Friday, November 2, 2007

“Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies”

There are very few television films, either in series or movie form that can be legitimately called a phenomenon – that can claim to have actually altered the medium, leaving it a very different place than it had been before. Off the top of my head, I would say that Hill Street Blues would be one. Roots would certainly be one – so would The Sopranos, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone…and of course, Twin Peaks.

The Scribe remembers very well the night of April 8th, 1990. At least a dozen eager viewers had gathered in a friend’s basement for the event; most were Lynch fans, while others had been won over by the atypically excellent promotion that ABC had been running. Our group that night contained core samples of nearly every conceivable demographic from 8th graders through young Gen X-ers and even (gasp!) actual adults, and what I remember most vividly was hearing this motley crew quickly quieting down once the credits began and staying that way for 2 full hours. Afterwards, everyone knew that they’d just seen something special. Even the few who weren’t won over were quick to say that they’d never seen its like on TV before, and would more than likely tune in again just to see how it all plays out. Of course, the ultimate curse of the show would be the confounding of that sentiment – abandon all hope of coherent plot resolution, ye who enter here – eventually dividing viewers as the show continued down its esoteric course. But those fights were a long way off, and with the release this week of the complete series run on DVD, it seemed a nice moment to remember how great it was on that night more than 17 years ago to witness just a little bit of history being made.

Twin Peaks was the brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, and it’s easy to see what both brought to the table. Frost was fresh from the Hill Street Blues writing staff (where they knew a thing or two about running multiple story arcs) and would help keep the tires on the road. Lynch was responsible for some of the most gorgeously abstract images in American film over the previous decade; the success of The Elephant Man in 1980 helped lift Lynch’s previous effort, Eraserhead, past its status as hash-parlor wallpaper for the cult movie crowd and establish itself as a precise and personal artistic statement. His next film, 1984’s Dune, awkwardly squeezed Frank Herbert’s massive (and, frankly, unwieldy) narrative into a movie of less than 140min. While not remotely coherent, it is without question one of the most visually sumptuous science fiction films ever made. It would also be the first project with which Lynch would work with lead actor Kyle MacLachlan. As an actor, the Scribe has always found MacLachlan to be serviceable at best. But as a re-actor, he’s positively extraordinary. As Paul Atreides in Dune, he just sits there, taking up space and radiating the charisma of a bag of wet doorknobs. It’s hard to imagine following him through a subway turnstile, much less into lethal desert warfare atop a giant worm. But he was born to be a wide-eyed innocent guiding us through the Lynchiverse; and two years later, the pair would reunite for a film that is still regarded as one of the seminal films of the 80’s

Twenty years of tiresome analysis by everyone ranging from the casual film-goer to PhD candidates hasn’t diminished the sly, seductive spell of Blue Velvet. Lynch loved breaking through the veneer of idyllic complacency to get at violence and corrupt sexuality undulating just below the surface in small town America. I’ll opt out of the worn-out critical conga line and just say this: If you haven’t seen it, get it now – not just because it’s good, but because it’s the perfect entrée into Lynch’s next project, one of the most complete worlds that any filmmaker has ever had the opportunity to create.

The discovery of the body of Twin Peaks high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) wrapped in a plastic tarp by a river bank (can anyone think of a more instantly iconic television image?) sends a shock wave through the quiet Washington town of Twin Peaks. The mystery deepens when another girl is found wandering by the roadside just over the state line – still alive, but badly bruised and in a near catatonic state. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) soon arrives in town to investigate, and finds a small, typed letter ‘R’ imbedded under one of Laura’s fingernails. Cooper is then able to link Laura’s death to that of Theresa Banks in the previous year. Working with friendly but cautious Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), Cooper’s investigation will lead to far more sinister forces at work than a mere serial killer…

Some might be wondering why the plot synopsis just sort of stops there, but fans of the show should understand. Over the next 29 episodes, we’re run through a near impenetrable story line involving everything from alternate dimensions, not-really-reverse speaking dwarfs, log-cradling fortune tellers, spirit possessions…oh, and doughnuts, pie, and very hot, very black coffee. Twin Peaks was a show about texture, not plot. It was about creating bizarre characters and letting them run free, almost as if Lynch were letting them control their own destiny just to see where they might end up.

And what characters! Lynch has always had a weakness for actors that had been otherwise forgotten by Hollywood; Dennis Hopper hadn’t been in anything more interesting than a police line-up for years before Lynch gave him the career-saving role of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Russ Tamblyn (unforgettable in West Side Story, but nearly unseen since 1966’s War of the Gargantuas), Peggy Lipton (MIA since the Mod Squad went dark back in ’72), and Piper Laurie (her highest profile role since Carrie 14 years earlier) were given major supporting roles, and all – Laurie in particular – made the most of them. And though the younger members of the cast haven’t shown the career longevity of their older peers, Lee, James Marshall, and Dana Ashbrook all did terrific work - and as a strictly sexist side note, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Lara Flynn Boyle (prior to her full body moisture removal procedure), Joan Chen, and Lee (who would appear as Laura in pictures and flashbacks, and as Laura’s nearly identical cousin Maddy), Twin Peaks probably had the sexiest female cast in television history, not counting an early appearance David Duchovny as a cross dressing FBI agent.

But it was MacLachlan who held it all together – and it’s a rare thing to see an actor and character blend so perfectly into a third entity. The role of Cooper as written is full of potentially irritating character ticks and the comic non sequitors that Lynch is famous for, but damn if MacLachlan doesn’t give such a genuine, earnest performance that he makes all that quirk seem to evolve naturally from the character (the deadpan voice memos to unseen secretary Diane are a perfect example of Kyle turning lemons into lemonade). It’s very good, very difficult work.

The show remained popular through its first full season, but by the second, it had drifted more and more towards the obtuse. Much time was passed in the other worldly “Black Lodge” where evil doppelgangers and alternate realities roamed freely. Without giving anything away, it became increasing clear that anyone expecting a traditional wrap-up for the Laura Palmer case would be in for a sore disappointment (and since a good chunk of the fan base moved right over to The X Files, getting used to this type of disappointment proved to be good practice). In the end, all the letter-writing campaigns in the world couldn’t keep this baffling, beautiful Chinese puzzle box on the air, and the final episode aired on June 10, 1991.

Fans would be hard pressed to some up with a gripe in regards to the new box set from CBS/Paramount. Other than the ugly book binding-style disc holders and the lack of a printed episode guide for easy reference, it’s a sturdy piece of work. The re-mastered sound and picture (supervised by Lynch) are vast improvements over all previous home video editions. The director commentaries from previous editions are gone, but new video features (Lynch and several cast members interview each other) and an exhaustingly complete documentary more than compensate. The most important feature for most will be the inclusion of the original pilot episode; until now, the only edition available on home video in the US has been the version prepared for foreign theatrical distribution. This version is considerably longer than the 95min US-TV version, and contains a rushed, although fascinating, conclusion to the Laura Palmer mystery. It’s great to have both (almost as great is having the Twin Peaks sketch from the MacLachlan-hosted Saturday Night Live episode included!) and as Lynch himself says on the back of the box itself, “I think this is a great definitive Gold Box set”.

Revisiting this series may cause some despair over the current crop of prime time offerings, and no small measure of regret over not cherishing what we had when we had it. As Lynch becomes more enamored of the speed of shooting with digital video – he has said that he can’t imagine going back to shooting on film – and grows more disenchanted with anything approaching narrative storytelling (last year’s Inland Empire plays more like a museum video installation than a theatrical feature) it’s somewhat frustrating to watch Twin Peaks and be reminded how he was able to elevate an entire medium while working within an accessible framework.

Now if only someone could tell me about those amazing trees you have around here?