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Revisiting Lynch – Part Three: American Surrealism Goes Mainstream with Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart

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Twin-Peaks

Perhaps the thing that David Lynch is best known for in the mainstream is the television series Twin Peaks which ran from summer 1990 until spring 1991. When it debuted the series was huge, I mean huge. It infected all areas of popular culture and was like the Lost of its day with people hotly debating Who Killed Laura Palmer? The same way they debated the significance of the numbers in Lost. Twin Peaks changed prime time television forever; it pushed the limits of what you could show in terms of sex and violence and also changed the way that stories are told in ongoing arcs and plotlines that would last for many episodes. Without its initial success it’s doubtful we would have later got The X-Files and shows like Buffy the vampire slayer and Angel which ran with the serial format rather than the more common story of the week.

Twin Peaks (1990-91)

During the late 80’s David Lynch worked on an aborted biopic of Marilyn Monroe with TV writer Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues). Sadly the project named Goddess was not to be, but the two of them struck up a partnership strong enough to take in other projects. One such project was screwball comedy One Saliva Bubble which sadly also remains unmade but another would be a foray back into Frost’s usual medium. The two of them sketched out the all important location for the series which would be an imaginary small town and then came up with the idea of the body of the local prom queen washing up on the shore. What they were talking about as Lynch admitted was the ‘soap opera version of Blue Velvet’ and Lynch was thrilled to be going back to explore the seedy underbelly of small town USA.

Frost and Lynch with their pitch all sketched out sought backing for the series and went to ABC television. The original title for Twin Peaks was ‘Northwest Passage’ and it would be filmed in Snoqualmie a small lumber town in mid-Western Washington State. Many of the local landmarks stood in for the landmarks present in the series such as The Great Northern Hotel and Double R Diner. Lynch regular Kyle Maclachlan was cast in the pivotal role of Agent Dale Cooper and the pilot now entitled Twin Peaks began shooting in February 1989.  The reaction to the completed pilot was extremely positive but for some reason ABC sat it on a shelf for a long time after completion and eventually aired it on 8th April 1990. Due to critical praise and high viewing figures, ABC gave the rest of season one the green light.

Watching the first season even twenty one years after its initial debut, it’s easy to see how this blew minds back in the early 90s. There truly was nothing else like it at the time, everything about it was cinematic and unconventional. You had a pretty and handsome cast of teenagers who behaved nothing like the vapid inhabitants of Beverley Hills 90210 and didn’t listen to Vanilla Ice or New Kids on the Block; instead they dressed as if they were in the 1950s and listened to a kind of acid jazz music in diners. The series looked nothing like the plastic looking sitcoms and soap operas of the time, making excellent use of colour and darkness and the hero was a straight laced FBI agent obsessed with Coffee and Tibet.

There was a true dark heart to the show as well; as the series wore on we learned more and more about seventeen year old Laura Palmer’s secret life and it went to some truly upsetting places. Due to its success nobody seems to have batted an eyelid to some of the more controversial aspects of the story and its likely that in modern times the only place you could do this kind of thing would be on cable channels like HBO. After all what is The Killing if not a modern Twin Peaks? And that’s on AMC and doesn’t even get that disturbing despite being about a similarly troubled dead teenager.

The first season ended on a true cliff hanger from the ‘Who shot JR?’ school of shocking endings and people were in uproar. At the show’s peak 35 million Americans were tuning in to the show and the series went on to be nominated for fourteen Emmy awards. For a brief time David Lynch became a household name. Season Two would come back to similar high ratings but was moved to a Saturday night at 10pm slot which would make it more difficult for its key demographic to catch it as they were no doubt out partying. Sadly about seven episodes into the second season of Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost succumbed to network and viewer pressure and revealed the identity of the killer which was something they never intended to do. After this reveal it’s arguable that the series never recovered.

The plotlines meander somewhat and although most of the main characters have fairly interesting arcs it seems really out of focus until Cooper’s nemesis Windom Earle makes his presence felt and starts hunting for ‘The Black Lodge’. In February 1991 ABC announced that the show was going ‘on hiatus’ due to low viewing figures. Twin Peaks had since revealing the identity of the killer, lost half of its huge audience. The last six episodes aired on a Monday night and by May the show was officially cancelled. The show ends on a mind blowingly surreal note with Cooper and Earle battling it out behind the red curtains of the black lodge and its amazing that this stunning piece of work was actually on TV. Apparently the script as written, was a lot more coherent and straightforward but realising they were cancelled Lynch threw that out and went and filmed what was eventually shown.

It’s a frustrating ending to the series but also feels a lot like an appropriate ending. Many of the shows themes were based around loss of innocence and it makes thematic sense that Agent Cooper would eventually succumb to the darkness at the heart of the small town. Part of the fun and ongoing appeal of the series is people’s different theories around the dancing dwarves, giants and red curtains. Every year it seems that new people discover the series on DVD and become dedicated fans. There has been a yearly Twin Peaks festival in Washington State USA for a while now but 2010 marked the first time that a UK Twin Peaks festival was held. The venue was Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and they showed key episodes of the series as well as the movie and had guests Julee Cruise, Catherine Coulson (The Log Lady) and Charlotte Stewart (Betty Briggs) and they had the Double R Club perform some Twin Peaks inspired cabaret.

During a Q&A Catherine Coulson remarked that every once in a while Lynch will remark to her “Y’know there are more stories to tell in Twin Peaks”. 2014 will make it twenty-five years since Dale Cooper first appeared in the black lodge as an old man and Laura tells him she will see him in twenty-five years. Watch this space….

Due to the initial success of Twin Peaks, Lynch was allowed the freedom to pursue further projects on television. In February 1991 Lynch-Frost productions announced production on a new TV show. On the Air was a series of 30 minute comedies set during the early days of live TV. It was devoid of the Lynchian darkness so present in much of his work and had more to with Mark Frost’s more quirky and humorous sensibilities. The show would promote Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks) to the starring role and debuted on ABC in June 1992. On the Air was a ratings disaster and thus only five episodes were ever made after it was cancelled in August 1992. It remains unavailable on DVD and was perhaps a show that was really out of its time and would have been more at home in the 1960’s.

Around the time of the cancellation of On the Air, Lynch also began production on something to be produced by Propaganda Films and his own Asymmetrical Productions for airing on HBO; the pilot for a new TV series. Entitled Hotel Room, the intention was for separate stories to all take place in the same New York City hotel room and was shot during the summer of 1992. The pilot is notable for uniting Lynch with writer Barry Gifford and was made up of three stories, two directed by Lynch and one by James Signorelli. The series was not to be however, and Lynch’s talent was hindered by the gimmicky stagey single room setting.

This period of productivity may not have given birth to anything as rich as Peaks but compared to the sparse offerings of the last ten years it feels like a golden age to David Lynch’s fans. It’s also hard to imagine a time when such an avant garde director was indulged to this degree, occurring again in these increasingly safe and homogenised times.

Wild at Heart (1990)

After filming the Twin Peaks pilot, Lynch’s long in development project Ronnie Rocket was tied up in the bankruptcy of De Laurentiis Entertainment which had just been bought by Carolco. A friend at Propaganda Films; Monty Montgomery had recently read the novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula by Barry Gifford and had optioned the rights to make it into a film. Montgomery passed Lynch the novel with the hopes he would agree to direct the film, by page three Lynch was convinced and wrote a draft of the script in a week. Four months later and Lynch was on set of the film, now shortened to the title Wild at Heart.

The film begins with Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) at a party at a hotel where Sailor is threatened and proceeds to kill his would be assassin in a very violent manner. Sailor is then sent down for manslaughter. 22 months later and Sailor is released and picked up by his lover Lula much to the disapproval of Lula’s mother Marietta (Diane Ladd, Dern’s actual mother). Marietta hires/seduces private detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) into following Sailor and Lula. At the same time Marietta contacts gangster Marcello Santos to put out a contract on Sailor, Santos in turn involves drug trafficker Mr Reindeer which doesn’t end well for Farragut. Meanwhile Sailor and Lula continue their romance on the road eventually meeting up with Perdita Durrango (Isabella Rossellini) who tells Sailor about the contract, and sleazy Vietnam vet Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). Running out of cash Sailor agrees to do a bank robbery with Peru. This does not end well and Sailor ends up back in prison before a musical reunion with Lula.

The film debuted at the Cannes film festival in May 1990 and went on to win the top prize, the coveted Palme D’Or. The response worldwide was mixed however with many critics not liking the weird tone or the harsh violence. To be honest the film is not violent when compared to today’s standards but back in the nineties it was probably the very definition of extreme cinema. Especially a scene in which a shotgun blast severs Willem Dafoe’s head. In the states some of this had to be trimmed along with some of the more explicit sex scenes.

In hindsight Wild at Heart is one of the more commercial films that Lynch has made but it’s also one of the most schizophrenic. Once described like ‘An Elvis movie on really bad acid’ the film moves along at a fair lick but veers wildly from comedy, horror, musical, road movie and surrealism with Wizard of Oz overtones. It’s enjoyable enough but maybe not quite the masterpiece that the French thought it to be. The original script was said to be written in a very flashback oriented style much like Tarantino would popularise later in the decade. When editing the film, Lynch decided to make the film more linear. This was probably a smart decision as a tricksy structure along with the wildly shifting tone would have made the film unwatchable.

Wild at Heart remains notable for being a huge influence on similar films that emerged later in the decade like Natural Born Killers and True Romance (both written by one Quentin Tarantino). It’s also an artefact from a time when Nicolas Cage was a promising young talent and not the crazy joke he would later become. It definitely paved the way for independent cinema to explode later in the decade and for that alone we should be grateful.

Next: The mainstream turns its back…