The Straight Story – 9 – The Owls Are Not What They Seem

For all readers who were superhumanly patient awaiting my continuation of this retrospective amongst all the bullshit that came up, I offer my sincerest apologies that recent events keep me from making videos, my sincerest apologies that I stunted and stuttered in the return of this project half-cocked, and most of all, my sincerest gratitude in your belief in me to come back to this once I was ready – much like Lynch wouldn’t return to Mulholland Dr. or Twin Peaks until he saw it ready. Let’s get this shit over with.

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The constantly elevating success of Lynch’s projects from Eraserhead catching Mel Brooks’ attention to The Elephant Man garnering him acclaim that had George Lucas and Dino de Laurentiis spoiling him to Dune … Blue Velvet being Lynch’s first Oscar nomination, Lynch was pretty well in the zone and getting more and more offers – amongst them, a biopic for Marilyn Monroe titled Goddess. Lynch was introduced to television writer Mark Frost (whose big hit at the time was a police procedural Hill Street Blues) and in spite of Goddess eventually falling through (as well as a Steve Martin vehicle the two were briefly commissioned to work on), it began the genesis of a partnership that would result in one of the most influential shows in television history.

Now, I make that claim insofar as I don’t actually watch television continuously. As far as I understand, this show wasn’t necessarily a game-changer in format except as much as it is maybe the earliest example of a television work that isn’t a miniseries going out of its way to capture a cinematic softness to its presentation, such would probably be the case when a director such as Lynch takes on the project. It’s probably as notable in these days where now every serialized television series has an emphasis on using mediums and wides and shooting in HD with higher-budgets to make themselves looks like hour-long movies. In the meantime, while Lynch and Frost elaborated on a more heightened manner of soap opera storytelling (with several inputs that are, in the end, unmistakably Lynchian) and delving deeper and deeper into the supernatural out of it, several shows (most notably in the late 00s to early 2010s when the show was really getting to the ebb of its cult attention) such as Veronica MarsThe Killing, and Bates Motel, took a hold onto the idea of a small-town with dark secrets in every character and watching them tangle over each other. And that’s only in television – the ripples this project would make in culture would extend beyond that medium from video games (as early as The Legend of Zelda II: Link’s Awakening and as overt as Alan Wake) to films  (L’il Quinquin being the last in that line to cover that; I am willing to bet money that Twin Peaks has just as much a hand influencing Rian Johnson’s Brick as the works of Dashiell Hammett and Miller’s Crossing) to transcendental meditation exposure.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to the development…

On the suggestion of Tony Krantz that Lynch try his hand at television, Lynch and Frost decided to humor him while brainstorming in a coffee shop, of all things, about a small-town Dickensian multiple-lives story, heavily influenced by the novel and subsequent film adaptation of Peyton Place – the tale of scandal in a small mill town – all crafted together to give a vision of America as Lynch himself sees it. And thus they began crafting…

North Dakota! A little expose of the lives of a town living in the North Dakota Plains. Except the lack of forestation brought Lynch and Frost to eventually decide to move the project up to Washington instead, adopting the title Pacific Northwest for the pilot concept, and pitching the concept to ABC at the proper point in the middle of the 1988 WGA strike holding on to the image of a body wrapped in plastic washing up on a shore and the investigation of this murder starting a fuse that would run away from us and leave us in the middle of the inhabitants of this afflicted town, becoming more involved in their lives than the actual murder itself. ABC followed through on ordering a screenplay for a pilot and then a pilot for the 1989 fall season. A couple of hiccups in the middle of the production of the two-hour pilot – namely the departure of ABC President Brandon Stoddard, who greenlit the program in the first place – but with the help of another executive named Robert Iger (who would later go nowhere fast in life… except being currently the CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company) who fought tooth and nail with all other figures in ABC to get this show on the air, the world was finally introduced to the various interesting characters that reside in Twin Peaks, Washington.

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The poor soul found on the beach by Pete Martell (Jack Nance once again) is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a particularly enigmatic figure who seems to have had a connection with damn near every person in Twin Peaks one way or another, even beyond being a popular homecoming queen in a small town. An incredibly large portion of the pilot episode is dedicated to watching the grief of the whole town send ripples all around, affecting others in different shocking ways – from her parents (Ray Wise and Zabriskie Grace) to her many lovers (Dana Ashbrook and James Marshall among others, the latter of whom had always been the one thing I could never force myself to like… even when the second season become a lot more engaging). But the first big update on the investigation headed by Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is that Laura Palmer was not the only victim of whatever ungodly thing occurred. There is a surviving (yet entranced to the point of waking coma) survivor of the rape/murder named Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) and in her fugue state while walking away from the scene of the crime, she crossed state lines.

Bringing the FBI into the investigation, who sends Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan evolving the inquisitive attitude he adopted in Blue Velvet into a complete personality) into the town, a genial coffee-and-pie loving FBI agent who in tune with spiritual ideas than is regularly orthodox and gets right down to the case before Truman and his fellow officers have a chance to catch up to him. And there in lies how we use Cooper as a surrogate for exploring Twin Peaks and its inhabitants, trailing along with different storylines for different individuals – in truth only using the death of Laura Palmer as a MacGuffin (albeit an incredibly compelling one that kept people talking about the show well into its popularity) to let us sink into the atmosphere of an American town conceptualized unlike any other, right down to the gorgeous landscape photography of all the wilderness that gates Twin Peaks away from the rest of the world in its own magic guided by the dreamy at times, hypnotically jazzy at other times score of Lynch’s reliable composer Angelo Badalamenti with the very best work of his career. The theme song alone, whether encountered as instrumental to the opening credits of the show or encountered with Julee Cruise’s vocals lulling one into a daze, is a miracle of utilizing the barest elements of pop music and transforming it into something that fascinates the listener in nostalgia and familiarity while leaving an undertone that haunts one into a ghostly atmosphere.

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But that’s only the backdrop what makes Twin Peaks such a compulsive watch for so many viewers. Cooper is a pretty good segue into what’s so alluring about the show – within Cooper, we find a leeway to the superficial pleasantness of every other character on the show (although in Cooper’s case and a few others, it’s genuine), the inquisitive tone the show takes on whenever the Laura Palmer case is on the table and especially whenever we catch one of several affairs in the middle of the act, and the more absurd elements of the show that Cooper is somehow more than a little bit game with. Because indeed this is still a Lynch show and while most of the things we encounter in the first season of Twin Peaks comes around full circle, a hell of a lot of it comes from inspiration that Lynch happens to have caught out of thin air. The most famous element of these being the conception of Killer BOB (Frank Silva), the demonic entity that we identify early on as the entity that possessed the person who raped and killed Palmer, even if we don’t yet have the identity of the physical being. Silva was a happy accident in the film, who started out on the show as a set dresser (he had also worked on the crew of Dune), but accidentally trapped himself in a manner that allowed the camera to catch him during one of the takes. Later on, Silva was also caught in the reflection of a mirror in another shot and Lynch – using both shots in the final product of the show – decided this would lead to Silva being cast as the conscious killer of Laura Palmer.

What’s even scarier is how well Silva plays pure evil for someone who had no previous experience of acting. Silva just lets himself go into darker grinning places of malice without tossing himself into the camp levels of loudness that a lot of the other actors on Twin Peaks indulge in. But that’s not at all intended as a slight for the cast. Perhaps it is simply how tied I feel to the show (I have now watched it in its entirety three times – the only other shows I’ve watched in their entirety more than once are Paranoia AgentCowboy Bebop, and The Wire. And I guess Firefly, if we want to count it), but I cannot imagine Twin Peaks as a show without any of the characters inhabiting it in its first season missing. From the devastated hysterics of the Palmer family to the wealthy and intimidatingly powerful Horne brothers of sophisticated Ben (Richard Beymer) and wildly unsophisticated Jerry (David Patrick Kelly; one of my favorite moments in the whole show in the fatigued yet incredibly brief “I’m sad” reaction he gives when he finds out about Palmer’s death) to Ben’s drop-dead attractive trouble-making daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn). From the haunted femme fatale presence of Josie Packard (Joan Chen) to her contemptuous sister-in-law Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie), both of them battling for the condition of Martell’s brother and Packard’s husband, the high-spirited Andrew (Dan O’Herlihy), who owns the town sawmill. From the complicated relationship between Palmer’s ex-boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Ashbrook) and his addled Air Force officer father Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) to the intense and disturbing abuse between waitress Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) and her sociopathic husband Leo Johnson (Eric De Ra). The law enforcement office alone has its own pack of wonderful characters – the laconic and versatile Hawk (Michael Horse), the inept yet well-meaning Andy (Harry Goaz), and the ditzy secretary Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Even James Hurley (Marshall), whose presence forces my eyeballs in all directions up my fucking skull, is an irreplaceable part of what makes Twin Peaks feel like such a home, thanks to a cast that plays well into the soap opera aspects of all the different affairs and relationships that erupt and end and Mark Frost’s ability to twist all these encounters into different shapes that are interesting even when they are confounding. Certain characters are 100% Lynch’s brainchild (Cooper, The Log Lady, the Man from Another World, Killer BOB) and it’d be naive to pretend Lynch didn’t have a notable amount of control in where each character went and how they developed, but Frost’s experience with Hill Street Blues‘ is absolutely what spills out of all the more grounded characters in Twin Peaks and carries it into being more than just a show where weird and dark shit happens to the town.

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Oh, but aye, very weird and very dark shit indeed happens in Twin Peaks, because again… it’s a David Lynch projects. White and Black Lodges leading to portals that promise salvation or pain, prostitution at the brothel One-Eyed Jacks, drug running under the Renault brothers (supplying Leo with them), and secret societies even (albeit one on the good guys’ side). Like the insects under the grass in the opening of Blue Velvet, everybody has a secret to hide and some of them are a lot more sinister and revolting than others. The show often leans towards horror in its supernatural dealings – many a list of the most frightening moments in television appears incomplete without one, or some, or most, or all of Killer BOB’s appearances – and eventually the show let the melodrama of the inexplicable happenings of malice around Twin Peaks take it by the reins.

And yet what makes this work so well and mesh into the rest of the show is that… however haphazard plot elements are… now matter how out of left-field developments occur, it all nevertheless has a singular feeling of inspiration and self-containment within David Lynch’s mind (he obviously did not direct every episode, but he handpicked the directors who took over for him). There are a great deal of themes to pick out of Twin Peaks – cycles and the evil that men do and women in trouble and the sinister hiding beneath the friendly – that I simply can’t go over in detail at this point given that I’ve gone well past the 2200 word mark and especially given how painstakingly I am avoiding spoiling any element of the show, but even if those were not present, Twin Peaks is very recognizably an ambitious work of a creative consciousness between Lynch and Frost that gives it its quirky and engaging personality that few have tried to replicate and none have ever succeeded in capturing (I mean, only Lynch and Lynch alone can get away with solving murders through dreams – you hear that, Guy Ritchie? Fuck you.). And that’s what makes it a joy to watch, the fact that every single person involved probably loved living in this town – however much evil might live inside of it – and that energy radiates into every single scene, most of all Lynch’s wonder at the world he created.

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It’s probably why the nails on the coffin began coming once Lynch unfortunately allowed himself to compromise on certain elements during season 2. The sudden cancellation of a very much shipped relationship (I won’t say who because spoiler, but you’ll know who when you get to watching the series), his reluctant agreement with ABC to reveal early in season 2 who the physical killer of Palmer was… from there on, it felt like it was scrambling for storylines and shoehorning in characters for the sake of drama while finding footing in a new villain, Cooper’s insane former partner Window Earle (Kenneth Welsh), that was never as unnerving as BOB was. They pulled a few strings out of the ball of yarn that they shouldn’t have and the whole thing came tumbling down enough that more than a few of the later season 2 episodes are a chore to watch, and by its completion, ABC had decided that the declining ratings meant the show was done, resulting in a very haunting and unforgettable ending that remains one of the best episodes of the show but still unnervingly dissatisfying as to where it left certain characters we have to know and love and want to see make it out of there. Twin Peaks retreated away from the world into obscurity into mere cult icon (especially exacerbated by the poor reception of the 1992 film that was to function as its continuation Fire Walk with Me), but obviously I’ll get to talking about that soon enough.

Still, all I need to do, in order to lift myself out of the bad funk that the finale left me with, is simply start the show over and return to Twin Peaks, seeing Cooper and Audrey and the Log Lady and everybody else getting into their shenanigans again. If it’s possible to fall in love with a fictional town with plenty of reasons not to love it, I’ve done it with Lynch and Frost’s masterwork of television storytelling. That it also served as a brand thoroughway for new fans of Lynch makes it all the better and, while I will not be 100% satisfied with how surface-level this write-up has been for one of my favorite shows (again, I really don’t want to spoil more than I have to), if one person kind of gets the urge to grab a cup of joe, a slice of pie, and sit down to try out the show for the first time, then by all means. I probably should warn you about darkly it begins with characters screaming and crying over loss, but the moment Cooper shows up, watch that smile build on your face. And I certainly should warn you about how disappointingly unfair the final scene is… but all is not lost… 25 years later…

A final note: I obviously have no chance of exhausting all the themes and ideas embedded within the pleasing soap opera (maybe a later post will allow that) BUT I do wish to lead you to a blog that almost single-handedly reignited my love for the show a few years after I first introduced myself to it in high school of 2007: Joel Bocko’s Lost in the Movies. Absolutely a bigger fan of the show than I am (and I’m pretty huge on it), I’d like to pretend that this and the entire David Lynch retrospective that continues NOW would be possible without access to Bocko’s own insights on the director’s work and you know what? Yeah, it totally is.

But it wouldn’t be half as easy. Thanks, Joel.

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One thought on “The Straight Story – 9 – The Owls Are Not What They Seem

  1. Thanks for the kind words! Glad you made it to Twin Peaks – a very thorough guide that nonetheless sticks to your criterion of not getting TOO specific. And I look forward to the rest of your Lynch retrospective. But by all means, take your time. I’ve been learning that the hard way recently, biting off more than I could chew: always best to let the flow of the work dictate itself rather than try to force it. Or mostly best, anyway.

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