Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lynch Drops the Bomb (and the Hammer)

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those who winced upon learning, a couple years ago, that David Lynch would be returning to Twin Peaks. Catch lightning in a bottle once, you don’t do anything as silly as it attempt it again, right?

Especially when again is fully twenty-six years later.

I also figured Lynch had to be smart enough to know better than to try.
So now, then, this corollary admission:

The new Twin Peaks, eight of eighteen episodes in, is pretty dang good.  

True, the Dougie Jones stuff is thin gruel. (Kyle MacLachlan’s often touching portrayal of a fugue-state Agent Cooper isn’t the problem; Lynch and Frost’s meandering, uninspired vision of suburban and corporate Las Vegas is—a problem only exacerbated by the fact they seem, sometimes, to be trying to spoof Mad Men and Breaking Bad with this stuff.)

Beyond that, though, the show does indeed recapture a fair amount of the surreal, wondrous-strange magic of the ’90 and ’91 seasons.

And at least some of the new season finds Lynch dropping the hammer, leaving behind the delightful, "is this for real?" hokiness that is the show's calling card to do what he did in 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2001’s Mulholland Drive: demonstrate he can hang just fine, thanks very much, with the Kubricks, Scorseses, and PTAs of this world.

Episode 8, which Showtime calls “Gotta Light?,” is pretty much one big drop-the-hammer moment—a not-uncommon assessment, I know, having taken in a fair bit of the best-hour-of-TV-ever! yowling (this, for instance—or this) that started about two minutes after the episode finished airing.

So what is Episode 8?

For its first twenty minutes, it’s just a particularly tense, taut, strong third-season episode—one featuring the most unnerving (as of that moment, at least) incursion yet of surreal/supernatural forces into the show’s universe.

And a Nine Inch Nails musical interlude, too. Because why not?

After that, though, the remaining forty minutes—and they work well as a standalone short, in case anyone’s intrigued but not familiar with the larger, admittedly complex Twin Peaks cosmos—are Lynch’s meditation on…

The bomb.

The nuclear bomb.

Now, part of what makes these final forty minutes so remarkable is that there’s precious little in Lynch’s forty year-old oeuvre to suggest a meditation on this particular subject was coming—though the instant this viewer saw the 1945 Trinity test erupt on his own Twin Peaks monitor, he felt in his bones it was right, on some level, that Lynch should finally arrive here.

The other thing that makes these forty minutes remarkable is their pulverizing beauty. I mean, they’re possibly the forty most gorgeous minutes Lynch has ever put on screen—stuff to rival the Scorsese of Raging Bull, the Anderson of There Will Be Blood, and (this one’s especially apt) the Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey (wait till you see what’s in that mushroom cloud).

Add to all this the fact that the final twenty of those forty breathtaking minutes (it’s a two-act short, really, twenty minutes per act) are doing great Amurican monster-movie horror….

And…what's not to love. Right?

This, quick, though, before we turn the corner and acknowledge that Episode 8 may not be flawless, exactly:

It’s mildly befuddling, the amount of that-was-batshit! blogging and articling that's gone on in the days since Episode 8 aired. I mean, “Gotta Light?” really isn’t so perplexing. If anything, it’s an uncommonly cogent Twin Peaks episode—maybe too cogent (though again: flaws soon).

True, a whole lot of that fantastic forty minutes is thickly, aggressively surreal. But you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to sort out the nightmare we’re into here. (It sorts way more neatly than, say, Laura Palmer’s frequently mind-bending Black Lodge appearances.)

Everything at first blush bonkers in this forty-minute, two-act short—the creepy white "mother" homunculus vomiting up eggs and evil spirits; the shimmering gold mist emitting from our beloved old friend the Giant’s skull; the crackling, flickering “woodsmen” scurrying about that 1940s gas station; the Abraham Lincoln-gone-satanic figure staggering around the nighttime desert, croaking “Gotta light?” at terrified New Mexicans, crushing their skulls in his hands, uttering into a commandeered radio-station mike the terrifying gobbledygook ("This is the water, and this is the well...") that makes everyone in listening range collapse into slumber; the good-luck penny discovered “heads up” (our 16th POTUS again); the half-frog, half-cicada, all-horrible thing that hatches in the desert, then disappears, God help us, into that beautiful sleeping child’s mouth: it’s all clearly harnessed toward illustrating one pretty coherent notion:

That the U.S. sure betrayed itself—sure delivered evil unto itself—when it concocted the bomb.   

(If anyone doubts Lynch is taking us to a moral place here, consider what’s playing as his camera goes 2001 star-gating through that mushroom cloud: Krysztof Penderecki’s jarring contemporary-classical piece, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.”)  

So why does it make perfect sense that Lynch should finally, after forty years, arrive here, at the bomb?

Because his whole body of work is about the seething, wormy underside of post-World War II American life.
It’s an oft-noted feature of movies like Blue Velvet and both the old and new Twin Peaks series that it’s tough to tell when, exactly, they’re set: the 1950s? The ’80s? The twenty-first century? Whatever the exact—or maybe shifting—time frame, we’re always in post-war America, land of white-picket-fenced houses, blue-jeaned and motorcycle-jacketed bad boys, Main Street hardware stores, land-line phones with spiral cords, lead-sled muscle cars, linoleum-countered roadside diners, etc.

And post-war America begins, of course, with the bomb.

If there’s a seething, creeping, mostly-concealed evil lurking in post-war America—an evil forever threatening to let the content of our nightmares rupture forth into our friendly bobby-socks-and-apple-pie waking lives—it’s got to have something to do with the bomb.

It’s got to somehow originate with the bomb.

And when the aforementioned beautiful sleeping child, fresh from the most adorably chaste first kiss you’ve ever seen, opens her mouth to let that nightmare bug fresh from the nuclear-bomb-blasted sands up the road from her family’s Craftsman house crawl down her throat, the message couldn’t be clearer: 

The bomb is the truly hellish evil all Cold War-American children swallowed.

A coincidence, maybe, the beautiful sleeping child swallows the nuclear-mutant bug right after her first date with her counterpart, upright and handsome post-war American boy?

Sorry. No.

Soon enough, no doubt, these two will start a family—maybe-possibly Laura Palmer’s own.

And we know, we Twin Peaks watchers, what trouble family is in Lynch’s universe. Right?

It’s a good place to get serial-raped and murdered, your middle-class American post-war nuclear family. It's the cultural institution, in Lynch's imagination, bearing the brunt of the terrible karmic toll for the great American sin of the bomb. 

So that’s what Twin Peaks has to do with Hiroshima.

Anyway…I’m not here, again, to accuse “Gotta Light?” of being a perfect work of art. Here’s the problem:

It’s not a freestanding short film.

Its final forty minutes contain tie-ins—both clear and probable—to larger Twin Peaks narrative strands.

For instance: that scary face peering out at us from within the creepy white mother homunculus’s vomit stream isn’t just some anonymous evil spirit.

No. That’s Bob.

And it would appear we’ve just witnessed the birth of Bob. (Funny: "Bob" is an acronym of "birth of bob." And it's one wee letter off from "bomb," too. Hmm.)

Bob comes from the creepy white mother homunculus’s vomit.

And the creepy white mother homunculus ("the Experiment," she's called in the closing credits) comes from the bomb.

I wasn’t sure what so bothered me about this until I saw Margaret Lyons’ question to herself in her own post-Episode-8 New York Times article: “does Bob, a supernatural manifestation of evil, really need an origin story?”


Who knows where Bob comes from?

He’s an owl. He’s the wind in the Douglas Firs. He’s your own father.  

There had been, up to now, no explaining his insane malice. It just appeared, implacable and irrational. And if Bob just appeared in the Palmer household, he could just as easily show up behind your couch, be at the foot of your bed.

I’m not sure I like Lynch’s letting me in—even if it’s in dream terms—on Bob’s backstory. The dude’s way scarier when he’s baffling.

And if I don’t need to know how Bob came to be, I sure don’t need to know how Laura Palmer came to be. Yet "Gotta Light?" seems to want to reveal this to us, too: her soul springs straight from the skull of our beloved old friend the Giant—a guy we’re having to start to suspect might be, like, God or something.

Laura is created as a direct counterbalance, apparently, to the evil of Bob, newly born in the flames of the Trinity test.

Meh, I say.

I don’t particularly want to understand how the Giant, Mike, the Man from Another Place, the Evolution of the Arm, Bob, and the version of Laura Palmer haunting the Black Lodge operate. These supernatural figures' logic—their “rationality”—has always been delightfully opaque and alien; I’d hate to think we’re entering a phase of Twin Peaks in which Lynch starts over-explaining his universe’s otherworldly metaphysics to us, starts revealing too much of what goes on behind the red curtain. 

I don’t ever want to know why garmonbozia (human pain and suffering) must take the form, in the Black Lodge, of creamed corn.

I just know it makes sense on some ineffable level that it should.