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Tears of a Crazy Clown

Is David Lynch a weepy sentimentalist or a master of subversive nostalgia?

David Lynch is a crier. It’s a hard image to reconcile with his nightmarish aesthetic and jovially aloof persona, but it’s true. He teared up, in May, when a Cannes audience gave the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return a standing ovation. Mädchen Amick, who plays the Double R Diner waitress Shelly Johnson on the show, recalled a moment when she and Lynch both broke down on the set of the revival: “At one point, David is crying! And I’m like, ‘David! I’m trying not to cry, you can’t cry!’ We were just blubbering messes.”

It isn’t just that old age and revisiting beloved characters have made Lynch emotional. He has always been prone to crying. In a passage on the operatic sobbing that suffuses his works, in Dennis Lim’s book, David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, the author mentions that Lynch has admitted to weeping while listening to music and in the editing room. “While he was making The Straight Story, his most conventionally sentimental film, tears would stream down his face as he looked at the monitor,” Lim writes. Lynch’s characters are so demonstrative that it’s tempting to laugh at their hysterics, but the filmmaker’s own predisposition toward crying suggests a more empathetic attitude toward them.

Surrounded by Lynch’s admirers, I took their obsession with his fetishes for red curtains and gas-huffing villains as the sine qua non of Lynch fandom.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took me nearly twenty years of watching David Lynch’s creations to notice the genuine emotion he invests in his stylized fantasias. Surrounded by his admirers in film school and after, I took their obsessions with piecing together the puzzle-box narratives of his later works and disconcerting fetishes for red curtains and gas-huffing villains as the sine qua non of Lynch fandom. Even the movies I liked felt too cold and brutal to keep revisiting. Lynch’s femmes fatales and diner coffee and the fact that he made a feature for Disney about an elderly man who travels hundreds of miles on his lawn mower to visit his ailing brother didn’t endear him to me; as far as I was concerned, they reeked of hokey, superficial nostalgia. It often felt as though the director was condescending to, if not outright mocking, his naive characters.       

The Return reframed Lynch’s entire filmography for me, but I’m still put off by the original Twin Peaks. As Lim observes in the passage on crying:

The viewer of Twin Peaks, confronted by its lachrymal torrent, is less likely to succumb to empathetic weeping than to be discomfited or perhaps confused. Like so much else in Lynch’s work, his tears have a paradoxical effect. They are not exactly a means of communion, a way to bind audience to character, but function more as an alienation effect—reminding us of our position as voyeurs, unnerving us with their intensity and duration, and preempting our own tears.

The central figures of Twin Peaks—Laura Palmer, Dale Cooper, BOB—are presented as archetypes freighted with symbolism. Cooper’s earnest wholesomeness is so overwhelming, even he seems suspicious at first. Many peripheral characters, in the Red Room and in town, are little more than freaks meant to amuse or disorient us.

“Human nature sometimes seems like it is the furthest thing from Lynch’s mind,” Sonia Saraiya wrote in an early review of The Return. It’s an astute criticism of the original show, not to mention a concise articulation of why its intermittently cozy atmosphere left some of us cold, even after twenty-five years of theme parties and cookbooks and burlesque shows and namesake bands devised by fans desperate to get back to that tiny, cursed Washington town. But human nature, and carving real human beings out of Twin Peaks’ caricatures, turned out to be one of The Return’s central concerns. As the season progressed, it shattered any lingering impression of Lynch as a detached, self-consciously quirky sadist, chuckling mirthlessly over the rottenness at the core of American life and the ignorance of any person who fails to see it.   

It’s true that, as some critics have noticed, the sequel series manipulates viewers’ nostalgia. Lynch and his Twin Peaks partner Mark Frost take several episodes to move past a handful of tangentially related storylines featuring entirely new characters. Fan favorites like Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn) appear only occasionally, often in unnervingly ambiguous contexts. Although Kyle MacLachlan gets plenty of screen time, his heroic Dale Cooper doesn’t truly materialize until episode fifteen. Instead, we see MacLachlan play perverted clones of his famous FBI agent, the evil Mr. C, who escaped the Black Lodge at the end of the original Twin Peaks, and the “tulpa” Dougie Jones, a blank screen on which we inevitably project our longing for the real guy. Cooper and Laura (Sheryl Lee) don’t meet outside the Red Room until the two-part finale.

But the suspense isn’t ultimately a cruel or cynical narrative device. Cooper’s face is everywhere in the first fourteen episodes; sometimes, as Dougie, he is metaphorically an empty Dale Cooper suit. The ache we feel, watching that husk of Cooper stumble through the wasteland of Las Vegas, gives way to deep relief when the real Dale wakes up and announces, “I am the FBI.” Considering that viewers who follow political news are probably ambivalent, at best, about the bureau these days, the swell of optimism the line inspires seems especially noteworthy. Then again, perhaps our hopes for Robert Mueller’s Russia probe predisposed us to elation at the prospect of a righteous FBI agent making a long-awaited comeback.

Elsewhere in Twin Peaks, Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy’s (Kimmy Robertson) romance, which the original show treated as comic relief, becomes a sweet, companionate marriage. Another oddball, local soothsayer Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson), a.k.a. The Log Lady, sets Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse) on a path to finding the missing pages of Laura’s diary in a series of tender phone conversations made all the more poignant by Coulson’s recent death. Teenage miscreant Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) has grown into an upstanding dad. And the love triangle between Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), his wife Nadine (Wendy Robie) and his old flame Norma (Peggy Lipton) resolves, after something like four decades, in the most satisfying way possible: determined to shovel herself out of the shit, Nadine sets Ed free. He proposes to Norma and, after an excruciating fake-out, she says yes. In the first hour of the finale, Cooper and his old pals reunite to kill Mr. C and vanquish a greater force of evil, BOB.

None of these heartening plot points is a vindication of nostalgia. The David Lynch who cried on the set of The Return and insisted on Laura Palmer’s humanity in Fire Walk With Me (whose shift in tone baffled most critics) certainly seems attached to the characters he and Frost dreamed up in the late ‘80s. But instead of fetishizing the past, the new series juxtaposes its dark and difficult central storyline with our affection for the town’s residents to highlight our susceptibility to “reunion show” tropes. While the original Twin Peaks was a town stuck in the 1950s and governed by soap opera conventions, The Return takes place in an unmistakably contemporary world, where shows like Full House and Gilmore Girls and Will & Grace have all returned to comfort ‘90s kids still absorbing the shocks of adulthood in a nation gone mad. Twin Peaks characters send text messages and use Skype. Twenty-first century artists like Sharon Van Etten and Chromatics play the Roadhouse. The Double R is franchising. Lynch has the persona of a mid-century Eagle Scout, but not for nothing was he among the first old-school directors to embrace digital video, with Inland Empire.

The Return also clarifies Lynch’s fixation on the post-World War II years as the precise opposite of a reactionary attachment to some lost childhood idyll. Like the original Twin Peaks, many of his films (especially Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) are filled with archetypes, fashions, and pop-cultural artifacts of the fifties. The eighth episode of the new series—an awe-inspiring hour of cinematic television that traces the birth of the evil afflicting Twin Peaks to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945—reframes that decade as a time when an unprecedented act of human cruelty cursed an entire nation. The bomb, which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months before Lynch’s birth, becomes twentieth-century America’s original sin. His characters get stuck in the fifties because the guilt and trauma of that postwar period lingers into the present.

Lynch implies that it’s no coincidence television took off during the same decade. The medium offered a reliable, soothing distraction from the horrors of the twentieth century. Just as The Return’s viewers take solace in revisiting anodyne shows from their youth, characters in Lost Highway, Inland Empire and the original Twin Peaks look to their TV sets for clarity and catharsis.   

So, what wins out—Lynch’s sentimentality or his conception of Twin Peaks’ Anytown, USA, as a place scarred by unfathomable evil? Most viewers found the final moments of The Return harrowing. Having defeated BOB, Cooper tries to do something that turns out to be impossible: he goes back in time to save Laura Palmer. When she disappears, shortly after his attempted rescue, he tries again, in some separate reality or alternate dimension or dream where she is a troubled diner waitress named Carrie Page. Although his mission remains the same, Cooper may well be a different person in this scenario, too; McLachlan’s performance evokes Dale and Dougie and Mr. C at different moments after Cooper wakes up to a Dear John letter addressed to Richard.

This isn’t the town Cooper loves anymore. He only succeeds at re-traumatizing Carrie with the memory of Laura. Her scream rivals Munch’s.

In the end, he drags a reluctant Carrie hundreds of miles to Washington, sure that a reunion with Laura’s mother will provide them both with a happy resolution. When they arrive, there is a stranger named Alice Tremond living in the Palmer house. She is played by Mary Reber, who owns the home in real life, and the character shares a last name with an old lady from the original series. If this is supposed to be the same “real world” the show’s viewers live in, maybe we’re supposed to believe that our own daily experiences are mediated by Lynch’s complicated cosmology. Either way, this isn’t the town Cooper loves anymore. He only succeeds at re-traumatizing Carrie with the memory of Laura. Her scream rivals Munch’s.

I have no interest in deducing “what really happened” in the last hour of The Return, as Reddit and 4chan users started doing the moment Kyle MacLachlan’s episode-ending credit appeared on the screen, because I’m not convinced that only one outcome is implied. It seems more important that Lynch and Frost avoided the decisive resolution they teased in the first half of the finale, committing to neither a negative nor a positive outcome for Cooper, Laura, the people of Twin Peaks and the battle between good and evil that rages across all realities.

The original Twin Peaks closed with the ultimate horror: a Cooper possessed by BOB. Most of Lynch’s films have more ambiguous resolutions. MacLachlan’s boy detective Jeffrey and his teenage sweetheart Sandy (Laura Dern) end up together in Blue Velvet, but they’re both permanently corrupted by his adventures with the masochistic Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and her terrifying gangster tormenter, Frank (Dennis Hopper). Wild at Heart only seals its lovers’ union with “Love Me Tender” after a scene that punctures the illusion of fairy-tale perfection that surrounds their romance. The tearful dream ending of Mulholland Drive, and its implication that Naomi Watts’ Diane feels some final remorse for putting a hit out on the woman she loves (Laura Elena Harring), is as vivid as the literal ending, where she dies by suicide. Inland Empire spend three hours subjecting characters who slide through multiple dreamlike realities to various horrors before bringing everyone together for a jubilant final dance number that now brings to mind Cooper’s farewell to his fellow FBI agents: “See you at the curtain call.”

Laura’s scream only confirms two things: that Laura’s trauma transcends its context, and that Cooper hasn’t won yet. Perhaps he has accidentally replaced the world where Andy and Lucy and Norma and Ed live happily after with a reality where they never existed; it’s equally likely that he entered a parallel dimension without affecting them at all. Or maybe the road trip is simply someone’s dream. But if Cooper is still essentially Cooper (and, again, there’s some evidence to suggest he isn’t), his survival guarantees that he will persist in fighting evil. Some viewers have proposed that Cooper, who is as immersed in Eastern philosophy as Lynch himself, is a bodhisattva who won’t retire to nirvana until he’s completed his mission on Earth. Lynch has also discussed the connections between his work and that of James Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus (a character who, it should be noted, says a lot of things that sound profound but is basically always wrong) calls history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” shortly before describing none other than God as “a shout in the street.” 

All of these details and interpretations have merit because, in a narrative where sentimentality and horror coexist in equal measure, many outcomes are possible. I suspect that Lynch wants us to meditate on that final uncertainty, to think hard about whether we believe good or evil will ultimately triumph, or if they’ll simply keep battling until the universe crunches into nothingness. In an LA Times interview quoted in Lim’s book, the director insists that, “As soon as a show has a sense of closure, it gives you an excuse to forget you’ve seen the damn thing.”

Sentimentality isn’t necessarily an aesthetic or social good. It can be used to the same emotionally manipulative ends as sadism, and it has inspired more bad art than its opposite. Many of the greatest living filmmakers—Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier—have no use for it at all. But the combination of warmth and sincerity that sentimentality brings to Lynch’s best works balances out their uncanny, distancing darkness. It replaces unmitigated bleakness with ambiguity and deepens our engagement with ideas that only become more profound the longer they haunt us. The difference between the original Twin Peaks and The Return is that, the second time around, Dale Cooper is fighting for the soul of a town worth saving.