An excerpt from Justin Nieland‘s once-again-timely book David Lynch.
Laura Palmer—passive, suffering, already victimized—is one kind of a melodramatic myth, and Twin Peaks, both the series and the fictional town, is Lynch’s most enduring melodramatic network, a famously quirky environment of character. The television series, created by Lynch and Mark Frost, openly declared its melodramatic heart. The plots of its first, eight-episode season unfolded in front of televisions within the diegesis playing the mawkish soap opera Invitation to Love, whose conventions were doubled, ironized, and reworked in Twin Peaks’ unfolding mysteries. In fact, the series’ oft-remarked references to films like Otto Preminger’s Laura or Hitchcock’s Vertigo are perhaps less interesting as forms of postmodern pastiche than as canny acknowledgments of Twin Peaks‘ melodramatic common denominator—a mode crossing genre and media and linking televised soaps, the postwar film noir, the police procedural, the suspense thriller, and the family melodrama.
If the mid-century psychologizing of modernist interior design is, for Lynch, one of the more anxious environments of cold war plastics, the postwar family melodrama of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, Elia Kazan, and Nicholas Ray, is another. Like mid-century architecture, melodramatic affect is warmed up through the postwar mainstreaming of Freudian models of the psyche—only now these models find expression through the plastic dynamism of mise-en-scène that codes, in grand style, the forms of condensation and displacement that are the basic operations of Freudian dream work. Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me is a similar machine of affective redistribution—it re-constellates, by estranging, the emotional energies of the iconic American middle-class family.
As a matter of form, this estrangement is basically modernist. Here, it is worth recalling that the critical recuperation of the once-debased category of melodrama in academic film studies in the 1960s and 1970s happened chiefly by asserting its “modernism”—specifically, a Brechtian anti-illusionism, which then held a new prestige for neo-Marxist critics. Thus could melodramatic excess, through the name of Douglas Sirk, be cast as a kind of modernist irony and films like Written on the Wind (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1955), or Imitation of Life (1959) championed for their deployment of a “boomerang image”—their aggressive staging of bourgeois fantasies that double back on the audience, revealing the social contradictions masked by fantasy and the costs of middle-class wish fulfillment. As modernist melodrama, Fire Walk with Me has undeniably ironic dimensions, but it also depends on melodrama’s long-standing capacity to respond—through affect—to larger crises in social value, signification, and significance. Emerging as a modern, bourgeois response to the post-Enlightenment loss of the sacred, melodrama ministered to this disturbing absence of traditional systems of ethics and truth. It did so through what Peter Brooks has called “the moral occult,” a “domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality.” Melodramatic calls for moral certitude, its Manichean polarities, and its demands for a transparency of character and affect, are thus ways of ministering anxiously to a vexing uncertainty. The specificity of melodrama, then, would lie in the sincerity of a desire to “force into an aesthetic presence, desires for identity, value, and fullness of signification beyond the powers of language to signify.”
Lynch takes melodrama’s compensatory dynamic between negativity and presence, absence of value and emotional extremity, as Fire Walk with Me‘s abiding problematic and basic affective engine. The modernism of his melodrama lies not in its Brechtian irony but in its affective ambiguity—the way the wish for melodramatic certitude is displayed only to be undercut by the withdrawing of emotions from the scene of direct, unmediated representation, or by enfolding them thickly into medial networks. The animating temporality of Fire Walk with Me is melodramatic—founded on a desire to return to a prior state of innocence before loss and the tearful realization of being always “too late.” This mournful temporal structure is written into Lynch’s concept for the film as a cinematic prequel. Having just signed a four-film contract with the French production company Ciby 2000, one that offered him artistic freedom in exchange for reduced budgets, Lynch proposed a Twin Peaks film set during the final days before Laura’s murder, catering to the curiosity of Twin Peak‘s rabid fans who had, to recall another Laura, fallen in love with a corpse. As Chion has observed, there was something “generous” about Lynch’s desire in Fire Walk with Me to move Laura from fantasy to flesh, this wish to say “this character existed and suffered—take an interest in this woman.” Lynch has described the film as an exercise in necromancy, a raising of the dead: “At the end of the series, I felt kind of sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions, radiant on the surface, dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move, and talk.
By this time, of course, Twin Peaks, cross-marking sensation, was itself a post-secular, multimedia myth, and Laura had already undergone various forms of reanimation. The smash success of the first season had spawned a series of media artifacts and spin-offs, including The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer; The Autobiography of Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (1990), written by cocreator Frost; Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town (1991), a compendium of character bios, town maps, and cherry pie recipes penned by Lynch, Frost, and Richard Saul Wurman; an audiocassette compilation of Cooper’s tapes to his unseen secretary, Diane; and a series of soundtrack albums seeking to launch the career of Julee Cruise. A few weeks after the debut of the series, vigilant fans created the online discussion group alt.tv.twinpeaks, whose obsessive desire to crack the codes of the increasingly baroque series has since become a case study in media ethnography and the modes of “collective intelligence” of early convergence culture.
In the relatively early days of the VCR, Twin Peaks had become the most-videotaped show on network television, with 830,000 recordings per week. In seeking to reverse time, to return to the life and suffering of Laura Palmer before her virtual lives in the pervasive Twin Peaks media network, Lynch is already too late. And this mournful film acknowledges the emptiness at the heart of this quest for reanimation, which fuels the melodramatic emotional extremity of the film and makes it so powerful and so sad.