by Kate Hagen
Dead homecoming queens wrapped in plastic, a lady and her omniscient log, Tibetan mysticism and of course, a damn fine cup of coffee – these are just some of the peculiarities that defined Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal cult television show, Twin Peaks. The show rose to prominence amongst viewers due in large part to Lynch’s unique style as an auteur involving elements of melodrama, horror, and surrealism. Due to a declining audience in the show’s second season, its network, ABC, forced Lynch to solve the show’s central mystery in the middle of the show’s second season causing an unsatisfying conclusion for critics and viewers alike. Despite this, Twin Peaks proved to be a highly influential television show, paving the way for other serialized cult shows such as The X-Files and Lost (Jensen). With the use of binaries as a means to express his vision as an auteur, David Lynch explores the doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales to transcend his film work and create a television show that explored the bugs beneath the surface of suburban America.
When studying the impact of the television show Twin Peaks, it is impossible to ignore the auteur theory of production brought to the show by one of its creators, David Lynch. Beginning in 1976 with his debut film, Eraserhead, Lynch brought elements of surrealism into pedantic, everyday life. Most obviously seen in the introduction to 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch seeks to show the bugs burrowing beneath the surface of American life – “I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents. Which is why I like things like cuts and bruises – they’re like little flowers” (Lynch and Rodley 78).
This approach carried over into Lynch’s auteur theory when approaching Twin Peaks. But what is an auteur? The term came about from French filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer in the 1950s and 1960s via their own publication, Cahiers du Cinema, which explored the role of the director as the overwhelming creative force that drives the creation of a product (Vande Berg 233). The French word for “author” is “auteur.” With this idea in mind, the auteur theory was formed: directors who “consistently express their own obsessions,” in order to develop a “thematic and/or stylistic consistency in all (or almost all) of the director’s films” (Kamina 56).
This idea of the auteur, a director whose thematic and stylistic traits become trademarks, is important to understanding television at large, not just Twin Peaks. Television and film are both highly collaborative mediums, and many pieces of the puzzle are needed in order to create an overall picture. While films are singular entities, and television shows produce many episodes within a single season, one might ask if one can truly be an auteur in television. The answer, to a certain extent, is yes. While a creator such as Lynch may leave the show within the second season (as he did to work on the film Wild at Heart in 1990), the thematic ideas and patterns existed long after he was gone (Anthony). In fact, Lynch only co-wrote four episodes of the series, and directed six, but his ideas as auteur are those that the viewer most remembers about the show.
The show’s third episode, “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which is both written and directed by Lynch, features some of the show’s most lasting imagery: FBI agent Dale Cooper dreams of a red room where he finds a dancing dwarf, Laura Palmer alive and well, and a lot of backwards talking about seemingly nonsensical things like gum. However, these images, created by Lynch as auteur, were some of the series most enduring, and proved to be a marriage of Lynch’s surrealist sensibilities and Twin Peaks as a network television show. Despite the fact that Lynch left the show, these ideas, which present themselves from the beginning, but most evidently in the third episode, remained throughout the series. One can always tell a Lynch written and directed episode of the show because of its thematic and stylistic content: he is the auteur, and this becomes very evident as we watch. Dwarves? Check. Surrealist imagery? Check. Major upsets to the plot and characters of the show? Check.
When thinking about the auteur theory and comparing multiple works by a writer or director, one should be able to create a similar check list of trademarks and markers laid out by the creator that span each of the works. All the trademarks may not be present, but there should at least be some indication that this work belongs to a particular creator.
Why do we care about auteur theory? If we like the content, why does it matter who created it? One might ask this when considering auteur theory, and they are just questions. By understanding auteur theory, the viewer is better able to understand genre, audience, and thematic ideas. For instance, if someone had a pitch to a show similar to Twin Peaks, one might want to study the particular style of Lynch and Frost as not to copy it, as well as understand details about ABC, the network who broadcast the show, so that they might attempt to pitch to a similar network. Analyzing auteur theory becomes important when looking critically at work, as we can learn to recognize patterns and devices used by the auteur, the “recurring stylistic features,” and better be able to understand the auteur’s body of work as a whole (Vande Berg 239).
When looking at Twin Peaks, the auteur theory created by David Lynch works mutually with the production theory of the television industry. Despite the fact that production theory may seem like an obvious thing to explain, the levels of it are more complex. Production theory helps to explain and analyze how the relationships between people affect the creation of a television show. It can be broken down into three areas: micro-level, macro-level, and midrange criticism.
Beginning at the top of the food chain, macro-level criticism deals with the social, political, and economical factors that affect television as a whole. These are the large factors, such as allocation of resources, FCC regulation, and social trends that affect the content created on television, and deals with large media conglomerates and media institutions. (Vande Berg 259). Mid-range criticism looks at how the network itself functions within the larger institution of television: programming, brand identity, policies, and further allocation of resources are all essential when considering mid-range criticism (Vande Berg 259). From here, micro-level criticism can be explored, as it deals with the roles and responsibilities of the individual television workers, and the day-to-day operations of the network as they pertain to individual shows (Vande Berg 259).
Another key element to understanding production theory is considering some of the theorists that help support this theory. One of these theorists, Joseph Turow, further explained production theory with his explanation of power roles, or roles in which the various levels of production theory can be broken further down. (O’Donnell). Within these thirteen power roles, including producer, investor, creator, and distributor, Turow creates a series of checks and balances that further explains how macro-, micro-, and mid-range level criticism function together to create production theory (Vande Berg 265). For instance, as a real-life example, ABC – the distributor and mid-range– became angry that David Lynch – the creator and micro-level – would not solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in the second season, which was frustrating their network conglomerate – the investor and macro-level (Divine). In this way, the Investor and Distributor worked together to power-play against the Creator, Hagen 5 and ultimately solved the mystery, which Lynch said “really kill[ed] the magnet. It’s terrible. We were put under so much pressure by ABC and people in general to solve that, that we killed the goose that laid the golden egg” (Divine).
Understanding production theory is key to understanding both the successes and failures of Twin Peaks, as well as the impact it had on cult television. With the above example, one can see that network pressures from the mid- and macro- levels affected the micro-level, and eventually led to a less than perfect ending for the show. Indeed, after Laura Palmer’s killer is found to be her own father in the Lynch directed episode “Lonely Souls,” the series definitely goes off track, not finding its footing again until the series finale. Here, production theory has a noticeable and essential impact on the content created. While Lynch’s style as an auteur carries throughout the episode – most noticeably in Leland Palmer/Killer BOB’s murder of his niece Maddy – this would be the last episode he would work on before the finale, and his disdain for revealing Laura Palmer’s killer hinders his impact as an auteur on the show.
Auteur theory and production theory are both key to understanding the impact left by Lynch’s vision as an auteur, and the overall impact Twin Peaks left on network and cult television. Both theories affect the other, and it is through their combination that one can better understand the show’s legacy. Perhaps if Lynch’s voice as a singular auteur would not have been so loud, then the show may have lasted longer, but Twin Peaks certainly would not have been as quirky, unique, and important of a series.
In addition to understanding production theory and auteur theory when assessing Twin Peaks, one must understand the idea of binaries. Developed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as a means of exploring the idea of myth, a binary is the idea of constructing a story through opposites. Their opposition to each other is what creates narrative structure (O’Donnell 89). One opposite cannot exist without the other, and from this opposition a binary is created.
Levi-Strauss also explored the idea of syntagm – a chain – and since narrative involves a chain of events, he explained narrative as syntagmatic in nature. Within each syntagmatic structure are opposites and from this, meaning is generated. “By analyzing binary oppositions, the relationship among the elements of the story,” explains O’Donnell, using Levi-Strauss’ theory, “[these] oppositions [turn] into resolutions of conflict and a plan of social action. This can reveal cultural laws and the moving force behind social systems. The end result is a myth” (90).
While we can now understand the purpose of binaries in the creation of story, we must apply this purpose to Lynch’s auteur construction of Twin Peaks. As an exploration of suburbia and its dark underbelly, the narrative of Twin Peaks primarily concerns the murder of seemingly perfect homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Palmer is eventually found out to be much more troubled than her public persona would suggest. Like Laura’s cocaine habit and promiscuous sex life, the town itself harbors an unseen dark side.
As more mysteries about the town unfold themselves through the course of the show, the opposites within the town of Twin Peaks become exemplified in the supernatural centers, the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is seen more prevalently throughout the show – as Agent Cooper’s dreams in the red room – and is a place of pure evil. Here, Dale Cooper is finally corrupted by the centuries old evil of Killer BOB that has possessed Leland Palmer, and even his morally righteous FBI agent turns into the personification of pure evil in the series finale. Entered through a portal in the Ghostwood Forest, Lynch plays with this idea of fairy tale as he presents the Black Lodge as a totally evil realm. More mysterious is the White Lodge, a place of pure good and lightness as explained by the only character to have experienced its power, Major Briggs, father to Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs. While the viewer only experiences the Black Lodge, one interpretation upon viewing the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is that Laura Palmer is transported to her ultimate fate in the White Lodge at the conclusion of the film (1992).
What is most important about the existence of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge is their role as the primary binary upon which all of Lynch’s other mythology in the show is based. As opposites, one as pure good and the other as pure evil, perhaps as a parallel for heaven and hell, Lynch bases his binaries throughout the rest of this show off of this idea. Capitalizing on Levi-Strauss’ idea that one extreme cannot exist without the other, Lynch uses binaries as a tool with which to explore the darkness within the suburban landscape of America.
Claims and Subclaims
Through the use of three distinct binaries: doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales, Lynch uses his style as a film auteur to translate this style to television.
The first, and most obvious, is the doubling of the female persona. Using the double identities and/or secret lives of women allows David Lynch to explore the objectification and abuse they often endure as the result of sinister male forces. The idea of a double comes from gothic literature, and explains how “a single character possesses the duality to be both good and evil” (Strengell). Through the characters of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Renee/Alice in Lost Highway, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camillia in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Palmer/Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of “doubling” of explore the public and private personas of women (1986, 1997, 2001,1990). Through sexual objectification, domestic violence, and even multiple identities, Lynch is able to show the pressure faced by women as they are forced to reconcile private trauma with public persona.
Lynch uses a variety of female characters to explore this binary. The character of Dorothy Vallens, in Blue Velvet, is forced to become a sex slave to sadistic criminal Frank Booth and perform in a club as a means of protecting her son after her husband has been killed (1986). Similar is the case of Alice in Lost Highway – she has become property to crime boss Mr. Eddy, and forced to perform sexual favors for him, while her alter ego Renee is subjected to her husband’s impotence and eventual murder of her (1997). In Mulholland Drive, the dream of Diane Selwyn is a means of escaping her unrequited love for film star Camilla Rhodes, the personas of Betty Elms and Rita are created so that Diane might avoid her own misery and heartbreak after Camilla becomes engaged to a man (2001). In Twin Peaks, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch uses the same actress to portray both the murdered Laura Palmer and her eventually murdered cousin, Maddy Ferguson, at the hands of incestuous Leland Palmer/Killer BOB (1990). This use of the same actress as well as the exploring of double lives with Diane Selwyn and Laura Palmer allows for Lynch to explore the public and private nature of women’s objectification and sexual power as a pull to violent men.
However, some may view Lynch’s doubling of women not as an original idea, but a capitalization on the style of another distinct auteur: Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly apparent in the mysteries of the 1940s and 1950s, most significantly in the Alfred Hitchcock films Vertigo, Marnie, Rebecca, and Psycho which all deal with women hiding their secret personal lives or assuming multiple identities as a means of escaping the men in their lives. While the idea of using a “new” persona or the same actress to portray women is certainly not a new concept, Lynch takes the idea and pushes it in a decidedly more surreal direction. Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer work at hiding their private lives as a means of survival, but Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, and Renee/Alice use the personas as a means of truly escaping violence. The plots of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are easily understood, but multiple meanings could be assigned to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and the more obtuse elements of the films reflect a post-modernist sensibility that was not present in the films of Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself borrows the idea of doubling from gothic literature. Just as Hitchcock has auteur trademarks, so does Lynch, and his existence in a post-modernist society allows for much more emphasis on overt sexuality, perversion, violence, and dream elements including non-linear narrative.
Lynch’s idea of doubling is best seen in the character of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – her character exemplifies the idea of public and private personas created by Lynch. Through Laura’s secret diary and the back-story told within the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the double life led by Laura is used as an example of the public and private lives women must conduct (1992). On the surface, Laura seems to be a perfect teenage girl: homecoming queen, tutor, Meals on Wheels liaison, kind and beautiful. But her secret life reveals a girl struggling with her sexuality and dealing with her incestuous relationship with her father, her cocaine habit, and her fatalist thoughts brought on by the misery of her life. By exploring both parts of Laura’s persona, Lynch is able to explore the ways in which women are forced to keep hidden parts of their femininity and sexuality.
A binary in and of themselves, the way in which Lynch characterizes men, specifically suburban men in power, serves the purpose of showing the extreme nature of good and evil – they are either wholly moral or wholly immoral – and these disparate characterizations allow for Lynch to explore the core forces that occur in American life. Like his doubling of female characters, Lynch also draws on the idea of doubling from gothic literature in order to show the good and evil within in all men (Strengell). With the use of Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the Renault brothers, Benjamin Horne, Dale Cooper, and Big Ed in Twin Peaks, Mr. Eddy and Fred in Lost Highway, Frank Booth and Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, and Adam Kesher and the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive, Lynch explores how male forces work upon his often female protagonists as antagonistic forces, or forces that ultimately fail them (1990, 1997, 1986, 2001). Most noticeably, the character differences between Agent Dale Cooper and Killer BOB in Twin Peaks explain the two moral opposites of good and evil Lynch explores throughout his work.
Dale Cooper and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB are stereotypical characters that explore the nature of good and evil in suburban America. Dale Cooper is a lawman, an FBI agent who believes in a good night’s sleep, a damn fine cup of coffee, Tibetan mysticism, and always doing the right thing, even when it requires great self-sacrifice. His polar opposite, the man he strives to catch, is Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the dual persona who Cooper eventually determines killed Laura Palmer. Killer BOB is a murderer, an incestuous rapist who is committed only to hedonism and eventually murders several girls within the Washington state area. Killer BOB is an ancient evil, one that gets transferred from body to body and continues to perpetrate crimes. Dale Cooper is an everyman, a moral center, and a man who harkens back to gentlemanly gestures and a bygone era of honesty and chivalry. Therefore, when Killer BOB eventually inhabits Cooper’s body in the final episode of the series, “Beyond Life and Death,” his corruption is all the more devastating. This act exemplifies Lynch’s view as auteur that even the purest of men can be corrupted by the evil of other men.
We know the world does not exist in black and white, so Lynch’s idea of absolute good and absolute evil in terms of men is illogical and one-sided – the idea of absolutes in human nature is unrealistic, and most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes. While the idea of human nature and the acts man perpetrates is perhaps the most ancient of stories, the opposites of good and evil are explored in detail with each individual storyteller’s unique viewpoint on the world. Therefore, Lynch’s view of men as wholly good and wholly evil belongs to him as an auteur, and it is his personal vision that allows for this viewpoint.
As a means of allowing for his audience to have an “in” with which to observe the world of Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of possession to explain how “good” men become evil. In both Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, the male protagonists of Fred Madison and Dale Cooper eventually become inhabited by evil men who force them to commit acts uncharacteristic to their nature (1997, 1990). The use of possession allows for the corruption of good men to seem less devastating since it is a force beyond their own control, and certainly harkens back to the idea of gothic possession (Strengell). It allows for the audience to feel more connected to the characters, but also creates a unique structure which does not allow for the typical happy ending. This structure is an auteur trademark of Lynch, and is apparent throughout his other work including Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
Another way Lynch allows for his audience to connect to his style as an auteur is the suburban setting. It allows the audience to view his ideas of good and evil in a setting that is familiar to them – their own backyard. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the setting of small towns in Northern Washington exposes how corruption and immorality permeate even the seemingly most idyllic of settings (1986, 1990). While Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have urban settings, the male characters in each are not as corrupt and vile as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB in Twin Peaks – both characters who exist within suburbia. In this way, Lynch explains the terror and dark side that comes from living in suburbia, and argues that it is even more dangerous than city living.
While the concept of doubling of the female identity finds its roots in film, and the corruption of suburban men in the very banal settings of small-towns that many Americans grew up with, Lynch’s final binary used to explore the world in Twin Peaks finds its roots in a more classical place: the fairy tale. It serves as the bridge between Lynch’s other two binaries, and the use of fairy tale mythology is central to the work of Lynch as an auteur. Elements of it allow for him to explore his concepts of idealization of female characters as well as his ideas about the extreme evil and good within men. The use of fairy tale elements including; Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, white knights, and evil overlords are vital in much of David Lynch’s work and allows for some of his trademarks as an auteur (Jensen). As a means for exploring his sometimes horrific narrative content, Lynch brings in these fairy tale elements as a way to universalize some of his more surreal elements, and ground them in classical tales known to most individuals.
In terms of content, Lynch deals with very disturbing and mature themes: incest, drug use, rape, sexual violence, lesbianism, murder, the evils of big business, and the corruptible nature of men. As a means of decreasing the severity of these themes for viewers, he also includes elements of fairy tales including trapped women rescued by heroic, brave men, elements of the fantastic supernatural world, the magic of the wilderness, and to a lesser extent, ambiguously happy endings. Lynch grounds the mature themes in a way that makes them more tolerable to a general audience. These fairy tale elements are most apparent in Twin Peaks, which makes the most sense because it was a television show, which forced Lynch to tailor his own ideas as an auteur to fit a television audience instead of an art-house cinema crowd.
However, most stories draw on classical fairy tale elements, and the work of David Lynch is not unique in this viewpoint. Grimm’s Fairy Tales include many of the same dark and disturbing elements featured in the work of Lynch. While many other films and television shows do in fact incorporate fairy tale elements within their narrative structure, few do so in quite the same surreal way as Lynch. He combines elements of the real world with fairy tale elements without making concessions to either world – something other media often does. Lynch makes no mention of the surrealist incorporation of Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart, or Cooper’s dreams in The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks – they are simply parts of the universe that exist without explanation or a reversion into total fantasy (1990).
Taking the idea of fairy tale one step further is the character of Laura Palmer, a stand-in for the fairy tale character of Sleeping Beauty. By using a classical fairy tale character, Lynch is able to connect a wider audience to Twin Peaks, and use a universally recognizable character to compel the viewer to watch the show. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect, untouched specimen of beauty, but dead to the world. The first shot of Laura Palmer, dead, blue, and wrapped in plastic is very similar to Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, and Lynch incorporates elements of her rape and sexual objectification as a means of updating the more disturbing, original fairy tale, and making it work within his universe of Twin Peaks. In this way, Lynch incorporates the disturbing elements of Laura’s incestuous rape and murder with a childhood story to make them more viewable by a larger audience. This also plays into Lynch’s ideas about the duality of women: he portrays Laura as both a mythical creature almost like Sleeping Beauty, but also a real, imperfect teenage girl.
As Laura Palmer allows Lynch to explore fairy tale through character, the setting of Twin Peaks in the wilderness – a classic fairy tale trope – serves the show in that it shows the power of the wild, creating an audience appeal that stands in contrast to the evil of the suburban men in power, and brings in a fantastic element that blends with the realism of the series (Jensen). Although the wild in the town of Twin Peaks opens the portal to the evil Black Lodge within the show’s final episode, it also allows access to the White Lodge, a place of supreme good. Here, the wilderness serves as a means for Lynch to further explore the extremes of good and evil which he also does with character. The wilderness becomes a place of magic, which contrasts to the “typical” suburban setting of the town of Twin Peaks, further exploring Lynch’s auteur trademark of duality within good and evil, urban and wild, and the roles women play.
The impact that Twin Peaks left on the television landscape forever cannot be underestimated. As the show celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2010, major news outlets including The Guardian, NPR, and People Magazine offered retrospective features and interviews on the lasting legacy of the show, and online communities continue to canonize the show. In December 2010, the USA network series Psych dedicated an entire episode in homage to Twin Peaks, complete with many former cast members (Ausiello). The show has only grown in cult status, with the release of a “Gold Box” DVD set in 2007, including the previously unavailable European pilot episode, cast and crew interviews, and a variety of bonus features. Lynch’s continued popularity as a surrealist filmmaker has endured, most recently with the digitally shot Inland Empire in 2006, and forays into music with a Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration as well as his own pop singles.
Twin Peaks brought art-house surrealism to network television, due to David Lynch’s unique visions as an auteur. Through his use of binaries as a narrative technique, Lynch told a darkly compelling tale of the evil lurking within suburban America and the very people we call neighbors. Because of its particular appeal as a quirky cult television show, Twin Peaks will live on in the collective television unconscious, just as Laura Palmer has, forever wrapped in plastic.
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