SURREALISM AND TWIN PEAKS: THE ORIGIN OF DAVID LYNCH AND MARK FROST´S GREAT WORK

This entry was posted on May 16th, 2017

By Karla Loncar

“I’ll see you again in 25 years.”[i] These were some of the last words of Laura Palmer’s spirit expressed to Dale Cooper, an FBI agent who investigated her death, in the final episode of the TV series Twin Peaks that ended its year-long broadcast in June 1991. Laura kept her promise because soon enough, he would meet her again. The new season of the show is about to begin in Showtime Network on May 21st. This time the series’ co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost showed no interest in compromising with the producers, as they did during the first two seasons produced by the American TV network ABC. The decision was made: Lynch co-wrote the script along with Frost and directed all of the episodes, leaving the audience in burning anticipation for new material.

However, it’s easy to forget that up until the announcement of its continuation, Twin Peaks had lived on in various media forms. Namely, while it was initially broadcasted, several literary works were published with the approval of the co-authoring duo, of which The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer, and The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (1991) written by Frost’s brother Scott, stand out the most. Conceived in the form of a journal, they served as a helpful extension to the criminal mystery that took place in the woods of Washington State. In the following two years, Lynch returned twice to the project: in 1992 he directed the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me whose plot follows Laura’s last days, as well as the investigation into the murder previously committed by the same killer. In 1993 he shot additional material for the show’s rerun edition on the American TV network Bravo, in which Log Lady, the beloved farsighted character, holds cryptic introductions into every episode. Even years later Twin Peaks did not fall into oblivion; its fans continued to form theories on the fictional conundrums and organized cultural events dedicated to the cult series, while the new, digitally refreshed editions of the two seasons, the film, and the music – composed by Lynch’s frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti – attracted a growing number of viewers. Then in 2014, out of the blue, unused sequences from the film Fire Walk With Me (Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces) emerged, shedding new light on some of the unsolved mysteries. Since its very inception Twin Peaks proved to be an ever-expanding universe, filled with mystery and seductive obscurities.

David Lynch has been particularly responsible for the lasting allure of the show. In other words, the series would be inconceivable without the content-based and formal characteristics typical of Lynch’s films: his love for the contrast between the eerie and the comical, light and dark, popular and exquisite; the preoccupation with the motif of evil (in a seemingly idyllic American small town); the fascination with the subconscious turmoil of characters; the richness of varying, often disturbing, sounds; and modern methods of filmmaking, particularly visible in the series’ pilot and the individual episodes directed by Lynch himself.

For his offbeat vision, Lynch found an ideal companion in Mark Frost. As a former screenwriter of the much praised TV series Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–87), Frost knew how to write a quality serial narrative and enabled the idea of developing a crime series that could be structurally similar to the quintessential American soap opera. Together these like-minded authors embarked on the development of Twin Peaks and presented the audience with an avant-garde artwork wrapped in a popular television product. The producers cancelled the show but Lynch and Frost remained colleagues and friends. Luckily for us, both of them showed interest in filming its third season.[ii] As an entrée to the upcoming installment of the series, Frost released his 2016 epistolary novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks, providing additional insights into unknown parts of the beloved fictional universe.

With each new official release, the mystery of Twin Peaks grew deeper and deeper – if in some earlier works questions that were raised had found their answers, along came a handful of new ones. After the show ended with a cliff-hanger showing Dale Cooper’s evil doppelganger emerging out of the Black Lodge – a surreal world in which time and space escape human comprehension – Lynch rewound the story, telling it in a much more sinister and narratively confusing way than what most viewers were used to. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch had convincingly illustrated Laura’s suffering in dealing with the molestation at the hands of her father possessed by the vicious demon BOB, and solved some of the puzzles pertaining to the crimes hinted at in the series. But he also further complicated the understanding of the mythological aspect of the series’ universe. Mark Frost focused particularly on this component in his new book, disappointing some fans since it was designed in the form of a dossier composed of formal reports, articles and letters on the supernatural events occurring in Twin Peaks before evil Cooper’s escape from the Black Lodge.

Adoring fans struggled to make sense of a complete narrative. However, if one compares the aforementioned official releases connected to Twin Peaks, the discrepancies presented in Frost’s book are hardly surprising. For example, the dates and content of Laura’s Secret Diary and The Autobiography of Dale Cooper do not fully match those in the series and the film, so much so that some of the plot lines differ by a matter of years! Most interpretations attribute this to inattention to details or uncooperative dynamics between the writers and Lynch and Frost. Unlike the novels, Frost’s work appears to be a more carefully planned construct in which certain plot lines from the show never happened. The most striking one is the nonexistence of Annie Blackburn, Cooper’s girlfriend and the sister to Norma Jennings, the owner of the local diner, whose story in turn greatly diverges from the one in the series.

When speaking of official Twin Peaks themed products, the only thing we can be certain of is that nothing is what it seems, which has made some analytically driven fans both drawn to and driven mad by. Their fascinating mysteries capture our imagination and make us wonder what comes next from these two authors – especially since Frost already announced the publication of his presumably ultimate Twin Peaks book, The Final Dossier, which will be released after the new season’s finale, in October this year.

An awry vision of the world: Twin Peaks’ origins in surrealism

The elusiveness of a final meaning and the coherent wholeness of a text, be it literary or audio-visual, can be considered characteristic of postmodernism. Several other Twin Peaks characteristics fit into this definition: the references to many classic films; the dedication to genres of melodrama, crime and horror; playing with various narrative styles; absurdist humour; and the incessant noncompliance between what we see and hear through directing methods. When it was created, Twin Peaks was unlike anything that came before it in television, with its mixture of genres and styles. However, what is often overlooked is how Lynch’s style actually stems from modernist poetics of surrealism – still referenced in various art forms – that dates back to the French movement of the early 20th century. Lynch himself has explicitly underscored the role of the movement in his film and art works.[iii] But the true meaning of this art form is often lost, particularly when it comes to the interpretations of Lynch’s works.

A brief history of surrealism

Introduced by its First Manifesto in 1924, surrealism represented an innovative compound of avant-garde tendencies (directed against bourgeois conventions, empirical rationalism in science, and “imitative” realism in art) and the inheritance of psychoanalytic arguments (lead by Freud’s understandings of the unconscious). Its author André Breton suggested a new way of envisioning and verbalizing reality, which together with his like-minded peers, he called “surreal”[iv]. According to the surrealists, we experience our reality while we are awake and asleep as well. Reality itself is a hallucination, fantastic in everyday life; full of the irrational, sensual, accidental and childish. Our dreams are equally hallucinatory, with all the oddities that transpire within them. In the Second Manifesto in 1929, Breton claims that the goal of surrealism is “to cause a crisis of consciousness”[v] out of which new and improved artistic and social practices would emerge. The members of the movement achieved this by piecing together disparate parts – making collages and unusual combinations of motifs in visual arts, seemingly random sequences of words in literature, juxtaposing narratively unrelated movie shots – all in order to construct new representations of language, space and time in art, and cause strong sensual reactions.

However, they usually avoided over the top abstractions. Instead they sought to “excite” the audience and evoke dreamworks by combining familiar and symbolically powerful objects, concepts, and motifs often associated with human sexuality and the tendency towards violence. They loved humour and irony, and when it came to popular artwork they preferred hypnotically alluring crime films serials, like Fantomâs (1913–14) and Les Vampires (1915–16) by Louis Feuillade, in which Breton and Louis Aragon had found “the grand reality of our century”.[vi] Up to a point, similar methods and viewpoints were pursued by numerous movie-makers since the 1920s until today. From Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, through Alfred Hitchcock to Dario Argento and many others, surrealism found its way onto the silver screen. Sometimes the edges between the hallucination or the dream and the waking state are more clearly defined. Other times, they are sutured together within the movie’s dreamlike structure.

Surrealism through the eyes of David Lynch

So it is not unusual that Lynch is considered to be one of the most significant living surrealists. Since his cinematic beginnings, his audience was exposed to bizarre stories that were told in perplexing narrative methods the inspiration for which he found in his very own reveries and meditative moments. Lynch famously stated: “I love daydreaming and dream logic and the way dreams go.”[vii] Even when some of his feature films seemed more conventional, like The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) or The Straight Story (1999), their subtexts gently deviated from the mainstream. In Twin Peaks he and Frost put a spotlight on the tension between two worlds: mundane and supernatural, out of which the latter can be entered through a portal that manifests either in the minds of particularly intuitive characters or when a character happens to be at the right place, at the right time. Just like in dreams, the space-time continuum in the fictional town of Twin Peaks is filled with twists and turns, repetitions and doubles, like the name of the series itself. And yet Lynch’s film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me goes beyond the surrealism of the series. It is replete with logic of dreams – a device that Lynch would especially develop in films like Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) – and tortures viewers who are accustomed to conventional narratives.

Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Psychoanalysis and the Alchemy of Mythic Images

Just like with dreams, surrealists strived to affirm other forms of subconscious imaginary as expressed through poetry and myths. Myths are especially significant in the world of Twin Peaks. Its mythical background is grounded in familiar Native American, Judeo-Christian, classical, Taoist, and other motifs. Therein various fantastical creatures (like owls and horses, giants and dwarves) and curious objects (e.g. a ring, creamed corn) take precedence over others, while their purpose is to connect this world to the otherworldly good and evil. If the purpose of myths is to explain the genesis of a culture, then Lynch and Frost’s mythology appears to do the same. Since any attempt to understand the meaning of Twin Peaks leads to an endless array of other questions, one could say it’s actually an anti-myth (or pseudo-myth), whose aim is to draw our attention to the mythical aspects of its narratives.

Twin Peaks is undoubtedly mind-boggling, perhaps like the human mind and spirit. One can react by either soulfully surrendering or rationally resisting the series. The experience of watching Twin Peaks is easily comparable to a session of psychoanalytic therapy, in which patients encounter unknown aspects of themselves. Psychoanalysts share a few interests with surrealists: their field of research is also composed of the unconscious mechanisms and their reflections in various stories and tales. If one attempts to interpret Twin Peaks from the perspective of a particular psychoanalytic movement, the most suitable one would appear to be Jungian psychoanalysis. In it, the patient plays a vital role in facing their own shadow-self or one of the numerous archetypes we have inherited from past generations, with the ultimate goal of individuation, or understanding oneself as individual. These settings can be clearly observed in Twin Peaks; for example BOB, as well as other doppelgangers from the Black Lodge, can be interpreted as the darker side of the psyche with which certain characters are actively struggling with.[viii] According to Jungians, the process of individuation is similar to alchemical metamorphosis, also known as The Great Work (lat. Magnum opus). To create gold one must start at the ashes of the soul, and the path leading to the particular involves a deep psychological transformation. The archetype serving as the guide in this process is the figure of the magician, to which the good demon MIKE refers to in Twin Peaks by saying: “Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see, one chance out between two worlds, fire walk with me!” (The ending of this exclamation, interestingly, served as the title to Lynch’s film prequel).

In The Second Manifesto of Surrealism from 1929 Breton wrote down that the “[a]lchemy of words – these expressions randomly repeated today demand to be taken literally,”[ix] thus highlighting the importance of ancient hermetic sciences and occultism in dealing with the unconscious. Interestingly, in his latest book, Frost tackled these disciplines, connecting them with the Jungian psychological transformation; in it he introduces Jack Parsons, the real American rocket engineer, chemist and follower of thelemic mysticism lead by Aleister Crowley, who explains that,

Alchemy isn’t only about ‘chemistry’ or turning base metals to gold. The medieval philosophers and alchemists knew this – even Isaac Newton knew it – but their knowledge was lost until Crowley brought it back. You see, alchemy actually speaks to internal processes, and a radical revolution in our spiritual development; transforming the ‘base metal’ of primitive man to the ‘gold’ of an enlightened soul.

Rockets and magick: Ask yourself, what do they share? They’re about transcending all limits.[x]

It is worth noting that in medieval research the stages of alchemical transformation of metal were colour coded, which Zora Burden convincingly connected to the mythology of Twin Peaks in her text “Agent on the Treshold: The Alchemy of Twin Peaks” – ending in gold as the symbol of enlightenment.

The first stage is called Nigredo or The Black Phase, known as mortification, which reduces matter to its basic essences. (…) The Albedo or Whitening, is the second Phase, its stages are separation and conjunction. (…) The Red Phase or Rubedo starts with the yellowing stage citrinitas, which signified near completion of the process.[xi]

Most of these colours play an important role in the colour scheme of the series. The most iconic of all is the Red Room; a waiting room of sorts in the Black Lodge, in which a black and white zig-zag carpet is spread across the floors, while red theatrical curtains hang from the ceilings. And when we instinctively think of Twin Peaks, we imagine the forests surrounding the town, menacing and green, just like the Owl Cave Ring, an enigmatic object made of jade. Except for this ring and Laura’s heart-shaped pendant, it seems that gold as a colour does not particularly stand out in the series or the film. And yet it made a cameo recently in Showtime’s ads for the upcoming season, portraying Laura and Agent Cooper; their background was neither black, white, green nor red, but golden-yellow. Could this mean that the third Twin Peaks season will grant some form of enlightenment?

Electric currents

According to surrealists, the best way transcend one’s limits is to surrender oneself to the language of dreams – the spaces limitless freedom. As an art form, film has often been compared to dreams; consider the metaphor for Hollywood as the “dream factory” and some film theorists (like Jean Mitry, Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, and others) have taken this premise to the extremes. Like dreams, traditional film screenings take place in circumstances in which we give in to edited images and sounds that bend; tighten and stretch time and space. There are different types of dreams: waking and deep, lucid and pervasive, those that shape us and those that take hold of us but are soon forgotten. Those that shape can be equated to modernist tendencies in film that disturb and force us to rethink what we have seen, while the latter are the classical ones, passively lulling us into magical worlds of fiction.

Lynch’s works, including Twin Peaks, can by all means be experienced as a waking dream whose tonalities transcend pleasant narratives into a nightmare and vice versa. Lynch said that,

Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I’m quietly sitting in a chair, gently letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don’t control your dreams. I like to dive into a dream world that I’ve made or discovered; a world I choose … [You can’t really get others to experience it, but] right there is the power of cinema.[xii]

Modern film is a paradox: as much as it can engulf us, it can also leave us with space to reflect on what has been experienced. After all, if the dream or nightmare of a film doesn’t suit us, we can turn it off or walk out, and essentially wake up. The disrupting methods these of modern films create jolts in the synapses of the brain – they are emotionally thrilling and lead us on a journey for meaning. Although it doesn’t require great mental effort to watch a film, it demands a degree of reflection. Whether we want it or not, we interpret everything we see. However, in the labyrinth of surreal dreamscapes we may lose our way if what we demand rational connections between each detail. Instead, the viewer should distance themselves enough to distinguish the parts from the whole, in order to see the entirety of the work of its magnitude.

Herein lies the trap for fans of Twin Peaks who believe there is a rational explanation to the mystery given to us by Lynch and Frost. Most of the theories are all possible starting points for a convincing interpretation, but not the final explanation of the work’s meaning. In other words, if Twin Peaks really is the a puzzle, as Showtime’s producers like advertising it, its solution is not in the two-dimensional picture, but in a never ending upgrade of a three-dimensional creation, in which we are free to enter and leave whenever we feel like it.

Lynch has often expressed his amazement with the abilities of the human mind, as well its unusual perceptions of the world. He actively pursues transcendental meditation, and has produced a documentary called My Beautiful Broken Brain (Lotje Sodderland and Sophie Robinson, 2014) that deals with the consequences of strokes. Besides his statements and activities, his audio-visual works sometimes heavily rely on brainy themes. For example, in Inland Empire there is a sign on the enigmatic door that reads “Axxon N.” which serves as a shortcut to other scenes, and is also the name of the longest running radio play in the history of film, visually represented by a shot of a vinyl record. The same name was supposed to have been given to Lynch’s Internet mini-series that never saw the light of day. It’s clearly a reference to axon, the neurological fiber that transmits electric impulses through the nervous system, making it a very useful sign for interpreting Lynch’s preoccupations.

Electricity and its conduction is an important motif in Twin Peaks,[xiii] thanks to which this world and the otherworldly converge through electric posts, electromagnetic needles, or a more sensitive human body. It is interesting to note that the English word for “current” denotes any kind of wave transmission. Waves are, of course, an integral part of the physical world: energy can be found in the air – sound, buzz, music and the wind; in earth – forming residues and cellular layers, like tree rings in a cross section of a log, in running water, and in the light emerging from fire and the Sun. The human body also resonates with waves of energy, graphically shown in EKGs or EEGs. Intentionally or not, the EEG waveforms bring to mind the floor patterns of the Red Room, while the EKG pattern resembles the stripes painted on the walls of the high school in certain episodes of the series. Electrical impulses can hurt a person or heal it if one is unperturbed by excessive stimuli. They mess with our minds, changing us forever.

If the demons from the Black Lodge symbolize our own electrically induced shadow-selves, perhaps it’s not an accident that some of the Twin Peaks characters received blows to their head, yet unprepared for the second stage of their alchemical transformation. And maybe it’s not an accident that the characters who hold the greatest knowledge of secrets and the unconscious – Doctor Jacoby, local medical practitioner interested in New Age philosophies, and Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole –wear ear plugs in certain scenes. After all, ear is the organ through which the camera enters into the surreal plot of Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet. “[Sound] should surround you, envelope you, so you can live inside a dream,”[xiv] warns Lynch.

***

While writing his surrealist manifesto, Breton expressed hope:

I am sorry to have to speak about it according to a formula which in principle excludes the dream. When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought.[xv]

Lynch and Frost are on their way to becoming logicians and sleeping philosophers. Twenty-five years ago they created a fictional frame filling it with dreamlike creations, and in doing so they amazed, befuddled and seduced the audience. In creating short circuits by combining the melodrama with the horror, the light with the difficult, pleasant and unpleasant as well as metaphorically lighter and darker elements, they set foot on a path towards a more serious thinking through of what is seen and heard. Because today’s television audience has developed a set of expectations based on the innovations introduced or popularized by Twin Peaks, we can anticipate the third season will offer an even more radical view of the Pacific Northwestern American town. Lynch has shown over the years that he is unafraid to step into the waters of an edgy surrealism and suffuse the audience with an atypical frequency that brings them closer to the state of active dreaming. In such a disruptive state one feels more than one rationally thinks, and a possible outcome of such an experience is a fresh perspective on the reality we live in. Bearing that in mind, the symbolic gold that emerges from the alchemy of Lynch and Frost’s expression cannot be tracked in a tangible connection of motifs, but it repeatedly transforms us.

Whatever secrets are revealed in the series’ new edition, in the spirit of surrealism – its mystery and all its antitheses must not stop tickling our fancy, especially if we follow the Archivist’s thoughts on the mysteries of The Secret History of Twin Peaks. The opening statement declares that, “A wise man once told me that mystery is the most essential ingredient of life, for the following reasons: mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are.”[xvi] … “I see mysteries as the truth itself; that they’re the essence of our existence, and aren’t necessarily meant to be fully apprehended.”[xvii] Twin Peaks’s subversiveness lies precisely in the quest for such an understanding of truth; at the beginning of the 90s we witnessed the anti-series and its anti-derivatives, and this understanding brought the audience back, time and time again. Considering that the new season is the result of an unhindered vision of the creative duo, and that Lynch’s recently announced he’s retiring from film-making, our only option is to surrender to their Great Work. In other words, let’s turn on the TV, turn up the volume and hope for an electrical storm. It’s time for us to turn on those forgotten switches.

[i]The author wishes to thank Boris Postnikov, Bruno Kragic, Igor Hofman and Masha Burina for providing invaluable input on this essay, as well as Dunja Plazonja for her translating assistance.
[ii]For more information see : http://deadline.com/2014/10/twin-peaks-return-showtime-series-mark-frost-interview-846363/
[iii]See http://www.openculture.com/2013/10/david-lynch-presents-the-history-of-surrealist-film-1987.html
[iv] See https://tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/SurManifesto/ManifestoOfSurrealism.htm
[v] Translated from Višnja Machiedo, Francuski nadrealizam 2, (Zagreb: Konzor, 2002), pp. 59.
[vi] Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films, translated, edited and updated by Peter Morris, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965/72), pp. 398.
[vii]See http://www.spin.com/2013/06/david-lynch-the-big-dream-album-interview/
[viii]For more connections between Jungian thought and Twin Peaks see Angela Hague, “Infinite Games: The Derationalization of Detection in Twin Peaks”, in: David Lavery (ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995),  pp. 130-143.
[ix] Translated from Višnja Machiedo, Francuski nadrealizam 2, (Zagreb: Konzor, 2002), pp. 62.
[x] Mark Frost, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), pp. 249
[xi]  See http://zoraburden.weebly.com/the-esoteric-symbolism-of-twin-peaks.html
[xii] David Lynch and Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, revised edition, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 15.
[xiii] For an in-depth view on the topic, see https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/short-circuit-a-twin-peaks-system
[xiv] See http://www.thecityofabsurdity.com/quotecollection/sound.html
[xv] See https://tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/SurManifesto/ManifestoOfSurrealism.htm
[xvi] Mark Frost, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), pp. 7.
[xvii] Mark Frost, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), pp. 346.