Illustration by Julia Rosner
Twin Peaks, like much of Lynch’s work, doesn’t seem to lend itself well to lukewarm reception. Everyone I’ve spoken to or heard of who has sampled the surrealist cult series has either come out of the experience with a new favourite TV show, or has a scripted diatribe at the ready slating it as meaningless, difficult-to-follow and (at worst) masturbatory and disingenuous.
Having been off the air for over 25 years now and due to return on the 24th of May, the first mention someone might hear of the series will currently tend to be from either a die-hard fan eagerly anticipating the new season… or from those sick of them. So what makes Twin Peaks so polarising, and what makes it so brilliant to those who love it?
It’s difficult to begin to explain what makes Twin Peaks so special – there are so many aspects of the show that just aren’t replicated elsewhere – but a good place to start seems to be its creator himself: David Lynch. From interviews, the show seemed to be crafted out of a series of happy coincidences – most famously in the way in which a large portion of the cast came to be determined by Lynch personally.
Frank Silva, who played BOB, was initially the set dresser for the show before he was asked by Lynch to shoot one scene in a moment of inspiration – similarly, Al Strobel, who played MIKE was only cast for the pilot before they both became integral parts of the plot as the series went on.
The ‘Red Room’ setting and Zen motif were similarly thrown in on creative impulse from Lynch, so for anyone who’s watched the show, it appears the entire show boils down to a collage of Lynch’s half-baked ideas that somehow coalesce into a (semi-)coherent plot. The chaos that permeates the storytelling of Twin Peaks, directly because of this tendency of Lynch to make ad-hoc artistic judgments, marks the point where criticisms and praises of the show intersect. People love and hate Twin Peaks for its nonsensicality more than anything else.
In this way, perhaps the greatest gift Lynch ever gave to society was bringing this chaotic and difficult to follow artistic sensibility to the mainstream. Chasing meaning in the town of Twin Peaks is a laughable offense, though it doesn’t stop many of the show’s fans from trying. The idea that art needn’t necessarily be a means to an end, but rather an end in itself, regardless of meaning drawn, is a subversive one, and one which Lynch was instrumental in helping normalise to the viewing public through his work on Twin Peaks.
While it’s arguable that directorial intention isn’t necessarily relevant to analysing the themes of a series, for those who need convincing, look no further than the character of FBI Director Gordon Cole, the character who Lynch himself plays sporadically throughout the series. Initially existing solely as a disembodied voice over the phone, we later find out that the Director uses hearing aids, and is barely able to converse without having to ask for repetitions and screaming across the room, sometimes in a way that’s incoherent even to the audience watching at home. This literally highlights the discord between the creator’s intention for a piece of art (what Cole/Lynch is trying to say), the art itself (the other characters/Twin Peaks) and the consumer of the art: in this case Twin Peaks’ audience, who are more often than not left with more questions than answers at the end of each episode as to what the point of a lot of the plot occurrences and odd scenes and shots are.
In a telling interview, Lynch says of the recurrent shot of traffic lights that leaves many fans wondering about symbolism, metaphor, analogy and the like: ‘It gives you a feeling… it makes you wonder… and it gives you the willies!’ in an almost Pynchonian way of mocking film theorists and avid fans who try to decode his work. Lynch just seems to be a fairly cool dude who likes making weird things, with no mention of pretentious justifications of his work through winding threads of inaccessible theory.
What we get as a final product – a collage of seemingly arbitrary artistic decisions on Lynch’s part that show him to be self-aware but not self-absorbed – is a show which is simultaneously wholesome and unwholesome, difficult and accessible, realistic and surreal – that is what makes Twin Peaks so different from any other TV show and gives it its polarising notoriety. Any other director attempting a story so dense and cryptic would not likely be able to pull off what Lynch does (as you can see from the episodes not directed by Lynch, and the series cancellation), so it is precisely his personal approach to filmmaking, appropriated for TV, that gives Twin Peaks that special place in fans’ and critics’ hearts alike.
The GFT is currently running a Cinemasters season surrounding the works of David Lynch, which will conclude with screenings of Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces from the 14th to the 16th of May. Tickets are available here: http://glasgowfilm.org/shows/twin-peaks-the-missing-pieces-nc-15
[Nour El-Issa – @dimredspectre]