Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Preview The Introduction to "Speaking Backward: Exploring the Themes & Mythology of Twin Peaks"

Later this year I'll be publishing a book on Twin Peaks. Entitled "Speaking Backward," the book examines the themes and mythology of the show, episode by episode. It is, I hope, an entertaining read for fans of the show as well as a handy guide for those who are just discovering the world of Twin Peaks for the first time.

Today, in honor of the show's 25th anniversary, I'm posting a sneak preview of the draft introduction to Speaking Backward. I hope it's enjoyed, and I hope that you'll consider plunking down a few nickels for a copy when it's finally unveiled. I encourage you to leave comments, constructive criticism, and recipes for pie in the comments below. 

Welcome to Twin Peaks: An Introduction

When Twin Peaks first appeared on the ABC television network back in the Ancient Year Of 1990 it became an instantaneous cultural phenomenon. If you were alive, sentient, and within range of a water cooler/school locker the question “Who killed Laura Palmer” was, for a brief moment in time, largely inescapable. Co-creator David Lynch graced the cover of Time magazine; Actor Kyle MacLachlan hosted Saturday Night Live for the first and last time in his career; T-shirts bearing Laura Palmer’s face, the phrase “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and/or the visage of lead character Special Agent Dale Cooper sold like hotcakes; There were several spin-off books, including The Autobiography of Agent Dale Cooper: My Life and Tapes, and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.

None of this was business as usual.

Twin Peaks entered a prime time network television landscape that had carefully and rigorously defined audience expectation over decades, and swiftly proceeded to gleefully subvert and destroy those expectations. Long-standing television conventions were twisted and changed, made unfamiliar and strange. No one at that time had ever seen anything quite like it and no one’s seen anything like it since, although it’s served to inspire a host of subsequent creative types in all areas of the arts from television to film to music and on and on anon. Oddball/cult/genre shows sprouted in its wake with programs like The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Carnivale, and Lost (to name just a very few) all owing obvious debts to Co-creators David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s weirdo-epic about a small town struggling against and/or succumbing to the primal, animalistic call of capital-E Evil.

The first season of Twin Peaks – just nine gorgeously strange hours in all – is unassailable “Great Television.” Some of that Greatness is historic in terms of the show’s place in time and culture, and in the ways in which the show has continued to reverberate with cult audiences around the world decades after its cancellation. Some of that Greatness is artistic, in terms of what co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were able to achieve on a major American television network, and in the ways it has subsequently influenced other artists and creators.

The second season of Twin Peaks is…well….problematic. It begins well, builds to a genuinely shocking revelation, and then just sort of slowly lies down in the middle of the figurative road and stays there for awhile muttering to itself before rousing once more over the course of a couple hours for what remains perhaps the most unconventional, bewildering, artistically inspired and just-plain-gonzo finale ever to grace a television screen. 

Twin Peaks as a whole wields a potent combination of wry irony and bone-deep sincerity that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely successful. Its strange mixture of eccentricity and normalcy, of artificial-seeming behavior and raw, real emotion, of parody and melodrama, of quirky character piece and horror show, defines Twin Peaks from the start and marks it out as a singular creation. This is a place where florid clich├ęs and uncomfortably organic passions, sincerity and irony, kindness and violence abide so closely together that it becomes difficult to identify where one ends and the other begins. Which is, I think, very much a point (though not the point).

For this particular viewer much of Twin Peaks’ cumulative power lies in its unblinking fascination with Evil. In its best moments the show offers a startlingly-clear view through grimy, warping glass at what feels and sounds and seems to be pretty much Evil Incarnate. It doesn’t have this effect on everyone (it’s far too idiosyncratic for that), but for some of you Twin Peaks is going to burrow under your skin and slither there. It’s going to creep you out, man. Lynch doesn't screw with everyone's head the way that he screws so very, very effortlessly with mine. Some folks find his films to be empty exercises in surrealism and juxtaposed banality that don't land their punches. If you're among that crowd then you're probably going to hate this book.

Much as I recognize and will write about the potential for, and existence of, overinflated, underwhelming melodrama and of style without substance in Twin Peaks, overall (with frankly frightening regularity) Lynch's vision works the psyche over thoroughly. His way of portraying the emergence of Evil into a mundane world has the power to genuinely disturb. Lynch conjures the shivers that precede the urge to flee like few others. That he can manage this feat, not through elaborate special effects or through copious gore, but through the careful deployment of sound, extreme lighting and ordinary objects, is nothing short of astonishing. Lynch and his Peaks compatriots touch, somehow, on the best/worst sort of fear there is: the uneasy prickle, the chill at the back of your neck you get walking a hallway in your home late at night; that sense that someone or something is THERE with you, present in some awful, inexplicable, invisible sense.

Why is it that Lynch’s films in general (and Twin Peaks in particular) are capable of doing this to us? Setting aside the technical aspects involved – the ways in which sound, light and performance are deployed – what is it about the subject matter involved here that manages to so thoroughly disarm and distress? David Foster Wallace, writing on Lynch and his films for Premiere Magazine, articulated an answer to this question that cuts straight to the heart of the matter:

Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed….they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person….Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are – at least potentially – everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”[1]

Wallace submits in his (terrific) essay that all of Lynch’s films focus on Evil, and that this focus comes without the comforting narrative fiction of clear “moral victory.” As in Lynch’s films overall, so also in Twin Peaks. When people do terrible things on this show there are sometimes consequences but there are sometimes no consequences at all. Lynch and Frost don’t introduce Evil into Twin Peaks so that “Good” can vanquish it. They introduce Evil as fact, as uncaring force of nature; a storm to (maybe) survive but not to vanquish – not really, not ever.

Don’t get me wrong, Twin Peaks has plenty of quirky comedy and purple melodrama. It’s loaded with wry, oddball touches that you might find similar to dry-as-sand comedies like Waiting For Guffman. It is by no means a non-stop horror show, but the horrors it offers are profoundly disquieting and may linger with you long after you’ve turned off the television.

Part of what makes Lynch’s overall body of work so compelling/frustrating lies in the way in which it resists concrete interpretation. As an artist, Lynch consciously chooses not to explain himself[2], inviting the audience to explain for itself, which brings me, finally, to the subject of the book you’re currently holding in your grubby little hands.

This book and all of its contents represent one man’s interpretation of, and analysis of, Twin Peaks. It is not nor does it purport to be a definitive text. However, for all of Twin Peaks’ inarguable, wonderful strangeness the show is doggedly dedicated to exploring certain themes that appear near and dear to its dark, deranged heart. There are a number of genuinely interesting ideas being batted about throughout the running time of this show, and they are ideas that are worth discussing and exploring and chewing over with the sort of relish that Benjamin Horne reserves for Brie and Butter sandwiches. This book exists in order to provoke fodder for said-discussions/explorations/displays of rampant, figurative mastication. Within these pages you will find ruminations on David Lynch’s obsession with twins and the subconscious, on seeking truth and on the unknowable mysteries, on ideas of “Goodness” and “Evil,” on voyeurism and secrets, on faith and purpose and the possible futility of Love in a world that seems designed to crush the decency within and seed corruption in its stead.

Twin Peaks also contains one of the most intriguing and completely-singular “mythologies” that I’ve ever encountered. If you’re unfamiliar with that term as it’s used here allow me a brief moment of explanation. The “mythology” of a fictional narrative may refer to the hidden architecture of its mysteries which a fiction parcels out to its viewers over time. Frost, Lynch and their writing cohorts concocted an overarching mythology for Twin Peaks that is deeply, deeply weird and somehow deeply compelling. That mythology is more interpretable and more cohesive than the show’s willful obscurity might suggest. In these pages you will find plausible explanations for some of the show’s more esoteric ideas, suggestions on how the disparate mythological elements of Twin Peaks “add up” to a cohesive whole, and explorations into the real-world myths, legends and ideas which may have inspired the show’s ambitious/crazy hodge-podge of backwoods mysticism, science fiction, Eastern philosophy, and legend.

Each chapter of Speaking Backward focuses on one episode in the series and attempts to dissect the themes and mythology present in each hour of the show. In addition to the main body of each chapter, you’ll also find sections devoted to “Pieces of Peaks” (commentary or observation on episode happenings that don’t really directly relate to the themes or mythology, but which are worth noting and/or celebrating and/or relentlessly mocking), as well as “Trivial Trivia” (bits and bobs of interesting/enlightening/stupefying information about the actors, the production, and the impact of Twin Peaks). I highly recommend that you watch each episode of the show prior to reading the corresponding chapter in this book. Without the context that the show itself provides, much of the writing that follows will likely read in a manner similar to the half-crazed scrawls of a monkey on acid[3]. This might sound appealing to you, but the monkey in question will assure you that it is not[4]. Care has been taken to make this book friendly to those of you who have not watched Twin Peaks before. You can safely read along as you watch, one episode to one chapter at a time, without fearing any real “spoilers” regarding future events. Those of you who have seen the show before will hopefully find that this same care has been taken to nonetheless illuminate aspects of the show’s themes and mythology.

…You’ll also discover a fair amount of irreverence in these pages. While it is my intent to honor the creative effort and artistic skill that went into the crafting of Twin Peaks, it is undeniable that the show as a whole has some serious rough patches. There are elements/sections of Twin Peaks that simply do not work. At all[5]. Rather than ignore this I’ve embraced it. While this book is primarily concerned with teasing out the thematic and mythological strands of the narrative, it’s also concerned with enjoying and honestly critiquing a show that is seriously weird, and seriously all-over-the-place.

If this is your first time among the wind-tossed Douglas Firs: welcome. If you’re returning to this town for another trip on Lynch’s Scary-Go-‘Round: welcome to you as well. We’re going to have a lot of fun exploring this weird world together.

Now, how should you watch Twin Peaks? Whether you’re entering these woods for the first time or making a return trip allow me to offer some unsolicited advice: Turn all the lights off (leaving one on is acceptable – it is also appropriately “Lynchian”). Make sure your television’s volume is up. If you have a fancy speaker system use it. David Lynch deploys sound like few Directors, and to my experience that sound – sometimes haunting, sometimes sensual, sometimes baffling – is a large part of what makes much of Twin Peaks so timelessly arresting.

To say that Twin Peaks is a weird show is to make something of a massive, laughable understatement. Characters often voice stilted, bizarre thoughts, or behave crazily and melodramatically, in ways that are both soap opera-esque and a grotesque reflection of that genre. Things happen without rational explanation. There is a Log Lady.

Don’t fight the weird; roll with it if you’re able. I think you’ll find that it becomes kind of intoxicating in ways that are both lovely and disturbing. You’re entering David Lynch’s head here, with only co-creator Mark Frost and a shaken-looking Standards and Practices lawyer as your tour guides. While that’s some cause for alarm it’s also cause for celebration. Twin Peaks is one strange town, but its woods are lovely, dark and deep.

Give yourself permission to lose yourself in them.

[1] Excerpted solely for critical purposes from “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace, available in the essay collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” You should purchase it immediately. The entire article on Lynch is fascinating. 
[2] As Martha Nochimson notes in The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart In Hollywood, “…Lynch explained that, when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn’t know, intellectually, what he is doing.”
[3] It may read that way regardless.
[4] Right after he mutters “Judy.”
[5] If the name “Evelyn Marsh” doesn’t already strike fear and loathing into your heart, rest assured that it soon will.

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