Twin Peaks: The Return and Trans-Sensory Storytelling
Twin Peaks has always been regarded as groundbreaking, its innovation often attributed to its co-creator, David Lynch, who brought cinematic elements to the television show and pushed the boundaries of what was commercially possible. In Siobhan Lyons’ essay, “Between Two Worlds: Twin Peaks and the Film/Television Divide,” she expands, “Lynch’s distinctive cinematic style helped propel the medium of television forward into a new realm of entertainment and experience.” Lynch is credited as the show’s auteur, employing many formal and story elements from his films. Spanning 1990 to 1991, the first two seasons of Twin Peaks brought elements of feature films to the television screen with long takes, low angles, and an imaginative sound design (Lyons). Beyond these formal elements, the content itself was innovative as it moved deeper into the story of a high school girl’s murder to an entanglement of bizarre characters, eastern philosophies, potential extraterrestrials, and the ongoing battle of good and evil. The show and its subsequent film prequel, Fire Walk With Me, remain popular twenty-five years later. The next generation cult following and the continued popularity of Lynch’s works no doubt led to its revival in the form of a third season on Showtime — Twin Peaks: The Return. The eighteen episode saga takes place twenty-five years after the season two finale but in many ways it picks up exactly as it left off. Beloved characters are aged versions of their original selves, themes of good and evil, love and hate seep into every storyline, and Lynch continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and possible in cinematic television.
In 2017 television audiences are used to shows with high production values and well-known directors exploring topics in new and interesting ways. In that sense, Lynch had already explored the television medium in the nineties. Released weekly in hour-long segments, The Return obeys some guidelines of television but by no means binds itself to the formal or story conventions of modern cinematic TV. Narrative scenes play out at an almost glacial pace compared to modern Hollywood content. It’s not unusual to see a thirty-second establishing shot or a ten-second shot in a shot/reverse shot dialogue. In Episode 1 the camera stays in an extreme long shot for fifty-five seconds as a man changes a camera’s SD card. In a mainstream era where shots are usually under five seconds and unnecessary action is discarded, Lynch definitely skirts convention with his tendency to let scenes play out slowly. The Return launches viewers back into the ambiguous storylines of season two and Fire Walk With Me and introduces tangential journeys with new and fleeting characters. Narrative elements are disjointed, and enigmatic locations and characters are portrayed with no introduction or explanation. Episodic story arcs only exist loosely and are often abandoned in favor of atmosphere and mood.
As in the early nineties, Lynch uses The Return’s eighteen episodes as a platform to explore television as a storytelling art form. Its popularity and cult following make Twin Peaks the perfect opportunity for experimentation. The subservience of the narrative to ambience and emotion is unlike anything previously seen in main-stream film or TV and because movies and high quality television have become so similar in formal elements and production value, it is revolutionary in terms of both mediums. Airing almost half-way through the season, Episode 8 is a culmination of Lynch’s visual, audible, and thematic ideas in The Return. What begins as a narrative episode evolves into a montage of sound and image before unfolding again into a different form of narrative. Although this combination of story-telling techniques is unfamiliar in the realm of main-stream work, the episode very clearly serves as an origin story for the evil that plagues the town of Twin Peaks. Episode 8 exemplifies the concepts explored in the season and moves Twin Peaks beyond the realm of episodic television and into an examination of the fundamentals of sound and image and their convergence as cinematic art.
Episode 8 is split into five distinct parts that work together to explain the origin of Bob, the evil entity responsible for Laura Palmer’s murder in Season 1. Part One picks up on the Dark Cooper narrative from earlier episodes and places the audience in a somewhat familiar setting. Part Two acts as a musical interlude as well as a preparation rite for the remaining parts. Part Three is the inception of Bob on Earth in the form of an unprecedented light and sound display. Part Four is the response of Good in the face of the new Evil and Part Five is a chilling expansion on Bob’s dissemination. As is common in Lynch’s work, each part follows a sort of nightmare logic and the episode as a whole flows together in a similar fashion. From previous episodes and Fire Walk With Me the audience has learned that Bob can infect people and make them do his biddings. He doesn’t necessarily act alone and potentially belongs to a network of evil with possible extra-terrestrial roots. Musings on Bob and its origin have been the center of many previous Twin Peaks episodes but Episode 8 encapsulates these ideas entirely and in a tangible way. Even without the background knowledge of previous storylines it is impossible to avoid the overwhelming experience of wickedness and dread.
The episode starts with Dark Cooper and Ray driving in a darkened car down a dark road. In Lynchian shorthand POVs of roads often allude to nightmares and this scene certainly evokes the dreamlike quality of things just beyond the line of vision. The nightmare continues when the men get out of the car and Ray shoots Dark Cooper. The nighttime ambience of crickets and still air gives way to a whooshing sound as the camera drifts over Dark Cooper’s dying body. A soft static sound fades in as disembodied light starts flashing and semi-transparent shapes clamor out of the darkness towards the body. The shapes look like bearded hobos dressed in ragged gray clothing with dark gray faces and the light continues to flash as they smear Dark Cooper’s blood across his face. Out of Dark Cooper’s chest the transients coax a bubble with Bob’s face sneering out from inside. Ray manages to escape, summing up the experience eloquently on a phone call, “I think he’s dead… but he’s found some kind of hell.”
At four and half minutes, Part Two is the shortest of the episode and acts more like an interlude. Each episode after the first has included a musical act at the Twin Peaks bar, The Roadhouse, but they have all previously been in the last ten minutes of the episode, often extended through the credit roll. Since the musical act comes right after Part One in Episode 8, it indicates the end of the narrative episode. As the episode will not include any more characters or storylines from the Twin Peaks town narrative, it is an appropriate place for the interlude. It also sets the tone for the remainder of the episode and prepares the viewer for the sound and image relationships to come in Part Three. The scene starts with whooshing sounds not unlike the static whoosh of the transients in Part Two. A dapper old man introduces “The Nine Inch Nails” and drums and ethereal voices join the ambient whooshing noise. Trent Reznor and his band launch into their song, “She’s Gone Away,” adding electric guitar and low raspy vocals along with dark lyrics like, “I was watching on the day she died.” Dark blue, green, and pink lights flicker across the band’s faces as Reznor howls into the microphone like a wounded animal. Reverse shots of the crowd show an audience swaying hypnotically back and forth to the animalistic sounds and lights. The viewer is jolted out of the trance when the scene momentarily cuts back to Dark Cooper on the ground, his face a bloody mask as he sits up, opens his black eyes, and stares into nothingness. And with that last glimpse of manifested evil the episode jumps into the ultimate origin story.
The sounds and colors of Parts One and Two act as visual, aural, and mental preparation for Part Three. It opens on a black and white long shot of the desert. Titles fade up over the image to introduce, “July 16, 1945; White Sands, New Mexico; 5:29 AM (MWT),” and a distorted voice counts down from ten. The camera moves slowly towards the center of the landscape. When the voice reaches “one” the mic clicks off and a blinding white flash fills the screen along with a simultaneous high pitch string instrument from Krzysztof Penderecki’s, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” The camera continues moving towards what reveals itself to be an atomic explosion in the center of the frame. The strings pierce incessantly, dissonant and unnerving. From this far away the mushroom cloud looks tiny, almost innocuous. The shot continues to move in excruciatingly slowly but after a minute and a half the cloud fills the entire frame and it no longer looks benign. The bulging gases move outward as the shot continues inward until it enters the cloud and the images begin to change. The realistic gases give way to a barrage of black and white film distortion punctuated by pops of color and accompanied by a complex cacophony of high pitch tones and dissonant chords. After a tedious three minutes the smoke clears to a black and white old fashioned gas station where consecutive jump cuts create a stop-motion effect as dozens of gray transient creatures mill around. The gas station gives way to the digital image of a human form floating in blackness and spewing a string of liquid out of its mouth. The shot moves into the strand but not before grazing over the hidden image of Bob in the protective bubble from Part One.
Although it is only thirteen minutes, Part Three feels like an eternity. The entire experience is incredibly unsettling as sound and image work together to create an actual physical discomfort. The constant flashing lights irritate the eyes and the discordant string piece disturbs ears that are used to melodies and harmonies in cinematic sound. The concept of light and color affecting audiences has been a part of cinema since early color experiments. The pops of orange and pink in Part Three are reminiscent of Thomas Wilfred’s lumia, his “‘art of light’” (Johnston 68). Wilfred aimed to express emotions through color from a projection instrument. Even in the early 1900s he did not rely on obvious reactions to colors but explored more instinctive reactions to unnatural representations. As he put it, “ if we stop all motion and show a large even area of plain red the effect is provocation and irritation and the subconscious reason is: Flames always flicker, rise and fall, this red does not move, it is unusual” (Johnston 72). Lynch has taken the concept of lumia to the next level by introducing sound image relationships to the visual disturbance. He pairs an existing piece of dissonant orchestral music with the experimental images and the result is greater than the sum of both parts. The combination of sound and image transcends verbal language in a physical, bodily response. As described by Philip Schmerheim in his essay, “From Psycho to Pleasantville…” “film perception is not constituted by a cluster of independent sense perceptions but rather an integrated phenomenon, a kind of network of senses, which is constituted by interplay between different sensory perceptions and higher-level cognitive faculties” (117). In the case of Part Three, the dissonant audio, uncomfortable visuals, and cognitive understanding of the truth of atomic experimentation combine to create a tangible and alarming feeling of dread.
Part Four quells the senses a bit with a look into an otherworldly response to the invasion of Bob. The black and white image, floral set pieces, glittering costumes, and slow jazz music indicate a setting similar to the American nineteen-twenties. The humanoid creatures that dwell in this world watch the events of Part Three in an old fashioned cinema. The projection flickers on a large screen and the absence of dialogue adds to the pre-talkies aesthetic of the early nineteen-hundreds. The large man previously referred to as “The Giant” but credited in The Return as “???????” floats to the ceiling and emits a golden glow from which a bubble of Laura Palmer emerges. A glittery-costumed woman takes the orb and sends it back into a golden machine that shoots the orb towards an image of planet Earth on the movie screen. This, then, is the force of good responding to the evil they watched emerge in Part Three. It is noteworthy that The Good is created in a silent- era cinema. Lynch is again calling attention to the corporeality of film, this time in terms of its power to reflect and respond to world events. If the patrons of this otherworld are any indication, cinema can be used benevolently. It is likewise appropriate that the forces of good send help in the form of the young woman and future victim of Bob, Laura Palmer, as she is the ultimate symbol of vulnerability. For many film scholars, the notion of tactility in film is understandable through the emotional distance between viewer and medium. In “The Promise of Touch: Turns to Affect in Feminist Film Theory,” Anu Koivunen expands on Jennifer M. Barker’s and Laura U. Marks’ ideas that vulnerability is the key to losing oneself in and experiencing the tangibility of film (104). After the sensory assault of Part Three, Part Four responds with gentle tones, few colors, and the ultimate Twin Peaks image of femininity.
If Parts One and Two prepared the viewer for the audio-visual experience of Part Three and Part Four provided a sensory reprieve, Part Five embodies the opportunity for trans-sensory experience in a more straightforward narrative. Micheal Chion coined the term “trans-sensory perceptions” to describe impressions that, “belong to no one particular sense but which may travel via one sensory channel or another without their content or their effect being limited to this one sense” (330). The act of watching and listening to Part Five unfold creates a completely new sensation, unrelated to the senses of vision or hearing. Although it starts out with a winged amphibious creature hatching in 1956 in the New Mexico Desert, the following narrative is pretty straightforward. Part Five is also in black and white — appropriate for the 1950s. A boy and girl walk home after a date and share a very chaste kiss as he leaves her at her doorstep. Simultaneously, a transient figure floats down from the sky and approaches a car. As soon as the hobo appears on screen the static noise from Part One fades in, this time much more aggressively. The sound radiates from the creepy gray figure and lights flash as he leans in with a cigarette in hand and asks, “gotta light?” His voice is gravely and inhuman and sensing danger, the occupants of the car quickly drive away. The transient walks to a radio station and the early rock and roll of The Platters’ “My Prayer” abruptly starts playing. Classic fifties era shots of a mechanics shop and a diner show townspeople listening to the dulcet tones over radios. The girl who received the chaste kiss sits listening, daydreaming on her bed. The innocence of the music and its listeners is juxtaposed eerily with the transient who enters the radio station and continues his mantra, “gotta light” as he crushes the skull of the receptionist with one hand and moves onto the DJ, all while the Platters sing, “Tonight while our hearts are aglow, Oh tell me the words that I'm longing to know.” The transient grabs the DJ’s head and begins crushing his skull, taking over the microphone to deliver a chilling ear worm to the listeners, “This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.” He repeats the phrase over and over again in his unnatural, guttural voice and the only other sound is the wet crunch of the DJs breaking skull. As the transient delivers his message the listeners faint where they stand. The girl on her bed lays down to sleep and the amphibious creature that hatched in the desert enters her room. Still asleep, she opens her mouth wide enough for the creature to enter and swallows it while the transient repeats his commandment. When the DJ’s head has finally given in, the transient walks out of the station and into the blackness while the sound of horses neighing chaotically ensues.
The narrative of Part Five is sinister on its own but imbued with a mix of horrifying sounds and images it takes on new levels of terror. Chion articulates the effect of a sound-image relationship that moves beyond merely reproducing real-world noises when he states “sounds in combination with images try to re-create an overall sensation or even an emotion, while also vaguely resembling real sounds” (326). Lynch is achieving a recreation of the sensation of panic the transient’s presence brings to those it comes across. The sound of static associated with the transient and his low, inhuman growling voice creates a tactile response — prickling skin, an uncontrollable shudder, and the very real feeling that something is not right. Contrasting his alarming voice with the crooning voices of The Platters, Lynch succeeds in portraying a nefarious corruption of the innocent. By keeping the transient’s voice just barely humanoid and using sickeningly exaggerated cracking noises when he kills the radio personnel, Lynch moves beyond a re-creation of noises and creates a sensation of anxiety.
All five parts of Episode 8 work together to produce a tangible feeling of horror and dread. Part One uses previous Twin Peaks narratives and characters to set the stage for the origin of Bob. It introduces the transient characters as harbingers of Bob and links them to the static sound they emit. Part Two acts as a conclusion to the narrative of Part One and moves the viewer towards an understanding through music and color. Part Three suggests the tangibility of cinematic experience by attacking the senses with bright lights and unnerving sounds, building panic by sheer overload to the senses. Part Four contemplates the relationship between the viewer and the cinematic screen, introducing femininity and vulnerability to offset the arrival of a new corruption. Previous parts and their trans-sensory elements culminate in the final narrative of Part Five as images and sounds fuse to produce the tangible feeling of dread.
Sound-Image relationships have been the subject of cinematic discussions for decades and the effects of images on viewers have been examined for even longer. Lynch’s exploration of the trans-sensory power of cinematic arts in Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 8 is revolutionary because of its main stream platform and wide-reaching audience. Not only has he created a narrative in which he can delve into experimental ideas about the nature of cinema but he has fostered a following of viewers who are open to delving in with him. Through his feminine protagonist, Laura Palmer, he has encouraged an audience of vulnerable spectators, willing to experience new ideas and sensations through cinema. As with his first two seasons of Twin Peaks, Lynch is once again groundbreaking in his ability to bring avant-garde material to the television consuming masses. His main-stream success is an indication that viewers are ready to experience new and complex meditations on the nature of cinema and Episode 8 serves as an experiment into a realm of trans-sensory storytelling that may very well be the future of cinema.
Chion, Michael. “Sensory Aspects of Contemporary Cinema.” Translated by Claudia Gorman. The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, edited by John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 325-330. Google Scholar. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SZ4eAAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=sensory+Aspects+of+Contemporary+Cinema&ots=yiproITMAq&sig=blQzLzPHECC_zpzfZoYZ1Prmd6U#v=onepage&q&f=false
Johnston, Andrew Robert. “The Color of Prometheus: Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia and the Projection of Transcendence.” Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive, edited by Simon Brown, Sarah Street, and Liz Watkins, Routledge, 2013, pp. 67-77.
Koivunen, Anu. “The Promise of Touch: Turns to Affect in Feminist Film Theory.” Feminisms : Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures, edited by Laura Mulvey, and Anna Backman Rogers, Amsterdam University Press, 2015, pp. 97-110. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brooklyn-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3563348.
Lynch, David and Mark Frost, creators. Twin Peaks: The Return. Showtime Networks and Rancho Rosa Partnership, 2017. Showtime Anytime, https://www.showtimeanytime.com/#/series/1032477
Lyons, Siobhan. “Between Two Worlds: Twin Peaks and the Film/Television Divide.” Open Library of Humanities, vol. 3, 2017. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.89
Schmerheim, Philipp. “From Psyho to Pleasantville: the Role of Color and Black-and-White Imagery for Film Experience.” Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive, edited by Simon Brown, Sarah Street, and Liz Watkins, Routledge, 2013, pp. 114-123.
The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc, 2017. Web. Oct 2017. http://www.imdb.com