Split Screens Festival 2018: “Damn Fine Coffee – Twin Peaks Fan Theories”

The “Damn Fine Coffee: Twin Peaks Fan Theories” panel this morning at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village was everything it promised to be. Seven presenters showed us their best theories and ideas about what Twin Peaks means, what it suggests to us about life and art, and in some cases how it all fits together with the original series, with Lynch’s other works, and with films that came before it. We talked about trauma, sexual abuse and incest, and the darkness within. We talked about Tibet. We talked about good and evil and the allure of unanswerable questions.

And, yes, we talked about Judy.

Strap in.

Samantha McLaren“Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as David Lynch’s Red Dragon” (Caemeron Crain)

The opening presentation of the session was Samantha McLaren’s “Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as David Lynch’s Red Dragon” in which she explored resonances between Twin Peaks and Hannibal, or, better, suggested that Bryan Fuller’s show represented a take on the Hannibal Lector story through a Lynchian lens.

McLaren noted that Lynch himself was temporarily attached to direct an adaptation of Red Dragon in the 1980s, before he pulled out, for reasons that seem to be related to how real the violence in the story was. There is something odd about this, insofar as Lynch’s own work contains a significant amount violence itself. The driving question of McLaren’s presentation would then seem to be what is about the violence of the Hannibal story that may have led Lynch to shy away from the project.

Noting that Bryan Fuller has said that Twin Peaks in general, and the scene of Maddy’s murder in particular, was a source of inspiration for him, McLaren proceeded to draw a number of connections between Twin Peaks and Hannibal.

Both have a tendency to employ dream logic, dark humor, and circular narrative structures. Further, the use of sound in both is of eminent importance. As McLaren put it, the sound almost ceases to be consciously registered (though it is still certainly unconsciously felt), and silence, when employed, feels deliberate and powerful.

After noting parallels between first Will Graham and Dale Cooper, and then Will Graham and Laura Palmer, McLaren suggested that the deepest resonance between the two shows relates to the theme of trauma. Will Graham, Dale Cooper, and Laura Palmer are all variously caught in its darkness. Perhaps it was the brutality, or harsh reality of trauma in the Hannibal story, that led Lynch to back away; as though he feared he would get lost in this darkness.

McLaren does not such a conclusion definitively, but largely leaves the question for the audience to ponder. I personally wonder if it related to the apparent lack of ambiguity when it comes to Hannibal Lector, as opposed to Lynch’s “villains.” But, if so, it would seem the Fuller managed to find such ambiguity in a way that Lynch himself perhaps could not, as Hannibal manages to force the viewer to empathize with its titular character in often uncomfortable ways.

Connor Ratliff“Just A Stranger’s Dream: A Unified Field Theory Of Twin Peaks (Caemeron Crain)

Connor Ratliff’s presentation was probably the most humorous of the session, which should be no surprise given his UCB credentials. But this does not mean that it should not be taken seriously. The “unified field theory” of the title amounts to the suggestion that, given what occurred in The Return, all of our theories/interpretations are correct. I take it, however, that Ratliff does not intend here to be making the facile claim that it is all subjective, or a matter of opinion. At the risk of imputing something to the presentation that was not stated explicitly (I took it to be implicit), all of our theories may be correct, but there remains the criterion of being a theory; that is, a worked out reading of the text of Twin Peaks, or, at least, an idea that has some basis in that text.

Ratliff began his presentation with the observation that Twin Peaks loves questions, but hates answers. Who killed Laura Palmer? How’s Annie? What year is this? Perhaps the funniest moment of the presentation occurred as Ratliff considered the second question in this list, noting that we did not get an answer about Annie in Fire Walk with Me, nor in The Return, though Frost finally provided one in The Final Dossier. The final moments of season two appeared on screen, with Cooper repeating “How’s Annie?” multiple times, before Ratliff cut to a clip of Pete Campbell in Mad Men saying, “Not great, Bob!”

I suppose you had to be there.

Who killed Laura Palmer?  Ratliff notes that Lynch and Frost have provided multiple answers to this (central) Twin Peaks question. In fact, they were forced to answer the question twice. First in the international version of the pilot (as the production company required an ending to the narrative so that it could be released as an independent film should the show not be picked up), and secondly by network execs at ABC. Lynch has famously said that, if it had been up to him, he would have never answered the question.

It had been awhile since I had seen the ending of the international pilot. I expect the same may go for many who are reading this (and perhaps some have never seen it at all). I’d recommend giving it another look and thinking about how silly it is. Bob is just a guy they track to a basement. Mike shoots him dead. Cooper has been in town for all of a day. The end.

Of course, the answer ultimately given in the show itself is that it was Leland who killed Laura, but even that is complicated by the indication that Leland was possessed by the BOB we know and love.

It is the events of the end of The Return, along with its big question (which will never be answered) – “What year is this? – though, that Ratliff suggests makes every theory equally true. Because now, Laura was murdered and she wasn’t. We seem to have multiple timelines. Maybe Ben Horne killed her in one of them? Or maybe Andy did?

Ratliff indicates that this has been an idea of his dating back to the premier of season two, which, if you recall, features Andy trying to talk to Cooper through a phone receiver on the floor (as Cooper bleeds ad gets a delivery of warm milk). Repeatedly, Andy says, “Can you hear me? It’s Andy.” Is this perhaps the show telling us that Andy is the murderer? Can you hear me (audience)? It’s Andy!

I have to admit that this idea never occurred to me before, but Ratliff makes it seem more plausible than one might have expected. After all, a rock did hit Andy in the head when Cooper was employing the Tibetan method, and so on.

Yet, Ratliff’s point is not to convince us that Andy did, but rather to suggest that the field of interpretation is left so wide open that even such an interpretation can get some grounding. We are the dreamer who lives inside the dream. The dream is Twin Peaks, or our interpretations of it.

Cue “Shadow” by Chromatics, which plays at the end of Part 2 of The Return. A video montage of clips from the show rolls on the screen, with lyrics of the song overlaid. There is no way I can re-create the experience of watching this excellent video to you here, but I do hope it might be made available to us at some point in the near future, because it was truly excellent.

Jeremiah Beaver, “Talk About Judy” (Lindsay Stamhuis)

Jeremiah Beaver‘s visual essay “Talk About Judy” focused on the “pocket universe” theory championed by David Auerbach early on after the series’ run in the fall.

To summarise, Beaver says the following: at its core, this was a show of good vs evil, with The Fireman on the side of good and Jowday/Judy on the side of evil. The Fireman provides clues to Cooper that remind him of the plan that he has had with Gordon and Laura Palmer herself to trap Judy and destroy her.

The plan involves

  • i) Cooper rescuing Laura;
  • ii) The Fireman spiriting her away to a safe dimension (Odessa);
  • iii) Diane and Cooper go to her, and Cooper takes Laura back to her childhood home;
  • iv) Laura destroys Judy. Mr. C, meanwhile, has his own vendetta, and is after Judy as well — and she knows it.

The rock that kills Richard Horne was meant as a trap for Mr. C, all in the service of getting Judy and BOB back together (for Beaver, there’s no doubt that the voice on the radio waves in Part 2 was Judy, and that’s a theory that I, personally, enjoy very much.) The sex that Diane and Cooper engage in in the hotel is ritualistic, meant to call back to both Sam and Tracey in Part 1/2 but also the Thelema rituals of Aleister Crowley and Jack Parsons, who were in search of the Mother of Abominations. Thus, the summoning of Judy by their sexual ritual is what changes/creates the world in which Cooper finds himself in the last half of Part 18.

The tragedy is that Cooper doesn’t seem to realize this… but Laura does. Cooper’s confusion precedes the last moment of the series, in which Laura finally achieves the final, full purpose of her existence, predestined in Part 8 with The Fireman’s creation of Laura in the golden orb. It’s as complete a theory about Judy as there is, and as tragic as it is, it has some semblance of sense to it.

Andreas Halskov, “Returning, Recycling and Remixing: Cut-Up and Collage in Twin Peaks: The Return (Lindsay Stamhuis)

Andreas Halskov brought a 15-minute long visual essay with him from Denmark to present at the panel. In it, he breaks down the instances of repurposing and remixing present in Twin Peaks, not just from within the original show, but from the entire breadth of film history.

Essentially, Halskov posits that Twin Peaks is a meditation on death. The repetition of scenes from the original series highlight the cyclical nature of life. James is still singing his love song, except this time it’s to Renee; Audrey is still dancing to her song, only this time the song is literally called “Audrey’s Dance”, blurring the line between diegetic and non-diegetic in that beautifully strange Lynchian way; BOB appears in mirrors, morphing out of Mr. C’s face in the same way it replaced Leland’s in Episode 16; sickness spreads, it seems, all the way back from Six Men Getting Sick to the little girl in the car, in an almost unbroken line; Billy mimics Chad, making animalistic sounds in the same jail cell where Bobby and Mike terrorized James back in 1990.

It’s all deliberate. Like the greatest Dada artists, Lynch cuts up and rearranges elements and scenes and brings them into new contexts — and this is where Halskov’s visual essay truly shines, as he himself cuts up Brakhage and Kubrick and Man Ray with Lynch right alongside, and we realize that the blend is almost seamless.

Everything is cyclical, and in recycling over and over again these elements are transformed and given new life. The recognition of this, especially as we rewatch The Return, will utterly change the way we view it in the grander context of TV, cinema, and the world of art itself.

Donald McCarthy, “The Tragedy and Triumph of Diane Evans” (Lindsay Stamhuis)

Donald McCarthy dove deep into a topic that is very close to my own heart — his presentation was titled “The Tragedy and Triumph of Diane Evans” and that is exactly what he spoke about: plain and simply, Diane is a tragic and triumphant figure, perhaps foremost amongst all the characters in The Return.

Diane began life in the series as a quaint plot device, possibly even a nonexistent character, a metaphor for Cooper’s coping mechanism as he navigated the world of his work and the evil deeds he must investigate.

In The Return we are entirely disabused of that notion — Diane is real, and she is pissed. Not only was she raped (and very possibly murdered) by the evil Cooper, she is the only person in the story who knows the score: Cooper isn’t the same guy anymore.

Meta-textually, this extends to her knowledge that Twin Peaks isn’t the same either. Gordon and Albert are blinded — by what? Their closeness to the situation? Their disbelief that Cooper could have fallen so far? — to the realities of the situation. Tammy, for all her brilliance, isn’t clever enough to figure it out. Even Cooper doesn’t seem to get it.

But Diane does.

She sees her doppelgänger in Part 18, and she knows it’s time to get out, literally writing herself out of the story the morning after the night before, when Cooper cluelessly retraumatised her, very probably because he, like Laura, has forgotten who and what and when they are.

McCarthy suggests that Diane almost seems to be in her own TV show — she exists slightly out of time with everything and everyone else, seen most clearly in the moments when she texts (the texts are never received instantly, but rather two or three Parts later (similar to the way in which she was introduced, being hinted at in Part 4 but not actually seen on screen until Part 6). Part 18, then, is the Twin Peaks that Diane knows she is in and cannot wait to leave.

Everyone else wants to move on from the trauma that was always central to the show; Diane knows that isn’t possible. She’d rather not be here at all.

Matthew C., Peopled by Her Many Parts: Twin Peaks, Trauma, and Macrocosm-Microcosm” (Caemeron Crain)

Matthew C.’s presentation may have been the most visual of the day. Thankfully, Matt Zoller Seitz indicated that a (longer) version of it will be released at some point, as I find it rather difficult to try and convey what we all saw through the written word.

It opened with a repetition of scenes from Twin Peaks, asking, “Who is the dreamer?” and declaring that “Laura is the one.” The suggestion being, I take it, that it is none other than Laura Palmer who should be thought of as the dreamer.

This implication is bolstered by the way in which Matthew C.’s presentation proceeds into the domain of childhood trauma; in particular as pertains to sexual abuse. There was a good amount of text displayed on the screen, referencing Sándor Ferenczi, Sylvia Fraser, and others. It seems impossible to re-create the experience here.

Through these references, which further tied into things such as the myth of Orpheus, Matthew C. presented the notion that the narrative of Twin Peaks represents Laura’s psyche working to cope with the abuse that she has undergone. Visual connections are made with accounts of survivors involving missing hands, supernatural explanations, and other elements of the show. There is the suggestion that the detective forms a part of the survivor’s psyche, and that such trauma results in an atomization of the soul (as we see the Trinity test footage from Part 8 onscreen).

This culminates in a long montage set to Laurie Anderson’s “Another Day in America.” This was quite enjoyable, and inspired much thought in me. It may, however, have been my unconscious mind that was doing the thinking. The video that Matthew C. has put together is rife with symbols, and signifiers that point to further signifiers. I look forward to the opportunity to revisit it in the future, given the opportunity.

As many people suggested throughout, no one theory or presentation could rise to the top and claim a spot in our hearts and minds as the “definitive” theory; all theories are correct at all times was a popular refrain. But this, it was also repeatedly asserted, was not a bad thing. In fact, it is something to be celebrated. The brilliant thing about putting together a fan panel (and kudos to Matt Zoller Seitz for having the foresight to spearhead this) is that it highlights the beauty of the various points of entry that exist around this show purely because of the varied experiences and personalities of the people who make up the community. And as we mingled after the panel, it became crystal clear that this is what makes Twin Peaks community such a wonderful place: this is, excuse us, a damn fine place to be a fan, and Twin Peaks is the reason for it all.

Editor’s Note: J.C. Hotchkiss – “Ding-Dong, Cooper’s Dead”: Last but certainly not least is our friend and colleague J.C., whose presentation was based on a series of articles she wrote back in October 2017 on the subject of reincarnation and a certain Bardo theory of Twin Peaks. In a short video presentation, J.C. laid out the facts of the case and connected dots in a very Cooper-esque fashion to suggest that our dear Agent Cooper is, in fact, dead.  Read all about J.C’s experience on the podium exclusively here tomorrow morning!

Written by Lindsay Stamhuis

Lindsay Stamhuis is a writer and English teacher. In addition to editing and writing about TV and Film, she is the co-host of The Bicks Pod, a podcast currently deep-diving into the collected works of William Shakespeare. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner Aidan, their three cats, and a potted pothos that refuses to grow more than one vine.

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