“Twin Peaks: The Return,” and the Future of Visual Storytelling

Come the end of every year, we are given an abundance of lists from publications and critical associations alike reflecting on the “best” films that were released that year. On Monday, Vanity Fair chief critic Richard Lawson hailed French filmmaker Robin Campillo’s BPM (2017) as “stunning and vivacious.” The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) their top honor. The list published by Sight and Sound, the long-running and prestigious magazine published by the British Film Institute (BFI), was topped by Jordan Peele’s masterful directorial debut Get Out (2017). However, it was their second pick that has had the film sphere buzzing since: Twin Peaks: The Return (2017-).

At its inception, television was regarded as a secondary art form to film. None of the celebrities that graced the big screen would appear on this boxy little thing that sat in living rooms. One of the arguments against the prestige of television was that it did not have the artistic merit, be it narrative complexity or production value, that its filmic counterpart enjoyed. This was never entirely true, but so went the argument. Then, in 1990, David Lynch and Mark Frost brought Twin Peaks (1990-1991) to ABC. Telling the story of a small, fictional, northwestern town and the aftermath of the death of a beloved high school student named Laura Palmer all investigated by the charismatic FBI agent Dale Cooper, Lynch and Frost brought the intensity and complexity of Lynch’s films to television. After two seasons, and a mind-boggling season-that-became-series finale, Twin Peaks went off the air.  

Twenty-five years, a prequel film, and four books later, Frost and Lynch brought the town and Cooper back for an 18-episode run on Showtime this past summer. They entered a media landscape that had been forever changed by Twin Peaks’ initial run; the ripples of its revolutionary blend of genre and narrative approach can be easily seen after its conclusion. The X-Files (1993-) seems to be a direct offspring of the blend of police procedural and character drama with an overarching mythology, and the more recent Stranger Things (2016-) trades on the same conceit of evil pulsing underneath the façade of a bucolic American small town. Twin Peaks may have been off the air, but it was never far away from the creative minds telling their own stories in its absence.

All this considered, there was a palpable buzz when Frost and Lynch announced their return to the story and premiered the first episode at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was met with a five-minute standing ovation. For all the acclaim, murmurs began at this screening, questioning what a television show was doing at one of the world’s premiere film festivals, even if it was helmed by one of cinema’s most gifted sons. The critical voices were mostly drowned out by the hubbub over Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2016) and whether or not films released on Netflix without traditional theatrical runs should be considered for the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, but it did not go away. Enter Sight and Sound.

To construct its list, Sight and Sound polls 188 “international critics and curators” and asks one simple question: tell us the best five movies that came out this year. From those results the list is compiled, and if you’re interested in the full one, you can find it here. Twin Peaks: The Return secured thirty-one votes, only six behind the top scorer Get Out. Accompanying its listing was this blurb from author and film programmer Tom Charity:

“It blows up TV, creatively, and puts pop culture on a new wavelength. And it has so much to say about the legacy of ‘the American century’ that of course it’s the most resonant, relevant 18-hour movie at this time of meltdown and crisis.”

Charity’s very distinction of the work, characterizing it as an “18-hour movie,” poses the question of what exactly is required of a piece of visual storytelling to be called a “movie.” Twin Peaks: The Return is vintage Lynch. For any viewer who has seen Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), Twin Peaks: The Return, as well as the original run, are stylistically inseparable with their adherence to surrealist narratives and images, an exploration of the American underbelly, and use of music to flesh out a setting. Lynch has always seemed to have a link to Federico Fellini in how little either of them cares for the comfort of the audience. Their works are not cuddly and easy to follow: they are challenging and artistically inventive.

Take, for example, the eighth episode of The Return. One of the great mysteries of the initial run of the series is what exactly the ‘Black Lodge,’ a seemingly alternate dimension home to all manner of demonic entities, was, and how it operated in relation to our world. Lynch devotes this episode to exploring that very question and to illuminating much of the backstory and ethos of the realm he and Frost created; and he does it with an almost dialogue-free narrative. It relies on a montage approach at the center of a nuclear explosion and slowly reveals bits and pieces about B.O.B., the Fireman, and the places that we know as the ‘Black’ and ‘White’ lodges. It bears particular similarity to the full-blown surrealism of Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead (1977). In a larger context, the pacing of the entire season eschews traditional episodic narrative structures, throwing in scenes that seem entirely unconnected and unrelated until you have seen the full runtime. Even then, characters and story-lines are introduced that are never finished or, in some cases, even revisited. Fan favorite Audrey Horne is given two scenes in two episodes and leaves us with an infinity’s worth of questions without hardly a single answer after her last appearance. Even more remarkably, the finale of The Return does nothing to provide definitive answers on what has transpired. The viewer is left reeling.

The Return is eighteen hours of interconnected storytelling. No episode can be taken without the others if the whole story is to be experienced. Is that not the definition of a film — that it is a self-contained narrative that must be seen in its entirety to be understood? But then, what is the difference with television? The serialized nature of shows like Law and Order (1990-2010) and Seinfeld (1989-1998) mean that you have no need to see all of the episodes to appreciate and understand an episode on its own, but with other shows, such as Westworld (2016-) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), taking one episode out of the mix is pointless. It cannot be appreciated to its full potential without the complete context. On the flip side, in the age of the franchise film, are long-running film series akin to short-order seasons of television? The Marvel Cinematic Universe currently sits at seventeen films, which is two more entries than the feature-length “episodes” of Sherlock (2010-). What is the difference (Joanna Robinson raised a similar question in a recent Vanity Fair article)? The narrative of the recent Thor: Ragnarok (2017) hinges on an understanding of the events that have transpired in past movies. Even more dramatically, the events of the yet-to-be-released Avengers: Infinity War (2018) have been building since Iron Man (2008) and will be rather meaningless without the emotional and narrative content of the preceding films. Is this not the traditional understanding of a television series?

Nonetheless, what is so remarkable about Twin Peaks: The Return is that it adheres to none of the traditional storytelling guidelines of either of the mediums in which it operates. Lynch and Frost tell their story on their own terms and by their own rules. At the end of the day, it is rather trivial whether or not critics and audiences consider it a season of television or an “18-hour movie” because the distinction between the two, which has been fraying and blending for so long, seems to be quite dead. With directors like David Lynch, Danny Boyle, and Guillermo del Toro opting to make both television and movies and the same big names like Bryan Cranston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Viola Davis featuring prominently on each medium, there can be no coherent argument made for a distinction of quality between the two. The same artists, working with the same budgets and the same level of talent, are doing both. I challenge you to make a convincing argument that the set design and special effects of Westworld are of a distinctly lesser quality than those in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), or that Nicole Kidman’s performance on Big Little Lies (2017) is any less affecting than Sally Hawkins’s in The Shape of Water (2017) just because it’s on television.

The point, for me, in all of this is that Twin Peaks: The Return is a remarkable piece of narrative told in a searingly original and visually inventive way. It has not single-handedly changed the face of the visual storytelling, but it has tipped the scales when it comes to distinction between film and television. In it, I truly believe that we see the future of how stories will be told on screen. It sacrifices nothing in its pursuit of being exactly what it wants to be, and it does so in the narrative form that best suits it. At the end of the day does it really matter whether we call it television or film? I think no, because all that matters is how effectively it challenges us as art, and I cannot think of a piece of work from this year that did so any better Twin Peaks: The Return. I applaud Sight and Sound for presenting that idea for our consideration.

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