It’s a Strange World: On Twin Peaks and Harold Pinter

Contains spoilers for Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

Copyright: Showtime

The term ‘Lynchian’ should ideally designate a work of art that owes to the unsettling, off-kilter menace of David Lynch’s work; instead, it’s mostly used to signify something basically surreal. In a bastardisation of terms not dissimilar to the abused meaning of ‘ironic’ (a word that, coincidentally, speaks more to the act of being Lynchian than the word ‘Lynchian’ usually does), viewers and critics looked upon the return of Twin Peaks (2017) as something of an update to the standard-bearer of televised surrealism.

Yet, to describe Lynch as ‘surrealist’ is to inescapably align him through the history of ideas with the works of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Those two artists jointly determined surrealism in cinema with their narrative catastrophes Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930); so fresh were these approaches that every surrealist picture since must certainly owe a particular debt—direct or indirect. Surrealism is a vast, open, and highly subjective territory, yes, but to suggest that David Lynch should be considered alongside someone like Buñuel is reductive in terms of what makes the writer–director tick.

Copyright: Showtime

I’m not the first to notice a distinct connection between Lynch and Harold Pinter’s ‘Comedy of Menace’, but as for Twin Peaks, I feel this approach works better than the examination of the show as some strange, alien behemoth. Lynch has pointed to Franz Kafka as influence in the past, and so did Pinter; but formally speaking, Twin Peaks is hugely inclined towards the unnerving, silence-heavy works of the British stage and screen author.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Pinter will be aware of his consistent employ of pauses in his playwriting, and the threatening atmosphere these pauses engender, as well as his tendency to script unnatural, one-sided conversations with characters that are alternately blabbering and oblivious. Especially in key plays such as The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), his characters rarely speak more than a few words at a time, and when they sporadically launch into monologues, it’s with tones of hysteria, incoherence, and absurdity with which they speak.

Copyright: Showtime

On paper, that’s essentially the template for the dialogue of Twin Peaks. Michael Cera’s Brando-esque monologue in “Part 4” shares a DNA with Goldberg’s exasperated haranguing in The Birthday Party. The silent, 430-mile car journey taken in “Part 18” is one great Pinterish pause that, similarly, is only interrupted by more maddening, elliptical dialogue. If a key thought on Pinter is that his plays are ‘incomplete’ — almost as though he deliberately removed a scene that would tie everything together — then the same could be said for Twin Peaks. Even the banality of the action and dialogue exists in the work of both artists: during the filming of that interminable sweeping scene in “Part 7”, Lynch was apparently in hysterics at the fact that he could get away with it. Pinter’s “fuck the audience” attitude probably had him stifling his own fits of giggles while his characters so pointedly talked about cornflakes.

As delicately and patiently wrought as his scripts have always been (even dating back to Eraserhead, 1977), the silences in Twin Peaks are striking. They’ve enhanced the haunting quality of Lynch’s work, just as Pinter’s pauses owed to the menace of his own. This aspect is unprecedented in Lynch’s work, but the ‘Comedy of Menace’ has stretched back to Blue Velvet (1986), if not further. Since then, everything Lynch has done has been equal parts terrifying and hilarious, even if you’re not entirely sure if you’re supposed to be laughing. Pinter’s comedy works much in the same way, but more importantly, so does his menace: even before the case of mistaken identity in The Room becomes apparent, there’s a consistent undertone of dread that permeates its atmosphere, even on paper. In Twin Peaks, it’s common to feel unnerved without particularly knowing why; it goes further than the uncanny (Freud is also a central part in Lynch’s scrapbook of references), because a great many scenes in Twin Peaks scan as moments of filler taken from a different mystery altogether.

Copyright: Showtime

Menace through subtraction is how Pinter’s work manifests itself also, but the effect of Twin Peaks is accomplished through its musical choices, too. The Chromatics, which has two guest slots as performers at the Roadhouse, can attribute its whole aesthetic from being, in essence, a rock band with synthesised instruments; its album Kill for Love (2012) thus seems to occupy that liminal space between evening and night, a moment so indiscreet that you couldn’t even call it twilight. Hudson Mohawke plays music that intersects club-bound EDM and studio electronica; Sharon Van Etten is somewhere between a singer-songwriter and a one-woman rock orchestra; Alex Zhang Hungtai, who masterminded the sinister lo-fi project Dirty Beaches, also makes an appearance.

These liminal spaces are inescapably similar to the ones that characterise Pinter’s work — banal and important, comedic and threatening — and, ultimately, they form the core aesthetic of Twin Peaks, a show that seems eager to get on with proceedings while being prevented in doing so by some hazy, uncertain factor. The characters in The Room seem preoccupied with something disturbing and urgent, and yet, they can’t bring themselves to do anything about it; they just scarper in a panic, and leave the main characters to devolve into manic terror, much like the final harrowing seconds of “Part 18” when Carrie Page and Laura Palmer collide.

Copyright: Showtime

The uncanny shouldn’t be dismissed, however, as The Room (and possibly The Birthday Party) is driven by a suggestive doppelgänger motif that Twin Peaks literalises. Echoes of The Room’s conclusion — with Rose being suddenly blinded following Riley’s abrupt murder — are found in Twin Peaks’ last scene; it’s possible that Rose’s past has caught up with her, but given Riley’s preternatural characteristics (which unfortunately relegate him to the stereotypical Magical Negro figure), it’s also possible the narrative is more metaphysical than it is often given credit for. And when Meg rhapsodises the events of the titular birthday party (even though one character was raped and another destroyed mentally), it provides a striking resemblance to the ambivalent tone of Twin Peaks’ storytelling, in which random conversations and scenes of horrific violence are presented as things that simply happen.

Clearly, then, re-establishing ‘Lynchian’ to its original meaning can clearly be accomplished through a comparison with Pinter, and through Pinter we can explore the politics of Twin Peaks — conscious or unconscious — more thoroughly. Leaning more in line with Foucault’s approach to the history of ideas, it’s reductive to suggest the formal approaches of both Pinter and Lynch is merely within the grand tradition of absurdist fiction, but rather as reactions to their own times in similar circumstances. Pinter, in writing The Room and The Birthday Party, was arguably reacting to the conservatism of late-Churchill and early-Elizabethan England, in which national pride had overtaken the socialist, reconstructive bent of Attlee’s post-war government. Twin Peaks, on the other hand, depicts an era wherein the promise of Obama’s progressive presidency had declined into an all-Republican senate and deplorable foreign policy, following which a recession-battered America returned, by and large, to toxic and depraved nationalism under Trump.

Copyright: Showtime

Lynch’s criticism of rose-tinted nostalgia is arguably more meta than Pinter’s, who factored this theme into his actual narratives; Twin Peaks’ return, twenty-five years in the making, foregrounds the horrifically nasty landscape in which the original show (1990–91) takes place, and how Dale Cooper’s absence entails the lack of an easy saviour. In that, the show became intensely difficult, because not merely is the storytelling more, shall we say, Pinterish than the original series, it also has Pinter’s propensity for filling a work of fiction full of “victims and shits” without the saving grace of a hero.

Hence, the rug was pulled violently from beneath the feet of millions of collective fans, all of whom thought they were counting down the days until doughnuts and coffee. As full-scale Republicanism returned to mainstream politics in America, Lynch retrofitted the macabre of Blue Velvet — his anti-Reagan film — to the soap opera storytelling of the original Twin Peaks. Basically, as Lynch attempted to warn everyone with Fire Walk With Me (1992), the world of Twin Peaks is far darker, and far more destructive, than he was initially allowed to depict on television; that, in essence, allows the act of being ‘Lynchian’ to operate in full force. Now he has the capability, did you really want to see how this world came to life? Sure. Go for it. But don’t say he didn’t warn you.

Copyright: Showtime

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the atomic bomb, which figures heavily within the context of Pinter’s work—his early plays are heavily informed by post-nuclear society, wherein the banal and the disastrous collide on a regular basis—as well as in “Part 8”, the seismic, fully abstract halfway marker in Twin Peaks: The Return. In that episode, the Dark Cooper storyline takes up the first twenty minutes or so before the events of the series are abandoned altogether, and the scene abruptly cuts from the present to the 16th of July, 1945: the date of the first nuclear weapons test. The following, verbally indescribable events are suggested to be the birth of BOB, the show’s primary antagonist. We then proceed to 1956, where a Woodsman wanders around asking for lighters and crushing peoples’ skulls (irrespective of the answer).

Here, the show actually does lean into surrealism, but that’s the exception that proves the rule, given it seems to suggest that the entire mythos of Twin Peaks was spawned from the Manhattan Project—or, rather, from humanity’s eternal self-destructive bent. Despite their respective narratives journeys, Pinter and Lynch arrive at the same destination, and seem to agree that modern life is equal parts mundane and horrifying; from cornflakes and sweeping brushes to mental catastrophe and genocide.

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