Sometimes The Owls Are Exactly What They Seem: The Banality of David Lynch

black lodge 2

I loved it. Identified with it. Bought the soundtrack and made copies for all my friends.

Even so, something about it turned me off.

Every few weeks, my fellow freaks and I gathered in a friend’s living room to marathon-watch taped episodes of Twin Peaks on Betamax. We buzzed over Laura Palmer’s diary and even tossed around the idea of dressing up as the show’s characters for Halloween.

When they tapped me to wrap myself in a plastic drop-cloth, I balked.

Because something about it turned me off.

Maybe something was supposed to feel off? At 16, I couldn’t quite pin it down. We’re talking Mark Frost and David Lynch, after all. A well-crafted work of ambiguous genre is intended to provoke a sense of oddity, of things tilting off balance. Like a fun-house for the brain. If it’s good, it makes our stomachs churn. We gasp and quail then go right back for more. Oddness is precisely the quality that drives us to seek out the unconventional, especially if it’s turned by skilled hands.

And skilled they were. Twin Peaks’ peculiarity started as a trickle and swelled to a flood. Oh, how we savored letting it wash us away! Small-town screwballs brushing the red-curtained edge of a netherworld. Dialogue as tightly coiled as it was indecipherable. A log lady, a black lodge, a sultry soundtrack, a spirit named Bob.

White horse in the living room? Why not! One-eyed cheerleader with superhuman strength. Hell yeah!

This strange, new deliciousness captivated us that first season. Twin Peaks did to TV what Cirque du Soleil did to the 3-ring circus. This new misfit entity (Mystery? Crime drama? Ghost story? What the hell is it?) came at us as the smorgasbord and spectacle we didn’t know we were craving.

So let me be clear here. Odd is good.

Off is… something else.

For the uninitiated: Twin Peaks ended in 1992 after just two seasons and a single feature-length film. In the final scene, a dead girl trapped in some kind of metaphysical waiting room whispers to the similarly trapped detective trying to solve her murder, “See you again in twenty-five years.”

Which is precisely how long the creators waited before launching season 3.

It’s from across this 25-year distance — a remove that both blurs and sharpens the gaze — that I notice something of those first groundbreaking seasons still prickling. Watching again now, I begin to understand the distinction between off and odd. What turns me off about the show is only incidental to its thrilling oddness. Perhaps even impedes it.

So I ask David Lynch now what we all should have been asking in 1990: What would it cost you to stop mutilating young women? Could your artistic vision survive on half the sexual assault? Or a quarter? And would the presence of a Black person or two somehow render impotent the necromancy you’re trying to create?

Re-watching the old episodes now at middle age, I writhe all over again. The show’s almost Gothic intrigue is not the trigger for this writhing. Instead it’s straight-up frustration at the number of women walking around in lingerie, and how many of them get butchered on screen. If you’re going to have to kill so many of them — which, just to be clear, you don’t — it’s okay to have a victim meet her maker in corduroys and a windbreaker. And honestly, we know hot girls are hot. Hot girls are always hot, and hot girls are everywhere all the time. We don’t need to have the lens probing their lips and boobs and butts in order to get the point. Especially not in Lynch-land, where oddness reigns.

Of course, I understand it’s Art! And as Art!, we’re not supposed to ask it to make a political statement or be more than it is. Fine. Don’t be an activist. Don’t use your craft to Speak Truth to Power. But do you have to rough up so damned many women on camera? And why does your seemingly bizarre world look so much like every other set in Hollywood, populated almost exclusively by white people, except for a soft-spoken Asian chick and a single Native dude named Hawk?

It’s surprising that the Lynchian artistic vision we all revere is so limited by these B-movie tropes and whitebread casting calls. David Lynch, of all people, should be able to find more compelling ways to capture boundary-bending thrills or elicit dramatic frisson. Sure, it’s hard to do. Isn’t that exactly what skilled artists are here for? The hard stuff, the stuff no one thinks will work?

(Also this: if you’re asking why “everything” has to be a critique of sexism and white supremacy, please read this essay by Bitter Gertrude. She’ll answer your question much more thoughtfully than I can. In short, because Everything is Art. And also, Everything is Politics.)

Look, if we’d wanted bruised-up dead girls in 1990, Blockbuster could have supplied eight consecutive hours of Freddy Kruger eviscerating teenagers. But we didn’t. We came to Frost and Lynch instead. We came for oddness.

But what did we get? A mystical narrative masking a worn out plot line. Troubled teen girl snorts coke and sexes it up with bad boys in order to escape her hidden trauma. Even at 16, I was disappointed to learn, after all the buildup, that Laura Palmer’s big secret was a rapist father possessed by bad Juju. Really? I mean, really? All the other veins to tap in the bottomless mine of storytelling — time travel, warring ancestors, international spy intrigue, all the gods and monsters of the universe — and the best our golden boy Lynch can come up with is a molesting daddy?

Watching old episodes again in preparation for the new release, I forgave the writers their blind spots. Grudgingly, yes, but forgave nonetheless. After all, who wasn’t stupider 25 years ago? Surely they’d get more of this right the second time around.

Surely?

So here we are in 2017. My fellow freaks and I gather in a friend’s living room to marathon-watch digitally downloaded episodes on a flat screen.

In both oddness and artistry, Twin Peaks has exploded. I’ll leave it to real critics to dissect the intricacies of Lynch’s storytelling and cinematography. Those aspects of the new show hook me immediately. I feel 16 again, riding in giddy wonder the alternately silky and bucking oddness.

And just like at 16, something here turns me off.

Unlike last time, the seams are immediately visible.

Here comes the first chick in a thong — no wait! It’s 2017. She’s bending over to take that off, too. And yep, sure enough, she’s getting sliced to bits. At least she takes a dude with her. Is that a nod to gender balance?

Here comes another drug-riddled dead girl. Then a young lady in lace panties and bra, this one getting shot through the eye.

The body count grows.

Meanwhile, we’re jetting across the country, dipping into and back out of the netherworld, and tromping through two entire episodes in our search for a single non-white character other than Hawk. So far we’ve been to New York City, Las Vegas, South Dakota, Washington State, and presumably Washington DC if we’re talking FBI. We’ve popped into bars and casinos, police stations and trailer parks, crime scenes and office buildings. No leads. Hawk serves as our sole reminder that the world doesn’t look like Richard Spencer’s wet dream.

Then we get to Episode 3, and at last! A win for diversity! Who, you might ask, is the first non-Hawk person of color to arrive on David Lynch’s set?

A nude Black sex worker sitting on the lap of her John counting out money.

In all the vast distances that span the time zones of the lower 48, plus the alternate space-time zone of red curtains and souls in limbo, the only woman of color we get is a naked hooker.

Yawn.

After all this time away, I wanted more.

Here’s the thing. Some screenwriters and directors are starting to get it. In the TV and film industries, folks are talking about the proliferation of rape and sexual assault on screen. A parallel conversation has been going on since long before Twin Peaks came on the scene about the lack of racial diversity in TV and film. These discussions continue to challenge the assumption that the default is gendered whiteness (remember #oscarssowhite?)

I just keep wondering where David Lynch has been during all these conversations. Not in the room? Or not giving a shit about what’s being said in the room? Because Showtime picked up his work regardless of these failings. People are watching it, writing about it, and exalting the genre-busting artistic oddness of his vision.

And here I am, still sprawled on a friend’s living room floor with my fellow freaks, still eating up exactly what he’s feeding us.

As I sprawl, I start to wonder. For the next 25 years, every time I turn on the TV, will these same things will prickle? No matter how edgy or brilliant or forward-thinking the concept, will an artist unwilling to flip the power script always turn me off?

I wonder, have we got the courage to tell our creative heroes that we expect better? That we know they can do better?

That if they can’t do better, they can find a different audience?

 

I wonder if we realize our power as viewers.

I  wonder if we know how simple it is to turn them off.

 


Photo: ABC/Spelling Ent./CBS Paramount Domestic Television

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4 thoughts on “Sometimes The Owls Are Exactly What They Seem: The Banality of David Lynch”

  1. I agree with what you say – even though I do enjoy Twin Peaks – I think the misanthropic elements that bother you are an expression of David Lynch’s personal demons – things he is well aware of and that he puts in there on purpose. But again – I certainly understand anyone that doesn’t like Twin Peaks – it isn’t for everyone… not by any means.

    One thing, though. You should watch episode 8 of the new season – even though it makes no sense at all. It is unlike anything I have ever seen on television – a work of confused genius – in my opinion. Though most people won’t like it at all.

    1. Our little group just watched the first 4, so we should hit Episode 8 at our next gathering. For all of my critiques, I also really dig so much of the show. It’s also cool just to spend an afternoon with friends. When I see it, I’ll let you know!

  2. I liked most of the first series had that dark but schlocky thing that fit my gen-x sensibility well enough, was really too campy for me to take any of it including the violence seriously (the incest movie version was more tense) but I get the gist of: http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a55039/twin-peaks-beautiful-dead-girl-laura-palmer/
    have to say hated the new series (what I got thru of it) couldn’t skip enough of the doppelganger storyline, will have to go back and give his Mulholland flick another try.

  3. I remember being riveted by “Twin Peaks” and then hating the ending. Ten years later, I gave up watching TV altogether. The comeback of Twin Peaks tempted me to come back too. But after this critique, I think I will pass. Someone should send this to David Lynch himself.

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