The first season of Twin Peaks aired in 1990. My parents considered its suburban noir too disturbing for my suburban childhood, so I never watched it. At my high school, lurid rumors of its plot would surface in conversations, the way Athenians might have once mentioned fragments of the Mysteries. Its tender title sequence, however, didn’t hint at the horrors within. “Welcome to Twin Peaks,” said a sign at a bend in the road, its sunlit painting of twin snowcapped mountains mimicking the more imprecise, misty mountains in the background. “Population 51,201.” There were images of a wren, smoking factory chimneys, machines, and waterfalls, over which drifted Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy synthesizer score.
The sequence is so hypnotic that it’s a shock when, in the first episode, a dead girl is found washed up on the shore of a lake, her body wrapped in plastic. Her name is Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, and what follows seems to be a police procedural, an investigation into the deceptively bland small town by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played with dashingly seductive innocence by Kyle MacLachlan, except that this investigation grows more and more warped as the series progresses.
“IN A TOWN LIKE TWIN PEAKS NO ONE IS INNOCENT,” said the poster for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the film prequel that followed the original series. By then, the emphasis seemed a little unnecessary. Laura, the audience had discovered, was “full of secrets”—the most shocking of which was that she had been murdered by her abusive father, Leland Palmer, after he had repeatedly raped her for years. But Leland may really only have been acting while possessed by Bob, a spirit of evil who is part of a gradually revealed, imperfectly understood network of spirits who enter this world via a White Lodge and a Black Lodge, which seem to be accessed through a Red Room that emerges from a sycamore grove in the forest: a salon of red velvet curtains, like an old-time cinema, where the usual rules of time or space no longer apply.
Twin Peaks, which exposed the peach and beige interiors of soap opera to terrible forces, was an event in the history of television and in the history of David Lynch, its cocreator and lead director. His first film, Eraserhead (1977), was a midnight movie classic. He had most recently made Blue Velvet (1986), in which MacLachlan and Laura Dern investigate the nature of evil, as personified by Dennis Hopper’s Frank, in the Americana town of Lumberton (just as Twin Peaks is a lumber town). Twin Peaks was Lynch’s first TV series. In 1990 he also made the film Wild at Heart, and followed it with Fire Walk With Me (1992).
After a short hiatus, Lynch then emerged with three films of sustained brilliance—Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)—interrupted by a kind of antifilm, The Straight Story (1999). Inland Empire was a film of such seamless drifts and complications that it felt unlikely that Lynch would ever return to ordinary narrative again. And then Twin Peaks: The Return was announced in 2014—cocreated, like the original Twin Peaks, with Mark Frost, but this time entirely directed by Lynch: a film in eighteen episodes; a further venture into telenovela; and a giant system of infuriating, dazzling narrative.
I often wonder if Lynch is the era’s most original artist, or at least the creator of its most haunting images—the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the Red Room in Twin Peaks, the Mystery Man in Lost Highway—but his works feel too schlocky, seedy, tearful, too male, too white for me to want to say this often in conversation. His cinema is disreputably baroque, brimming with meaning that it seems to disavow. He’s of the same generation as Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, but where they now seem historical, Lynch still has the fragility of the contemporary. The greatness of his art seems directly linked to the kitsch of his materials, all the B-movie unheimlich maneuvers: doppelgängers, prosthetics, recurring numbers, dream sequences, animated corpses. And this, I think, is an enigma worth pursuing.
The last episode of Twin Peaks’s second—and apparently final—season was broadcast in 1991. In the Red Room, an evil double of Agent Cooper is created and then escapes out into the world, while Cooper remains trapped in this other dimension. There, Laura Palmer says to Cooper, “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years. Meanwhile,” then disappears. Almost exactly twenty-five years later, Twin Peaks: The Return begins with that moment. Then an actor we previously knew as the Giant, but now identified in the credits only as ???????, and eventually described as the Fireman—Lynch’s metaphysics demand these anxiously literal precisions—plays a kind of electrical scratch on a gramophone to a still dapper, if careworn, Agent Cooper. Then the Giant gives Cooper more clues: “Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone.” “I understand,” says Agent Cooper, with baffling confidence. “You are far away,” says the Giant. Then Cooper disappears.
What happens next is a kind of eighteen-hour mantra for meditation. Cooper’s double, Mr. C, with lank hair, a greasy suntan, and an unlovely leather jacket, has spent the last twenty-five years roaming America. In order to avoid being swapped for Cooper’s more angelic self, Mr. C has manufactured his own double—a trippelgänger!—called Dougie Jones, and it’s into Dougie Jones’s body that Cooper is eventually transferred, leaving Mr. C free to continue his underworld career. The basic plot of The Return, therefore, is the restoration of Cooper to himself and Mr. C to the Black Lodge—and for Cooper to continue his quest not only to neutralize Bob, Laura Palmer’s killer, but also to contend with the vaster cosmic forces arrayed against him, seemingly called Judy. Yet just as the investigation into Laura Palmer’s death in Twin Peaks became a background hum, like an air-conditioning unit in a lavish hotel room, so Cooper’s odyssey drifts in and out of focus while The Return crisscrosses a continent: no longer just the forests of Washington State but also South Dakota, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and New York. And in refusing the audience’s craving to once again see Cooper nattily consuming his coffee and doughnuts, Lynch does something eerily perverse.
The repeat or replica has been a defining feature of Lynch’s cinema, so when he revives an entire TV show, no wonder the possibility of a return is also made woozy. He’s always been attentive to time’s ingenuity of affliction, as well as its possible folds or reversals. Many of the original cast were dead or dying—or had simply, tenderly, aged—so the new series was always going to be luminous with nostalgia. But the most dismantled character is Agent Cooper. In Twin Peaks, MacLachlan invented a style that was as much moral as sartorial, an attitude toward the universe that was sincere, dharmic, courageous, gentle. His openness to visions and alertness to others was as natural as his love of cherry pie. But here MacLachlan is inhabited by the grimly punk machismo of Mr. C and the dazed blandness of Dougie Jones. It is only halfway through episode sixteen, with just two and a half episodes left, that this lost version of Cooper is restored. And then, at the end, even this restored version is subjected to a savage metamorphosis, in perhaps the greatest of Lynch’s desolate Hollywood endings.
Cooper, finally himself, speeds to Twin Peaks to confront Mr. C. In the sheriff’s station, Mr. C is killed—and so is Bob. But instead of this being a neatly happy finale, another finale begins, in which Cooper travels back in time in order to prevent Laura Palmer’s death (and therefore the entirety of the previous series) from occurring at all. He appears to do so, leading her away through the forest, but suddenly we hear the electrical stutter previously heard on the Giant’s gramophone, and the sound of Laura screaming—and when Cooper turns, an Orpheus to her Eurydice, she has disappeared. And so he goes in search of her again.
Cooper—now veering, it seems, between all three of his selves—leaves the Red Room and meets Diane, his FBI assistant and true love, played by Laura Dern. They drive for 430 miles. Here, they seem to enter a new dimension. They go to a motel where they have silent, affectless sex. The next morning Diane has gone, leaving a note from Linda to Richard. Cooper leaves the motel (now a different motel) and drives to Odessa, Texas, where he finds a woman called Carrie Page, frazzled, exhausted—and played, like Laura Palmer, by Sheryl Lee. A telephone pole is buzzing in the road outside. Cooper drives Laura/Carrie back to her house in Twin Peaks. They arrive at night. But her family house is now inhabited by someone called Mrs. Tremond, who claims that no one called Palmer has ever lived there. Cooper steps back, into the dark street. He looks suddenly stricken: “What year is this?” he says. Then Laura/Carrie looks up in terror and screams—horrifically, metaphysically. And all the lights blow out.
There follows a very long blackout. Then once again, as the final credits begin, we see Laura and Cooper in the Red Room, the picture now darkened, with Laura whispering in his ear—just as she whispered to him earlier in the episode, before she again began screaming and her face blurred in anguish and her body flew away.
What monster makes such cinema? “I expected to meet a grotesque,” said Mel Brooks after watching Eraserhead, “a fat little German with fat stains running down his chin and just eating pork.” Instead, he met a healthy American who buttoned his shirts to the top, whose verbal style was all milkshake and wonder. His preferred capsule biography is “Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana.” It is, at least, all true. Lynch was born in 1946. His father worked in the US Forest Service, specializing in diseased trees and insect infestation. His childhood was spent following his father’s forestry postings. Later, he studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he made his first short films—after his primal vision of films as paintings that could move—before entering the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which let him use some outbuildings on campus to make Eraserhead:
one of my greatest, happiest experiences in cinema. And what I loved about it was the world, and having it be my own little place, where I could build everything and get it exactly the way I wanted it, for hardly any money.
The precise outlandishness of his visions and the blandness of his persona have seemed to many people to represent some kind of koan to be deciphered, and this has been encouraged by his refusal to talk in any detail about his movies. He provokes manias in others, and one mania is for biography. The unusually comprehensive series of interviews he did with Chris Rodley, collected as Lynch on Lynch (1997), has therefore acquired the aura of apocrypha. The most recent biographical experiments have been Dennis Lim’s elegant study, David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (2015), and Jon Nguyen’s documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (2017), in which Lynch—in his painting studio—talked about his art, at the same time offering a short history of his youth. As usual, it was pure American innocence. His mother was “a very warm and good person,” while “you really couldn’t ask for a better father…. He was really pure.” Such harmony! “I never heard my parents argue ever, about anything. They got along like Ike and Mike.”
Even the nightmares are tamed by repetition, like his childhood memory of a naked woman, bleeding from the mouth, emerging onto a street—“it was very mysterious, like we were seeing something otherworldly”—a vision he enacted in Blue Velvet, in which Isabella Rossellini stumbles naked and bleeding into a suburban garden. The most interesting moment was when the blandness warped: when he began a story about someone called Mr. Smith, a neighbor in Idaho, a story that seemed to promise some kind of violence, which Lynch broke off, unable to continue.
It was a moment when words were replaced by insoluble mystery, and Lynch always treats this idea of mystery—so old-fashioned, so unphilosophical—with careful affection. His early, abandoned project Ronnie Rocket had the subtitle “The Absurd Mystery of the Strange Forces of Existence,” which could basically summarize his filmography. A film is a mystery, a part that is a clue to a permanently hidden whole. A film, said Lynch, “won’t tell the whole story, because there are so many clues and feelings in the world that it makes a mystery and a mystery means there’s a puzzle to be solved.” And so the excitement of his cinema is that it can create a feeling that’s exorbitantly incommensurate with its surface—like the irreparable desolation you feel at the final images of The Return.
There’s something so touching in Cooper’s question about the year, as if he has simply made a miscalculation, and a new solution will soon emerge. Under the streetlights, Cooper was becoming his own audience, sweetly manic with rationality. For there you are, watching The Return, transformed into a circuit loop of allusion within the series, within Lynch’s other works, and within a vaster network of images and references.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock’s movie of doubling and haunting, Kim Novak plays two parts, Madeleine and Judy, and both names recur in Twin Peaks, just as Otto Preminger’s Laura—about a woman thought dead who returns—repeats itself in the name Laura Palmer. Or there’s the pattern of references that Dennis Lim noted in Lynch’s films to Duchamp’s voyeuristic masterpiece Étant donnés—where the viewer peers through a crack in a wooden door to see a splayed and naked woman. This pattern continues in The Return in the arranged pose of the corpse of Ruth Davenport, one of the series’ central clues. Or there are the references to Beckett—the mouth of Not I that comes back as the disembodied mouth of Laura Palmer’s scream; and the barren tree of Godot that is now the Arm, and that was once a small model beside the bed in Eraserhead; and of course the structure of the entire series, which could have been called Waiting for Cooper. And Francis Bacon’s melted screaming popes; the fiction of Franz Kafka; Nabokov’s (and Kubrick’s) Lolita—for who else does Cooper see if not the ghost of Dolores Haze when Laura Palmer, a nymphet transformed into a woman, opens her door to him after his road trip? Not to mention Sunset Boulevard and B-movies like Detour and Carnival of Souls and shorter underground masterpieces like Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon or Bruce Conner’s Crossroads.
An anxiety consumes you as you watch The Return, a wildness of connections—like some radio telescope scanning the universe for signals, or like Lynch’s self-portrait in The Return as FBI Director Gordon Cole, motionless, listening to the beeps and rustlings of the banked monitoring devices around him. You begin to notice networks of names (Sonny Jim is the name of Dougie Jones’s son, and also the name of the sadistic night porter in The Elephant Man); or recurring motifs like telephone poles and electric pylons; or the resemblance of the yellow center line on Lynch’s highways to the yellow brick road of The Wizard of Oz (and also to the opening credits of Lost Highway and Detour, and that famous Robert Frank image of US 285 in New Mexico); or the Platters’ 1956 cover of “My Prayer,” used twice in The Return, with its desperate plea “to linger with you/At the end of the day in a dream that’s divine,” like Gordon Cole’s dream in which Monica Bellucci tells him, “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?”; or the ironies to which the word “home” is subjected: “You are here. Now there is no place to go but home,” Cooper is maliciously told when trapped in the Red Room, and yet he still says to Laura Palmer, after saving her from death, that he must take her home. But what possible home can this be? All of this is a grotesque variation on The Wizard of Oz’s refrain, “There’s no place like home.”
Stop! you want to cry to yourself. Because of course this mania is misplaced, or decentered—a symptom of Lynch’s movies’ seductive power. His aim isn’t the production of a single meaning. It’s at once grander and also simpler: world-creation (of course, therefore, The Wizard of Oz—a film about reality production—is so often on repeat in Lynch’s cinema). Lynch investigates his landscapes and interiors so precisely—including their acoustics and background hums—that other films begin to seem thin, as if nothing has changed since the backdrops of the 1930s. The cinematographer Frederick Elmes made a lovely observation about Blue Velvet: “The apartment was like a stage. David had imagined a space where certain things happen in very definite places in the room.” Lynch put it slightly differently: a set was a world. “No matter how weird something is, no matter how strange the world is that you’re making a film about, it’s got to be a certain way…. Or it’s not that place anymore.”
And Lynch’s worlds always evade our explanations: their detail is the inexplicable disguised as the unexplained. In them, you confront the bewildering, the excessive. In The Return, Lynch inserts small eddies (like the performances at the Road House of entire four-minute songs), moments with apparently no narrative strategy behind them:
A boy runs into a diner, asking if anyone has seen Bing.
A girl violently scratches a rash under her armpit during a conversation.
A toddler shoots randomly from a car, which stops in the road. The car behind them, trapped, sounds its horn continually. The driver is a middle-aged woman, grotesquely frantic: “Her uncle is joining us. She hasn’t seen him in a very long while. We’re late. We’ve got miles to go. Please. We have to get home. She’s sick.” There seems to be no one there. Then we see a girl, supine, vomiting—her arms raised toward us like a somnambulist.
This excessive mannerist detail isn’t a reality effect (the way Roland Barthes described the everyday details in Flaubert’s prose). It hints instead at a world’s frightening expansiveness, or even at a world’s slippage into other worlds entirely. Unreality effects! What Laura Dern once said of shooting with Lynch is also true of the viewer: “You’re not sure where you’re going or even where you’ve come from. You can only be in the moment.” All you can do is enter a world, and courageously move from image to image.
If I had to name one defining structure of Lynch’s cinema, it would be something as abstract as this idea of movement—of transition between two states, or selves, or substances, or worlds. His favorite motifs are things inhabiting two states at once—plastics, dreams, electricity, radio, people, windows and walls, prosthetic limbs, telephone signals. The topology of Lynch’s spaces is very specific and unnerving. Interiors and exteriors constantly reverse themselves, while interior states can be externalized and then be confused with an external reality—which is maybe why he loves to show tears and screams. In both, something violently interior reaches a bodily surface.
In The Alphabet, his early short from the 1960s, letters coagulate and thicken and cause a girl on a bed to vomit. And in The Return, he intensifies a lavish attention paid to communication networks and their physical embodiments: intercoms, cell phones and text messages, laptops, hearing aids. His endings since Lost Highway onward all delight in letting worlds that should be separate seep into each other—culminating in the absolute disorientation of The Return. (It is much more a sequel to the narrative displacements of Inland Empire than a sequel to the soap opera plot of Twin Peaks.) It’s as if the substance from which reality is made in Lynch’s films is always reversible. Every element can change into its opposite—a double, or a new reality.
No one asserts with more unnerving authority a vision of such fragility. In his films, power of every kind is dismantled. Watching The Return, I kept thinking about something James Baldwin wrote in Nobody Knows My Name:
The thing that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence…. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.
It’s one way, at least, of considering Cooper’s bewildered finale—his dream of order short-circuiting on a suburban street.
But as soon as interpretation becomes this literary, I start to be worried. “There are things that can be said with film that you can’t say with words,” Lynch once observed. “It’s just the beautiful language of cinema. And it has to do with time and juxtapositions and all the rules in painting.” Lynch is the filmmaker of surface, of texture. (“I don’t necessarily love rotting bodies, but there’s a texture to a rotting body that is unbelievable.”) It’s useful to respond with a similarly abstract aesthetic detachment. “It is ugliness on one level,” he once said, “but I see it as textures and shapes, and fast areas and slow areas….” His metaphysics all result from a practical investigation into cinema’s basic elements—the actor, the camera, the microphone, and, in particular, montage.
Cinema is the medium of discontinuity: the sound is separate from the image, and every image is separate from the others. That means its most exciting investigations often hover at the edges of what’s rational. Cinema can normalize anything. A progression can become a loop—like Cooper trying to escape from the Red Room. Or a voice can misalign with the person speaking. Or a single actor can become multiple people—so that when Cooper walks out of the Red Room to meet Diane, and they ask each other “Is it really you?,” the sadness is that they, and we, can never know. In Mulholland Dr., Lynch built the Club Silencio to make this power literal: “No hay banda,” announced its MC to the audience, as an invisible band played. “There is no band…. This is all a tape recording. No hay banda, and yet we hear a band.” For really the audience had entered the new reality of film.
The uncanny, in the end, is a cinema effect. Lynch has a specific repertoire of camera moves, all of which reconfigure Hollywood film syntax and make it unnerving, based on what a character can see from a specific location. He likes tight close-ups, tunneling into holes or darkness, handheld point-of-view shots, movement that hovers around corners. He has taken the standard shot/reverse shot routine for conversations and made it terrifying, because in Lynch’s reversible multiverse a character may not see the same person he or she saw a moment before (for me his most shocking image was in Lost Highway, where Bill Pullman looks back at Patricia Arquette in bed, to discover that she now has Robert Blake’s geisha face); or the viewer and the viewed may turn out to be identical—like the moment in The Return’s finale when Laura Dern, sitting in a car parked in a motel forecourt, in another world entirely, sees herself standing in the forecourt, blankly returning her own gaze.