Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Film School Essays - November 1990 Twin Peaks

Oh yes, I did. I found my stash of papers that I wrote in film school. I am pleased to report that I made nothing less than a B on any one of these papers. And I am also pleased to share them here! I thought it would be fun to revisit them and maybe to spark some conversations. So . . . hold on to your hats 'cause I'm about to get all analytical on you!

Disclaimer: I am transcribing this exactly as I wrote it. There are definitely things I would change if I were to write it now - word choices, phrasing, etc. I have also put the professor's comments at the end of this post in italics.

Twin Peaks and the Doughnut Dissolves
RTF 317 (Narrative Strategies)
November 13, 1990

Synopsis of the Summary Scene from "Twin Peaks"
Season 2 Episode 1 1:05:12

The summary scene opens with an establishing shot of the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department office building and cuts immediately to an inside office with Agent Cooper in MCU. Cooper and Albert begin to restate all of the facts and deductions about the case. The narrative is reinforced by a series of flashbacks. Andy begins to cry over Laura's photo and Albert throws out a sarcastic remark. Andy stands up and tells Albert that he does not like the way Albert "talks smart", tells him to shut his mouth, and storms out of the room. There is a series of short reactions shots of the TP's Sheriff's Department staff and of Albert. Cooper ends the scene by saying, "Laura Palmer is dead. Jacques Renault is dead. Ronette Pulaski and Leo Johnson are in comas. Waldo the bird is dead. This leaves only the 'third man.'" There is a slow fade to black and then a commercial.

Twin Peaks and the Doughnut Dissolves

From the very beginning of its first season, Twin Peaks (hereafter TP) has defied description. Is it a serialized detective drama, a soap opera, a biting satire of Americana, or a quirky black comedy doomed only to cult status? The answer is: all of the above. The production team of David Lynch and Mark Frost have managed to throw together a blend of generic conventions and innovative techniques to form on very odd hour of television viewing. Director David Lynch uses this strange brew very effectively in the second season pilot's summary scene discussed here. The scene takes the viewers' generic expectations and pretends to fulfill them while, in reality, it leaves the viewers in almost the same informational vacuum that it left them in at the end of the first season.

On the surface and in terms of the main plot of Laura's murder, the scene is a very conventional, expected part of a serial cop/detective show. Unlike an episodic program where, at the end of the summary the detective names the killer, there is no resolution and no sense of impending resolution. The scene does nothing more than give the viewers information that they already have; Act III is not achieved, much less the second major plot point. Indeed, the scene fades to a commercial immediately following Cooper's list of dead or comatose characters. He ends that speech with, "This leaves only the 'third man,'" punctuated by an ominous, ethereal musical chord. This generic cliffhanger device is thus used on a large scale by the whole scene, which promises a resolution at some point if the viewer remains loyal, and on a small scale by Cooper's delivery of the hook line which ensures that the viewer will stay tuned through the commercial break.

There is a small payoff in subplot, however. The character of Deputy Andy suffers a choice regarding the treatment that he has been subjected to by FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield. Andy uncharacteristically stands up to Albert rather than continue to be ridiculed by him. There is an immediate cut to Lucy in medium close-up (MCU) looking smugly at Albert. This outburst by Andy not only instills respect for him in the viewers, but it may prove to be the force that reunites the lovers Andy and Lucy. Therefore, the scene does serve to advance the narrative, if only on the level of subplot.

From the start of the scene, Lynch sets up a tension between the FBI and the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department (TPSD). The establishing shot of the TPSD office building shows the sheriff's blazer and the FBI agents' car facing each other at an angle, not quite seeing eye-to-eye. Inside the building there exists much of the same thing. Cooper and Albert sit at one corner of a long table while the TPSD staff sit at the oppostie end. Lynch reinforces this distance by shooting the TPSD staff from the agents' point of view just above the table top. In addition, he elongates the shot artificially to create more distance both physically and psychologically.

The FBI agents command the camera from the beginning, with Cooper being the main narrative agent (no pun intended). They are shot only in close-up (CU) or MCU while the TPSD staff is mostly shown in medium shots, MCU and the long shot described above. Deputy Andy proves to be the exception. Lynch places him across the table from his co-workers and diagonally across the table from the FBI agents. With his outburst, Andy becomes the first and only resident of Twin Peaks to speak in the scene. This starts a brief sequence where the command of the camera goes to the TPSD. Andy has a CU as he gest up from the table and begins his berating of Albert. His departure from the room is immediately followed by several reaction shots of the TPSD staff. Lucy has an MCU followed by Harry and Hawk in a medium shot together. The emphasis on Lucy reinforces the advancement of the subplot while the acknowledgement of Harry and Hawk reconnects the viewers to the TPSD for the moment. This connection is short, though, as the FBI agents quickly regain control of the camera for Agent Cooper's "body count".

Agent Cooper serves as the main narrative agent for the scene with only incidental assistance from Albert. As Cooper begins the scene, he addresses the camera directly, immediately engaging the viewer. He does this two more times during the course of his narrative, thus not allowing the viewers to disengage. Cooper, as the goal-oriented protagonist in this scene, involves the viewers in his own technically precise, crime-solving agenda. He lays all of the putative clues on the table, much as the doughnuts, and by the end of the scene challenges the viewers to choose between jelly or glazed, true or false.

The most important system used by Lynch in the scene is the flashback sequence. Lynch approaches this tired generic convention in a very conventional way in what will hereafter be referred to as the Doughnut Dissolves. During the Doughnut Dissolves, Lynch never completely gives the screen to the flashback. The pan down the table over the doughnuts, coffee, and evidence never fully fades from view. The dissolve never quite happens, just as the killer is never quite named. This causes the viewers to remain connected to the present while being reminded of the events of the past.

The flashbacks do not start as such. The first two images that Lynch reveals are; evergreens blowing in a harsh wind and a traffic signal displaying its red light. These two seemingly random images serve to accentuate the voice-over narration. The wind-swept trees symbolize the evil and "otherness" found in the woods and eluded to by several characters throughout the series. This image fades into the stoplight - a failed warning to Ronette and Laura and a period marking the end in the narrative of the recitation of raw fact and the beginning of information that must remain conjecture.* Cooper's narrative before and during the shot of the light contains the facts that the viewers know to be concrete through both the confession of Jacques Renault and the statement of the Log Lady. Cooper's comments about the "third man" and the events in the train car are, at this point, still supposition. The transition from fact to conjecture is also punctuated by a shift in the music from melodic to ominous. The remaining flashbacks continue this musical theme and are directly and obviously related to the portion of the summary voice-over at any particular moment.

The decision to do the flashbacks as Doughnut Dissolves derives from the division of the town of Twin Peaks into a world of false domesticity and an underworld of savage violence and corruption. The constant, overwhelming presence of the trail of doughnuts with their cloying wholesomeness** provides counterpoint to the sickening torture-murder of the Twin Peaks prom queen. The trail becomes a kind of yellow brick road leading the viewers to the debris of Laura's murder shown both in the flashback of the murder site and contained in plastic bags at the end of the Sheriff's table.

The final function of the Doughnut Dissolves serves as a reinforcement of the Twin Peaks iconography that has invaded American pop culture. The sequence begins with Agent Cooper, himself a familiar sight in his impeccably tailored dark suit and perfectly placed hair, reaching for the ever-present doughnut. The pan takes the viewers from the doughnuts, over the brewing coffee so beloved by Cooper, to the pile of evidence. There Lynch leads the viewers over Laura's death photo, two issues of Flesh World, Laura's diary and, finally, takes them to rest on Andy's trademark sobbing and the now famous prom queen portrait. The only thing lacking in the collection is a "damn fine" piece of pie. The Doughnut Dissolves thus serve as a tour of Twin Peaks mysterious icons: items chosen to parody*** small town American life and its obsession with hospitality and "niceness".

Lynch-Frost Productions has created an incredibly unique television show, to say the least. On the surface, nothing is amiss: the detectives continue to investigate a murder, there are numerous loves and business affairs, family difficulties and closet skeletons. However, Lynch-Frost has populated this area with a woman who talks to a log, a man who finds fish in his coffee pot, and an FBI agent who takes clues from dwarfs and giants who show up in his dreams. The result is a slightly unsettling, but always refreshing hour of pure escapism.*** The summary scene typifies the conflict between the old and the new conventions by reinventing the detective summary through the use of the Doughnut Dissolves. To the typical member of the "least common denominator" audience, this could prove to be the most frustrating way to solve a crime. The patient, attentive and open-minded audience sees it as a welcome, creative oasis in the vast wasteland**** of prime time television.


* nice points
** or lack of substance
*** contradictory? or is parody as escapist as fluff?
**** pretty critical! that term was used to describe 60s tv
A - nice work! both thematically and technically

And . . . discuss.

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