GLIMPSES OF THE MYSTERY
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TRANSFIGURING OBJECTS: GLIMPSING THE SCULPTED HEART OF TWIN PEAKS IN JASON S.'S *IMPRESSIONS* DOCUMENTARIES
We all know and love the routine despite its tawdriness: the long-awaited collector's edition boxed-set has finally arrived and it's time to debut the special features. We locate the requisite disc, suffer an unsolicited reminder that piracy is not a victimless crime, negotiate an awkward menu or two, click play and then watch, rapt, as an Entertainment-Weekly-caliber documentary delivers waves of moon-eyed, breathless actors or producers or crew members struggling to describe the privilege, magic, and mystery of working with David Lynch. Or maybe some celebrated directors, or show-runners, or otherwise important industry moguls gush for the umpteenth time about how groundbreaking Twin Peaks was for the coming-of-age of televisual media. Or perhaps we wistfully Ken-Burns our way through some backstage photographs taken by Richard Beymer of the oracular director and his cast working their magic. Again.
I love these hagiographic portraits of the people and the world of Twin Peaks as much as the next fanatic. I watch them eagerly, moon-eyed and breathless myself, thrilled to look through any available window into the wonderful and strange world I so dearly cherish. As I watch, though, I can't help but experience an acute awareness of the yawning chasm between the nostalgic adulation of art and the artist that these special features so often indulge and the genuine disclosure of art and the artist that I'm always tempted to hope for from these glimpses "behind the scenes". What would it be like, I have often wondered, if the world "behind the scenes" were disclosed through the probing, imaginative, transfiguring vision of artistic experience, rather than through the nostalgic, wistful, worshipful experience of the fandom or the calculating, measuring, comparative experience of the punditry?
Jason S.'s Impressions: A Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks comes closer to answering this question than anything I've previously encountered among a boxed-set's special features. In fact, this ten-part series of 30-minute documentary films (brought to us by the cinematographer behind The Art Life) deserves an independent issuing as the full-fledged feature that it is. With gloriously delphic titles like "The Man With the Gray Elevated Hair", "A Bloody Finger in Your Mouth", and "A Pot of Boiling Oil", these films offer what feels like almost unmediated access to the grounding energies behind the world--to the director, actors, crew members, trailers, filming locations, sets and props whose collaborations and collisions bring the world of Twin Peaks so vividly into being.
But if the access offered here feels almost unmediated, close attention across all ten films reveals one grounding energy in particular as especially prominent among the forces at work in the creation of Twin Peaks: sculpture. In addition to lavishing exquisite attention on the sculptural elements of the set and special effects (which are super-abundant--I'll catalogue some of the most prominent examples below), the portrait of the director that emerges is that of the visionary sculptor: the artist who envisions the world and its denizens not in terms of their actual states of being, but in light of their hidden, heretofore unimagined potential.
Like a sculptor unveiling a Venus de Medici from a block of stone stroke by prescient chisel stroke, Lynch's task as a director is to choose his raw materials wisely and to know and appreciate their properties so intimately that he can coax out their strength and beauty while deftly negotiating the inner faults and fissures whose mishandling or exploitation could impede or even destroy the transformation. Through this transfiguring process, an idea becomes a material reality: the thought of a steaming machine, through the shaving and painting of foam, becomes the long lost Philip Jeffries; the character in the script, through a mournful embrace and an agonized whisper into Grace Zabriskie's ear, becomes the inimitable Sarah Palmer. In discussing this intimate process of bringing ideas to life through deep knowing, appreciation, and negotiation with the intricate capacities and flaws of material beings (whether people or objects), Lynch often has recourse to his love of working with wood:
"You've got this idea, and you can see it and hear it and feel it and know it. Now, let's say you start cutting a piece of wood and it's just not exactly right. That makes you think more, so you can take off from that. You're now acting and reacting. So it's kind of an experiment to get it all correct. [...] Wood is one of the greatest materials to work with. There are soft woods and hard woods, and they all have their own beauty when you are working with them. When I saw through a piece of freshly cut pine, the smell of it just sends me right to heaven. I used to chew Ponderosa pine pitch, which is the sap that oozes out of the tree and dries on the outside of the bark. If you can get a fresh piece of pitch, it is like syrup. It will stick to you and you won't be able to get it off your hands. But sometimes it hardens like old honey. And you can chew this, and the flavor of the pine pitch will make you crazy, in a good way. Pine, being a softer wood, is easier to work with and is readily available. When I was young, I did a lot of things with pine. But then, I started falling in love with Douglas fir, vertical-grain Douglas fir. When you varnish a piece of Douglas fir, it has a depth of beauty that is just phenomenal. And then when you put two pieces of wood together, you start realizing that there are so many possibilities. And you learn some tricks along the way." (David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish, 29, 123-124)
Jason S.'s Impressions documentaries do a remarkable job of revealing the sculpted heart of Twin Peaks, both by showing the artist at work, lovingly (and sometimes exasperatedly) molding, chiseling, modeling, and creamed-corn-smearing away on sculpted elements of the set and actors alike, and by calling our attention--in the voiced narrations by collaborator and composer Josef Maria Schäfers--to the elemental importance of transfiguration as a grounding ethos of Twin Peaks (whether we're talking about the show itself or the creative people and processes that brought the show into being).
One of my favorite such scenes finds Lynch on the ground, sculpting the portal-well to the White Lodge just past Jackrabbit's Palace. He has run short on "Fix-All", a plaster-like material that he is using to get just the right texture around the rim of the well, and is chagrinned to learn from a sheepish production assistant that they couldn't procure the requested Fix-All and have brought plaster of Paris instead. Lynch momentarily loses it, as the prospect of failing fully to realize material fidelity to his idea gets the best of him: "Fuck! Plaster of Paris! BULLSHIT! Okay, well mix it up".
It was a genuine thrill to see the sculptural origins of some of the great set-pieces of The Return in these short films: the revelation of Ruth Davenport's severed head, Cooper's plunge in to the Non-Exist-Ent, the hatching of the frog-locust egg, Andy's journey to the White Lodge, the revelation of Phillip Jeffries in Room 8 of the Dutchman's, and BOB's fiery descent into Frank Truman's office floor, to name just a few.
Though there is no substitute for watching the documentaries, juxtaposing stills from Jason S.'s Impressions with stills from the relevant scenes of the finished series offers a fascinating glimpse into how integrally sculpture figures into Lynch's process on set. To wit:
Ruth Davenport's Pillow
Cooper's Plunge into the Non-Exist-Ent
The Frog-Locust Egg
The Portal Past Jackrabbit's Palace
Deputy Andy's Smoke Oracle
The Long Lost Phillip Jeffries
Bob's Penultimate Departure into Sheriff Truman's Office Floor (a.k.a., Bob's Oily Eggy Cornhole)
As these examples clearly demonstrate, Lynch was making art in Twin Peaks not only as a filmmaker, but as a sculptor (the same can likely be said of drawing, painting, and sound-design too, though Impressions places less emphasis on those media). And once the elemental role that sculpture plays in grounding the aesthetic and the mood of the series has been foregrounded in this way, it is exhilarating to return to various parts of the finished product and witness how profoundly Lynch's care and attention to sculpting--not just to the craft of set-dressing, mind you, but to the artistic creation of particular sculpted works of material art that are integrated into the set--contributes to the transcendent, otherworldly, uncanny mood of the show.
As I revisited the series with its sculptural essence (as revealed by Impressions) explicitly in mind, I was astonished to see how often Lynch's sculptures steal the show, whether he is "transfiguring the commonplace" (as Arthur Danto put it) by investing everyday things with "energy of a spiritual nature" (as Joseph Beuys put it) or attempting to materialize people, places, and things from worlds otherwise than our own. What a debt of gratitude we owe to Jason S. and his collaborators for illuminating the sculpted heart of Twin Peaks!
The following stills depict some of my favorite sculptures from Twin Peaks, which--as I assembled them--inspired me to imagine myself wandering, moon-eyed and breathless, through a future exhibition on "Sculpting the World of Twin Peaks" at a beautifully austere gallery in New York or Paris or Prague (maybe Buckhorn?). Which pieces would you add or subtract from the exhibition and why?
Sculpting the Ordinary
Sculpting the Extraordinary