Sounds of Cinema: Twin Peaks

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Astute readers of this column will, at this moment, be looking at their screens slightly askance, with nose bunched in disbelief.  “Whaaaaaaaat?”, you will say, “this is supposed to be a column about the sounds of cinema, yet I see here before me a title hinting at sounds of the merely televisual.”  Perhaps a spot of explanation is in order for the Percy Witheringtonspoon IIIs of the world.  I could probably say something about the cinematic sweep of David Lynch’s bizarre, towering TV show Twin Peaks, how the man brought his instincts as a film director to bear on the quivering landscape of America’s TV sets.  Or I could argue that the lines between TV and film have gradually blurred over past two decades, thanks in large part to Twin Peaks.  But the truth is, well, I just wanted to write about the music of Twin Peaks, because it does things no film score I know does (including Lynch’s own Blue Velvet, the score of which seems like Peaks 1.0.)  So shove that monocle back onto your face and buckle up; this detour will be worth it, I promise.

Beyond the acting, this brilliant mish mash comes across in large part thanks to Angelo Badalamenti’s amazing score, which like the show it accompanies walks the thin line between just enough and way too much.

Who knows why in 1990 ABC decided to okay a series by Lynch, a director whose strange instincts had helped him mostly avoid the mainstream.  The gambit worked, though, and the first season of Twin Peaks set America talking about the adventures of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper as he investigates the murder of small town sweetheart Laura Palmer.  Though that mystery pulls the show forward, Lynch by no means keeps the drama straight.  The show emphasizes some of Lynch’s constant preoccupations: strange, almost misshapen actors (Jack Nance, star of Lynch’s debut film Eraserhead, foremost among these), left field humor, and the otherworldly power of dreams.  The main Lynchian theme on display (again, shared with his 1988 film Blue Velvet) is the tension between surface and subsurface in small town American life.  City dweller Cooper finds himself charmed by the eccentricities of the town of Twin Peaks, but lurking beneath the happy surface is some serious corruption and crime.  Lynch finds many ways to poke at this tension, from the investigation of the vagaries of assorted townspeople to a mythological plumbing of that which lives only in nightmares.  Throughout, though, the series wobbles back and forth between sincerity and a whimsical, subversive irony.

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This tonal balance beam act comes across in elements like the acting.  Some of it, from people like Michael Ontkean’s Sheriff Harry S. Truman, remains level headed and straightforward.  Some of it, such as Nance’s role as a cuckolded husband and Kyle McLachlan’s delicious turn as Cooper, are whimsically offbeat.  And then there are a few that are batshit, off the charts crazy.  Two prime culprits here are Ray Wise as Laura’s devastated father and Dana Ashbrook as high school quarterback Bobby, Laura’s former boyfriend.  Ashbrook in particular brings a studied awfulness to his performance that strongly suggests that Lynch either cast him particularly for his lack of talent or demanded he drain himself of that talent completely while on camera.  Ashbrook is by turns hammy, outraged, disaffected, and maudlin, but he’s always riveting.

Ashbrook captures a special something in Twin Peaks, a dissolving between the lines of good and bad taste, normalcy and subversion, homage and parody.  At times this makes the show’s tone careen wildly from scene to scene, and some would argue that by the end of its run Twin Peaks had gone off the rails altogether.  But more often than not this juggling act works and the tension crackles, giving the show an energy all its own.  Beyond the acting, this brilliant mish mash comes across in large part thanks to Angelo Badalamenti’s amazing score, which like the show it accompanies walks the thin line between just enough and way too much.

The opening credits above do an excellent job preparing you in each episode for the strangeness to come.  Pictures of a Northwest idyll float by to a dreamy sonic landscape.  The synth melody aches with earnestness, hinting at unfulfilled desires.  The swell of a string section uplifts, but feels strangely empty and false.  The occasional bass thumps, though, are what make it, taking something earnest but restrained and turning it into an unrepentant cheese fest.  Though Seinfeld would go on later in the 90’s to turn slappy bass into a sign of hip urbanity, here Badalamenti uses it to suggest the unstudied, unhurried world of rural America.

For over the top romanticism, the main theme has nothing on “Laura’s Theme”, the music that runs in and out of the series.  With the exception of one piece that we will get to in a minute, “Laura’s Theme” forms the backbone of Badalamenti’s music for the show.  Appropriately the piece itself contains several distinct sections.  These different parts end up recycled throughout the show, in a sort of theme and variations that clues the viewer in to the effect that a given scene should have.  Of course as in the main iteration heard here, the sections often blur together, creating some fairly wild tonal shifts.

The first theme is fairly straightforward, a synth heavy mood piece.  The sustained-yet-wavering tone of the synth gives a very ominous feel to the piece.  It feels just like taking a walk at midnight through the tall, spooky forests of the Northwest (a feeling heightened by the owl hoots that often accompany the theme when played during scenes from the show).  This is mythology land, the diving into the place where the subconscious touches the divine other that Lynch loves so much.  Ethereal and enticing, yes: the unfettered possibilities of dreams and the beyond.  Yet at the same time menacing and dangerous.  The same woods that provide Agent Cooper with clues in the murder case through friendly giants and dwarves also serves as the ground from which spring the great evils haunting Twin Peaks.

Then, in a genius stroke, Badalamenti lowers the synths and a piano emerges – hesitant at first, but with increasing confidence.  So begins the love theme portion of the song, glorious and overwrought in that special Twin Peaks way.  Hear the plodding earnestness and aching desire of the piano’s lines.  It starts tender, pushes on towards romantic, then oversails and hits on schmaltzy.  At certain times in the series, especially when strings enter the picture, this theme reaches heights of delirious kitsch, like a dancing Elvis doll with accompanying Precious Moments card your grandmother sent you for Christmas.  What’s going on here?  Badalamenti has either made a huge misstep or he has deliberately shaped the music to fit the tones of the show.

Then, in a genius stroke, Badalamenti lowers the synths and a piano emerges – hesitant at first, but with increasing confidence.  So begins the love theme portion of the song, glorious and overwrought in that special Twin Peaks way.  Hear the plodding earnestness and aching desire of the piano’s lines.  It starts tender, pushes on towards romantic, then oversails and hits on schmaltzy.

A clue: the “love theme” occurs most often when the show deals with any of the romantic relationships, particularly the romance between James, Laura’s sensitive ex-lover, and Donna, Laura’s best friend.  A hornet’s nest of conflicting emotions, the relationship between these two burns fervently but confusedly.  They throw around pledges of true love, then endure painful heartache.  Their attachments to Laura’s memory haunt them, yet they cannot escape the pull of their present feelings.  In other words, they are teenagers.  Viewed from within they are pulsing founts of genuine emotion, but from the outside they appear ridiculous.  This is the curse of adolescents: to feel deeply and passionately, but in ways that later reflection proves useless.  Try telling a teen they are dating the wrong person.  No matter how clear that might be in the light of day, the teen will likely refuse any advice, rushing horns down into the china shop of teen affection.  The magic here is that Lynch (and Badalamenti) try to offer both perspectives at once, and in tension with one another.  Yes, Donna and James are absurd, but their passion is also to an extent noble.  No either/or here, but the chaotic, bracing reality of the both/and.

Teen struggles show up repeatedly in Twin Peaks.  My favorite example: Audrey Horne (the great Sherilyn Fenn), neglected daughter of sinister tycoon Ben Horne.  She has free reign of her home, the Great Northern Hotel, and her family shows little interest in her life.  Accordingly, when Special Agent Dale Cooper comes to town, Audrey leaps at the chance to help with his investigation (and also leaps into Cooper’s bed, an offer he politely but firmly rejects).  Cooper appeals to Audrey because he seems so far ahead of everyone in her small town, a professional, intelligent adult.  Audrey embodies another facet of teenage longing – the desire to be taken seriously and treated as a fully mature and autonomous being.  Like most precocious teens, Audrey’s desire comes mixed with her glaring lack of maturity.  The risks she takes nearly end her life and needlessly complicate the Palmer investigation.

There’s a definite charm to her play acting, though.  Audrey’s guise of choice is the femme fatale of classic film noir.  Full lips quivering, hips swaying like palms in the breeze, she oozes what she assumes to be raw sexuality.  She thirsts for danger and adventure, not realizing the life of an adult – even an FBI agent – often comes wrapped in mundanity.  For her detective work remains shrouded in mystery and cigarette smoke, a romantic fantasy.  Thus Badalamenti’s theme, which slinks slyly along, a gumshoe tailing a mark along a fog laden street.

The genius of this song again lies in its blurring of the lines between sincerity and ironic excess.  In one sense the song really is pretty cool, with a sweet vibraphone layer and the dulcet tones of the clarinet.  Yet listen closer and you will hear the irony oozing out in the kitschy little flourishes at the sides.  The jazzy horn blasts and the snapping lend a cheesiness to the proceedings that hints at the satirical edge to the piece.  Again, there seems to be a yoking together of perspectives at play: an ironic detachment mashed together with sincere admiration.  The theme floats through the score in playful ways, inflecting even scenes sans Audrey with some of its faux cool.  At one point Donna has decided to abandon her good girl persona in favor of Audrey’s affected swagger, so “Audrey’s Dance” accompanies her attempts to recreate herself.

Looking at the big picture, it’s amazing how much Badalamenti and Lynch do with a restricted palette.  Unlike some modern shows, Twin Peaks does not create separate scores week by week, and there are only a handful of themes beyond the ones discussed.  Mostly the same tunes return again and again, yet they never wear out their welcome.  This is the power of their flexible content; because Badalamenti’s score toes the line between serious and farcical, between just enough and way the hell too much, the show can use the themes in radically different contexts to produce radically different moods.  Like the show itself, the score of Twin Peaks attempts to be everything all at once.  As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”  Has there ever been a show – or a score – so full of multitudes, or so content to glory in its own contradictions?

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About Author

Asher Gelzer-Govatos fell in love with film in high school, where the one two punch of Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man opened his eyes to the beauty of the filmed image. Asher is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He lives with his wife and children in Columbia, Missouri.