David Lynch Forces Your Brain to Work Differently

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Dana Ashbrook as Bobby in Twin Peaks: The Return. Photo: SHOWTIME

David Lynch rearranges your brain.

I’ve been a fan of the director ever since I saw The Elephant Man at age 11 and had Lynchian dreams for weeks afterward. So I know this in my bones.

But I still have to keep reminding myself of it, because Lynch demands to be appreciated on Lynch’s terms, and those terms are often intuitive and uncanny. And for all its storytelling refinements in the post-Sopranos age, TV is still resistant to that kind of vision, and audiences are as well.

As my colleague Laura Hudson wrote in her recap of the first two episodes, Lynch speaks his own language; not for nothing did he cast himself as FBI agent Gordon Cole, who is hard of hearing and “prefers to communicate largely through code” but can be understood, more or less, by people who’ve spent a long time in his company. I’ve thought about David Lynch and Gordon Cole and Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired its third and fourth episodes on Showtime tonight, more often in the past week than any other 2017 TV series. Three programs that I adore and that could be considered “Lynchian” — American Gods, Legion, and The Leftovers — barely entered my mind. (These shows speak Lynch with an accent.)

Instead, I’ve gone through a critical doubt-and-recrimination cycle that went like this:

First, I worried that my first couple of pieces fundamentally misread the series, particularly in stating that episodes one and two felt more like a self-contained collection of stubbornly opaque short films on Twin Peaks themes than a coherent narrative. I don’t want to totally take that observation back, just amend it; I’ll explain what I mean farther down.

Second, I chastised myself for rushing to judgment despite warnings from Lynch himself that this is an 18-hour movie that’s meant to be considered in totality. That’s something any halfway ambitious TV-maker might say whether it’s true or not. But this time it’s Lynch, a director who makes actual movies, saying it, so we should assume he meant it.

And now that I’ve watched the first four episodes several times (three and four were made available last Sunday via the Showtime app and Amazon and Hulu add-ons), I think he did mean it. So I have to think of the entire project in those terms. If this were a two-hour film, the first two one-hour installments would’ve added up to about 14 minutes of the whole, not enough to make a reliable judgment about its overall quality, perhaps even its defining characteristics. You could counter that if Lynch and his writing and producing partner Mark Frost really want us to think of Twin Peaks: The Return as a very long movie, they should have released it that way, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There’s something fundamentally unfair about expecting viewers, critics included, to withhold judgment for three to four months.

But that brings me back to that statement I made at the top, that Lynch forces your brain to work differently. I love that we have a major popular artist in our midst who can do that on an international platform, with a big-name cast and strong production values. He’s done it before, he’s doing it again now, and the sheer effrontery of releasing an 18-hour movie in dollops, one or two segments at a time, is part of the reason why the experience of watching Twin Peaks: The Return is so unnerving, even alienating. It’s a bit like watching a regular-length movie in super slow-motion, an experiment I’ve done a few times just for kicks. It makes scenes that would have played as plot-driving expository nuggets if staged the traditional way play instead as extruded moments in time: you spend forever watching a person cross a room or take a bit of food, or scream. It’s, well, Lynchian.

Since David Lynch was a painter before he became a filmmaker (and still is a painter, and a fascinating one), a painting metaphor seems in order. Imagine the totality of Twin Peaks: The Return as an enormous mosaic painting consisting of 18 individual panels; each panel is hidden by a strip of black construction paper, and the artist removes them one at a time, giving you ten minutes to study one panel before revealing the next. That sounds like an infuriating way to look at a painting. But if somebody showed you a painting that way, and you committed to their way of showing it to you, the result would be an experience you would never forget. You might get confused, bored, or angry sometimes, or wonder if the exercise was unnecessarily silly or pretentious. You might even come away thinking the experience was not worth the time you invested. But for the rest of your life, there would be moments when you’d flash back to the time that that painter invited you into the studio and unveiled a work one square at a time, then stood back while you looked at it.

That’s what I think we’re dealing with here: a work like no other, unveiled in a manner no one has ever experienced before.

This is not a stunt. Lynch and Frost are not playing with us or fooling us into thinking that they’ve made something when it’s just a shiny, freaky nothing. This is not a show you “turn your brain off and enjoy.” It’s a show you have to stare at, listen to, engage with on its own terms, in its own language. I believe it is as substantive a psychedelic, incantatory soap opera as the original Twin Peaks, and as haunting and moving as its predecessor if you can tune into its wavelength. But it has been conceived and executed in such a way that any preconceived expectations we bring into it as a result of having seen the original — plus any and all previous Lynch films and TV programs — are annihilated, without warning and with tremendous violence, like poor, dimwitted Dougie in episode four, whose head disappeared without warning, leaving a blot of soot. The images of different Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) incarnations coughing up Lovecraftian hairballs might as well be metaphors for what we all had to do with our nostalgic, constructed memories of what Twin Peaks was, in order to create a more honest, accurate picture of what it actually was, and make room for the immense feast that we’ve just begun to consume. (Vomiting signals a loss of control of one’s body, but it’s sometimes triggered when we feel that we’ve lost control of our lives.)

This is a seismic spectacle. Lynch, one of the great formal experimenters in narrative cinema, is no longer playing around with television conventions and spiking them with his signature images and themes, as he did in the original Twin Peaks. He has hijacked the medium of television itself, and our ingrained, preferred methods of consuming TV along with it. And he and Frost are presenting their long-delayed sequel in a way that replicates some of the bafflement, exhilaration, and dismay that greeted the original.

Lynch’s no-screeners edict forced everyone to experience the first two episodes at roughly the same time, which has created something as close to a 1990-style collective experience as 2017 can allow. And the 18-hour, super-slow-motion movie structure adds a new layer of oddness. Lynch has somehow managed to take the colder, more astringent style that he developed between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Inland Empire, his uncompromisingly grim and freakish debut, Eraserhead, and his paintings, and merge them with the warmer, more accessible kookiness of the original Peaks to create a chimerical show that we don’t quite feel we can trust yet, even as it presses the nostalgia buttons a bit more forcefully as it goes along.

What’s going on, though?

Bear in mind that none of this is meant to be definitive or predictive — your guess really is as good as mine here — but what I see is a metafictional work that’s simultaneously about loss, death, the passage of time, and the long interlude without a new Twin Peaks episode. Much of the new series’ eeriness stems from feelings of dislocation, caused not just by the hero’s disappearance and confinement in limbo, and the shock and bafflement of those left behind, but also by Twin Peaks’ fans distress at having a beloved series ripped away from them immediately after a cliffhanger that would remain unresolved. (Lynch’s theatrical movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was mainly about the circumstances leading to Laura Palmer’s murder; it never resolved the question of what happened to Cooper.)

I’m guessing that BOB possessed Cooper at the end of Twin Peaks, then went on the road with his new body, becoming the Evil Cooper that we see prowling around the American Southwest in a leather jacket, lording over some kind of criminal empire and generally making like a cousin of Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, or perhaps Wild at Heart’s Bobby Peru. I’m not sure what to make of Dougie, who is also played by MacLachlan; is he a third character who looks like Cooper but is unrelated to him, and who was randomly plucked from this Earth to serve as a vessel holding Good Cooper’s soul?

In any case, Good Cooper seems to have spent the intervening quarter century wandering some kind of astral plane. I think both the “red room” that we saw in the original series and this one is some kind of staging area, like a “green room” backstage at a concert. Perhaps this staging area includes the steampunk-ish hell-basement filled with ominously crackling and humming electrical equipment that sucks Cooper through a portal (sans shoes, like a religious pilgrim entering a house of worship) and reincarnates him on the floor of Dougie’s secret other place. Maybe the star-speckled, Eraserhead-opening-credits-like vistas that we glimpsed in the opening of episode three (complete with a floating object that vaguely evokes both the “glass box” from the first two episodes and a police radio) could represent another layer of the other world, one that’s higher up in consciousness than the red room and therefore less reminiscent of our reality. But again, I don’t know — I’m just guessing.

Whatever the explanation, if indeed Lynch and Frost ever give us one, this is a series that communicates with us in much the same the way Gordon Cole communicates with his agents, the way Margaret’s log talks to her, and the way the figures in the red room and beyond speak to Cooper. The translation is necessarily inexact, but we get the gist, perhaps more emotionally than rationally. And the undefined areas of the translation are what make Twin Peaks, both versions, works of art as opposed to mere escapism. Watching Lynch’s work is an active process; at least it is if we want to get something out of it besides, “Oh, look at that beautiful, weird image,” which is a perfectly acceptable way to watch Lynch, but not one that takes full advantage of his invitation to add yourself to the work via interpretation and conversation with others.

The phrase “between two worlds,” first heard in Mike’s monologue from the original series, is what’s being explored here. There’s the world we are familiar with, and the world we can’t see but that we know (thanks to uncanny and inexplicable events) might be out there somewhere.

There is a quality of spiritual pilgrimage to both series: You must make peace with the fact that you will never entirely “figure it out,” and that you will continue traveling onward without any assurance that there’s a destination waiting for you at the other end, much less that you’ll someday reach it.

Back to Agent Cooper: From a TV fan’s perspective, it’s fascinating to consider how strongly his story resonates with elements in the three Lynchian dramas I mentioned earlier, The Leftovers, Legion, and American Gods. In The Leftovers, a percentage of the population simply disappeared all at once, and many characters refused to accept that their disappearance was permanent and unsolvable, and became obsessed with either explaining what happened or somehow locating their missing loved ones so that they could speak to them or join them. The sequences of survivors trying to speak to disappeared people through prayer or a medium are mirrored in Twin Peaks: The Return’s scenes of separate planes of existence marked by portals (like the Black Lodge entrance that Hawk finds with his flashlight) or by transparent red curtains superimposed over “our” landscape. A good portion of Legion takes place inside the hero’s mind, a red-room-like space filled with apparitions that are also metaphors. American Gods is Peaks-like in its focus on a hero (who is Cooper-like in his function, if not his appearance and life story) who bridges separate worlds that most of us aren’t aware of — the world of humans and the world of warring gods.

What makes Twin Peaks: The Return so special — besides, of course, that we’re seeing the director who originated this particular mode of storytelling return to it and show that he’s still the master of it — is the way it tells the story. And here we return to the comparison to a slowly unveiled painting or a regular movie watched in extreme slow-motion. Lynch’s staging is, agonizingly at times, protracted. He gives us a moment, then a variation of a moment, then another variation, until we realize it’s all the same moment, or an extended contemplation of one sort of moment.

Sometimes this technique is perversely delightful, as when Cooper-as-Dougie hits jackpot after jackpot in the casino (I love how he shamble-putters through life, evoking both Jeff Bridges as the title character of Starman and Peter Sellers as Chance in Being There), always shouting the borrowed cheer, “Hell-oooooOOOO!”; or when he walks into the kitchen in his bathroom at the end of episode four and eats pancakes and drinks coffee again/for the first time (he spits the coffee out!) while Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” plays on the soundtrack. You could say that neither of these scenes needed to be as long as they were, and I can see how you would, if your preference in TV drama is to have new information delivered to you regularly.

But because Lynch has slowed things down to such an unprecedented degree, peeling up those black squares a millimeter at a time, I find myself contemplating things that a television series would never otherwise inspire me to contemplate, such as the way that the din of a casino floor eventually becomes a sort of cartoony white noise if you stay there long enough, and the taste of pancakes, which I ate yesterday for the first time in several months because Lynch and MacLachlan made them look so delectable.

Sure, there are times when Lynch’s mystical slow-burn approach to comedy, drama, and world-building is simply annoying; a lot of the conversations between the regulars in the police station are drawn out with gratuitous pauses and deadpan reactions that don’t land, and I don’t see any good reason to have drawn out the murder of Bad Cooper’s girlfriend except to rub our noses in his icy cruelty (we can’t feel the pain of her loss, as we did when Maddie died on the original Peaks, because we hadn’t gotten a chance to know her). But again, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the relativity of storytelling time. These scenes and others seem to take forever when we’re watching them, for no discernible reason, but when we look back on all 18 hours of this “long feature,” they might seem like the equivalent of one or two frames that weren’t quite right. Excited as I am to finally see the big picture, the process of unveiling is a show in itself, and it’s so peculiar and unexpected that I am glad I’m here to see it. There aren’t many TV shows I’ve said that about. This is one of them.

David Lynch Forces Your Brain to Work Differently