Twin Peaks Revisited: “Cult” Text as Popular Phenomenon
Twin Peaks was a short-lived ABC series created by the legendary film-maker David Lynch and writer Mark Frost which ran for two seasons (30 episodes) between 1990 and 1991. Despite a decline in ratings which eventually led to its end, the show has become a cult classic among Lynch fans and those with a taste for the strange. In 1992, a film, which served as a prequel to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was released to a critical panning and a disappointing box-office return. Despite several sequels planned for the film, fans of the show and the world which it creates have not seen any new Twin Peaks material for 22 years. Now, a new box set called ‘Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery’, which will feature 90 minutes of deleted scenes from the film, as well as many other features, is set to be released on July the 29th. What can we expect from this new box set and what could this mean for the future of Twin Peaks? Also, how does it remain so popular several years after its original broadcast? So, get a damn good cup of coffee brewing and a slice of cherry pie, before diving into the strange world of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks focuses on the events of a month in 1989 in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, in the American state of Washington, following the murder of Laura Palmer, a 17-year old high school girl. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) is sent in to investigate, eventually leading him towards a dark path filled with things which are not as they seem. The television series alternates between being a melodramatic soap opera, a surreal crime drama, a horror story and a slapstick comedy, often within the same episode. It is this amalgamation of genres which gave Twin Peaks its magic. Indeed, there was nothing like it on the air at the time, and, perhaps there never will be again. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me tells the story of the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life and the events which led to her death. Opening symbolically with a television being destroyed, the film travels in a completely different direction than the television series. With the lack of restrictions placed by television censorship, Lynch’s film is more violent and dark than the original show, as well as featuring more nudity, drug-taking and being generally scarier than the often humourous nature of the show. Ultimately, it was this stylistic change which led to the demise of all that is Twin Peaks, among other things. Yet, still, it is ultimately this commercial failure which has caused the popularity that it still holds today.
According to Umberto Eco’s discussion of the term ‘cult’ in a discussion of Casablanca, a cult text must display not just one central idea, but many, and survives because of its ‘glorious incoherence’. Twin Peaks is, thus, perhaps, the perfect cult text, in that it intentionally aims to transcend coherence. Simply by looking at the trailer for the unseen footage from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (above), one can see that Twin Peaks is dependent more on its images than any coherent connection between such images. For instance, the image of the Black Lodge with the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) is one which is indelibly attached to the Twin Peaks world. Therefore, a cult text is more meaningful when dismantled into its separate pieces than together. Therefore, like many other Lynchian texts, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me does not search for a meaning, but rather is a puzzle of many different meanings. Still, this definition of Twin Peaks as a cult text does not singularly explain its popularity. While those who love this world wish to see everything associated with it, what fans most desire is a certain closure which is inherent with other television series.
In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, this idea of “cult” is only partially cultivated, as Lynch only just recaptures the feel of the original television show. Instead of attempting to create the same feel of the soap-opera/cop drama, it instead follows a typical horror film structure. According to Eco, the creation of a cult text is dependent on its use of ‘intertextual archetypes’ or so-called ‘”magic” intertextual frames’, such as a repeated cliché or narrative feature. This idea only further solidifies the need for the incoherence of a cult text. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is definitely incoherent as it is trying to be two things at once: 1) a prequel to the television show and, 2) a separate Lynch horror film. However, the problem is that to watch one without the other leaves the viewer with an incomplete picture of the Twin Peaks world. Essentially, a cult text (e.g. Donnie Darko) views its truth or ‘meaning’ as a minor part of its understanding and depends more on style. This argument of a dependence on style and a neglect of substance is one which is often used against Lynch’s works, and while it is difficult to refute such an argument, it does not denote that style can not constitute substance. The over-used maxim “A picture is worth a thousand words” is significant in most of Lynch’s work and especially within Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The elongated sequence of ‘The Pink Room’ is one which is dripping in excess (in nudity and general themes), over a loud, hard-hitting score. It feels so out of place in the Twin Peaks universe, but it is a defining scene of the film, solidifying its identity as darker and sexier than the television show. Perhaps these unseen deleted scenes (featuring side characters) will further confuse the film’s intention or will help it feel more like the television show. However, what is necessary to understand when looking at the Twin Peaks canon is that it needs to be incoherent, incomplete and inherently “magic”.
Warning: Spoilers for Twin Peaks ahead!
It has been more than 20 years since the end of Twin Peaks and the ending still does not even feel real. Seeing Dale Cooper, the heroic protagonist trapped within the Black Lodge is still shocking, mostly because it goes against everything television conventions portray. Even for serialised television shows, like any other art form, there should be a beginning or an introduction of the characters, the ensuing problems that those characters face and the resolution of those problems and some form of conclusion. The end of a television series are the episodes which are often the most divisive. However, the end of Twin Peaks never really felt like an end. It just felt like another end-of-season cliffhanger. Nevertheless, this does not discredit the value of what came before it. Just because something does not have a conclusion should not mean that its artistic merit is degraded. Ultimately, Twin Peaks could have continued infinitely as it was, at heart, a soap opera which focused on the day-to-day problems of normal people. The fact that the death of Laura Palmer was brought to the forefront neglects several other great story lines and characters. Once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, ratings consequently dropped dramatically in Season 2, as viewers were left with admittedly lacklustre story lines such as James’ journey into Evelyn Marsh’s life and Andy and Dick’s fight over Nicky. However, once Cooper and the gang seemed to close in on ‘BOB’ and Windom Earle in the magnificent ‘Black Lodge’ sequence of the finale, it just ended out of nowhere and was cancelled. But, perhaps, the 90-minute footage promised within this new release may answer some unsolved questions about the fate of Twin Peaks. However, should those questions be answered?
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me remains a haunting depiction, and a severely underrated one at that, of Laura Palmer’s last days, but it did not help us with figuring out the aftermath of the television show. Whether or not we shall see Dale’s doppelganger, now possessed by ‘BOB’, wreak havoc on Twin Peaks or what will happen to the real Cooper is not evident in the trailer. However, it is highly unlikely that fans will receive a definitive conclusion to Dale’s story. As other sequel films were planned to explore the Twin Peaks world, such footage would have been filmed if these ideas came to fruition. However, not even reaching half of its budget in its box office returns meant that fans were left wanting more. While this new footage will not completely satiate our need for a conclusion, it will be delightful to see characters like Josie, Harry, Nadine and Annie again. Regardless of what this new footage will show, the show was never about resolving issues, it is about the constant battle between good and evil. However, it is hard not to wish the creators of the show reuniting.
Despite David Lynch stating that Twin Peaks was “dead as a doornail”, commercial, as well as popular pressure to revisit Twin Peaks in some capacity will be reignited by this coming release. However, in addition to the 90 minutes of deleted scenes are other extra features, such as interviews between David Lynch and the Palmer family in their new lives 20 years after the events after the show and a documentary about the show. Ultimately, this release is the definitive ‘Twin Peaks’ experience. Regardless, like any other television show, there is still desire for some sort of reunion. Such an suggestion is not completely ludicrous, especially if David Lynch is revisiting the characters of the Palmers. While a few of the actors are dead, including Frank Silva (‘BOB’), it would be possible to jump forward 20 years, showing the impact which the Cooper doppelgänger has had on the town. Still, doing so would ruin the legacy of the show as a strange and untouchable anomaly of television culture. If it were revisited, it would lose some of the magic which could only be found in the early 1990’s, with haunting music, cheesy acting and a beautiful atmosphere. Unlike modern television shows which aim to have a conclusion or a leaving message, Twin Peaks leaves you unsure of where it will lead you, but it is always a place wonderful, yet strange.
While Twin Peaks was probably not intended to end the way it did, it would not be the same if it ended happily or with a proper conclusion. It may seem natural to view it as an incomplete art artefact, but, in doing so, it presumes that art is only real when seen together. This is simply not true. A passage of a novel or a sentence of a poem can be considered beautiful without reading the whole text. A scene of a film or television show can be beautiful without viewing the whole film or episode. Most significant when speaking about Twin Peaks is the important of imagery, as simply viewing a shot of the woods, or creamed corn can evoke an emotion. The term ‘cult’ is restrictive in that it is characterised by its audience, in that they are aware of every intricacy and never misses an episode, but ‘cult’ means much more. Ultimately, ‘cult’ is a form of genre, which shapes its textual features, as much as it determines who watches it. It is one which consciously aims to be imperfect, or rather not understandable in normal artistic conventions or contexts. As such, Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, especially the latter, embodies this ideal, in that it encourages you to view it both as a depiction of Laura Palmer’s last days, but also as a temporal jumble of experiences and dreams.
However, the ultimate question is: Will this new Blu-Ray release be the last we see of the ‘Twin Peaks’ universe? And, the ultimate answer, is probably: Yes. Any new footage would not do the show justice, and while fan service is definitely appreciated in this new world of self-aware viewers, it would appear to be creating perfection from what is, at its core, an imperfect thing. Fan service in a ‘cult’ world should only be executed if it will improve on the original text, and Twin Peaks is complete (in its incompleteness) as it is. However, if this new footage has remained dormant for more than 20 years and is now being released, who is to say that David Lynch is not interested in revisiting the show in some capacity. However, it should only be done if he (and potentially Mark Frost) agree to do it, not just because ABC or CBS or the fans want it back, and should only be done with those two or other original writers at the helm. Regardless of the fact that CBS are calling it the ‘holy grail of Twin Peaks fandom’, it will probably not be the last release ever, as the fandom will only increase with today’s saturated web-based criticism. The deleted scenes and extra features will no doubt more theories and fan edits to arise, but new fans and old fans alike will only increase their hunger for more.
But, this is all just speculation and wishful thinking. Yet, it will be no doubt that after more than 20 years of no ‘Twin Peaks’ (and 8 years since Lynch’s last feature film), the extra footage promised with this new release will not satisfy the fans’ hunger for that certain ‘Lynchian’ feel. He, however, is the artist, and his intentions and desires will always override our own. He has gone on to produce two full-length albums and is a successful artist. Regardless of if this is the end of Lynch’s career in film or the visual medium, Twin Peaks will live on without him and live on without a definitive end. Nothing will again capture the magic of the show and the movie. Nobody could replace these characters. These deleted scenes and bonus features will serve as a much welcome auxiliary nonetheless and will hopefully draw in a new pool of fans. It lives on as a dream inside of us, unsure of where it will end or what it all means. Essentially, it is a tragic tale of good in conflict with evil, on a constant cycle where evil and bad intentions triumph and where nothing is as it seems. We, like Dale Cooper, will be on a constant chase for the truth and the execution of justice, and will probably never find it and that is how it should remain.
Eco, Umberto (1985). “Casablanca: Cult movies and Intertextual Collage” in SubStance, Vol. 14, No. 2, Issue 47.
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