David Lynch Is Not an Auteur: On the Enduring Brilliance of Twin Peaks

It is happening again. It is happening again.

TV Features Twin Peaks
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David Lynch Is Not an Auteur: On the Enduring Brilliance of <i>Twin Peaks</i>

I don’t know if anyone really knew what Laura Palmer meant, back there in the Red Room, when she told Special Agent Dale Cooper, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” But she was right. Twin Peaks Season Three hits Showtime this Sunday: Dale Cooper’s dream was apparently even more prescient than we thought. Do you know how long it’s been since I literally got giddy about a TV show? I mean, I’ve had my “Oh my God I love this” shows, and moments that have made me kind of squeal—or cry—but honest-to-God giddy anticipation? Do you know how long it’s been since I experienced that?

A little more than 25 years.

We are enjoying an era of exceptionally diverse and interesting TV programming these days, and if that’s improving your quality of life, your thank you note should arguably be addressed to Transcendental Man of Mystery David Lynch, who altered the landscape of TV forever with a little Northwest-noir mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma called Twin Peaks in April 1990.

Lynch broke ground in so many ways with Twin Peaks: Made primetime TV safe for “weird,” made it conceivable that a cult film director could produce major-network television, bent genres around each other in a fusion of horror and soap opera, mystery and romance, comedy and the paranormal. You can thank Lynch for Northern Exposure and Gravity Falls, The X-Files and 24, The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives, for starters. Twin Peaks generated a voracious cult following and was probably the first major network show to generate legions of fan theorists using the barely-there-yet Internet to compare notes and solve riddles.

And it definitely caused “make sure you can tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue” to shoot straight to the top of my to-do list.

It was, and arguably still is, one of the most visually striking things ever made for TV. Not to mention aurally: If Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting arpeggios and the otherworldly vocals of Julee Cruise and Little Jimmy Scott didn’t give you chills, I’d be curious to find out what the heck does. And the show’s tone—elusive, allusive, alternately cheesy and dread-drenched, sometimes profound and sometimes profoundly goofy but always, always, always a cascade of mysteries—still feels, in some ways, ahead of its time. If you never watched it, get on that immediately so you’re all up to speed for what I have to call more of a resurrection than a reboot. Its artistic relevance and its sense of being unutterably different, even 27 years later, is remarkable.

Let’s talk about why. Because this fan has a theory. And it has to do with mirrors.

When you place two mirrors facing one another, an object between them will appear in an infinitely receding cascade of reflections, a phenomenon sometimes called an Infinity Mirror or Toricelli’s Trumpet. It’s the closest thing I can come up with to explain what Twin Peaks did.

Literal mirrors bookend the whole series: The first shot in the pilot is a tight close-up of Joan Chen looking at herself in a mirror. The last shot of the last episode is of Kyle MacLachlan looking at himself (and then bashing his head into) a mirror. In both cases, the character looking into the mirror and the reflection looking back are not really the same person; they are masks, distorted images. The sense of distorted reflections and doubles (twins?) is the super-trope of the series, and one that Lynch expresses visually with stunning precision. Every character has a distorted double; every character has a double life. There’s a ridiculous daytime soap that some of the characters watch, which not only underscores (with a wink) the soap opera conventions Lynch uses but even features an actress who plays identical twins (one good, one bad). In Season One, murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee) reappears as her own absurdly identical cousin Maddy Ferguson, who manages to use her resemblance to Laura to cause a ripple effect of interpersonal disasters before meeting the same fate. Like the rippled reflections of Douglas firs in water (a key image in the title sequence and a recurring one throughout the show), twisted doubles rule the narrative, drive the plot and, most of all, leave us wondering what the hell Lynch is actually saying.

Given that David Lynch is exactly the kind of sui generis visionary who comes to mind when someone says the word “auteur,” this might be a weird thing to say, but I’d like to posit that whatever an auteur is, David Lynch is its polar opposite. Or, at least, its funhouse mirror image. If an auteur is someone who compels you by the force of their single-minded and singular vision, that’s emphatically not Lynch. Yes, he has a very specific aesthetic and you can identify it in a few shots. He has his signature preoccupations: Dreams and the unconscious, existential mystery and the sense that nothing is as it seems, the interstitial spaces between drama and melodrama, realism and surrealism, Grand Guignol romance and violence—and man does that guy dig a high-drama piece of music.

What makes Lynch something other than an auteur is probably expressed more clearly in Twin Peaks than in anything else he’s ever made, and it’s all about those disturbed reflections. Lynch knows that everyone experiences a given work of art differently. No two people have precisely the same takeaway from a story, no matter how blisteringly powerful the vision of the visionary at the helm. Instead of attempting to force a consensus analysis onto his audience, Lynch has mastered a kind of radical open-endedness and curiosity that embraces the dissonant and highly personal interpretations of each viewer who comes to his work. His work can be absurdist, dramatic, scary, romantic—often in quick succession—but I cannot think of another director who can touch Lynch for that substrate of almost gleeful curiosity about the breadth of different things people will extract from his work. Twin Peaks wasn’t an auteur’s tour de force. It was Toricelli’s trumpet. Every person placed between those mirrors saw a different reflection, and it was partly informed by what Lynch put onscreen and partly by what viewers brought with them. This is true of all works of art, by the way—Lynch just leverages it more than most directors. In some significant ways, he’s more of a Deep Image poet than a storyteller, using an accretion of symbolic visuals to create the viewer’s experience. Those majestic trees Agent Cooper is so besotted with? Guess what: Douglas firs reproduce by cloning. The bites on Laura’s shoulders? Inflicted by a pet myna bird, an animal famous for its sophisticated mimicry.

Twin Peaks was promoted by ABC as a whodunit (“Who killed Laura Palmer?” was the tagline). But long after we knew the answer to that question, the mystery remained, and it brought us back week after week, even through the largely off-the-rails second season. Under the whodunit there was a “whydunit,” and under that, there was something ineffable and beautiful and horrible that we couldn’t quite touch.

And it was Jack Nance’s voice and Piper Laurie’s conniving nastiness. It was good-girl Lara Flynn Boyle and bad-girl Sherilyn Fenn. It was Dana Ashbrook’s epic swagger and Peggy Lipton’s luminous smile and Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting music and it was Kyle MacLachlan’s unbearably adorable canary-eating grin. It was the best damn cherry pie and Audrey Horne tying that cherry stem in a knot with her mouth. It was everyone having their perfect Other Half but not being able to have them for real because they all married someone else who hits them when no one’s looking.

It was the dancing dwarf and the glowing giant. It was the owls not being what they seemed. It was those trees and Julee Cruise’s red lipstick and the scarlet drapes in the Red Room; the Bookhouse Boys and the donuts stacked in Sheriff Harry S. Truman’s conference room; Ray Wise’s insane dancing and Grace Zabriskie’s blood-curdling screams. It was everyone in The Roadhouse spontaneously bursting into tears while at the Great Northern Hotel a mystical giant warned Agent Cooper; “It is happening again. It is happening again.”

It was the tapestry of lies and deceptions that held them all together, and the tendrils of mundane human evil and depthless paranormal evil that pulled things apart.

And it is happening again.

The revival of Twin Peaks premieres Sunday, May 21 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.



Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.