by Elizabeth Cantwell
I went to Whole Foods and I bought some David Lynch coffee. On the back it says “IDEAS IN EVERY BAG.” Why doesn’t David Fincher have a coffee, or Martin Scorsese, or Lars Von Trier? Well, obviously. When you think about David Lynch, you think about inspiration, about surreal vistas concocted with that sort of blind optimism that we hope coffee can give us on our most reluctant days. You think about managing somehow to be awake and asleep at the same time.
You think about the town of Twin Peaks, and its small white mugs next to the tall orange ones, and the black brewed liquid pouring gloriously over everything.
I just used the word “surreal” because I guess you sort of have to in the opening paragraph of an essay on David Lynch, but I actually think the term is thrown around a little too freely when it comes to Lynch’s work. There is something about the way he does “surreal” that is actually more real than un-.
Look at the opening credits to Lynch’s strange supernatural detective soap opera, Twin Peaks: Bewick’s Wren, perched on a piney, Pacific Northwest-y branch. A mill. A log sawed violently in half. Water and the sound of water. A road, the road, the sign welcoming you with the mountains in the background: WELCOME TO TWIN PEAKS, Population 51,201.
These images are grounded not in imagination, but in place. A harmless place, a removed place, a small town surrounded by beautiful views. But the camera lingers just long enough on the waterfall to shift the viewer’s attention from the objective loveliness of the scene to the violence with which the cascading water pummels the waiting pool. The angle of the wren’s head matches just uncomfortably enough with the grating sounds of factory gears. This is less “surreal” than it is a trick of paying attention to the real so closely that you recognize how twisted and skewed it ultimately is. Until the horrors of the everyday become waking nightmares, and your nighttime dreams a feverish refuge.
I went to a reading last night with a friend that took place in a little bookstore off a relatively major LA surface street. Like many places that are warm and open to the public and have places to sit, bookstores attract their share of strange elements. There were a couple of people there whom the rest of us tried collectively to ignore, to wish out of existence by not paying them attention. During the Q and A, one of these people stood up and elaborately removed a crossing guard vest or some other sort of vest with protective glowing strips and asked the author whether she thought gender was “synthetic” and then continued to mutter obscure things under his breath about women while donning the vest again. The vest crinkled very loudly and the man seemed agitated. For a minute or two I thought something terrible was about to happen. The man would have a gun in his blue workout pants, or he’d pull his blue workout pants down and expose himself to us, or he’d start yelling and climb the tree in the center of the bookstore.
The boundaries we erect for ourselves in reality—the ones that keep us convinced that we are in a “safe” place where nothing can happen to us—were crumbling, and I could feel the sinkhole of reality’s unsafe side waver beneath the legs of my chair.
Nothing happened. The man sat back down and then left. The author continued on, unfluttered. My friend and I laughed about it later over a glass of wine because what do you do in the face of the real real but laugh?
David Lynch laughs a lot, I think. There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks where Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is examining Laura Palmer’s dead body, searching for clues. The fluorescent light above her prostrate form is flickering—an effect not planned, but found and embraced (the light was just actually malfunctioning). Agent Cooper turns to a doctor in the room.
“Could you leave us, please?”
“Uh, would you leave us alone, please?”
Could you leave us, please? Jim.
Could you leave us, please? Jim.
This laughably bizarre moment was, like the misfiring light, not planned; the actor playing the doctor genuinely thought MacLachlan was asking for his name, and all MacLachlan could do was repeat his question with the tiniest hint of trepidation that this scene was going awry. Lynch loved it. It was the sort of thing that happens on film sets all the time and gets cut, but it was also the sort of thing that happens in Twin Peaks, so cutting it from this show never entered Lynch’s head.
The beauty of Twin Peaks is that the sense of place the show creates is not just that of a twisted suburbia. The show occurs in a fully-realized town, sure—a town where the pie is plentiful and the roadhouses chock full of heightened lounge singers—but simultaneously unfurls in a liminal space that is less easy to pin down. The place between dreaming and waking. The gray area where the horizon of the sea hits the bottom of the sky. A middle space between improvisation and acting, between letting “real” life unfold and performing a life not your own.
Take Laura Palmer. If you’ve seen the show, her name immediately conjures up a face, a voice, mannerisms, laughter, screams. And yet—the first time we see Laura, she is dead, and all the Lauras we see after that are dreamed Lauras, videotaped Lauras, picture-framed Lauras, flashbacked Lauras. The first time we see Laura Palmer alive, we are able to watch Agent Cooper rewind her, pause her, play her again. She is real and she is an imagined entity and she is dead and she is right there all at the same time, which is the way we all inhabit our spaces—even living, Laura Palmer was a front for something else, an idealized performance. (Our social media presences—our carefully scripted blogs, our perfectly composed Instagrams, our architected Facebook personalities—what are they doing but creating Laura Palmer myths around our own stubbornly difficult selves?)
When Agent Cooper dreams of Laura, there are shadows on his face from the window. This is real. And then he is older, and this will be real. And there is a man with one arm, and his missing arm is real, too. And Laura is placed so very carefully, arranged just so in her black dress and heels. Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song.
We turn on Twin Peaks and we drive down a road the curve of which we can’t see around. We watch actors play characters who are themselves performing parts. With each of them, there is the space of the body and the space of the mind. The space of the suburban street and the space of the forest.
(Norma wears her clean, crisp diner uniform to cover up her anxiety over how her paroled husband, Hank, will react to her affair with Big Ed. Josie has the demure appearance of a stereotypically subservient Chinese woman but the mind of a classically manipulativefemme fatale. The Man From Another Place has a body that can only manifest inside the extradimensional evil that is the Black Lodge. DEA Agent Dennis/Denise wears a dress and bears a gun. Killer BOB is a mindspace waiting to inhabit a body space. And Laura has the body of a homecoming queen housing the spirit of an abused and angry girl.)
For Agent Dale Cooper, though, the space of the body and the space of the mind intersect. Cooper experiences what he dreams and dreams about reality.
His body is porous.
He asks Sheriff Harry S. Truman about Laura’s autopsy and then about Douglas Firs. He pontificates about cherry pie and eats the cherry pie and is very much a physical being even as he floats off into a reverie about Tibet and asks people to throw stones at a bottle to narrow down the list of suspects in Laura’s death. He dreams of a giant man who says wise things and interacts with a scrawny man (Andy) who says silly things but means them. His body is shot, is wounded. His mind is locked up in the lodge.
He belongs in Twin Peaks: the liminal space of the town is the liminal space of Cooper’s own reality. You cannot love Twin Peaks unless you love Agent Cooper. The two depend on each other in some serious and holy way. I’m sure today there would be a grassroots internet movement for a spin-off show around his character, but you and I both know that imaginary show would be simply awful. It is impossible to imagine him anywhere but his wood-paneled room at the Great Northern, sitting at the Double R Diner’s bar, eating donuts with Sheriff Harry Truman at the conference table in the station. His primary “tie” to the outside world—Diane—exists solely in a tape recorder. In the world of Twin Peaks there is nothing outside of Twin Peaks.
Indeed, everything here, everything, feels perfectly indigenous. The trees, the birds, the peculiar interior decoration suffused through the town. Even the stoplights seem to sway in a way completely their own, completely Twin Peaks-y. (Twin Peaks-y, by the way, is totally a valid descriptor of things in our own world; a Google search turns up “Twin Peaks-y on Pinterest,” a Moby music video described as “Very ‘Twin Peaks’-y,” and a quote from M. Night Shyamalan about his upcoming TV show “Wayward Pines”: “It struck me as having a Twin Peaks-y vibe.”)
What can you do when you have dropped into a place that is so fitted to your body—a place that gives you coffee in neverending mugs and a mystery that can stimulate you and a woman as naive and curious and innocent as you are—and you run out of things to do there? To what lengths will you go in order to stay?
Would you perpetuate the search for a bodiless soul? Would you go to sleep every night hoping to dream? Would you conjure up an insane long-lost partner? Would you turn your soul over there, guaranteeing you could never leave?
Twin Peaks is a love story, but it is not the love story of Dale and Annie, or Andy and Lucy, or Harry and Josie, or Donna and James. It’s the love story of a man and a town, a mind and a forest. It’s the love story we all want to be our own as we move into neighborhood after neighborhood, packing our suitcases and our books and hoping this one will be the one we belong in. It’s the story of dreaming something and then looking around you and realizing you’re in the place you dreamed up.
And that’s why I revisit Twin Peaks on Netflix every so often, why I’ve been writing poems with the names of Twin Peaks episodes as titles. Why I bought the David Lynch coffee. I, too, want to land in a place that inhabits me. I want that for everyone I love.
When my son was born, we named him Cooper.
Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.