Sunday, July 9, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return

Two weeks ago, Showtime aired Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, and what was arguably the strangest hour in American television history. There is nothing ordinary about Twin Peaks, and there never has been. For the past decade we've seen numerous television shows resurrected, either paying homage to the nostalgia of their era and characters, or rebooting the plot altogether. For the most part, The Return has done neither of these things. After a long hiatus from the small screen, the first Part of Twin Peaks: The Return picked up in present day, just as Laura Palmer promised. 

On the surface, Twin Peaks is a lot like the many shows it inspired. Like Bates Motel or Hemlock Grove, it is a story about a small town's quirky inhabitants and seedy underbelly surrounded by a more dramatic and serious plot. Like Mad Men, it is steeped in midcentury Americana. Like The Killing, it is about a murder that rocks the Pacific Northwest. 

In 1990, Twin Peaks changed television forever. The shows it inspired have borrowed its mystique to enhance their cohesive narratives. But those directors and writers David Lynch and Mark Frost inspired stopped short of the risks that made Twin Peaks so groundbreaking. That's how artistic inspiration tends to go: borrow the pieces from outsiders that can be mass produced and sell. And I mean that in the most respectful way. Post Twin Peaks television has produced some breathtaking shows and exposed ordinary couch potatoes to art they'd otherwise cast aside. But Lynch's portfolio, The Return being no exception, is classic Art House Cinema. It's slow, sometimes tediously so, yet never for a vain or superficial pretense. 

What sets Twin Peaks, and Lynch's body of work, apart from the artists who love him so much is his ability to force us to dig deep within ourselves throughout these long pauses and confusing vignettes. Watching a Lynch film, and Part 8 of The Return, is more like absorbing an art exhibit than watching a movie or television show. Lynch and Frost have offered their viewers plenty of eye candy in The Return, and I suspect Part 8 was all Lynch, but those visuals are murky, dark, and laden with obscure background noises that beg us to pull from our brains what lurks in the distance. It's like getting lost in a really well written book or staring at a Jackson Pollack painting for an hour. 

To succeed in something so visionary is a rare feat amongst today's abundance of quality programming. For most directors to even attempt what Lynch and Frost have done with The Return, at best they'd hope to be buried somewhere on Netflix. To find viewers, most directors need to provide something that allows us to tune in and check out, in the most simplistic way. 

In the post-now-extant Twin Peaks realm, directors have managed to do this with wild success. The Handmaid's TaleSense8, and The Sopranos have captivated audiences, but Lynch has created something in The Return that will make cinematic historians look back on those shows with the same regard they looked at cop dramas and soap operas after the release of Twin Peaks' 1990 pilot. 

One could also argue that Lynch's following, often misdescribed as "cult," gives him the credibility Hollywood studios need to grant him carte blanche. Over the past two decades we've seen fantastic shows, well written, with extensive character development, but they all stop short of offering a narrative outside the confines of studio executives and test audiences. Netflix gave Sense8 a lot of leeway, but it's not hard to imagine executives asking the Wachowskis to reign it in, or what they could have delivered had they been given the same creative license Showtime gave Lynch and Frost. 

Who knows? When the red curtains close and The Return receives its final accolades, Netflix might be wishing they'd allowed the Wachowskis to be as daring as they could have been. 

However it happens; one style of art, whatever the medium, can only persist for so long before its saturation becomes mundane, and even the best become boring. The Renaissance didn't last forever, nor impressionism, modernism, or postmodernism. Like any art, television has to evolve. Unlike its contemporaries, The Return is not mere commentary. Finally, something new has been born. 


The other day a friend told me he wanted to start watching The Return, and asked if he needed to watch the first two seasons of Twin Peaks to understand it. I didn't know how to answer. Sure, watching its original run might explain why the series exists, it'll offer some background on a few of the characters we've seen on Showtime, but it won't make The Return any less puzzling. That's not to say it's nonsensical. As bizarre as Part 8 was, as an origin story, it brought 27 years of televised schizophrenia to its most plausible place, though we could easily find ourselves confused once again tonight.

The best advice I could offer was to watch the 1990 pilot. If he likes it, keep watching. If he still likes it, watch the big screen prequel, Fire Walk With Me. And if that doesn't turn him off, watch The Return. And with regard to all of the above, immerse yourself and discard any preconceived notions of what television should be. 

I'm not averse to plugging my favorite shows. I turned my Peaks-curious friend on to The Handmaid's Tale and Sense8, and he was inquiring about The Return because he liked those shows so much. To me, Lynch's work is beautiful. From Blue Velvet to Inland Empire, he speaks to the rodents crawling around in my brain. I've found myself a reluctant Dune apologist at times. I even watched The Cleveland Show during Lynch's hiatus from cinema just to hear his voice as Seth MacFarlane's answer to The Simpsons' Mo Szyslak, a cranky bartender from the south side of Virginia who sounds exactly like Gordon Cole. 

I'm leery of suggesting anything directed by David Lynch to anyone looking for strong plot structure and a concrete narrative. But that leeriness comes from a fear of turning anyone off from Art House Cinema. The Return needs to be viewed in the right setting, and in the right state of mind. 

Twin Peaks, in the '90s and especially now, is not a show to binge watch. For a while I wondered why Lynch didn't choose a format like Netflix or Amazon for Season 3. Thirty seconds into The Return provided the answer. The viewing journey is part of Twin Peaks' artistry, with a week or weeks between Parts necessary to analyze and internalize what we just watched. Released at once, The Return would have already been forgotten, only recognized for its brilliance twenty or thirty years from now. 

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu might seem like television's new format, but they're just conventional programming formatted in a way that allows us to watch our favorite shows for hours on end, particularly shows that prompt us to use the word "addictive." The Return couldn't have been released in one lump sum and shouldn't be watched on a mobile device. It's addictive, but it's meant to be absorbed. 

If one were to watch The Return's 18 hours in one sitting, it would need to be in an Art Deco theater like the one in Part 8, with plenty of lengthy intermissions. Bring snacks, a pillow, and toothpaste. You'll be there for a while.

Still, Lynch and Frost haven't completely eschewed modern formatting despite Lynch's onetime disdain for the small screen. As a show streaming on Showtime Anytime, viewers can rewind to catch things they missed or pause for reflection. Lynch's presence on Showtime proves he doesn't truly hate modern technology, only the aptly ridiculed facets of it: the things we miss while binge watching from a tablet.

I'm guilty of the trappings of today's modern access to programming. Even watching the best streaming television has to offer, I'll find myself distracted by an actor I recognize but can't name. I'll pull out my phone and go to IMDB, then go to Wikipedia when I realize that, say, Vera Farmiga is Taisa Farmiga's older sister. By then I've missed too much to rewind, and even if I didn't I've been removed from experiencing the show. Today's writers and directors account for this, and by the end of each episode we still know what has happened despite our 21st Century distractions. But this just means modern programming consists of good television, not great art, not enough to hold our addled attention spans. Mad Men would have been groundbreaking in 1990, but after the premier of The Return, it's simply good TV that follows in its origin's footsteps. 

Still, I've returned to shows like Sense8 and Bates Motel in a less binge-watch state of mind to find there to be so much more than narrative, figurative cockroaches lurking in the distance indicative of an art deserving so much more critical attention. Twenty years from now we'll wonder why we rushed through these shows so fast, that the journey is every bit as beautiful as the end. 

Sense8 was never a sci-fi romp trudging to an end, it was an experimental work of art begging us to explore our 21st Century notion of humanity...and it was beautiful.

In eight Parts, I haven't once pulled out my phone to Shazam a song or gotten up to make more popcorn. They have entranced their audience like they did 27 years ago, again with something entirely new. Hopefully its hype, positive reviews, and allure will renew a popular interest in truly outsider and independent filmmaking. In some ways, the internet already is cinema's new Art House. Perhaps The Return will prompt audiences to seek out what it has to offer. 


Ten years ago I moved into a small house in a forgotten area of Center City Philadelphia. What was left of the neighborhood had been boxed in by a sunken expressway and a convention center. Surrounded by parking lots, the only immediate semblance of urbanism lied in Chinatown to the east and Broad Street to the west. But within spitting distance, separated by the cavernous expressway, was the post-industrial Callowhill neighborhood.

Lynch studied at the nearby Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art on North Broad Street in the late '60s and early '70s. Despite my Lynchian affinity for the artist's work, when I moved here a decade ago I didn't know this, or that the site of his home was just a block away. When PAFA put Lynch's The Unified Field on display and invited him to speak a few years ago, I discovered just how much this neighborhood had inspired him. PAFA'a rare, preserved example of Frank Furness architecture is a sharp juxtaposition of the post-industrial Callowhill neighborhood, magnified even more in the grimy years Lynch spent here. 

Lynch has stated, "Philadelphia, more than any filmmaker, influenced me. It's the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable...I felt like I was in constant danger. But it was so fantastic at the same time." To hear him talk about Philadelphia is something that resonates reluctantly with longtime residents. His first apartment in the city was across the street from the morgue, next to a long gone diner called Pop's, possibly the inspiration for the diner in Part 8.

"The area had a great mood - factories, smoke, railroads, diners, the strangest characters, the darkest nights. The people had stories etched in their faces, and I saw vivid images -plastic curtains held together with Band-Aids, rags stuffed in broken windows," Lynch said.

It's impossible to listen to the artist wax poetic about Philadelphia without having visions of his first feature film, 1977's Eraserhead. Callowhill's dystopian hellscape was every artist's greatest dream. As nightmarish as it must have been for a student from Montana - his windows shot out, robbed twice, his car stolen, and the chalk outline of a kid down the street that lingered for five days - it was an environment that forces an artist to create. Despair can be an ultimate inspiration, and given Philadelphia's conflation as the nation's birthplace and its sordid past, it's not surprising that Lynch fixates on disjointed and paradoxical Americana. 

Two weeks ago I moved to Callowhill. Although I'd worked here for a decade and lived a block away for just as long, I rarely ventured north of the expressway at night. The past few nights have given me the chance to wander and explore, and reflect on what Lynch must have seen, and how much has changed. 

When Lynch was schooled here, the neighborhood's lofty apartment buildings were factories and warehouses. It was full of textile factories and print-shops that closed promptly at five and were silent on the weekends. Throughout the evenings, trains leaving Reading Terminal headed north towards the suburbs rattling the streets below the now-abandoned Reading Viaduct. East of 9th Street, the belch of bulldozers crept ever closer as the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project began its failed wholesale demolition. During the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia was The Workshop of the World, and Callowhill is its legacy.

Just below Vine Street, a wide avenue at the time, was The Furnished Room District, home to transients, brothels, and flophouses. Today it's been all but destroyed. Lynch's first home in Philadelphia is now a U-Haul parking lot, and the morgue across the street is Roman High School's annex. Local Lynch fans have sought to rename Callowhill, "Eraserhood," a nod to the film inspired by the area, a nod the humble director would likely react to by taking a puff from his cigarette, pointing it towards the ashtray, and bluntly changing the subject. Some of the best artists are incredibly reserved. They don't seek praise, they reluctantly take interviews, and simply enjoy toiling away on their craft. 

To Lynch, this neighborhood was probably a place without a name, and the built embodiment of what he's sought to create over the past forty years. His descriptions of Callowhill, like his works of art, are surreal. Callowhill's history should be viewed the way we watch Twin Peaks: Resigned to let it be the maddening, indescribable confusion that it was.

My new apartment is nicer than anywhere I've ever lived, perhaps even the farm where I was raised. But its a symptom of the dreaded g-word and a symbol of the neighborhood's forgotten past. My old house just south of here, a tiny trinity that hasn't been renovated since electricity and plumbing were installed, is more attune to Lynch's Philadelphia than the converted warehouse I live now. And like Lynch's Callowhill, its days are numbered. 


Stating he'll never do another feature film, Part 8 of The Return may have brought Lynch's body of work full circle by echoing Eraserhead and his years here in Philadelphia. But it also closes Callowhill's chapter in American art history. Today's Callowhill is a far cry from Lynch's, retaining the tokens of its industrial past, but very little heart. 

The abandoned Reading Viaduct is being transformed into a park, its factories have been converted into lofts. The neighborhood is far from clean, but with developers eyeing its remaining warehouses, it will be soon. Even its art scene has evolved in a more corporate manner. Co-working spaces have formally replaced the rogue studios once set up in former textile factories, and they're not cheap, with developers trying to capitalize on the Lynchian mood of the neighborhood by siphoning grants and endowments more frugally spent in Kensington, West Philly, or even Camden. Callowhill is now safe and dull, the city's trust funded youths free to walk their purebred dogs down its dankest alleys well past sundown. 

Like art, urbanism evolves in similar ways, and Callowhill's future will be one of panache and glam, not unlike Northern Liberties. New artists will lay down their roots on new frontiers north of Kensington. And one day, they too may look back on the grimy streets north of the CSX tracks - Heroin Alley - with the same kind of macabre glee Lynch found down here in the '60s and '70s. 

Today's Callowhill, its clash of beer gardens and gated parking with its lingering industrial squalor, is perhaps the neighborhood's best homage to Lynch's cinematic obsession with dualities.  


A lot changed when Lynch and Frost launched Twin Peaks in 1990, and it's changing again with The Return. Viewers are finally eager to embrace something new from cinematic art, and I hope that desire finds its way back to Callowhill. When The Return's 18 hours are up and viewers begin to demand more from the art streaming off their screens, earnest creativity may return to places like Callowhill, even if it simply means decorating a loft with local works of art in lieu of prints from IKEA and Target.

Plenty of successfully ordinary things have emerged from America's most ordinary places, but when they emerge from the unordinary they tend to stick. Twin Peaks and Lynch's other cinematic masterpieces have found their rightful place in American Art History because - in part - they are the products of inspirationally unordinary environments. I truly hope the new residents buying real estate in Callowhill appreciate all the cinematic history that comes with it...and maybe, inspired by it, begin to look at this neighborhood with a renewed appreciation for the mystery that lingers in its murky corners. 

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