“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract.”
This has long been the answer David Lynch gave to countless disappointed aspiring filmmakers or film critics eager to get the surrealist auteur to reveal for the first time the hidden meanings behind his films. It is unhelpful. Most Lynch replies are. He talks about duck eyes and donut holes, or meditation. However, given that his go-to response in the past few weeks has been “thank you”, the big fish remark begins to reveal a little more in the context of Twin Peaks: The Return.
Granted, it will not clear anything up for those watching this eighteen-part revisiting of his cult television series Twin Peaks, which is charting the odyssey of Special Agent Dale Cooper as he attempts to escape the extra-dimensional realm known as the Red Room. The important point to remember is that Lynch does not explain his films, because there is no clear meaning. He is a surrealist, who uses dream logic and sudden identity switches in his characters to tie together ideas. If you can make sense of a Lynch film, chances are you have accidentally watched someone else’s film.
Why the quotation is interesting though is not because it explains his latest and potentially final piece work. Rather, it shines a light on why Lynch has managed to produce something of new value, despite succumbing to the current and dire trend of nostalgia. In short, Lynch has consistently faltered when pressured to work in the fast lane.
His masterpieces, with exceptions too few to name have always been those that emerge after lengthy periods of gestation. Eraserhead took seven years due to the constant lack of funds. Inland Empire was the result of three years fiddling with digital cameras and Twitter. Blue Velvet came after a long period of self-reflection following on from the gargantuan failure that was Dune, and Mulholland Dr. was the roughly assembled magnum opus born as a Twin Peaks spin-off for Audrey Horne that failed, and failed again when he tried to develop it as an original ABC pilot in 1997.
The latter example in particular is indicative of the hole Lynch dug himself into when he decided to write and direct his own television series. It is not a medium in which the creative process accelerates. A pilot can be realised over a number of years. The first season has maybe twelve months, at the most to follow-up on that. Then, each successive season will have less time again. This process damaged Twin Peaks.
Lynch has frequently admitted in all earnest that the pilot was one of the few aspects of the show which he is proud to call his own. The second season clashed with his directing of the equally mixed bag that was 1991’s Wild At Heart. As the first series concluded with an audience hungrily waiting to find out who shot Dale Cooper, what came next was an inconsistent and prolonged affair of other directors attempting to emulate his vision. Its resolutions were disappointing. The story went haywire like a demagnetised compass and by the time Lynch intervened to rewrite the finale, though it was a wildly exhilarating experience, what came before had done too much damage already.
Then, when he came back with the feature-length film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, while compelling at times, still his urge to revisit the town one year later was premature. Season two may not have killed Twin Peaks, but it left the show with a gangrenous limb. With cast members, such as Lara Flynn Boyle refusing to sign back on, while Kyle MacLachlan would only offer his services for fifteen minutes, in order to avoid being typecast, the film expanded the show’s universe, albeit without contributing anything of much value. Lynch had been fishing for ideas, but he was not receiving sufficient time to catch that “Big Fish”.
Twin Peaks: The Return however, is that coveted fish and it has already landed on its feet beautifully after four episodes alone. Picking up where we left off with Cooper, his body possessed by the Killer BOB and his mind trapped in the limbo-like Red Room, he is finally informed by the giant, One-Armed Mike and the Man from Another Planet that he may leave this realm. Previously promised by the spirit of the murdered prom-queen Laura Palmer, “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years”, true to her word, the story resumes after this lengthy period. Cooper is granted the ability to lift himself off the sofa he has sat in for a quarter of a century and transition back into the tangible world.
Before he can do this however, first he must somehow navigate his way along a path paved using dream logic. Thrown into what seems to be an inner-outer-space, he meets a woman without eyes who sits panicked in a living room contained within a boiler-tank space ship, floating in another inner-outer space, connected to a glass box fixed to a top-secret room atop a New York city skyscraper being observed by a young man, who will be murdered by a spirit while having sex with a woman whose only crime was to enter a restricted-access area with two lattes.
This makes absolutely no sense. Yet, it is visually phenomenal and riveting, precisely because the viewer is attempting to crack a riddle, which they can never guess correctly. It bears almost no resemblance to the original series, and that is exactly why The Return works. By adding to the story without imitating the show’s halcyon days, Lynch has proven the Twin Peaks universe contains an endless array of possible stories. He has made this point for decades now, and now, it is clear he was not bluffing. All Lynch needed was time.
Like Dale Cooper, David Lynch also sat in the Red Room for twenty-five years. Sure, in that length of time, he produced other feature-length and short films, television pilots, paintings and albums, but when one views The Return, what becomes clear is the fact that each of these projects has shaped The Return. It is the end-result of an effort to combine every aspect of his creative process into the one partial misstep in his career, which he knew could be salvaged.
Whereas the original series has been championed as the definitive moment when television first became cinematic, its chief feat being the insertion of surrealist ideas into the genre of murder mystery soap opera, the revival series continues this innovation by going one step further. In the twenty-seven years since Twin Peaks first awed viewers, the likes of True Detective, Lost and Desperate Housewives emerged, making his quirks the norm. If Lynch was to have revisited the town of Twin Peaks using the same old tropes, then likely it would have been a failure.
Thankfully, he has not chosen to take that route. Save for the occasional call-backs; owls, coffee and flashing street lights, Twin Peaks: The Return stands on its own feet as a thoroughly original television series. It has turned the oddball soap opera on its head, by heightening the surrealist aspect. If The Return is a follow-up to anything, then it is less so a sequel to the series than it is his adding a narrative to those parts of his body of work which are less accessible, or simply overlooked.
This is his attempt to elaborate on his short films that preceded 1977’s Eraserhead and those which followed after Mulholland Dr., when he began experimenting with digital filmmaking and CGI. No longer blowing his budget on grainy celluloid film, it would not be physically possible to recapture the original aesthetic of Twin Peaks. Instead, visually this bears greater a resemblance to his works such as Dream #7 from the anthology film OneDreamRush, his collection of digital shorts compiled on Dynamic 1, and even, the Playstation One advert he directed.
Such is also the case with his primitive and sparse paintings. Oftentimes here we can see him animating those past works, the finest examples being when Dale Cooper is in freefall through the aforementioned outer-inner space, and when the shadowy figure emerges from the glass box to brutally slaughter the young New York couple. There is a perfect symmetry to this idea of Lynch bringing life to his paintings. That was the exact reason he decided to become a filmmaker in the first place. It was one day, while painting ‘Six Men Getting Sick’ that he decided the piece could only work if it were animated, so to see him doing the reverse during what very may well be his swansong is appropriate.
The Twin Peaks of today bears little resemblance to its 1990 counterpart, because Lynch never is embracing his own evolution since the BOB took possession of Cooper. If the show could sustain itself, then Lynch had to accept his own changes and by extension, those experienced by Cooper. Gone is the “Damn fine cup of coffee” Coop, who solved mysteries using ancient Tibetan techniques and dreams. In his place is a man torn between three identities; a frail childlike amnesiac, a supernatural murderer and an amoral suburban womaniser.
With fourteen installations left in The Return, the surface has barely been scratched in terms of where Lynch is about to take this story. However, what remains reassuring in the meantime is the knowledge that his intention to continue exploring this world, born when the High School Prom Queen Laura Palmer was murdered is not merely self-indulgent repetition. To realise how far the story has travelled since those first lines were uttered, “She’s dead, wrapped in plastic” is to see how sincere Lynch was in stating that Twin Peaks offered endless possibilities.