Arts Essay

Remembrance of things past

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

If you want to appreciate why the return of Twin Peaks is so significant, then you need to know something of the background. And, no, not the background of the show itself, which rose and fell through two series before coming to a stop on 10 June 1991. Nor the background of its story, which began with the sodden corpse of Laura Palmer and concluded with the FBI agent Dale Cooper — or was it? — smashing his head into a mirror. But the background of the world into which Twin Peaks is returning. The terrible here and now.

This is a time when pop culture is being overrun by nostalgia for the 1990s. Scientists have identified the origin of this trend as the release of Jurassic World into cinemas a couple of years ago, but it has continued on through Pokémon Go, through this year’s Power Rangers movie, through the impending Baywatch film, and will even extend to a reboot of The Matrix franchise. Nineties nostalgia has supplanted Eighties nostalgia as one of the biggest forces in showbiz.

Some of this nostalgia is innocent and spontaneous. At other times, if you look hard at it, you can see the designs of the moneymen who want to relieve Nineties kids of their adult incomes.

Take Jurassic World. This wasn’t just a jacked-up repeat of Jurassic Park (1993); it also toyed with our memories of the earlier film. At one point, its obligatory nerd character explains why he’s wearing a T-shirt with the original park’s logo on the front. ‘I got it on eBay,’ he says. ‘That first park was legit.’ For viewers who were children when the first film was released, and who might have owned similar T-shirts back then, it was like being force-fed Proust’s madeleines until you were sick. This movie really, really wanted us to remember the good times of the 1990s.

The third series of Twin Peaks, which begins later this month, is both a part of the Nineties trend and apart from it. What makes it special is that it was already a study in nostalgia. The original two series were set in 1989 and aired across 1990 and 1991, but you might remember them almost as an artefact from the 1950s. The town of Twin Peaks itself (pop. 51,201) offers, as Agent Cooper put it, ‘A way of living I thought had vanished from the Earth.’ Its people exist beneath mountains, trees and the chimneys of a sawmill. They eat pie and drink coffee in the local diner. There are greasers and jukeboxes and plaid skirts.

Practically every component of Twin Peaks worked to strengthen the ties between its present and America’s past. The script contained more than a few references to studio-era movies such as Vertigo (1958). So did the cast list, with actors such as Piper Laurie and Russ Tamblyn. And then, most important of all, there was Angelo Badalamenti’s narcotic score, which found new layers of nostalgia by mixing synthesisers with slow jazz.

The 1950s feel of Twin Peaks was thought to have contributed to its initial success — here was a show that reminded baby boomers of the cosier parts of their own childhoods. Yet Twin Peaks’s co-creators were never trying to exploit this sentiment. Both David Lynch and Mark Frost were themselves children in the 1950s, and Lynch draws on the decade in most of his work. He simply had more room on television in which to flaunt his obsessions.

Besides, Twin Peaks was more than just cherry pies and cherry-red lipstick. It realised that there was sadness in nostalgia itself — what Svetlana Boym describes, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, as ‘a sentiment of loss and displacement’.

That’s why the relationship between Catherine and Pete Martell, which plays like a subplot, is more important than it first appears. ‘Somewhere under all that scar tissue, there’s the faintest flicker of what we used to feel for each other,’ she tells him during the final episode of the first series. ‘I’m asking you to feel it now.’ But she’s only asking it to take advantage of the poor guy. Those good times you used to have? They’re lost.

With Lynch as our guide, the past is what it should be: a complicated place. It contains happiness, but also unhappiness, weirdness and worse. As if to underline the point, he’s recently been talking about his own past for a forthcoming documentary called David Lynch: The Art Life. His, he says, was a joyful childhood, but it also had some sharp edges. He remembers one occasion when a naked woman with bleeding lips intruded on him playing in the street; a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Twin Peaks. In fact, it may have reached Twin Peaks in the form of Ronette Pulaski’s sad, stumbling walk across the bridge in the pilot episode.

Then, inevitably, there is Laura Palmer. It was her death that set the mysteries of Twin Peaks in motion, but it was her life that fixed most of its themes in place. She was the homecoming queen, dating the football captain, whose innocence was undone by drugs, violent sex and horrible secrets. She is, in the show’s mythology, a battlefront between good and evil. Or, to put it in 1950s terms, prom versus the bomb.

Will this battle still be compelling 26 years after Twin Peaks first ended, and more than half a century beyond the decade it was referencing? Lynch, who has directed all 18 episodes of the new series, certainly faces a challenge. There’s the possibility that his juxtaposition of good and evil, of doughnuts and bondage, of the White Lodge and the Black Lodge, will come across as too binary nowadays. Modern audiences are, after all, used to 50 shades of grey.

And there are other questions too. Will Twin Peaks’s careful layer-cake of nostalgia be able to support the addition of another time period, the present day? Will its look survive the transition from square, cathode-ray televisions to wide, high-definition models? Will it still stand out when the schedules are thick with other tremendous shows?

Whatever answers the new series provides over the next four months, it will at least have us thinking about nostalgia and the 1990s, and that is a fine development. As Boym puts it in her book, ‘Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defence mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals’ — yet defences must be tested. There’s more to the remembrance of things past than just buying a T-shirt off eBay.

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