3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Fall 2006

Picturing America

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Greil Marcus

Twin Peaks

From 1990 to 1991, David Lynch's Twin Peaks was a hit television series. It began with the discovery of the body of seventeen-year-old Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic, floating down the river that snaked below the Twin Peaks lumber mill. Laura's friends try to discover who killed her and their parents act as if they have something to hide; the twenty-two-year-old Seattle actress Sheryl Lee played the corpse. Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, released in 1992 as an almost universally derided feature film, was a prequel. It began a year before Laura Palmer's murder, with the discovery of the body of another seventeen-year-old girl, wrapped as Laura Palmer's would be, floating as hers would. It climaxes the night Laura Palmer is killed; Sheryl Lee played Laura Palmer. Appearing while the TV show was still on the air, and before the identity of the killer was revealed, was The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a 1990 exploitation paperback by Jennifer Lynch, David Lynch's then twenty-two-year-old daughter. The Laura Palmer in those pages commits acts far more wretched than anything even hinted at on-screen, just as a Laura Palmer more spectral than the most faraway look in Sheryl Lee's eyes appears in the songs that Julee Cruise performs in Twin Peaks or Fire Walk with Me—primitive, foggy versions of 1950s doo-wop and early 1960s girl-group hits, with lyrics by Lynch and music by Angelo Badalamenti. But everything about the story is unstable. Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer was unforgettable as a face in the first episode of the TV series: a lifeless face as the fisherman played by Jack Nance removes the plastic sheeting, but pristine, unmarked, untroubled, gray-blue from its hours in the river, with dots of water clinging to the skin like beads. As you look you wait not for the story to begin but for the eyes to open. But in Fire Walk with Me Sheryl Lee's death is so awful that it is almost impossible to remember. "It's strange," a friend wrote of Lee in 2004. "I saw her in some Lifetime movie a little while ago while I was flipping channels, and now I can only see her as a dead woman. She must be one of the most famous dead women alive."

In the year before her death Laura Palmer was known and loved by all as the good girl who tutored a retarded man and brought meals to shut-ins, as the homecoming queen who wore her blond hair long to set off pastel sweater sets that suggested that the Twin Peaks department store hadn't reordered since 1959—and, as she wrote in her diary a year before her death, she was perhaps not completely unknown as someone "embarrassed about being alive. The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had. I'm sixteen years old, I'm a cocaine addict, a prostitute who fucks her father's employers, not to mention half the fucking town." "It felt like the school and the town and the world were mocking me by voting me Homecoming Queen," she told her diary in its last pages. "How dare they make me a spectacle like that and ask me to smile again and again and again!"

Twin Peaks made Laura Palmer famous as a corpse; Fire Walk with Me, which is about her discovery that the demon who has been raping her since she was twelve is her father, is the greatest teen jeopardy movie ever made, and even as she dies at her father's hands Sheryl Lee is more alive than anyone else in the picture. The movie is driven by as heedless a performance as any in the history of film, but in its most desperate moment all that's in question is the expression on the face of a high-school girl sitting down to dinner in her family's nice house, on their quiet, groomed street, as her father asks if she's washed her hands. But like a window blown off its hinges in a storm, her face opens onto a national landscape, where promises are made for the pleasure to be found in their betrayal, where it is only the betrayal of a promise that proves the promise was worth making, where innocence is killed because it is an affront to the rhythms of the nation's story and cannot be tolerated.

In the Woods

Located somewhere in the northeast corner of Washington state, near the Canadian border, Lynch's Twin Peaks was a not-so-small town: as he defined it, not so small that everyone knows everyone else. It was a small town in a shadow. "In my mind," Lynch once said, "this was a place surrounded by woods. That's important. For as long as anybody can remember, woods have been mysterious places. So they were a character in my mind." It was perhaps a conscious reach back to Dante: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray," begins the Inferno,

from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

On American ground Lynch's fantasy was likely a blind but coded reach back to the original American wilderness, to the woods the Puritans found waiting for them: "A Brief Recognition of New-Englands Errand into the Wilderness," as the Reverend Samuel Danforth titled an Election Day sermon in Boston in March of 1670. Danforth himself reached back to the town the Puritans founded, that place described by Winthrop forty years before, where every man and woman would have need of every other, or perish: "leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses," Danforth said, "and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness"—"a woody, retired and solitary place." Winthrop had drawn from Matthew 5:14: "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid." Danforth was drawing on Matthew 11:7-9: "What went ye out into the wilderness to see?" Jesus says to "the multitudes" of John the Baptist. "A reed shaken with the wind?" Or a "man clothed in soft raiment?" No, Jesus said, John went into the wilderness to see a "prophet...and more than a prophet." But Danforth paused over the words to see, as if they held a forbidden allure. "The phrase agrees to Shows and Stage-playes," he explained."Theatrical Hearers, Spectators rather than Auditors, they went not to hear, but to see; they went to gaze upon a new and strange Spectacle." The woods are where the reed is shaken in the wind; the woods are where one goes to clear the ground for settlement, or to find a world where all certainties are dashed, where the landscape goes blank and men and women forget who they are.

It's a legacy, and the legacy is passed down. Thus in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Jennifer Lynch follows a fifteen-year-old Laura into the woods around Twin Peaks, where Laura goes at night to be blindfolded and tied to a chair. Music begins to play. There are "sounds of water"; someone begins to beat a drum. People dance around her in a circle as if she is a fire. The next day she tells her diary what happened, how she became that reed, how through others' eyes she could see herself shaking in the wind.

Each and every fantasy one might conjure late at night, with the exception of farm animals, was performed on, with, or for me...These people, all of various ages, spent evenings in the woods, forgetting names and histories, using only their most basic feelings and wishes to be held and touched, wanted, and completely accepted, no matter what they looked like, or who they were at work or school the following mornings. It was dark and strange and almost intoxicating at times. I would sway, my head heavy in this darkness. The energy was so thick, I almost felt the air separate, part slowly to let me move. Each and every nerve in my body had something to say...a scream beneath the skin, constant and much greater than usual because I could not sense it coming. I could swear there were times I was sensitive enough to feel the fingerprints of those who touched me.

Is this Winthrop's loving community, now pushed into the woods? Or is that where you could always find it, hidden from the commerce, envy, scheming, and false witness of even the earliest Puritan towns? The community is there in Hawthorne's 1835 story "Young Goodman Brown." In a tale set perhaps ten years after Danforth spoke—in the kind of spectacle he might have been hinting at, but in the years before the witch trials he would not have dared to describe—a pious young Puritan is moving through the woods outside of Salem, Massachusetts, "rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil." He has left his new wife, Faith, at home, closing his ears to her pleas that he stay: "On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him." He reaches a clearing, lit by four burning trees, and there he finds church elders and drunks, whores and virgins, all those whom, in the light of the new day, he will see or greet or ignore as he did the day before, as he and they go about their ordinary lives of labor, instruction, or indulgence: "It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints."

Under the burning trees, a priest celebrates sin and crime. "Evil is the nature of mankind," he says, embracing greed, murder, blasphemy, and the sacrifice of newborns: "Evil must be your only happiness." The night's converts are brought forth, and Goodman Brown finds himself standing before the altar of a rock with Faith. How did she get there? How can this be happening? What he has not told her she has not told him:

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the shape of evil dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!

Hawthorne leaves Goodman Brown waking from a dream. The images dissolve; he is left "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man," shrinking from his wife's touch as he wakes in the night for the rest of his life. You don't know if he has dreamed what happened, or if, in his dream, he has remembered a true event he has devoted his life to forgetting. The story is a shape-shifting marriage of ordinary narrative and dream logic: just as Goodman Brown thinks he sees his own dead mother and father among the crowd of worshippers in the woods, when Laura Palmer returns at dawn to her unpretentious two-story family home—more impressive from the outside, with its rolling lawn and heavy structure, than from the inside, where drooping ferns and faded couches in a dim living room suggest a parlor that's barely been disturbed, or dusted, since the 1930s—she has, she tells her diary, "a daydream as I made my way upstairs that Mom woke up...and asked how the orgy had been. I gave her all the details and she began reliving her own experiences of strange evenings in the woods." Laura Palmer is not only imagining that she is a witch; she is imagining that she was born a witch, that she is part of a long line of witches, stretching back to the night that Young Goodman Brown—whose name, one hundred and seventy years after Hawthorne wrote his story, would regularly pop up in the upper-right-hand corner of internet porn sites, as if he were the host —went into the woods, with Laura Palmer reaching all the way back across the country to reenact one version of its founding.

You can't ask the Laura Palmer who emerges from Twin Peaks in all its facets what didn't happen in the TV series or what did happen in the movie, or how the diary and the songs tie the whole together or break it apart. As flesh or spirit—moving back and forth between the attacks of the long-haired, snaggle-toothed monster Laura calls Bob when he is not plainly her father and comforting dreams of a red room, hidden behind a red curtain, where a grossly misshapen dwarf launches slurred incantations ("With this ring I thee wed," he'll say, or "Let's rock," with such distortion that his voice is subtitled), time has no boundaries, and the dead make peace with the dead—Sheryl Lee walks Laura Palmer through the terrain opened up by a kind of common art project. Behind that project may be a single, guiding intelligence—a director who is also a songwriter who is also the owner of Twin Peaks (TM)—but inside the project, on the loose, are voices and a face. Together the book, the songs, the TV show, and the movie make the town where Sheryl Lee tells Laura Palmer's story, where she acts out the country that is enacted by the town.

Sylvan Village and Film Noir City

The music that opened every episode of Twin Peaks—very slow, the romantic quickly rising to the soapy, suggesting a place where any dream can come true, with a distinct synthesized bass undercurrent, a strong fatalistic pull, stating that the only truth of a dream is waking from it, that whatever it is there's nothing you can do about it, that the story will be over before it begins (which, given that the series opened with the appearance of Laura Palmer's body and continued as a search for her killer, it was)—locates the town on a map where Washington state can fade into the country as it imagined itself decades before. The not-so-small town of Twin Peaks—population 51,201, reads a sign after an opening montage of a robin, timber-mill smokestacks, mill machinery throwing off sparks, and a waterfall—is made of two archetypes of the American town: the sylvan village and the film noir city.

Starting in the 1820s, it was the sylvan glade that the Hudson River school of American painters caught so irresistibly, but no painter caught the village more fully than the Blue Sky Boys of West Hickory, North Carolina, in the records they made a hundred years later. Bill Bolick was born in 1917 and played mandolin, brother Earl (1919–1998) played guitar, and from 1936 through 1950 they sang the ballads and hymns that everyone knew along with newly composed tunes that sounded as if they'd been handed down for generations. They sang about God, courtship, marriage, alcoholism, prison, and death—tragic or violent deaths, sometimes, but mostly the kind of death that seals a life, even if it leaves a void, as with, again and again in their repertoire, the death of a mother. The tone was quiet, restrained, humble, very nearly humorless, describing a passage through life accompanied by Jesus's love and the fellowship of others like oneself. The town that rose up out of their music was a community of piety, limits, and manners—modest houses, well-kept gardens, a backstreet bar, and, at the center of everyone's life, good or bad, a church. "Let us sing a song as we go along, let us banish care and strife," the Blue Sky Boys would sing, and you picture them less on a stage or even strolling the streets than sitting in somebody's parlor, staying all afternoon if the neighbors keep dropping by: "That the world may know as we onward go, there's a sunny side of life." People loved that one best, no one missing the undercurrent, which brought up not doubt so much as fear.

The Bolick brothers looked like the nicest insurance salesmen you could ever meet. When they started out Bill might have been a high-school linebacker posing in coat and tie; the old publicity photos show a welcoming smile. Earl had a higher forehead; he smiles too, but in his long, drinker's face, the expression looks forced, guilty, as if he knows you'll never get a dime out of the policy he's sold you. There was something just slightly queer about it all, in the way that, as the years went by and Bill's body thickened and Earl's hairline receded, their expressions never changed; in the way that, no matter what the tune —"Where the Soul (of Man) Never Dies," "No One to Welcome Me Home," "On Top of Old Smokey," "The House Where We Were Wed," "Take Up Thy Cross"—they never raised their voices, or almost never played faster than slow. Is that why their most convincing songs are murder ballads? Is that why the murders that occur in "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," "Fair Eyed Ellen," or "Story of the Knoxville Girl" are psychotic in their blandness, with none of the sadistic cruelties of the Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs, singing "Pretty Polly" or "Danville Girl" ten years or so before-not a violation at all, somehow, just a slightly misunderstood continuation of ordinary small-town courtesies, of everyday life?

Does the sylvan village feel familiar not because it's part of a cultural memory everyone shares—even if nobody actually experienced what everyone remembers—but because what happens in the village is no more archaic than the If-I-Can't-Have-You-Nobody-Can murders chronicled in our own daily news, and just as routine? "He dealt with this in the good old-fashioned American way," says Detective Lennie Briscoe to his partner Ed Green on a 2004 Law & Order episode. "What's that?" "A .38." "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer," D. H. Lawrence wrote, speaking of what he took to be the nation's founding crime, the extermination of the Indians—so that there was no step one could take in the United States without stepping on unmarked graves. What the old murder ballads say—voicing, one can imagine, a helpless or even patriotic instinct as, generations after the events supposedly passed into the history textbooks, the solitary in the big city or the small town reenacts the whole of the national drama, from the erasure of the Indians to the filling up of the country with slaves who could be put down like cattle—is that America is a country where anyone can be killed at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. The ballads call the cops, but the sense that the killer is justified, that he is only doing what everyone yearns to do, that almost everyone will root for his escape, is almost never missing.

In the Blue Sky Boys' version of "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," from 1936, in the trough of the Great Depression, a young man describes for his beloved the pleasant life he sees for them. How happy they will be on their wedding day! What a lovely home they will have! Or, rather, because there is no shouting in Blue Sky, how happy they will be on their wedding day, and what a lovely home they will have. A few small, timidly bright notes from the mandolin hold the couple's hands for them as the Bolicks' thin, reedy voices let you know how many times the man has rehearsed his speech; when his girl refuses him he cuts her throat and pushes her body into the river. There's no scream in the performance; instead of a sense of violence there's a sense of rectitude. The stunned, almost catatonic reading the Bolicks give the song, singing in the killer's first person, makes the nineteenth-century ballad seem no more traditional than the investigations Agee and Evans were conducting in Alabama two months after the Bolicks cut the song at their first recording session—and far more modern, even modernist, than the country surrealism of the Frankie and Johnny or Jesse James paintings Thomas Hart Benton was making in Missouri at the same time. The way the boys—and they were boys, sixteen and eighteen—suck the third word of the song, the "lurrrve" in "Come my love," into their chests, freezing it there, suspending it; the way they hang "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" over the head of the doomed woman, as if it's a blasphemous joke they refuse to acknowledge as such, produces the sense that the killer has been planning this for a long time. Forget the plot of the story, the suitor and his would-be bride, and listen to the person inside the voice: there is a settled, peaceful, utterly bourgeois set of assumptions contained in the way the killer accounts for himself, and as the killer speaks, you see not a drifter passing through the town, a tramp from the hobo jungle on its outskirts, or even the secret child molester living with his mother three streets down, but a clerk. You see a calm, honest man, a reliable employee who is never a minute late and never leaves a minute early. His life is bounded by expectations as orderly as the grid of the streets of his town. If those expectations are not met, the world makes no sense, and so the man who speaks so calmly, without ever altering his tone, who will take care to note just when it was, "'tween twelve and one," that he returned home from the river, sets out to end the world, and life in the town goes on as before.

The film noir city seems to be Manhattan or Los Angeles. At the heart of the form, whether in the movies or in the crime novels inspired by them, just as the most emblematic noir story is that of the soldier back in his hometown after the war to find the place a swamp of corruption, in the Forties and Fifties the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city. It is Midwestern culturally even if not exactly geographically—"They say native Californians all come from Iowa," Walter Neff says in Raymond Chandler's script for Double Indemnity —as in Chandler's The Little Sister, where Los Angeles is at least half Manhattan, Kansas, a place Philip Marlowe finds far more terrifying than anything in Hollywood. It's Dashiell Hammett's Poisonville, his barely disguised Butte, Montana; the grimy, striving spot where Jim Thompson liked to set his murder novels; the sort of town that in the movies appears in The Big Heat or The Asphalt Jungle. In the Twenties you would have found it in the cities where the first, vagabond professional football leagues appeared and disappeared—Pottsville, Pennsylvania; Decatur, Illinois; Duluth, Minnesota; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Buffalo, New York; and, in Ohio, Canton, Akron, and Dayton—the vaudeville circuit, or, as the noir historian Eddie Muller once put it, each stop "a town trying to be bigger than it is in all the wrong ways." It was the pretentious, provincial city with its fancy nightclub and rough roadhouse, imitation mansions and true flophouses, where the most respectable citizen is always the most criminal, a town big enough to get murders written up as suicides and small enough that no one outside the place cares what happens there. Perfectly, this is where you are in Ross Macdonald's 1947 novel Blue City, and with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and Kirk Douglas in the 1946 film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: "four people," the critic Manny Farber wrote at the time, "who have lived cataclysmic, laughterless lives since they were babies." In the course of twenty-four hours Heflin's knockabout gambler Sam Masterson, veteran of Anzio and a half-dozen other battles, falls in with Scott's down-and-out Toni Marachek and is drawn back into the web spun by Stanwyck's Ivers. As a scared but gutty orphan, she was Masterson's teenage soulmate. "I won't let you talk about my father," the young Martha Ivers says to her rich aunt, her guardian. "Your father was a nobody, a mill hand," says the aunt, played by a forbidding Judith Anderson, in Puritan black from head to toe. "The best thing he ever did for you was die." Martha picks up the cue and kills her aunt with her own cane; now she's an heiress who dresses like a cobra and runs Iverstown, "America's Fastest Growing Industrial City." "I don't like to get pushed around!" a bruised and bleeding Heflin shouts to Scott after Douglas, the sniveling drunk married to Ivers, and also the Iverstown district attorney, has had Heflin beaten up by goons and dumped twenty-five miles out of town. Heflin is speaking democratic speech in a city where everything is bought and paid for, reminding you of why he left the town in the first place, a freight-hopping runaway: "I don't like people I like to get pushed around! I don't like anybody to get pushed around!" "It's quite a thing in a small city like this," Douglas says. "You get to feel like God." With Stanwyck and Douglas in a pas de deux apparently meant to prove that a will to power and self-loathing are equally corrupting, and Heflin lining out a version of Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper, the FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks to investigate Laura Palmer's death, Iverstown feels like a direct ancestor of Twin Peaks—and at least before the killer is revealed Twin Peaks could be an homage to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

In the twenty-four-hour first-person narration of Macdonald's Blue City, a young veteran named John Weather—you can picture Brando in the movie version, as he was in about 1953—hitches a ride into his unnamed Midwestern hometown in 1946 to find his father, whom he hasn't seen since his mother divorced the man and left the place when Weather was twelve. But his father was murdered two years before Weather's return, no one was ever charged, and everyone Weather meets seems part of the crime. Blue City reads like the best noir films play; Macdonald's dialogue has the slow build-up and deadpan ricochet used by such lead actors as Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart, and even more effectively by bit players like Thelma Ritter. "How well do you know Kerch?" says Carla Kaufman, a B-girl and prostitute (imagine Gloria Grahame in 1947), after Weather, following a lead, has bought her a drink in Kerch's Cathay Club, which features a nightclub with plumy singers and slot machines on the first floor and a whorehouse on the second—a generic ancestor of Twin Peaks' One-Eyed Jacks, the luxurious brothel the Twin Peaks developer Benjamin Horne runs just over the Canadian border. "Don't know him at all," Weather says. "That's funny," Carla says. "You were talking as if you knew him." "I don't have to know him not to like him, if that's what you mean." "Wait till you get to know him. Then you'll really not like him." "Did you ever read the fairy story about the frog king?" Carla says. "My mother used to read it to me when I was a kid. Anyway, it's about a man that got changed by magic into a frog, and then changed back into a man. That's the way Kerch looks, as if he didn't change all the way back into a man." "Kerch was sitting at the desk counting money," Weather says after gaining admittance to the back room of the city crime boss (J. T. Walsh, 1997, grossly overweight, just before he died). "His wrists bulged out thick above his hands, as if someone had bound his hands and blown air into the rest of him."

In this town, murders are not a rent in everyday reality; they are the currency, committed for reasons everyone understands: greed, revenge, greed, hate, greed, jealousy, greed, megalomania, and greed. As John Weather enters the Blue City roadhouse, this is the noir version of the murder ballad: "My throat was busy resisting the fierce pressure of nausea that clenched my stomach and squirted streams of saliva into my mouth. It may have been the slick of blood on the floor where my foot had slipped. It may have been the half-naked man in the corner with the discolored neck and dead, swollen face. It may have been the woman who lay on the table with her limp legs dangling over the end. The gasoline lamp had been moved to the stove and shone fully on the bloody towel which wrapped her face." Weather discovers that his father was the town's original racketeer, and that his father's young widow is bankrolling the man who picked up where he left off; he discovers that the impotent reform mayor is his father's killer. The town they've made is a place where union organizers are beaten or killed, cops work for gangsters, taxes for the rich are kept low and wages for everyone else are kept lower, and where an atavism, a will to social destruction, runs through the town like a disease that Weather can feel and even name: "native fascism."

The noir town had festered on or just below the surface of cultural consciousness for fifty years by the time Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost thought up Twin Peaks; what was shocking in Blue City would in Twin Peaks seem inevitable, natural, with any missing detail unnatural. Of course both the nameless Weatherville and Twin Peaks are dominated by criminal businessmen with impeccable fronts. Of course there's a mysterious heiress and a tragic whore. Of course webs of crime are also webs of sex, and sex a form of disguise, of sinking one identity into another—and both crime and sex are forms of hysteria born of the fact that both towns are Nowheresville, where nothing you will ever do will make the papers in Chicago or New York, San Francisco or L.A. Of course both towns are laid out like a board game, with everyone fighting over the big hotel, the factory, the brothel, and the roadhouse—fighting to get in or fighting to get out.

Twin Peaks

Thus Twin Peaks, with its lovely waterfall and polluting mill, its web of illicit business deals and secret love affairs, its clean streets and solid middle-class houses, its decency and terror-and what makes it different from Blue Sky, Iverstown, or Weatherville is that it is in the West. As a place at the far end of the American march it remains less fixed, less settled, than the places left behind. The town breathes corruption, but it also breathes freedom; people here are more daring than their ancestors, and care less what anyone else thinks about whatever it is they do. If no one is innocent, no one is considered strange or foreign, either. So the stock characters, the doctor and the businessman, the whoremaster and the pimp, the rebel daughter and the decent son, the striving father and the worried mother, the teenage drug dealer and the tired-eyed woman who runs the diner where Laura Palmer works, are surrounded by hermits and eccentrics, the sort of people who elsewhere would have been weeded out or pushed into invisibility long before: the sheriff Harry S. Truman, whose very name makes his every word and gesture a non sequitur, and his deputy Andy Brennan, who breaks into tears at the sight of violence. The bikers at the roadhouse, oddly dressed in what look like World War II-era British motorcycle gear and listening intently, as to a poetry reading or a philosophy lecture, as Julee Cruise sings "Falling," the Twin Peaks opening theme with words dropped into it ("See," Lynch says, "the idea was that the bikers in Twin Peaks were the intellectuals—the beatniks"). The acid-casualty psychiatrist and the woman with an eye patch who's obsessed with venetian blinds; the agoraphobic Harold, Laura Palmer's only confidant, and the Log Lady.

Played by Catherine Coulson, the Log Lady is a primly dressed middle-aged woman who cradles a log in her arms everywhere she goes. The log is an oracle; it makes her a medium. Founder of a religion of which she remains the only adherent, she is at once the symbolic mother of the town and its bad conscience. She's the crazy woman standing at the door; she is also the town's secret mayor. Her job is to make everyone else feel normal, so that the real business of the place—delivering babies, doing homework, cheating on spouses, selling dope, executing property swindles, serving meals at the diner, promoting development, and running girls from the perfume counter of Benjamin Horne's department store to his whorehouse—can go on as it always has. The log gives the Log Lady a secret language to speak, or a forgotten language, and with it she will deliver Laura Palmer a warning: "The tender boughs of innocence burn first."

The First Victim

The first victim is seventeen-year-old Teresa Banks, supposedly a drifter passing through Deer Meadow, Washington. As Fire Walk with Me begins, it's a year before the death of Laura Palmer. Banks is floating down Wind River, her body cinched in billowing white plastic bags. Anyone who had followed Twin Peaks on TV—the only sort of person likely to pay money a year after the show was canceled to see a movie called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me—would have known that Leland Palmer, Laura Palmer's father, killed her. Fourteen episodes into the show, one would have seen Leland Palmer kill his niece Maddy Ferguson, played by Sheryl Lee in a dark wig; then he wrapped her body in plastic and threw it into the river, thus revealing that it was he who killed Laura Palmer in exactly the same way-he, or rather, as the character was allowed to insist in the TV series, the demon Bob who has possessed him, making him as much a victim as the girls he kills. He was only a child when he was initiated into the satanic cult he has served ever since, the television version of Leland Palmer says in a dying confession after smashing his head against a cell door. He was forced to recruit for them, "They wanted others they could use like they used me," but Laura refused, she said she'd die first: "They made me kill her." But as Fire Walk with Me opens, the premise is that nobody knows this, and when it ends, none of the excuses Leland Palmer was permitted on TV will be offered. The TV series closed the plot with a cover-up of its own horror: "I've lived in these old woods most of my life," Sheriff Truman says to Dale Cooper after Laura's father has confessed, and died. "I've seen some strange things, but this is way off the map. I'm having a hard time believing." "Harry," says the FBI agent, who in a dream where he inhabits Laura Palmer's red room has already heard the dead girl tell a dead version of himself, "My father killed me," but who is now changing before your eyes into Mr. Smooth-It-Away, "is it easier to believe that a man could rape and murder his own daughter?" Yes, answers Fire Walk with Me. "Any more comforting?" Cooper says on TV. Comforting? asks Sheryl Lee out of the film. Is that why I made this movie? To comfort you? Teresa Banks was a part-time prostitute; Leland Palmer was one of her clients. He's been thinking about a party, he says to her in a flashback, but when he shows up at their regular motel he glimpses the two girls Banks has hired giggling to each other: Ronette Pulaski, from the perfume counter at Horne's department store, and her co-worker, his own daughter. He rushes away before they can see him, and begs off to Banks: "I chickened out." The next time he sees Banks he beats her to death.

Two FBI agents arrive in Deer Meadow to take over the Banks case —because the body drifted from one state to another, or because the story needed outsiders, people who would not take the territory of the story for granted, people who would look at everything with wonder and trust nothing they see. One, Chet Desmond, laconically hard-boiled and played by Chris Isaak in a Reagan pompadour rather than his usual Elvis, is pulled off a shockingly staged schoolbus hijacking in Fargo, North Dakota: two punk teenagers are in handcuffs and the driver has a gun to his head, but the screaming children at the bus windows make it seem as if the crime is still going on. Kiefer Sutherland's earnest Sam Stanley, brought in from Portland in a bow tie, barely seems out of his teens. After showing their badges to the Deer Meadow sheriff and his deputy—after Desmond has ripped the nose of the sniggering deputy and pushed his way into the office of the sneering sheriff—the agents stand over an autopsy table, looking down at Teresa Banks. Her eyes and mouth are open in shock, frozen in the instant she realized she was about to be killed, even as the shovel that crushed her skull was in the air. Short platinum blonde hair, blazing white teeth: her face is still beautiful, and already rotting. At four in the morning Desmond and Sutherland move on to Hap's, the all-night diner where Banks worked for a month. Any establishment called Hap's is inevitably named after the owner, or the dead man who started it in the first place: someone called Happy. Away from the person carrying the word, "haps" means luck, good or especially bad; it can mean devil's haunt. For the Deer Meadow Hap's there's a neon clown face on the roadside sign and three vagrants huddling by the door. "Ask Irene about that," one says, looking through the door at the counterwoman. "Irene right there." Then he ceases to make sense, or begins to speak a different language: "Irene's her name and it is night. Don't go any further with it. There's nothing good about it."

This will turn out to be a fine description of what's inside. Everyone in the dingy room—the waitress and two customers—is either stupid, threatening, or both. Sitting at the counter, Desmond notices Stanley holding his coffee cup in his left hand. Desmond asks him for the time, and as the greenhorn turns his wrist to look at his watch he dumps his coffee in his lap.

Desmond wants him gone; something about the death has sparked an affinity the older agent will have to pursue on his own. But not yet. Desmond and Stanley arrive at the Fat Trout Trailer Park, where Banks lived—though it might as well be called the Red Herring. Inside Banks's trailer, they find her picture: she's wearing a ring that was missing from the body. Played by a scrofulous Harry Dean Stanton, the trailer park operator appears in a bathrobe, looking as if he hasn't gotten dressed since the Ford administration; he offers the agents a cup of "Good Morning America!" A filthy, hunchbacked woman holding an ice bag to one eye hobbles into the trailer on a cane.

You begin to notice the state of the trailers. Except for Banks's, which has a white picket fence around it, they are decrepit, peeling, cracking, boarded up, abandoned. The residents are blind and crippled. This is the residential hotel as garbage dump, or the last frontier of what could be called a town, a place that deserves a California Gold Rush name: Rough and Ready or Confidence for irony, maybe, Hangtown or Sloughhouse for what it is.

Desmond sends Stanley and the body off to Portland. With dusk coming on, he returns to Fat Trout, to check out the trailer where the sheriff's deputy lives, he says, though the way he walks and talks says something else. This is a place he cannot stay away from. It has a kind of gravity that can't be found anywhere else. The fact that there's another trailer in the place belonging to someone at least formally connected to the case is if nothing else an excuse to go back.

The park operator banters with Desmond; then he walks a complaining woman with a stiff leg out of the frame, and for a moment Desmond occupies the center of a shot so perfect it becomes less a frame in a film than a painting on a wall, a painting that is also a door. Though the shot occupies a split second, in memory it can expand until it seems like an entire scene, as if everything the film has done with Desmond up to this point has been nothing but an excuse to get him here, standing exactly as he is. For its moment it is one of the most complete and uncanny images of America ever produced.

Desmond is standing in the center of the picture, in his trenchcoat, with his feet planted on muddy ground, framed off-center by a line of smashed-together trailers and splintering shacks on his right, the line fading out in a receding perspective; the same sort of structures are on his left, but with less weight. The lanky FBI agent is himself the weight, the only anchor the shot has; the longer you look, freezing the frame, the more abstract it feels, the more everything in it feels as if it's floating off the ground. Earlier, showing Desmond around Fat Trout, the park operator had stopped, looking at a telephone pole as if it were alive, as if it were reminding him it will kill him if he tells what he knows. Now Desmond sees the telephone pole, though really the feeling is that it sees him. Behind Desmond is a desiccated fir tree; far beyond that are the purple mountains you know from "America the Beautiful."

In the instant, a scene from the country's founding plays itself out again, F. Scott Fitzgerald imagining the first Dutch sailors to reach American shores: "For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." It's that contemplation that now fills Desmond's face—and if a trailer park can stand for a country, and if Fat Trout is saying that the country has been abandoned, no one left but people who have reached its absolute dead end ("I've been places," the park operator has said a minute before, begging the agent to accept his cowardice, to not ask why he doesn't want to talk, about Teresa Banks's murder or anything else: "I just want to stay where I am"), the mountains that form the backdrop to the ruins around Desmond say what they have always said: there was no last time. The wonder that was there to be seen nearly four hundred years before, and two hundred years after that through the eyes of the Hudson River painters, is as visible now as it ever was; what has been used up is not the wonder, but the eyes of the people below the mountains, the country that set itself up in their shadow.

Greil Marcus's new book, The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, from which this essay is taken, is out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September of 2006.

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