Entire books could be written about David Lynch as a person, a movement, an obsession, so I’ll keep it short.
It’s very likely that I was the only man with a festival badge who did not bring a tuxedo with him to Cannes this year. Which is simply because I have never owned one before, and had no time to shop for one in the midst of finishing up finals and packing for my first intercontinental flight. I still wouldn’t know where to shop for one now, unless of course, you’re in Cannes during the film festival, at which point every clothing store in the village sets out mannequins in black tie, and your choice is between Zara or a hundred-dollar-a-night smoking jacket at what is, in normal times, the local dry cleaners. I was actually lucky enough – through militant observation of six a.m. wakeup calls, to catch nearly every film I was interested in seeing at the informal morning premiere. The press screening, at 8:30, gives movies a chance for widespread review before the formal unveiling, and I gleefully took the early option, usually dragging along a few friends who would reliably doze off. This process was going great, up until Twin Peaks.
Screening out of competition at a single evening time slot, Twin Peaks was the film premiere everyone in Cannes wanted to go to. The irony, of course, is that it was not a film at all, but the first two episodes of a rebooted television show. Twin Peaks: The Return. Even funnier, it was not a premiere. The same two episodes had kicked off the season on ShowTime earlier that week, meaning that anyone with their cousin’s password had a leg up on the cinematic bourgeoisie. A non-film unpremiere is the opposite of what most people in town would put on a pedestal, but this only made their fervor more hectic. What they wanted was David Lynch.
Entire books could be written about Lynch as a person, a movement, an obsession, so I’ll keep it short. Suffice it to say, he is the current darling of Cannes, not because he is one of them but because he is one of him.
Few artists have emerged from such profound obscurity into careers of ample legacy, of rounded respect. Upon releasing Eraserhead (1977), Lynch, who was at the time just teaching himself how to make a film, practically invented the idea of the midnight movie, blended a cocktail of humor and horror that was at the time unthinkable, and altered the way people thought about low-budget film, irrevocably severing the ties between capital and quality onscreen. In the years that have followed, Lynch’s features have gravitated, by his standards, a few steps closer to the mainstream, but the man himself has largely stayed the same – unscrupulously average, profoundly weird. Unsightly in the twenty-first century, he is a chain-smoker at seventy-one, and spends most of his time in placid seclusion, working on his singular visual art.
Lynch is the darling of Cannes because he is his own person
Few, if any of his features are easy to swallow. His work is if needing a label, “surrealist body horror.” Hollywood turns out for Lynch on the red carpet so they can feel the weight of an unmatched legacy far more than for a good time, but if they have to sit through something they won’t understand, let it be Twin Peaks.
It’s his most popular creation, if not his most important. Running for two seasons in 1990-91 before perhaps the most unjust cancellation in televised history, the show has spent the last quarter century gestating in collective nostalgia. It’s Freaks and Geeks for the freakier. And its return, twenty-five years later, as prophesized in the 1991 finale is arguably the epitome of cultish dreams come true.
In fact, David Lynch is the embodiment of cult, of everything we love without taking seriously, the cheap thrill. Such a thing is almost antithetical to the glamor and straightforward glitz of a place like Cannes, but in a way, it’s cooler, more democratically lowbrow. Which is probably the reason I wore bright red socks with my tuxedo the night of the premiere. In fact, it was not even a tux per se, but a jacket and shoes and shirt I borrowed from friends, which I matched with my own charcoal self-hemmed slacks and the cherry-colored socks. Ignoring the sensation of mismatch, I regarded myself as rather Lynchian. The pants were about the length and fit of those worn by Henry, in Eraserhead, when he steps in mud on his way home – an indelible image after my very first watch – and the socks reminded me of The Man from Another Place, a dancing dwarf from favorite sequences of the original Twin Peaks series.
It turned out the fashion police doing security to the red carpet did not share in my sensationalism and were looking for reasons to remove attendants in that night’s overbooked screening. Formal dress code is administered by martial law after sundown in Cannes, and only through a good deal of half-French pleading was I able to convince the head of security to let me return to my place in line if I stepped out and bolted to Zara for a change of attire. I ran down the Croisette twice, in varying degrees of black tie adequacy, and was barely able to grab a seat in the last row of the balcony after a very unceremonial red carpet sprint. At this point, David Lynch appeared on the live stream, stepping out of his valet with an excessive exhale of cigarette smoke; the crowd was uproarious. I was one of the last people let inside before him, but we have sat about as far away as possible.
The original Twin Peaks is the story of the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a young girl from an isolated and idiosyncratic town, which is then visited by FBI detective Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) who, among other things, adorably records his insights on a tape recorder to a long-distance assistant named Diane. Laura Palmer’s murder is solved halfway through the second season, which does little to explain anything or extricate Cooper from the supernatural little town.
To know how much happened to the detective, both in the raucous first two seasons and the twenty-five years of silence to follow, just watch the beginning of the new show. Cooper is trapped in a spiritual realm of pure evil, occasionally gaining clarity from a tree-with-a-brain called The Arm, who is apparently the aforementioned dancing dwarf in another form. Back on Earth, a dark, doppelganger Dale Cooper is commandeering the hearts and minds of several former friends on a murderous road trip south; a man in a New York City high rise monitors a fleet of cameras filming an empty box, under orders from a mysterious employer; and, in a small South Dakota town, an old woman is murdered in a fashion similarly gruesome to that of Laura Palmer, prompting the new season’s tagline, “It’s happening again.” The double-episode premiere, depressingly, spends about five minutes in the actual town of Twin Peaks.
The Twin Peaks revival sincerely takes the story into a new frontier
David Lynch is unapologetically himself, and few artists are more realized in their style and tone. It’s a noble feat, the type of thing that allows for your television show to screen at a film festival, and then receive a five-minute standing ovation. It’s ovation-worthy even without this whole new descent into madness. One thing this means is that the new show is impossible to critique by usual standards. To the programmers at Cannes who care about an auteur’s legacy, anything weird and inexplicable is another feather in Lynch’s cap. But the show also has millions of fans with two decades worth of building expectations, which makes straightforward achievement impossible, the same as any other reboot. To depart from the original premise is the betrayal. To remain with it is gross commodification. Unless you have the sincerity of Lynch, that’s all a reboot is anyway – squeezing blood from a stone.
As is, Twin Peaks departed from his original premise and moved into the frontier. The new work is best viewed in epic scope, where love for the universe substitutes the traditional attachment of any one character or relationship. To simply watch television in this way is a departure, and thus Lynch continues his mastery of singular vision – making television shows that feel like movies that feel like fantasy epics, or perhaps the layout of one’s own mind.
But this grandiose vision doesn’t change the fact that my favorite part, the small town warmth and quirk Lynch benevolently imbued throughout the first two seasons, is gone. Much of the show, for a while at least, was just the quotidian as seen through the eyes of an unassimilated outsider, all murder and spiritual reckoning aside. Just like how so much of Eraserhead, or the start of Blue Velvet, were people going about their daily lives – unscrupulously average yet profoundly weird. Like Lynch himself.