Sunday, March 22, 2015

Critical Switch: Rest in Pain

I realize that what you came here for, what a good 37 of you pay $163 a month for, is to hear me talk about videogames. But I'd like to think that, for the most part, what that really means is “here's a good game I'm gonna talk about, and here's why it's good, about 90% of the time or more. You can get my personal brand of cynicism on Twitter. If people listening right now trust my taste in videogames, I hope that means you also trust my taste in music, in films, and in television. So from time to time, you'll hear me do an episode on a medium that isn't videogames. For your pleasure and mine.

This week I'm going to be talking about Twin Peaks. If you haven't seen it, watch it. It's on every major streaming service, I'm sure it's pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and it's quite possibly the best show to ever air on American television, a reputation that precedes it and whatever statements I may make on it.

Take note: Twin Peaks is a detective story whose primary plot thread involves multiple instances of sexual assault, it can be deeply disturbing. This episode also has significant spoilers for Twin Peaks. I'm serious, I tell you who the killer is, if you don't want to know, turn back now and watch the show first.

Without further ado:

I feel like all of my favorite scenes from Twin Peaks don't make anybody else's list. The ones that have resonated most strongly with fans are the scenes that are the weirdest or most Lynchian: the red room, or Audrey Horne tying the cherry stem with her mouth. Those can be a bit . . . surface-level(?) for my liking?

I mean, they're good scenes and all (a show with two seasons on the books doesn't get remembered for being inconsistent,) but they're also somewhat self-explanatory and they can tend to be obfuscant of the totality of what the show is. The red room is weird, David Lynch is weird, Twin Peaks is fuckin weeeeeeiiird man, but that surface level weirdness acts mostly as a premonition for the murder mystery, it's not the kind of weirdness that exists in most of the show. Sherilyn Fenn is astoundingly hot but reducing her to that one quality or that one scene covers up her independent side, for example, the fact that the reason she's there in that scene to begin with is because she's doing independent investigative work on the murder of Laura Palmer.

There's at least one scene in the show, however, where all of the things that have surface-level appeal to Twin Peaks and where so much of it's subtext comes together just beautifully.

The funeral scene in Season 1, Episode 4, “Rest in Pain,” written by Harley Peyton and directed by Tina Rathborne, for which Peyton was nominated for the primetime drama writing Emmy is probably my favorite moment on the show and that makes it a pretty strong contender for my favorite moment in any television program.

That the funeral itself is even happening, at least in this particular moment of time, is an indicator of the town's old-time values, and even a sign of resisting outside forces.

I'm gonna represent events in the episode out of order here to create a sort of thematic progression. Laura Palmer's funeral is scheduled for the day of her autopsy to be performed by Dr. Albert Rosenfeld, played by Miguel Ferrer. He's arguing with the local police coroner so he can continue investigative work on Palmer's body while the locals, in this case represented by the Richard Beyman's slimy businessman Ben Horne, demand he release the body for the funeral that day. Rosenfeld is foreign to the audience at this point, and his verbal disregard for the town and characters we're already familiar with is meant to make us dislike him.

However, he's also completely right: allowed more time with the body he might've found, just to name an example, DNA evidence of who violated and murdered her. Cooper, in his empathy for the town and it's values, demands Rosenfeld to cut his work short. Cooper, the townspeople, and presumably the audience, make an utterly damnable assumption here, that Rosenfeld's vulgarity is a lack of sympathy. This is plainly false. We learn later in the series that the man is a pacifist, which is perhaps why he tries to contain physical violence through acerbic verbiage, but it's also why he investigates crimes, and he thus brings the full weight of personal interest into his work. This, I think, reflects nicely in Ferrer's performance in a later scene where he presents his findings to agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman. He's dry in presenting the evidence, but mournful that he was only allowed so much time.
DR. ROSENFELD
A couple more days with the body who knows what I might've found.

SHERIFF TRUMAN
Excuse us, we have a funeral to attend to.

In making this assumption of Rosenfeld's cynicism and shall we say “Yankee-ness,” we also ignore something about the town: that they have something to hide in all this. While many townsfolk are unconvinced they played a role in Laura's death (we'll get to that), we also know that Palmer was a walking monument to the night culture of the town that it does not want outsiders to see: taboo sex and hard drugs, the sort of thing centrists might call “alternative lifestyles” as though there's some inherent normalcy to the missionary position or drinking beer instead of smoking pot (or snorting blow.) We should note in the earlier scene at the morgue that the representative of the regular townsfolk is Ben Horne, the slimy businessman, a guy with a lot of dirty secrets himself, the closest thing the show has to a legitimate villain at this point in it's run.

BEN HORNE
Mr. Rosenfeld, please! Now, uh . . . Leland Palmer couldn't with us today, but I know I speak for everyone, the Palmer family included, when I say that, uh . . . we appreciate . . . and understand! The value of your work. But as their representative I must insist that we consider the feelings . . . of the Palmer family as well.

Ben reveals his true colors right before the funeral. We overhear him discussing with his wife about how best to get their son, Johnny, who has what are described as “emotional issues,” to remove a Native-American headdress he constantly wears so he can appear respectable for the funeral. There is little compassion in his words. His mentally disabled son is not able to easily conceal what he truly feels like the rest of the town, and Ben is ashamed of him for that, for his son's disability. Ben Horne has other, more human moments, but I think in this moment he also speaks as a representative for the town, revealing their inner cynicism, and their wish to conceal truths they don't want to engage with, like his son's disability, or Laura Palmer's life.

As Cooper leaves the autopsy room, having ordered Rosenfeld to release the body, he places Laura's limp, dead hand flat on her chest. The limp hanging wrist is an honest image of death. By replacing that hand, Cooper takes part in a narrative that wishes to preserve an image of Laura of beauty and supposed innocence. The sad thing is, she was both, but the narrative that the people of Twin Peaks want to preserve about her life is, to them, unable to be reconciled with the life she lead. This, I think, becomes especially pertinent when we recognize that Laura Palmer was not only murdered, but raped multiple times before so. In attempting to privilege the details of what we might call Laura's “day life” the town is participating in a sort of silent victim blaming. It was Laura's fault she was raped and murdered because, in the eyes of the town folks (some might say in the eyes of the show's creative team), Laura's lifestyle choices are inseparably linked from the cause of her death, and that those who live more puritanically avoid such fates.

That's a bit heavy. Let's take a short break and enjoy some more of the music of Twin Peaks, shall we?

Earlier in the episode, we then have Bobby Briggs performed by Dana Ashcroft with his father the Colonel played by Don S. Davis, both of them just immense fucking talents shining brightly in these roles.

The Colonel, a soldier by trade obviously, has had his run ins with premature deaths just like Laura. Bobby is a fair bit like Laura: hes always walking on the wild side, selling cocaine, occasionally drinking while he drives, smoking, and dating Laura before her death while also having an affair with a married woman. But while he's danced with death, he's always taken lead.

Laura's death represents the first time his mortality is ever really apparent to him. As his father sits back calmly attempting to explain how funerals allow people to come to terms with death and accept it, Bobby plays with a lighter. At first, he opens it, flicks it, lets the flame burn briefly, and then shuts it, extinguishing the flame. This is a process that Bobby Brigs has probably performed countless times until this point, as have people he associates with, those who walk with him on the wild side. As quickly as life begins, so suddenly is it gone. Now he opens it again and leaves the flame, standing the lighter on the table, cupping his hands around it to preserve it. The flame diminishes quickly, but we see here a greater appreciation to preserve things that can so suddenly end. As the colonel finishes his monologue, Bobby closes the lighter again. We can see it on his face: Bobby is angry. He is disgusted. He is afraid. But this may perhaps be the first time he has ever felt these things so deeply in his life, and he turns that anxiety into a performance.

COLONEL
Son, don't be afraid. We'll all be there together.

BOBBY
Afraid of what?

COLONEL
The funeral.

BOBBY
I'm not afraid of any damn funeral. Afraid? . . . I can hardly wait!
AFRAID?! I'M GONNA TURN IT UPSIDE DOWN!

Now we're at the funeral. The funeral has this clear progression to it that I think represents everything Twin Peaks is about in a really, just utterly gorgeous way. As the funeral starts, the preacher gives a sermon, a pretty heartfelt one, about Laura's life, but the camera tells us the real story. These people aren't really thinking about Laura, they're thinking about themselves. That's fine and all, funerals are for living, not the dead. Donna Hayward has one of the more genuine expressions of grief as she looks down at the coffin. She legitimately was one of Laura's close friends. Bobby Briggs looks down, but his face is contemptuous. He holds this entire event in contempt. Agent Cooper looks at the preacher, I'd say in respect for a faith that is not his, as he has shown respect, maybe even envy, for this culture he does not belong to. Ed Hurley looks at the preacher as well, but, perhaps filled with guilt at his wife's undying love and his adulterous affair, looks away, purses his lips, his gaze shifting. The camera shifts back to Agent Cooper, always on the job, now looking at the other mourners: Bobby, still contemptuous, getting more annoyed as he breaks his gaze on the coffin and silently, but visibly, sighs. Cooper's gaze then finds James Hurley, who had spoken of his intent not to appear at the funeral, but is here now. James' eyes are fixed on Bobby, who he thinks is responsible for the murder. Donna's eyes then find James, who she is slowly falling in love with, before guiltily shifting back to the funeral. Audrey Horne, engaging her own infatuation, shoots a flirtatious look at Cooper. Cooper returns the favor. These people are losing focus, but it was never really on Laura to begin with.

As the preacher ends his sermon, Johnny Horne sincerely intones.

JOHNNY
Amen. Amen!

And out of nowhere Bobby fucking loses it.

BOBBY
AAAAAAMMMMMEEEENN!!!

He's tired of this charade. He knew “the real” Laura Palmer, and he lives her kind of life. He knows these people don't really care about her just like they don't care about him, that they're trying to cover their tracks by appearing respectable. And he has had enough.

BOBBY
What're you lookin' at? What are you waiting for? You make me sick. You damn hypocrites make me SICK!!! Everybody knew she was in trouble! But we didn't do anything. All you “good” people. You wanna know who killed Laura? YOUD DID! We all did. And pretty words aren't gonna bring her back, man, so save your prayers! She would've laughed at them anyway.

The artifice is exposed. As is the nerve. James furiously leaps at Bobby and they begin fighting, people pick sides or try to hold the two back, and the funeral comes apart.

Leland Palmer, struck with grief, jumps on to his daughter's coffin, and the scene begins to take on a tone of incredible awkwardness that has been slowly bubbling beneath the surface. The reasons for this are threefold:

  1. Leland's landing screws with the very loud mechanisms by which Laura Palmer's body is to be put in the ground, and people have a hard time getting Leland off of the coffin as well as just putting the damn thing in the ground and getting this over with so people can go home.
  2. His wife intones, bizarrely, “Don't ruin this too!” As though the funeral is . . . what it really is: a social performance of grief. As though Leland had ruined something else in their family and was then an active embarrassment. This is all of course true because
  3. Finally: Leland Palmer, who is expressing this incredible grief, as a father might? Is the one who repeatedly raped and murdered Laura Palmer.

Thank you for joining me, I know it's been a heavy and unusual episode. In this episode we've heard the “Twin Peaks Theme,” “Audrey's Dance” and “Laura Palmer's Theme” from the Twin Peaks original soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti. Critical Switch is supported entirely by listeners like you at Patreon.com/Criticalswitch, and that'll be linked in the description. Next week you'll be joined once again by Zolani Stewart.

This time from Redmond, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.

COOPER
Do you believe in the soul?

HAWK
Several.

COOPER
More then one?

HAWK
Blackfoot legend. Waking souls that give life to the mind and the body. A dream soul that wanders.

COOPER
Dream souls? Where do they wander?

HAWK
Faraway places. The land of the dead.

COOPER
Is that where Laura is?

HAWK

Laura's in the ground, Agent Cooper. That's the only thing I'm sure of.

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