialogue, tableaux and poses—decoupled from their usual function. Thus, narrative tropes stick out in strange, elegant shapes, flailing ineffectually, allowing us to observe their contours and the flow of their movement, without their dissolving into the necessary course of genred narrativity.

My performance art metaphor is also intended to bring out the ‘sculptural’ dimension of the show. As I mentioned previously, Twin Peaks 3 cannot easily be processed as a ‘story’. It cannot be reduced to pure narrative, to be retold or rendered as a synopsis, to be stored in the mind as the elaboration of a deep structure: an arc or overlapping sequence of arcs. We don't watch it ‘to see what’s going to happen’ (or, if we do, we can hardly feel satisfied with the result). There is no linear revelation; it is as mysterious at the end as it is in the beginning, and invites us to interpret it retrospectively as a single, undifferentiated canvas on which to seek clues.

Maybe it’s a cliché when writing about Lynch to talk about how his background in painting, and how his first films were attempts to augment a painterly canvas (through the addition of sound as well as movement). Still, I can’t help but feel that, despite its dissemination via laptops and flat-screen TVs, Twin Peaks 3 is Lynch’s return to the gallery. For me, the ambiguity of medium that this season represents is not so much between episodic television saga and 18-hour movie, but between narrative fictional media and visual art. Its epic scale and near-arbitrary structure seem to constitute little more than a multi-dimensional canvas on which to project a phantasmagoria of video art, short film and living photography, with perhaps the most obvious example being the experimental atom bomb sequence at the midpoint of the series. This plastic, visual art element is introduced early on, with two quasi-‘installations’: Dr Jacoby’s idiosyncratic gold-shovel-painting device, and the glass box in the New York unit. The New York sequence in particular not only invokes the context of contemporary art very directly (obscure objects in post-industrial lofts), but it appears to reflect on the experience of engaging with an artwork in this context.

Twin Peaks 3 is visual art made for television, but also visual art made from television (one of the core works of the television canon, no less). Video art, short film and large-scale art photography are successfully removed from the gallery and situated in a very different cultural space: a space of cults and fandoms, of popular appropriation and criticism, of fictions that interface directly with our collective reality. By planting these ‘exhibits’ in the fertile soil of a recently deceased and decaying narrative, we are encouraged to explore the latent narrativity through which supposedly autonomous, alienated visual art media derive their meaning and value. We read them as abscesses in the season’s reliquary landscape, growing from the corpse of a closed fictional world, occupying time and space according to their own patterns and logics. This too is TV as performance art; for those so inclined, the resulting catalogue of moments can be surveyed in terms of the surplus performativity of television production, distribution and reception—of the television auteur, of the genre writer, of the minor character, of the super-fan, of the cultural trope—and thus of the production of cultural narratives more generally.

If Twin Peaks 3 is a televisual exhibition, it is nevertheless an exhibition installed under the auspices of the Blue Rose. Cousin Lil is our curator, critic and art mediator, and her brand of paranoiac interpretation overwrites that of the white cube (a supposedly open space of subjective reflection, without the promise of a secret cipher that would unlock the ‘true meaning’ of everything within it). This ingenious collusion between Lynch/Gordon and his dancing cousin is the key to the uniqueness of Twin Peaks in the public consciousness. Whereas the contemporary art gallery is a space in which individual works can be easily and legitimately dismissed (as bad art, as meaningless charlatanism, as ‘not my cup of tea’), Lynch’s televisual gallery is a space in which no standalone element can be dismissed without risking the invalidation of the entire edifice. In this way, the artist/curator forces an engagement with the work, whilst simultaneously ensuring that this engagement can never be ‘complete’ or ‘final’. That’s the power of the Blue Rose.