Saturday, February 9, 2013

Twin Peaks, or "Nihilism American Style"

Twin Peaks is a TV cult classic from the 90s. That's pretty much all I knew about it when I started watching its thirty episodes two weeks ago. The show has been hugely influential in the TV world and traces of it can be seen in everything from The X-Files, to Parks and Recreation, to Psych. I'll be referencing details of the show throughout my post, and if you'd like to be caught up to speed without watching the whole thing, conveniently, there's a blog that pretty nicely gives a blow by blow of each episode: 

Twin Peaks jumps from mystery to horror to absurdist comedy to melodrama to soap opera to sitcom without any warning or transition. The fractured scenes and narratives make the show both compelling and unique. It has a way of sucking you in and getting in your head.

But despite the outward narrative brilliance, the heart of Twin Peaks is nihilistic trash.

By chance, I started reading Shows About Nothing at the same time I started watching Twin Peaks. It's a book about the pervasive nihilism that shows up throughout popular culture. And that's when I started noticing the moral depravity of Twin Peaks.

I guess I should define nihilism. In a nutshell, it's the philosophy that life is meaningless and that "good" and "evil" are likewise meaningless fabrications.

The first episode of the show opens with the discovery of Laura Palmer's body. Initially the town of Twin Peaks is horrified and distraught over her rape and murder. But then the show systematically breaks down all semblance of good and evil in each of the characters and even in the murder of Laura Palmer itself.

In one of the must repulsive twists in the program, we find out that Laura was a wild girl who probably wanted not only to be raped but also killed. It wasn't really so bad because she wanted it. For about a week, I've tried to think of a word to describe how I feel about that twist. Disgusting and misogynistic, certainly, but I still haven't come up with the right word.

After the attack itself is robbed of morality for good or bad, we find out that the attacker wasn't really in control of himself, and so he's not to blame. It was as unavoidable as it was unfortunate.

The same goes for all of the many affairs that go down in Twin Peaks. Shelly cheats on Leo because he's crazy and abusive. Ed cheats on Nadine because she's crazy. Nadine cheats on Ed because she's crazy. Wilma cheats on Hank because he's in jail and a hardened criminal. None of these people are really doing a wrong or right thing in choosing fidelity or infidelity. Whether they are faithful to their spouses is irrelevant because all of their relationships are so far removed from anything that could be seen as normal, natural, or healthy. Their lives are meaningless.

Ben Horne
Ben Horne is maybe the most obvious example of the nihilistic thesis on which Twin Peaks rests. He begins as a purely loathsome individual. He runs a brothel, he's plotting to kill the woman he's having an affair with so he can take over her estate, he's at the center of so much fraud and conspiracy that it's almost impossible to keep it all straight. 

Ben has something of a wakeup call when he realizes he almost had sex with his own daughter in his own whorehouse. He goes temporarily insane, and when he comes to, he decides that he's going to change and become a good person. In one scene he goes through every book of scripture from all the world's religions and moral philosophies, explaining to his daughter that he's going to incorporate every bit of wisdom he can into his own life. 

Well, his first big attempt at virtue ends in the collapse of one of the only wholesome-ish families in the show (the Haywards) and his own death. The indictment against not only religion, but all moral philosophy is clear. It makes no difference if Horne is living an evil life, an insane life, or a moral life. His destiny and the wellbeing of everyone he knows is governed by sheer caprice.

Dale Cooper, coffee connoisseur
But the most devastating nihilistic thread throughout the series is the story of the protagonist, Dale Cooper. Even when we discover that he had an affair with his old partner's wife, Cooper is the only character that has anything like a shred of moral authority by the end of the show. But the things that make him a "good" person are the same traits that lead him to ruining and ending lives. His spiritual inclinations help him in discovering Laura's murderer, but they also lead him into "the black lodge" and turn him into the very killer he had been trying to stop. Ultimately his whole journey and effort was pointless, and he made matters worse simply by being alive.

I got really angry with the last episode for many reasons, some of which I'll get into later, but mostly because I really liked Dale Cooper, Dr. Hayward, Audrey Horne, and almost all the denizens of Twin Peaks. The last episode systematically tears down everything each character was, stood for, and believed in. Rather than raising interesting and challenging moral questions, the show digressed into literal and frightening nonsense until we'd been beaten over the head with the idea that life is pointless and awful. I'm going to quote directly now from the first chapter of Shows About Nothing:

If art no longer communes with the good, the true, and the beautiful and if it feels duty bound (whence such an obligation in a nihilistic world?) to inform us that its magic is merely illusory, then it loses its capacity to enchant or even pleasantly distract. It loses its claim on us.

Yup. That's exactly what happened with Twin Peaks. The show, not life, became "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The Question of Content

While watching Twin Peaks, I thought often about the question of content in a TV show. I think lots of people would see some of the plot highlights of the show (e.g., murder, rape, demonic possession, infidelity, prostitution…) and automatically give the show a miss. But murder, rape, demonic possession, infidelity, and prostitution also feature prominently in the Bible. I don't think any of those subjects are necessarily off limits for the morally conscious or careful TV watcher.

In fact, last Saturday I had a kind of crisis. The night before I had just seen the episode where they first postulate that Laura Palmer had wanted to be raped and killed. I went to bed with the taste of revulsion in my mouth, but the next morning I woke with a start and vocally said to myself, "Rashomon!"

The iconic gate from the opening of Rashomon
Rashomon is a film by the late and great Akira Kurosawa. It's the fragmented telling of a rape and homicide that happened in the forests of medieval Japan. There are two reasons why the name of that movie surfaced in my mind that morning. I love Rashomon, and in one of the tellings of the story, the woman says that she wanted to be taken by the bandit and for the bandit to murder her husband. It's a repulsive thought, but I didn't find the movie repulsive at all. In fact, I think it's one of the most elegant and eloquent examinations of human motivation, memory, and life. So why was I on board with Rashomon but so disgusted with almost the exact same scenario in Twin Peaks? I bought Rashomon on Amazon, and after watching it again, I have the answer.

Rashomon is ultimately a beautiful movie about a horrible subject. It begins with two men sitting under the ruined gate of Rashomon sharing their disbelief and revulsion at the recent events in town. One of them was even an eye witness to the incident. The facts, as they say in Pushing Daisies, are these: a notorious bandit came upon a samurai and his wife. The bandit had sex with the wife, and the samurai had a violent, unnatural death. What follows is a series of conflicting accounts of how it all happened. Each account should be definitive, since they were all eyewitnesses, but the motivations and actions of the different players couldn't be more different in each telling.

There are a few things I love about this setup. For one, it throws a wrench at Occam's razor. There is no simple explanation for what happened. For another, it opens up an engaging and complex investigation of human motivations. It becomes clear that each teller's story is tainted by their own fears, suspicions, and motives.

It's in the murdered samurai's story, for example, that his wife claims that both he and the bandit are impotent, and that she wanted to be raped by the bandit so that she could run away with him and leave her husband to die. That tells us much more about the samurai than it does his wife.

And that's the difference between Twin Peaks and Rashomon. Whereas Twin Peaks is dismissive of humans, their beliefs and motivations, Rashomon obsesses over them.

And then there's the way Rashomon ends. The two men from the opening scene, now joined by a cynical (dare I say nihilistic) wanderer, find an abandoned baby. The cynic steals from the baby and walks off saying that selfishness is the only way to survive. We're left with the priest, the villager, and the baby. The villager, who we discovered stole a dagger from the samurai's corpse, in a moment of redemption vows to take the baby home and raise it with his other children. The priest then says, almost to himself, that his faith in humanity has been restored.

Dark, but optimistic.

I started thinking of other books and movies that are dark or tragic, but that I think are great and inspiring. To Kill a Mockingbird, Nolan's Batman trilogy, Lost, even Harry Potter. These all have very dark themes and plot lines, but ultimately I think an engaged viewer can get a lot of good from them.

One last rant about Twin Peaks

Morals aside, there are some things about Twin Peaks that I just have to get off of my chest. The soundtrack for that show is unbearable. I know that the 80s and 90s were a dark time for music generally, but please explain this:

It's the worst, right? And then there's the atrocious opening title sequence.

At any given point, the music is almost pathologically inappropriate for whatever's happening on screen. I was laughing out loud for most of the first episode.

Next, I don't understand the obsession David Lynch had with Joan Chen. She's the first face we see in the show, and she really doesn't play an important role at all. But somehow she has a special title card in the opening sequence, and everyone keeps going on about how beautiful she is all the time. After she dies, we just keep hearing about her. This must be some kind of fetish Lynch had, because although she's not ugly, almost every woman in that show is more attractive than she is. I don't get it.

And last, I have a deep suspicion that the producers didn't know where they were taking the show, which is really insulting to the audience and to their profession. I'm fine with leaving some loose ends, but the last episode was just nonsense. And I hated the cheap scare tactics they used in the "black lodge" scenes. It's like Lynch just found out what a strobe light was and said, Dudes. You know what would be awesome? If we filmed an entire episode with this. I also got pretty weary of all the "scary people" trying to swallow the camera. As I was watching it, I texted my brother, "If David Lynch could put it into 3D and make fart smells come out of your TV, he would." The whole episode was full of cheap shots and scenes that were frightening only on the most superficial and shallow level.

In the end, I don't regret watching Twin Peaks, but that's not much of an endorsement, is it?