Outside / Twin Peaks (2015)
Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
Introduction: This is the spoken/written part of a live performance-lecture that Cristina & I delivered in several countries throughout 2015 and 2016. It was accompanied by numerous slide images and montage-clips, only a few of which we retain here (partly because of copyright restrictions). It was composed before David Bowie’s death in January 2016, and during the period when very little was yet publicly known about the content of Twin Peaks: The Return, which premiered in May 2017. We have not updated our 2015 text to include discussion of the 3rd series; that demands a separate project.
Circles are everywhere evident. From rings and coffee cups to a small pool of water with a fringe of red curtains, and a circle of trees in the night. The passage to another world, the occult double, the companion to our own world.
But the total space, the greater circle created by the entire Twin Peaks saga across all its parts, variations and extensions, is mysterious, ambiguous and reversible. At any moment its magnetic poles – the poles of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, White Lodge and Black Lodge – can suddenly reverse themselves, and their electric current can run the other way.
David Lynch has often declared: he will not bother to
interpret Twin Peaks for us, and
perhaps he does not even personally hold all the keys to that interpretation,
however much we would like to imagine that he does. Rather, Lynch, with his close
collaborators such as Mark Frost and Robert Engels, form a medium, a channel,
through which images and sounds, ideas and energies pass and are formed into an
indelible but ever-shifting work. It’s up to us to do the interpreting, if we
So this Twin Peaks circle is what is known as a hermeneutic circle, a space of interpretation, of trying to formulate questions and hunt down answers. But let’s be careful here; we should never seek to exhaust, to empty out the power of a true mystery with a finite set of rational answers and solutions, concerning “who did what to whom and why” in a narrative plot. As several wise philosophers have advised, when one is confronted with a hermeneutic circle as massive and deep and rich as the Twin Peaks circle, the important thing is not to refuse it or escape it or even resolve it – the important thing is to try to stay within it, to dwell in it in the best way, like trying to find the right way to ride a wave. Hermeneutics means interpretation; and when it comes to David Lynch we should not be too afraid of courting (what is known as) a delirium of interpretation – since his work invites this further step beyond.
Here’s how we choose to inhabit this circle: by tracing a network – of crisscrossing elements, references, allusions, echoes, figures, signs, and the incessant transformation of all these things together, in a dynamic system. We choose even to expand that network, taking the risk of stretching the spiral outward rather than drawing it inward – including another large piece that then, for us, becomes essential for the further mapping, experimenting with and understanding of the whole system. An extra piece that, after a while, comes to seem like it was always there, hiding in plain sight at the dead centre of the circle.
That extra piece in the puzzle, for us, is David
Bowie, and particularly his Outside album of 1995, the beginning of an ambitious, multi-part project that, so far,
has proceeded no further. In Bowie’s case, the original plan was to release
subsequent instalments of the series all the way between the years 1995 and
2000 – as a way to document, on some level “to try to capture, using this
device, what the last five years of this millennium feel like”.
Neither Twin Peaks nor Outside can be considered as just one, single object or artwork, or even really as the sum or aggregate of its various parts. Both works are serial and multiple, existing in various official and unofficial forms, in spin-offs, outtakes, and in numerous fan commentaries. Outside has among its companions the text The Diary of Nathan Adler and the audio bootleg Something Really Fishy, as well as the video clips for “The Hearts [sic] Filthy Lesson” and “Strangers When We Meet”; Twin Peaks has generated diverse publications (The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town and The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper), the audiobook Diane: The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper, an initial pilot that differs from the 1st series and, most significantly of all, the underrated feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and its The Missing Pieces released in 2014. Just as each new Lynch project seems to invite us back to a re-viewing and reconsideration of Twin Peaks – as if some gargantuan parallel world of his devising is set to grow even larger – Bowie used his Outside tour of 1996 as a way of drawing select songs from earlier periods into the particular semantic and affective universe of Outside itself, as if it could hold everything he had ever created. And neither Twin Peaks nor Outside is anything like an entirely finished work.
There are many obvious, surface connections and
intersections between Lynch and Bowie. Both have dabbled in film and music, as
well as painting, theatre and performance art. Both are actors – Bowie slightly
more conventionally so than Lynch. They know each other; doubtless they both
follow and admire each other’s work. Just like Lynch, Bowie proclaims: “My
interpretation of my work is really immaterial – art is something for the use
of a public, it’s for the public to interpret it. It’s the interpretation of
the listener, or the viewer, which is all-important”. Bowie played the role of
the Elephant Man John Merrick on the Broadway stage, the same year that Lynch
made his film on that subject. Bowie’s song “I’m Deranged” from Outside figures at the start and end of
Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). And Bowie, of course,
has a small and enigmatic role as FBI Agent Philip Jeffries in Fire Walk With Me – a few days work, the
singer tells us, of which we see tantalisingly more in The Missing Pieces.
It is also worth pointing out, in passing, how deeply both these artists plunge themselves into a kind of primordial soup of mythological references, stories, types, images and allusions, each drawing their own amalgam from spiritual, cosmological and esoteric systems that run the entire gamut from Judaeo-Christian legend to subterranean Gnostic and occult philosophies, via a cherry-pick from various indigenous traditions.
But we are not so interested in ascertaining here any direct influence that these artists, Lynch and Bowie, may have had on each other. We are more interested in what is called a collider experiment: given all the obvious connections and affinities, what else can we learn or discover from staging the intensive encounter of these two bodies of work? So let us now begin to enter the network relation of not-necessarily consciously planned echoes, affinities, resonances, even mutual homages flowing between Twin Peaks and Outside, or more generally between Lynch and Bowie. It is a vast network indeed, and it is easy for any fan or scholar to get utterly lost and deliriously hermeneutic within it: consider the recurrence, across the works, of chrome, of Angels of Death, of designer drugs and inventive bodily mutilations …
That last named item – the treatment and presentation of bodies – brings us to a matter of genre. Twin Peaks helped create or galvanise a new genre, especially in television: the Dead Girl/Woman genre, which traces out a labyrinthine mystery from the discovery of a young female corpse. TV series in this vein include Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013 & 2017), Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective (2014-2019) and both versions of, respectively, The Killing (Denmark 200-2012, USA 2011-2014) and The Bridge (Denmark/Sweden 2011-2018, USA 2013-2014). The narratives of this genre tends to be about a place, such as a town or district or region or city, a place in which many characters hold close to their chest their intricately interconnected secrets. There can be two distinct time periods – past and present, a structure taken very far by True Detective; and also, even more radically, an occult, double, or alternative world present. Sometimes, alternative lifestyles or alternative communities figure, as in Top of the Lake.
In the Dead Girl genre, the figure of an investigative outsider to this community – a detective with his or her sidekicks – is crucial. Also central to the more way-out versions of the genre is a particular notion of the identity of the killer, and of the nature of personal identity in general: this villain is split, multiple, hard to see or document or trace, perhaps a spirit that can inhabit or possess one or many bodies – hence BOB in Twin Peaks and The Minotaur in Outside.
Bowie’s Outside recreates, in its own elusive terms, the Dead Girl genre. What Bowie calls art crime – gruesome murder scenes
arranged as art installations – appears earlier in television history in Twin Peaks, and later in both True Detective and Hannibal (2013-2015).
Reflecting the Minotaur possession theme, Bowie sings
all of the voices – rotating the songs from character to character – and also
poses for their images accompanying the album. The cast of Outside’s characters includes: Baby Grace Blue, the murdered 14
year-old girl; Nathan Adler, an investigator figure; Ramona A. Stone, owner of
a body parts jewellery shop; Leon Blank, a criminal; and Algeria Touchshriek, a
dealer in “art drugs and DNA prints”.
It’s worth adding that the project had its inception when Bowie and his producer/chief collaborator Brian Eno went to see an exhibition in Vienna of outsider art, also known as art brut: art which, being the product of the mentally disturbed or criminals or other outsiders to society, also tends to escape or transgress the traditional, sanctified, institutional gallery/museum definition of art. So Bowie’s grand metaphor for this type of ambiguous or category-threatening culture is art crime, dead or mutilated bodies as art – which is also, he suggests, the kind of outlaw status often attributed to music in popular culture.
Outside, however, does not narrate a straightforward or clear story. “The narrative and the stories are not the content”, says Bowie. “The content is the spaces in-between the linear bits. The queasy, strange textures … ”. Elsewhere he remarks: “The album is about atmosphere. It’s about the sound of 1995. The narrative and the characters are really a kind of skeleton. The content of the album is what’s put on that skeleton, which is the musical texture – that’s the flesh and the blood”. Does Bowie’s approach here also allow us a new way into Twin Peaks? Such a displacement of the narrative, from centre-piece to skeleton, hands us a particular liberty, of which we are going to take full advantage: we are going to dwell more on the micro-poetic level of the series, rather than on its various larger, macro contexts of narrative, genre, and television format.
On this micro-level, certain motifs circulate, sensations spark, textures are created. We look (and listen) to isolate material clusters of elements, pockets of feeling, poetic configurations – constantly in motion across the total work, metamorphosing and transforming. For it is never a matter of static, unchanging symbols or master-metaphors that rise above the work and call for some “legend” or key to decipher them; rather, a good piece of audiovision (whatever the medium) invents its own poetic systems, and sets them perpetually spinning.
So let’s dissolve the lure of Twin Peaks’ narrative intrigue, with its regime of mysteries and clues, questions and answers, at least for a while. Let us take our cue more from a notion about competing energies or drives, which is expressed, by Agent Cooper, as a struggle between Jupiter and Saturn: “Historically … when Jupiter and Saturn are conjunct, there are enormous shifts in power and fortune. Jupiter being expansive in its influence, Saturn contracting. Conjunction suggests a state of intensification, concentration. What this indicates to me is the potential for explosive change, good and bad”.
In this light, we can picture Twin Peaks as an experiment in long-form television that is always pulling in two directions simultaneously, or alternately. Under the sign of Jupiter, it spreads out and explores, covers terrain, and time: time in two directions, past and present, because while it keeps delving into the traces surrounding the death of Laura Palmer, over and again obsessively, it also takes the time to lay out the town of Twin Peaks, its places and its inhabitants, its zones, its inside and its outside and its margins – and all the interpersonal secrets, great and small, that are at play in this present. The principal desire of Lynch and his collaborators is, at this level, to keep floating through this imagined world at all its multiple and branching levels, to let it never end. Lynch has often spoken, in different decades, of his desire to revisit this world, this dense space that fascinates him.
Then, under the sign of Saturn, there are
contractions, decisive events, sometimes provisional answers to abiding
mysteries. The floating or drifting ceases; things come to a point, and then
the tables are turned, the pieces of the imaginary world are necessarily
rearranged, put into a new relation. These narrative contractions are often
violent in Lynch – and they can literally be explosive. In the ninth episode of
Season Two, a cluster of slight, running details that have been casually
underlined several times previously – involving lit cigarettes and the new
sprinkler system in the police station – leads, in a sudden intersection of
plot threads, to the indoor shower that frees BOB from his prison cell. And at
the end of Season Two, the series seemingly cancels out a fistful of its
characters by having them converge on the Twin Peaks Savings and Loan Vault
where Eckhardt has planted a bomb as his final message.
The most sudden and surprising type of decisive event is inversion. Lynch and his collaborators often follow an intuitive logic of inversion: a sudden twist, a tipping upside-down of all that we have previously seen and understood. This way of advancing a story, in fits and starts, has almost nothing to do with classical narrative methods of preparing, foreshadowing and motivating events to come – but it does owe some kinship to the sometimes outrageous tactics of TV soap opera or melodrama. Lynch, more particularly, has a special and pronounced taste for the type of inversion which modern horror-fantasy movies like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) made popular in the 1970s and ‘80s – where what we thought was dead or settled suddenly re-emerges again, evil and alive, perhaps shifted into a different body-vessel, in the final frames.
Indeed, one way of understanding the often-disputed second season of Twin Peaks is to see that, once the knowledge of BOB having acted through Leland Palmer is loose in the fictional world, then, by a kind of semantic contamination, the entire co-ordinates of the narrative, and many of its characters, lose their solidity and do a flip-flop inversion:
- the cop Dennis arrives as Denise;
- Ben Horne enters a Civil War fantasy in which the South is victorious;
- Josie becomes a maid;
- Leo turns from a violent guy into a comatose vegetable;
- Nadine regresses to being a teenager;
- Catherine disguises herself as a Japanese man;
- Audrey, hitherto a vamp who managed to work in a brothel for a while, reveals herself to be a virgin to her “first love” John Justice Wheeler;
Lynch as Gordon
Cole is almost completely deaf but can perfectly hear only one person in the
Crucially, inversion is a formal (or textual) principle as well as a narrative- or character-based one – and here we return to the idea of micro-poetic transformations and their systems. Let us now follow something that happened by accident on set during the shooting of the pilot episode of Twin Peaks – a light fixture that didn’t work, flickering on and off – which then became a major motif in the entire scope of the series.
Flickering lights, sparks and short-circuits, on/off
emissions, lightning, torches, complex strobing patterns, and less “motivated”
effects that suggest the sudden overexposures created by photographic lighting
or printing: light, for Lynch, is a privileged medium for the manifestation of
that electrical energy which, as Stéphane du Mesnildot has noted, he seems to
“exalt” in an “almost mystical veneration” (1) – and this is a veneration he
shares with the equally electricity-obsessed Bowie, from his cover of “White
Light/White Heat” in the early 1970s all the way to his apotheosis in one of The Missing Pieces. “Put your electric
eye on me, babe”, indeed!
This system of light in Twin Peaks gets attached, by poetic association, with the strange fate, and often the failure, of communication devices. Most of these devices come in the form of resolutely old-fashioned technology, in line with the surreal, time-shifting nostalgia of the entire enterprise: telephones, radios, boxy old TV sets set to “snow”, big microphones, wires, speakers, earpieces, antennae.
Mechanical or artificial communication tends to go
berserk in Lynch, creating every kind of auditory displacement and excess:
screaming, sobbing, feedback, echo, static, distortion – as well as music that
stops and starts, speeds up and slows down. Telephony is even married to an
uncanny, mental telepathy in the Twin
Peaks pilot, when people know what is to be told them before it is said,
and even without it being said.
How does Lynch’s way with narrative in Twin Peaks relate to Bowie and the Outside project? Bowie described the album as a “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. The Gothic Drama component is the Dead Girl genre elements we have already mentioned. But the non-linear hyper-cycle: basically, that means it has no real start or end, and it goes around and around – obsessively fixating on certain incidents, traces, clues, characters, verbal phrases. So, like Twin Peaks, it enters a world that it conjures in fragments, rather than constructing a plot in any conventional, linear sense. Bowie’s history with making concept albums in the 1970s – Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Diamond Dogs – already existed in this curious narrative space carved out by the history of ambitious rock music: a discontinuous story, with flashes of incident or description, often rotated around a set of character voices. Bowie’s elaborate concert/stage presentations of these albums explored their imaginary worlds with various theatrical re-enactments in song, movement, costume and mime; and his music video clips – such as those made for Outside by Samuel Bayer – re-interpreted those elements yet again.
One particular resonance between Twin Peaks and Outside is crucial here: if narrative time is cyclical, and if the imaginary world itself recycles and superimposes the times of past, present and future, then the result, for these works, is a particular kind of eternal present – the time in which everything is always happening now. Every event: its spectacular instant of trauma, its prelude, its aftermath, and also the inversion or reversal of every event – is accessible, through some portal or other, at every moment. Both Lynch and Bowie were prophets here of a certain type of digital/web/hyperlinked narrative form, with the potential to branch in all directions simultaneously. The refrain or motif that “It’s happening now” or “It’s happening again” is something we hear frequently in both Twin Peaks and Outside.
Inspired by the Bowie method of the non-linear hyper-cycle, we move to the treatment of another micro-poetic series in Twin Peaks: its system of motion, animated movements of all kinds.
In a curious series of published diary notes written during the first broadcast of Twin Peaks in France, Serge Daney reflected on the particular aspects of the series that most attracted him. He wrote that the look, the somewhat glacial and plastic beauty of each character, “the glaze of a smooth surface” as in a Hitchcock movie, stays absolutely the same no matter what happens, and this is (paradoxically) because of the “freedom of the open TV series” format – once again, frozen time, the eternal Now. Each character is therefore, for Daney, only his or her frozen look, endlessly repeated: no psychology, no inner depth. Daney relates Lynch’s TV style to a certain aspect of Mannerism in art: the characters are like little fishes, he says, doing their last, spastic movements once removed from their aquarium environment. They are, he says, “animate[d] from outside” and their “movements are very particular: convulsive, made as parody … and eventually deadly. After the movement stops, it's enough to instil it from outside by treating them like inert toys, puppets, freeze-frames”. (2) Bowie, too, makes extensive use of this kind of spasmodic, convulsive, animated movement in the music clips for Outside.
One of the main variations or manifestations of these types of animated character movement comes, in both Twin Peaks and Outside, in the gestures of turning and shaking. Many of these come in circular forms: the turning circle is an obsessive motif for Lynch. Shaking, which we also see a lot of in Twin Peaks, has a mythological resonance tied intimately to sexuality: in the Jewish tradition of demonology, for instance, “demons are pure spirits who, having been created by God on Friday evening at dusk, could no longer receive bodies, for the Sabbath had already begun” (3) – and so they seek to possess the bodies of men in order to masturbate violently, shaking out and wasting the seed of life.
This type of possessed or hysterical movement is further related to the many types of mechanical apparatus that – like the phones and lights – either look uncannily strange in their proper functioning, or again go berserk: mechanical apparatuses that range from the automated wood-saw machine in the opening credits of the series, to the coffin levers that take Leland up and down at Laura’s funeral. And while Twin Peaks has its own Julee Cruise song about circular, repetitive movements (“The World Spins”), a track from Bowie’s Outside rings with all these motifs of motion: “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)”.
Utter destruction as beauty: once again, Bowie and Lynch are united in their love of opposites, their ambiguous fusion and spectacular inversion. To provisionally close our own non-linear, hyper-cycle, and our hermeneutic circle, let’s take a step quite outside Twin Peaks.
In the 1990s and since, there arose a persuasive way to read or interpret Twin Peaks: as, in essence, being really, centrally about the trauma of sexual child abuse within the patriarchal nuclear family unit – with all the other stuff about White and Black Lodges and the Log Lady and Bob and Windom Earle and Jupiter and Saturn being the necessary cover, the double-talk, the phantasm that was required in order to puncture and explore that taboo and get it, by stealth, onto prime time, commercial, mainstream television.
Or maybe – according to a more critical take – all the mystical stuff was the narrative’s own self-denial of this true core. However you spin it, the indelible dialogue exchange between Cooper and Harry seemed like a confession or a tell-tale give-away of Lynch’s artistic and cultural intent: when Harry says “I’m having a hard time believing” in the supernatural theory of BOB, Cooper replies: “Is it easier to believe that a man would rape and murder his own daughter?” Maybe that line points to the taboo on what is almost unspeakable, literally unthinkable, in the Twin Peaks saga.
Twenty-five years on, however, it’s possible to see things a bit differently, without entirely negating that political reading of social trauma in Twin Peaks. For, at the moment, there is a renewed serious interest, as well as renewed fan enthusiasm, about the irrational, the other-worldly, the supernatural and non-human. Philosophers of a new school are talking about dark energies and weird forces, and everyone (it seems) is re-reading the novels of H.P. Lovecraft. It feels less easy to simply dismiss this aspect of Lynch (or of Bowie) as just double-talk, or stylish horror atmospherics.
We return to the question of energy, so central to the workings of audiovisual media and popular music alike. The visionary art historian and cultural philosopher Aby Warburg (1866-1929) had a particularly brilliant and prophetic way of understanding what goes down in our current, media-saturated world: an image (or sound or story) enters the circuit of culture as a packet of energy, a dynamic potentiality. It is neither simply good or bad, positive or negative; it has the potential to go either way, it can either be toxic or health-giving, but we cannot judge that in advance.
When this piece of cultural material enters a specific
time and place in social history, it gets polarised,
as in an electrical circuit: its positive and negative energy flows suddenly
get sorted out somehow. And yet how this flow will exactly turn out is
unpredictable, always changing from one moment and situation to the next.
Warburg saw artists, historians and intellectuals alike as “extremely sensitive
seismographs responding to distant earthquakes” (4) on the horizon, or in his
own word, necromancers, wizards
calling to the dead, who consciously evoke the threatening spectres lurking in
David Bowie, for his part, identifies with this very position when he stated in 1995 that, for him, Outside is about “this new Pagan worship, this whole search for a new spiritual life that's going on” at the dawn of the 21st century – albeit a violent, twisted, perverse search. That’s “[b]ecause of the way we've demolished the idea of God with that triumvirate at the beginning of the century, Nietzsche, Einstein and Freud. They really demolished everything we believed. 'Time bends, God is dead, the inner-self is made of many personalities'... wow, where the fuck are we?”
However, inversion once again rules, and it gets us to a good moment. Bowie says: “But there is also this positivism that you find now which really wasn't there at the end of the last century. Then, the general catch phrase among the artistic and literary community was that it was the end of the world. They really felt that in 1899 there was nothing else, that only complete disaster could follow. It isn't like that now. We may be a little wary or jittery about what's around the corner, but there’s no feeling of ‘everything's going to end in the year 2000’. Instead, there's almost a celebratory feeling of 'right, at least we can get cracking and really pull it all together’.”
So we now exit the expanded circle of Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Bowie’s Outside, trusting, at least a little, in
the ultra-sensitive, ultra-creative powers of these twin necromancers.
1. Stéphane du Mesnildot, “Dernières nouvelles de Laura Palmer”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 703 (September 2014), p. 65. back
2. Serge Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur. (Paris: P.O.L, 1993), pp. 332-333. back
3. See Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 149-150. back
4. Ibid., p. 94. back