It began with The Elephant Man. I don’t remember when exactly it hit HBO, but it had to be shortly after we had acquired the network in our home, the other two seminal films playing around that time were Jaws (which we had watched countless times in a weird sort of family after-dinner ritual) and The Exorcist (which I was never allowed to watch, but was forced — by myself, unknown to my parents — to secretly listen to at the top of the stairs to our den, the product of this fused with mine own grisly imagination tortured yet enthralled me for the better part of a couple of months).
The Elephant Man at first reminded me of the Hammer films of my earlier youth (more than likely due to the English cast and the sure hand of Freddie Francis’ cinematography), but it bore a much deeper emotional hole in me than any of those films had managed before. The film carefully examined the extents of what constitutes humanity, and in many ways came to the conclusion that we as a race (at least, in the depicted 19th century) were still a good deal away from achieving that goal. I have seen the film several times since, and cry every time I see it. What seemed to move me as much as the aforementioned camera work or even the wonderful actors’ portrayals (which include those of Sir Anthony Hopkins, later Lynch regular Freddie Jones and the late, great John Hurt in the title role) was what Lynch seemed to bring to the table — an otherworldly existentialist vibe, one that turned into a haven when Joseph Merrick asphyxiates trying to sleep “like other people” and in death is reunited with his mother at the film’s conclusion. It gave a film that could’ve been more traditionally portrayed a shimmering soul at its centre as if to belie its murky and backwards surroundings. Needless to say, this David Lynch guy blew me away even as a kid — and the interviews with him all mentioned the film that marked his professional debut: Eraserhead.
At some point, while in high-school, I had finally managed to rent a copy of Eraserhead, which I found had long been lauded as a creepy surreal manifesto of sorts in one or more of the magazines I had devoured over the years (be it Heavy Metal or SPIN, I don’t know), scoring a major coup in my ever-growing list of films that needed to be seen. I remember being transfixed watching it, feeling as if the floor had given way beneath me as I hung deep into some inky, sweaty, shuddering tomb of industrialised anxiety. Also, I may have been high at the time. I loved it.
Far removed from The Elephant Man, this was my true introduction to David Lynch, and his unique, rather broadly archetypical and intuitive style of storytelling. Like Kubrick and Moebius before him (in my experience, at least), he insisted on showing a story instead of merely telling one, but in Lynch’s case he would even forego the more accessible layers of audience participation and break down the matters at hand in more abstract and imaginative ways. He was making it harder for us but in a way that was enthralling to follow onscreen. In the words of Dr. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”, and what a fascinating ride it was.
Meanwhile, Lynch went on to create Dune (which most fans of the book’s author Frank Herbert abhor, but I absolutely love) and Blue Velvet (which I saw while attending college, and praised to my friends as being “truly Lynch”, although the term, for the most part, was lost on them), solidifying him as a go-to source for nebulous high weirdness.
Then, at last (at least for you, Patient Readers), came not only a new font of Lynchian goodness but one that was on television, every week. Yes, I was truly excited when I first heard that Twin Peaks, Lynch’s collaboration with Mark Frost, best known for being one of the head writers of the seminal series Hill Street Blues (not to mention, according to IMDb, the screenwriter of The Believers, one of my fave John Schlesinger potboilers) was coming to TV. It was like a steady diet of manna from heaven.
The resulting series was a phenomenon, which literally dominated popular culture in the early ’90s. It was a careful balance of crime procedural, soap opera, backwoods slice-of-life dramedy and now trademarked surrealism, all overarched by the question that burned at its core — that of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” It was a show that could literally appeal in some way to everyone, and, at least for its first season, it did. However, the network hosting the show, ABC, pressed Lynch and Frost to reveal who, indeed, did kill Laura Palmer (a question they never planned on answering but leaving hanging as part of the atmosphere of the show), and halfway through the series’ second season they finally obliged. It was revealed that Leland Palmer, Laura’s father — who was possessed by the violent “BOB”, an entity from the Black Lodge, an alternate plane of ultimate evil — had sexually assaulted and slain his daughter. Palmer committed suicide in response to his deeds, and the book was closed on that most prominent chapter of Twin Peaks. Or so we thought.
Despite a love interest for Special Agent Dale Cooper (the wonderful longtime Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan, who had starred in Dune and Blue Velvet), the series’ main character, and a new antagonist known as Windom Earle (not to mention a transexual FBI agent portrayed by David Duchovny, who would later rise to prominence as the very male Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files two years later), Twin Peaks faced a slow inexorable death soon after its second season. It ended with Cooper being trapped in Red Room between the White and Black Lodges, his evil doppelganger sent out with BOB into the world to wreak havoc whilst he remained a prisoner. The final episode included a mysterious message, with the lost spirit of Laura Palmer telling him that “I will see you again in twenty-five years”.
Indeed, some twenty-six years later (the excess time being drug out by negotiations between Lynch and Showtime, the premium network hosting the new season) Twin Peaks has returned. The network blessed us with four hour-long episodes on demand Sunday, and I for one ate them up like glittering candy. With the series being on premium cable, and Lynch firmly in control, one would expect that this Twin Peaks would be a considerably more unruly beast that the original — and they’d be right on the money. Aside from mentions here and there of returning characters (and some replacements, like Robert Forster as Sheriff Harry Truman’s brother Frank), the first four episodes mainly concern themselves with Dale Cooper’s eventual return from beyond, and the reign of terror created by his doppelganger (mentioned as “Mr. C.” by a backwoods crony at the beginning of the first episode). Each hour is filled with vignettes from a number of places outside the usual mountainous treelines, such as New York, South Dakota and Las Vegas, and no, not much of anything has even begun to be sewn together. I love it and eagerly await more to come next month.