Learn Lynch: A Chat With Joel Bocko

In preparation for Learn Lynch, our new series where we attempt to decode the works of David Lynch by picking the brains of first-time viewers, the 25 Years Later staff thought it would be a good idea to check in with someone who, you know, knows some stuff about the subject…and who better fits that description than Lost in the Movies Joel Bocko? Joel is the author of hundreds (if not thousands…we lost count…) of essays (written, video, and image) on the subject of not just Twin Peaks but also David Lynch, Mark Frost, and hundreds of other filmmakers and their films. Joel’s blog is a repository of amazing critical analysis on cinema’s best films, and his video essay series “A Journey Through Twin Peaks” is second-to-none.

So I sat down and asked him a few questions about the works of David Lynch, The Return, and how it all fits together.


On The Return as David Lynch’s magnum opus: Yeah, that’s how it felt to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work by a director where they’ve drawn on all of their work up to that point, just touched on all of it. Even though he has a specific style, Lynch actually has a pretty diverse body of work. You’ve got everything from Straight Story to Elephant Man, to Inland Empire, Wild at Heart, all of these very different modes or genres of filmmaking…he referred back to all of it. I mean, there were parts that I thought really gelled really well with every single one of his movies. And all the actors that were in it! I mean, there’s all these obvious motifs that he’s drawing on, so in that sense, yeah, I think it’s definitely a magnum opus.

“I think Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive were really key to the finale. I think if somebody hadn’t seen that, it would feel even more left field to them.”

On callbacks to previous Lynch works, and whether you need familiarity with Lynch’s oeuvre to appreciate The Return: The most surprising one to me was even Dune got a shout out at the beginning of Part 3, where he’s looking over the purple sea. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive were really key to the finale. I think if somebody hadn’t seen them, it would feel even more left field, seeing Cooper undergo this change, and the characters with different names, different identities. He really—and I kind of hoped he would do this, and I honestly expected he would—he really linked up Twin Peaks with his late work films. It felt very much in that pattern and now other than The Straight Story he has not done anything since Fire Walk With Me that hasn’t switched people’s identities and timelines and realities in some way. Every film—just like M. Night Shyamalan does the twist at the end (this is a much less cheesy version of that), but this is Lynch’s thing. So I appreciated that.

On the impact of The Return on Twin Peaks as a series: It almost seems like it makes more sense as a Lynch film summing up his whole career than as an extension of Twin Peaks in some ways. In terms of his […] images and motifs and everything it’s very much a fulfillment of his work, or a climax, or a summation.

On the future of Twin Peaks and David Lynch’s film career: My first feeling when it ended and the credits rolled was like “This is it.” This is the end of Twin Peaks. Maybe the last big Lynch project, who knows? Hopefully not. But then immediately afterwards, talking to people online, and even just thinking back on it, I was feeling completely differently. I could totally see how he would come in and just pick up and do another season as well. I could see that happening. It almost depends on what mood I’m in or which angle I’m looking at it. It’s like a weird art object that’s like…if you look at it one way it looks like an ending, and if you look at it another way it looks like a cliffhanger, a set up for something more. I could see both points of view, but I like that feeling…

What feeling? Oh, that feeling!: I think it was [Bickering Peaks] who said this: relishing sitting in that moment and having that feeling wash over you. “My god, this has ended.” There was something so deep and rich about that, because I haven’t felt that way in the longest time. I’ve seen Lynch’s films so many times at this point. I think probably the last—certainly the last of these strange narrative journeys that I probably watched would be Lost Highway and Inland Empire almost 10 years ago. Since then there’s a certain amount of getting used to it. But this took me right back to the first time seeing Mulholland Drive, the first time seeing Lost Highway…or Twin Peaks itself, the first couple season and the film, and just having that feeling of like “Oh my god, what just happened?” You’re in that strange space and you have to relish that because it’s a very rare feeling. I knew we’d have years to dig into this stuff, but you only once get that feeling of being lost in the work. Of course with Lynch you always get a little of that feeling left over, and something like Inland Empire you know, probably forever, you’ll be trying to navigate that.

“It’s like a weird art object that’s like…if you look at it one way it looks like an ending, and if you look at it another way it looks like a cliffhanger.”

On the writing process: The thing I want to know most about Twin Peaks at this point—I saw Mark Harris, the film writer, said this on Twitter—is: to know the process. I don’t know that we ever will because they’re kind of tight-lipped. But I really wanna know the process. I wanna know, when they sat down, did they write a certain part first? And did they not know how it was gonna end, and they just spent all of this time developing the stuff just like they did with the Pilot and the first season without knowing where it was gonna go, almost as if they were writing a continuous show? Or did they really sit down: here’s the beginning, middle, end, get the whole outline very tightly structured, and then fill it in with the details? I think Frost said somewhere that they spent a year writing the first two hours. So that implies to me that maybe they did set it up almost like there was, you know, a producer over their shoulder saying: “Write a Pilot.” Almost like they knew how they had written the first show, and what parts of that worked and what parts of that didn’t. And this is just my imagination now filling in the gaps—I could be totally wrong—but it occurs to me that maybe they set themselves up and let themselves live in that mystery for a while and developed the details of that before they went on and finished it. I think that explains some of the interesting qualities as well as maybe some of the flaws. When we get to that scene where Hastings is like “I wrote a blog and we went up in the sky” I was like…”Really? This is where the story was going?” I didn’t think that’s where they were headed with it, and if I hadn’t known better I woulda said: “When they were writing the series they get to the second season and they said ‘How do we resolve this story? Well let’s go in this direction!’” But obviously that’s not how The Return was written, it was written ahead of time. But if they really did sort of start with the premises and develop those, and let them be open and then figure out where they were gonna lead? Then that could be true I guess.

On Mark Frost’s fingerprints on Twin Peaks and whether The Return says as much about Frost as is does about Lynch: It’s hard for Mark Frost because he worked in a much different way than Lynch. Lynch made films and he did paintings and music as well, but he has a body of work that’s totally his, and he made these films usually with very little interference and you can kind of trace them out. Frost started as a TV writer, so he was writing for other people’s shows. You know, Hill Street Blues was a Steven Bochco production, so he was working within that creator’s world. He adapted a book for a horror film and then he did Twin Peaks with Lynch, where Lynch was obviously the better-known artist—and with a very distinctive voice—so everyone is gonna see what he’s doing. And then he made the one film, Storyville, and that was it. I think he did maybe two other short-lived TV shows, and that was it over the next 20 years or so. He did a couple of screenplays and he mostly wrote sort of fantasy adventure-type books. And people often conclude from that, “Oh, he doesn’t have much of a vision, he’s just there to give it structure,” or whatever and I don’t think that’s really true. Everything I’ve seen from him both in terms of what he brought to Twin Peaks and his other work is, he does have a pretty clear ethos and vision that he likes to express. So…that’s sort of a long way of saying: “I think the answer is ‘Yes’ it does tell us something more about Mark Frost, but I’m not sure what that is!” I’m curious, honestly. One of the things I’m most curious to see is what he contributed to the episodes that feel the most Lynchian. So like Part 8, Part 18—and I’ve already heard people suggest little things that seem like “Oh, okay, this could be a Frost touch.” Even just the cowboys in the bar; Mark Frost spends a lot of time on Twitter and he knows what right-wing Twitter trolls are like, so he drew a lot of that into the Return. Like you’ve got Chad going “Oh, it’s a free country. I can make fun of their dead son!” and you’ve got the guy in the bar calling her (Sarah Palmer) names and getting his throat ripped out—[25YL: Or Janey-E with the 99 percenters.] Yes! Exactly! So yeah, there’s definitely a sense that whenever there’s the social commentary, sometimes kind of on the nose, that that’s more Frost than Lynch, but you never know.

“Lynch never negates his previous work.”

On the links between Fire Walk With Me and The Return: I’ve heard people say “Well, but think about this: it looks like she disappears from that timeline and therefore she doesn’t go through that train car, she doesn’t see her angel at the end of the film. She just becomes this other person, like the end of Fire Walk With Me is sort of cancelled.” So the first question…well there are two questions. One is when you look at the work, is that really the most obvious conclusion, that you can come to the point where it’s hard to see it the other way? That’s question number one. Question number two is: If so, does that work? You know—is that an effective conclusion? I kinda feel like the answer to number two is “No, I don’t think it is an effective conclusion” because…here’s the problem with it. Everything Lynch has done up until now with Twin Peaks has an response to outside circumstances. He has talked about being really frustrated that he had to reveal the killer at all, but the fact that he did it produced his best work on the show. He really responded well to the challenge. Same thing with the idea of Cooper’s downfall, there’s questions of “Did he really want to do that? Was that more Frost?” and he found his way to it. Fire Walk With Me brings Laura back alive, and then: “Now what do I do with this character whose whole purpose was to die?” Arguably with the ring and the angel and Ronette and all that happens in the train car, he finds a way to make that bigger and transcendent. So he keeps responding to these challenges forced upon him and having to come to a solution which may be a little messy, a little tangled, but beautifully elevates it to another level. With The Return there’s nothing like that. He didn’t have to make this. So if he’s going back to say: “Oh, this is what it means to return to Twin Peaks. It means, you know, destroying the thing you loved…” it’s like… “Dude, nobody told you you had to go back to Twin Peaks!” This wasn’t something that the universe made you do. So if people are interpreting it correctly, essentially  […] the message would be you can’t return. You can’t try to force yourself to go home again. You can’t force yourself to like dig up this thing again. Twin Peaks was what it was. “Okay, you want me to go back? Here’s what it means to go back.” Which is theoretically a cool answer but it falls flat and it’s very cynical, because it’s not an outside circumstance. It’s him choosing out of nowhere, pretty much, to go back to this world and say this. So to me it would be very circular logic and kind of cheap if that’s what he’s going for. So for the first question though, is that what he’s going for, or whether intention matters or not… I can’t put my finger on it yet but—well, first of all, Lynch never negates his previous work. He never even wanted to do a Director’s Cut of Dune, a film he disowned: “No…I can’t fix that, it is what it is.” And Twin Peaks, whenever he didn’t like a direction, he’d go back but he’d build on it. He wouldn’t just erase it and hit the refresh button, he’d always develop it more, even using the stuff he didn’t like. So same thing with Mulholland Drive, he barely cut anything from that Pilot, he more or less kept that structure intact and most of the scenes, added a few little details, but took what he had and turned it into something else. So with that in mind it’s really contrary to his ethos to say: “This previous thing never happened. It doesn’t count now, I’m changing the meaning of that. I’m not building on it.” And I mean, literally, Part 17 itself says that that you can’t do that. I realize that there’s issues, problems with this…the intercutting of Laura being sucked out of the Red Room, implying that Cooper trying to take her in the past is what actually did that…the scenes of Pete and Josie where Laura’s body is gone…although the placement of them is interesting—all these sort of things, those suggest that, yes, he changed the past. He shouldn’t have, but he did. But to me I’m inclined to believe he didn’t, that what we’re seeing there is kind of…the past determines the future, as Mike says. What we’re seeing there is like a reassertion of “No, this is the Twin Peaks story.” And there’s a reason for that. The fact that Cooper can’t find his place within that tells us a lot about his character and about Twin Peaks and how Lynch sees it. […] While I think there’s something of Laura in Carrie even as she’s ascended, you really have to think outside time and space about the Red Room, so I think the ultimate ending is still that ending of Fire Walk With Me. I actually said that in the review, that was just my gut instinct that night…wow, this is sad and bitter and frustrating but this is for now, not even necessarily forever, but for now Cooper’s end of the story and maybe this where we stop in terms of how we engage with him and what he means as an audience surrogate and a surrogate for Lynch and all this other stuff. But it’s not the ultimate ending to Twin Peaks. We’ve already seen that. It’s the end of Fire Walk With Me. So that’s my complicated answer: if these people are right and that’s what Lynch intended, I think it doesn’t work and I’d be pretty critical of it. But I’m leaning towards thinking that’s not what he’s doing with this.

On the ending of The Return: Maybe we suspected it would be like Inland Empire where the character has all these fragments and then she faces her shadow and coheres in the end. We thought this would be a happy ending for Coop. Really, it was more like Mulholland Drive or Lost HighwayMulholland Drive especially, where the character almost seems to emerge from this dream. I don’t know–it’s tricky to use the word dream because is it a literal dream? Is it a metaphorical dream? Or anything like that? But I think the idea is that the Cooper that comes out of Glastonbury Grove specifically and greets Diane…from that point on, that Cooper is a similar to Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive. We’ve been watching Naomi Watts play this bubbly, optimistic, almost larger than life character for an hour and 45 minutes and it’s shocking to see her suddenly be this flawed not altogether there person. And the Cooper we see in part 18…he’s not quite to that extreme but certainly compared to the Cooper we’ve known for 45 hours or however long the show is when you add the two shows together…it’s pretty shocking. So I think that was the surprise. John Thorne and others were right, but they all—and maybe me too— expected there to be a resolution for Coop and I think the resolution was just more of a recognition. It was realizing that he was this whole and that was the conclusion versus solving it somehow. How do we explain where Laura ends up or what that means in the context of Twin Peaks, and that to me is a more troubling question in a way. Because going into this we knew that Cooper’s story was unresolved and whatever was gonna have to happen with him—it could go one way, it could go the other—but we knew we had to come to an understanding with him. With Laura, she already had her conclusion, so the question is: What does this mean in light of that?

On Cooper’s role as fallen Lynch protagonist: In Lynch’s work there was really nobody like Cooper, who was like a stalwart, steadfast, with Lynchian quirkiness but still sort of a conventional hero in a way. Maybe Paul Atreides in Dune, which is an adapted work. To a limited extent, Sailor in Wild at Heart, but he’s sort of different. He’s a little more following the universe rather than like Cooper trying to detect through it. So, yeah, I think it shows that ultimately where Lynch’s work went, there really wasn’t room for somebody like that. You had to dig a little deeper. Even back in 1990 Lynch was willing to go in that direction. I think people have shown, somewhat convincingly, that maybe it was Frost who was more interested in making Cooper seem human and flawed and Lynch liked him as the idealized hero. And yet here we have Lynch bringing him—and Frost too, but Lynch approving it and doing it in a way that feels very Lynchian—bringing him in line with all of these other Lynch protagonists who are more troubled and dark and complex. It’s almost like the Cooper we see in Part 18, is what Jeffrey Beaumont really would have been like if he’d grown up and become a detective. I’ve heard people go “Oh, Twin Peaks is a sequel to Blue Velvet…” but Jeffrey in Blue Velvetwould not have become Agent Cooper, ’cause there was more going on beneath the surface…he was kind of dark. You know, it’s that line that Laura Dern says to him: “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” And then it’s like…Part 18 might as well have just used that as its motto. I mean, that was amazing


[Editor’s note: This article was edited for clarity, with tremendous thanks to Joel Bocko, on 9 Oct 2017]

Be sure to tune in next Saturday to Notes from the Bookhouse for Part 2 of our conversation, where we get into the nitty gritty of The Return, the characters, the stories, and the theories.

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