:: Article

Hurricane Bob: Part 1

By Jeff Wood.

Hurricane Bob - Part 1

Twin Peaks: The Return in the Year of Our Lord 2017

For Sam Shepard.

There was some kind of a crying in the night and there was a spider plant pale green and white like a tapeworm in the streetlight, and it was the men and the boys who were crying.

Earlier this year, in an essay called Death Stars, I described the year 2016 as a hyperobject – a massive living thing, an obscure but powerful super-entity given life by our very relationship to it. 2016 the funeral procession, a catastrophic shower of shooting stars, media convulsions and social hysteria unfolding in collective isolation. For some, the year may have been about “winning”, but for a great many others it could only have been about loss. The essay was the better part of a winter spent coming to grips, along with perhaps everyone in the Western world, with this new landscape and its relationship to what we might now articulate as alternate truth, or, in the more formal and sanity-preserving sense, fiction. In Death Stars I described the year as having been narratively and mythically book-ended by the multigenerational global franchise that is Star Wars, as only a year in the terminal clutches of media juggernautics could be. On one end of the year – Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and on the other – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For many they were escape hatches. For others, betrayal. And for others still, an emblematic, and perhaps empty, call to resistance. In a brief observation, I also noted that another sequel or reboot was coming our way – Twin Peaks: The Return. And having a certain feeling about what wondrous perils that might entail, I briefly speculated that the return of Twin Peaks might prove to function not only as a sequel to Twin Peaks itself, but also as a sequel to the year 2016, if such a thing is possible – a subterranean simulcast, a cultural counter-narrative to the American identity crisis currently playing out as play-by-play catastrophe, and at least, like Star Wars, another cultural super-narrative as escape hatch.

That speculation is now playing out in spectacular fashion, and in Lynch’s signature flavor – uncanny – as if The Return were a foreshadow concurrent with its future, informed by clairvoyant dream or in waking, nightmarish observation of our own collective circumstances. Twin Peaks: The Return is vibrating live like one of Lynch’s own countless doublings itself, a doppelganger of epic, hyperobjective proportions. The series is unfolding as an entity which evades all determination but for its own unruly presence and influence. As 2017 plows forward, defying all attempts to second guess or project its urgently public plot-line, Twin Peaks: The Return is likewise defying all categorization. At no given point may we settle on what kind of television show we are watching, or for that matter, what we are watching at all, in any medium. A hyperobject itself, Lynch’s creature is simultaneously absorbing and escaping all -isms. Realism, naturalism, magical realism, Dadaism, surrealism, symbolism, deconstructivism, brutalism… Shamanism, transcendentalism. Even Lynch’s own brand of quirky, nostalgic, trailer park and black-suit-clad-Scout’s-honor Nationalism is here beside itself. And Feminism. As has been thoroughly observed and discussed over the span of his career, there is raging tension between the misogynistic elements undeniably present in Lynch’s work: his relentless portrayal of exceptional and excessive violence toward women; his commitment to portraying bat-shit crazy female characters; against the otherwise revered quality, depth and humanity of his work, the profound investment of his actors (especially in those roles in question) and the apparent on-set respect that transpires between actors and director. It’s been argued on the one hand that Lynch’s work casts an unflinching spotlight on violence against women, and on the other, and to great evidence, that he’s indulging in its fetishized aestheticism. Either way – and perhaps the two modes are not oppositional from a pathological viewpoint – his portrayal and treatment of female characters is stand-out, and Twin Peaks: The Return is no exception. In fact here, almost didactically in some of its more brutal scenes, Lynch seems to be equating evil and misogyny directly and in no uncertain terms. There’s no getting comfortable with it, even in the aestheticizing of it, and there’s no apologizing for it. Lynch employs neither a real portrayal of violence toward his characters nor a contextual dramatization that lends itself to our acceptance of it within the drama. It’s a terrifying psychological and physical trauma to be confronted, not white-washed, ignored or swept under the rug. And vengeance will be had. The child smiles eternal in the heart of the mother: the raging, grizzly heart of Sarah Palmer. What’s more, no character, condition, or action here is to be taken as real. But most unsettling, is that neither are they to be taken as unreal. We’re following the trajectory of a grand psychology – an id in conflict with its superego. Who’s exactly, we’re not sure. Lynch’s, Cooper’s, Bob’s, Laura’s? The town? The country? Our own?

What are we?

The Return opens with an imposing and enigmatic sculptural set-piece: a large glass box that is being meticulously observed by video cameras as well as by a young man seated on a fine couch next to a floor lamp on a riser. The immediate theatrical effect is of a high-end furniture display turned inside out. We’re on a mini-living set, or salon, entirely abstracted from any context other than that point of departure from which we shall view all further abstraction; and perhaps abstraction in every sense of the word. For looming over the floor of this anonymous New York City warehouse is the box, a hi-tech-looking vitrine object calls to mind a CIA black site or some other nefarious laboratory. As physical object deployed for dramatic purposes, the box is the quintessential objet d’Lynch, straddling the formal lines between utility, process, and symbol. The box is voodoo, at its most formal – an inanimate object rendered sinister by virtue of its sheer emptiness; by the anxiety and menace of what it might eventually contain. And that is many, many things.

With its sprawling locations and aesthetic vocabularies The Return is a synthesis, if not the apotheosis, of all of Lynch’s periods as an artist, and the glass box, as its opening puzzle-piece, is something of a sigil for the notion of that retrospective, or archive, and the collective potency it might wield if it were distilled into one archival object. It also vividly recalls the production design of Lost Highway, itself a reiteration of his earliest work, with its deeply encoded, deeply interior spaces-by-design; and quite possibly as though the signature sound of interstitial spaces on the Lynchian end of the bandwidth might originate here, in this very box. The physicality of the box is palpable, and renders the cinematic space alive, imbued with a dimension beyond the theatrical artifice. It’s also deeply effective, causing the viewer to crane forward and wonder at the edge of our seat: What the hell is it!?

In my own space of urgent wondering, three other contemporary artworks in the form of glass (or Plexiglas) boxes sprang to mind: Autonomy Cube by Trevor Paglen; Damien Hirst’s Let’s Eat Outdoors Today; and an obscure performance installation called More Up A Tree.

Paglen’s Autonomy Cube (2014) is a small and transparent Plexiglas cube housing the guts of a wifi-hub and Tor network relay. The cube is installed in galleries, museums and other public spaces and users may freely access its wifi connection. They connect to Tor, a network that anonymizes all traffic that passes through it, rendering it untraceable, evading surveillance by authorities legitimate and otherwise. Autonomy Cube is simultaneously transparent and opaque, public and private, inanimate and animate, empty and full. It is an object and a system – a vast and deeply functioning device as design object; a hyperobject at observable scale, as precisely observable as it is publicly encrypted; a Rubik’s Cube whose transparent utility is as cloaking device.

The materials that comprise Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-1991) by Damien Hirst are listed as follows: “glass, steel, silicone rubber, cow’s head, flies, maggots, sugar, water, Insect-O-Cutor, table and chairs, tableware, condiments and food.” The elements read like a properties list from a David Lynch film set, or one of his paintings, and indeed the assembled happening is unmistakably Lynchian. Inside the glass box, a plastic outdoor patio table is heaped with the recent remains of a summer BBQ lunch. Underneath the table a gruesome, severed cow’s head lies on the ground. Above the table, a bug zapper is crackling and buzzing. In an adjacent glass box, connected by a hole in the shared wall, a BBQ grill still bears extra steaks, now cold – as if the picnickers themselves had suddenly fled the scene, or been vaporized – and underneath the grill, in a large tray, a colony of maggots is hatching into flies. Living flies fill the two cubes of the artwork, crawling over every surface like a scene from The Exorcist, feeding on the food and the severed cow’s head, reproducing, and being killed by the bug zapper. The hermetically sealed scene is a complete life-cycle spelled out in the language of Lynch, a Francis Bacon still-life brought to life and playing out before the viewer in transparent safety at an intimate distance. Even the title Let’s Eat Outdoors Today has that Lynchian ring, reading like one of his earlier short films, and as is well known both artists cite Bacon (and maybe bacon) as a principle influence.

More Up A Tree (2015) by visual artist Eve Sussman, dancer Claudia de Serpa Soares, and drummer Jim White is also set inside a transparent Plexiglas box. Here a dancer and a drummer perform a suite of music without the benefit or result of any melody while the audience listens and observes from outside the walls of the box. The effect is akin to watching human captives in an alien zoo attempting to communicate to their captors in primitive sign, but without the freedom to speak to each other in order to clarify a mutual vocabulary. By turns pedestrian, banal, intimate and desperate, the performers methodically search and strain for an over-arching narrative melody that might unify their actions and transcend the circumstances of their isolation by virtue of a shared language. The extended physical and metaphysical effort is not unlike the scene between Cooper and the first woman he meets after exiting the Black Lodge, in Part 3 of The Return. The woman with her eyes sewn shut makes laborious attempts to communicate with Cooper, against the clock, and against the fragmented, sketching and stuttering frame-rate of their shared cinematic circumstances. It’s a stunningly original sequence, an encounter and transmission of code on the extreme perimeter of consensual space. In More Up A Tree, the quest for shared or harmonic language, and a melodic narrative arc, is transferred to the audience, and the tension between voyeur and the observed is traded back and forth across the Plexiglas membrane as screen. That same reckoning with duality is at work in Twin Peaks: The Return. The viewer’s effort to construct a narrative of shared language is concurrent with the creators, the unwinding of the show itself, and the creeping certainty that the apparent dualities of art, media and spectacle are no longer an architecture to be relied upon.

The three artworks triangulate the sprawling components of Lynch’s performance architecture in The Return and brace it squarely against the notion of viewer-as-participant, viewer-as-viewed, viewer-as instrument and all its consequences – something radical for television, even “cable” television as we know it today, to say the least. The cave painting and its primal executor have been exploded into the multiverse of systemic media apparatus. Are we watching the screen or is the screen watching us? Maybe the screen itself is the thing, and whatever’s going on, on either side of it, is beside the point. Lynch’s transparent box is vitrine-as-art-object. The box is a proto-container, but it’s also a viewing-platform – a four-dimensional media cube, or six-sided screen. Our assembly as an audience has been exploded, spatially and temporally, as has the platform. It is no longer tele-vision, or vision at a distance. It is everywhere and nowhere, all the time and no-time, as are we. We are at once unified and atomized, alone with it in the room, waiting for it to melt our faces off, and observing as it slowly does, observing the observers observing, while it observes us with its impassive empty glare, neither transparent nor opaque. Or more accurately, transparency and opacity contained within each other (in cinematic polarity to Kubrick’s monolith). And that is exactly what happens in the very first episode of The Return: faces are melted off by the humanoid wraith that has adapted to its antibiotic perimeter and is no longer containable by screen. Advanced interrogation techniques declassified as a system-wide transparent mirror, the narrative space as fetish object that we all now inhabit, wield, and surveil. The mother of all Lynchian mothers has come home to roost, and she doesn’t seem very happy with the curtains.

Such is our sudden re-introduction to all things Lynch in Twin Peaks: The Return. Things we might not have even known were Lynchian but have become so in the intervening years. Now, finally, we’re catching up, and it’s clear already that this is no longer the cozy – even cozily horrific – self-contained geography of a Twin Peaks that might have picked up in an America where Hopper left off. That ship’s been jumped and run aground. The Twin Peaks pathology of 2017 has metastasized. It is everywhere and nowhere now. New York City; Las Vegas; the Nevada desert; a fictional Buckhorn, South Dakota, in the proverbial shadow of Mt. Rushmore; Buenos Aires, ominously; and of course the fictional town of Twin Peaks itself. This is not country we’re at luxury to recognize, perhaps ever again, and neither its denizens, whoever we all are now. The map that we share is the disarrangement of our own senses along the tremoring fault lines. Lynch is not letting us off the hook, and I understand now, finally, that this has been his function as an artist all along – not merely committed to executing his own personal and idiosyncratic obsessions, an extraordinary commitment for any artist; but deeply engaged with our deepest wells of shared pathology. As far as 2017 is concerned, David Lynch may very well be our rightful Commander in Chief. David Lynch as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole. David Lynch as David Lynch. David Lynch as Shaman in Chief. For it is, apparently, the shaman and the swindler to whom we’ve thrown our fate. Is there a difference between the witch doctor and the snake oil salesman? Perhaps – as Hawk explains to Sheriff Truman the fire symbol on his mystical map – it depends: “Depends on the intention behind the fire.” The highest office in the land may have been usurped by an impostor, or dilettante, but a fraudulence in the chain of being may be plain as day for those who have courage and the clarity of heart to see beyond the carnival deformations and through the carnal labyrinth. As with all of Lynch’s doppelgangers: One may be a usurper, and one may be true. There is only one, and yet there are two. Perhaps it is a coming to terms with fraudulence which renders duality so painful. Or is it the other way around?

There’s fire where we are going.

Our own Commander-in-Chief-as-usurper notwithstanding, the agony of unresolved duality is no more apparent than in Lynch’s principle avatar Dale Cooper, or as we know him now, Dougie. The walking catatonia of Cooper-as-Dougie has been poured over elsewhere, nonetheless there’s a remarkable poignancy in Cooper’s predicament with regard to the events of the year – its day-by-day, minute-by-minute unfolding – that is worth mentioning again: it’s unbearable. His predicament is rather ours. While Cooper seems obliviously cocooned within the invisible confines of this idiot avatar, we squirm and wait and endure and pull our hair out and wait. His confines might be painless but ours are not. They are maddening. He is neither funny nor not funny; interesting nor uninteresting; neither crucial to the plot nor, as its would-be protagonist, unessential. We need him. We’ve needed him all along. We need him now more than ever, and his passivity is excruciating. The hero – the activated clarity – is impotent, absent. We cried out for Apollo and what we got was Forrest Gump. But the effect on the viewer, and on Lynch’s vital anti-plot, is brilliant. It couldn’t be more accurate to the zeitgeist, i.e. our immediate political, social and cultural reality. In other words: how long can it possibly go on like this? And who is going to fucking do something about it!? The limits of the narrative are the limits of our own. The fourth wall is demolished in real time, as we are. My greatest fear is that the Cooper we so desperately crave and require will emerge only in the final moments, when it is far too late. And yet this exact sort of profound and violent reversal in the final frames is precisely what made the series finale over 25 years ago so earth-shattering, upending the foundations of the entire Twin Peaks world in the inverted shards of a shattered mirror. The lone lighthouse on which we had become so reliant, the one we loved and the one who seemed to truly merit such universal admiration, was compromised, corrupted, extinguished. It was a heart-stopping turn of events striking at the true core of tragedy – that anyone, any place, may fall.

Now it’s dark. In the harsh glare of digital daylight.

And that is how we endure The Return. Not in the arriving, but in the protracted cramps and pangs of the return itself. A return forward, into the now. And not the one we want, certainly, but the real now. As real as fiction: we get the art we deserve. Lynch’s flagrant choice to reintroduce his alter-ego in the crass and kitschy universe of Las Vegas suburbs and casinos is jarring. Looking back, it was jarring the first time we saw Cooper modulate into casino mode, deftly navigating the black jack table and the attendant culture of One Eyed Jacks. We shouldn’t have been surprised. Young Agent Cooper had all the skills of any 007. But this time the milieu is prescriptive, and systemic. Dougie-as-Cooper isn’t gaming a system in the interest of national security or the social good. It has devoured him, just as it has devoured us. It’s incidental that he walks away with the cash, or even gives it away. It changes little other than keeping him in the circuit. The undeniable truth is that for the moment, perhaps even for the prolonged moment of the entire series, Agent Cooper is the impotent husk of a befuddled and muttering insurance salesman in Casinoland. And such is his country in this moment. We know full well that there is more to it, more depth beneath the shellac, the artifice of idiocy, and the prolonged attention to red herrings; more possibility than the absurd narrative in play. But for now, we are at the mercy of that intolerable dual reality. Ultimately it will be Cooper who must hold his own hand to the fire. Electricity. A fork in the wall, a mainline to the source, and a 2400-watt call to awaken from the cocoon of an anesthetized and manufactured life. A surging, luminous call – by accident, disaster, or the smell of coffee – to wake up.


Jeff Wood

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation directed by Eve Sussman. His cinematic novel The Glacier was published in 2015 by Two Dollar Radio. His essays Monuments of Fire, Death Stars and Never Forget were recently published by 3:AM Magazine. He is an editor of the Berlin Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 28th, 2017.