Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Some thoughts on... Twin Peaks and the Detective Mystery Genre

 
 
After finishing university and the long, arduous slog of exam term back in June, I set my mind on spending time doing things I’d been itching to do in those daydreaming moments during revision, when freedom is the singular shining beacon on a mountain of books, papers and deadlines.
Specifically, ART: experiencing, enjoying and making.
Where does Twin Peaks come into this? Well, the series had been on my mind for a long time because so much art that I already loved was littered with references to it. To name but a few:
  • Bastille’s Dan Smith is a self-confessed lover of the programme, whose song ‘Laura Palmer’ directly addresses the character of the same name from Twin Peaks.
  • The makers of the ongoing episodic game, Life is Strange, are huge fans. Not only is their game set in an idyllic Washington state, small town environment comparable to the fictional town of Twin Peaks, but the game’s mystery-centred storyline draws on many of the themes from the TV series.
  • Other mystery adventure games such as Alan Wake contain numerous resemblances to Twin Peaks in their storylines, setting and aesthetic.
On this evidence, I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing out on a sort of cultural lynchpin by not watching Twin Peaks. I had to watch it, and for once I actually had the time to do so.
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About Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is an American TV mystery drama programme produced by Mark Frost and David Lynch, spanning two series which aired in 1990 and 1991. In total, the two series consisted of 30 episodes. Following the TV series, a feature film called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which acts both as a prologue and epilogue to the TV series, was released in 1992, also directed by David Lynch.
In 2014, it was confirmed by Lynch that a third series would be produced, set 25 years after the events in the original two series. It is expected to air in 2016 or 2017, and announcements continue to be made of members of the former 1990s cast and production team that are returning for the new series.
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Mysteries and me 

I started watching Twin Peaks around the middle of June, and finished at the end of August. This timing was fitting, because it happened to coincide with me enjoying numerous other examples of detective mystery fiction. After all, Twin Peaks wasn’t the only thing I was going to spend my newly-found freedom on!
During this period I also:
-       Continued to play ‘Life is Strange’.
-       Played ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’.
-       Played ‘Her Story’.
-       Played ‘Homesick’.
-       Watched playthroughs of two Sherlock Holmes games.
-       Watched a number of detective mystery programmes on TV, including New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, Sherlock and Jonathan Creek.
-       Watched the film Shutter Island.
-       Read ‘Digital Fortress’ by Dan Brown.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had quite a decent exposure to detective mystery fiction over this period.
And given my desire to start thinking more artistically again after the mind-numbing experience of intense revision and exams, the combination of Twin Peaks and these examples began to make me think about what the figure of the ‘detective’ and the detective genre in general represent, and what they mean to me personally.
Detective, crime and mystery fiction have been ever-present in my life for almost as long as I can remember. It’s probably quite unusual for parents to let their kids stay up and watch adult murder mystery TV shows when they’re still only halfway through primary school, but that’s what my Mum did. Programmes like Midsomer Murders, Jonathan Creek, Poirot, Miss Marple and A Touch of Frost became staples in our family, and I loved it. Mysteries intrigued me.
I think that to me mysteries were (and still are) almost more than stories, because in addition to describing a sequence of events mysteries give you the opportunity to question the reasons or motives behind, and the consequences of, these events. Through the medium of the detective, they allow you to piece together each flicker of thought, feeling and action and use them to shine light on a bigger picture. You can delve into the details and the nitty-gritty, knowing that even something small and seemingly insignificant could tip the balance of understanding.
The distinguishing factor is curiosity. Mysteries provide us with questions, and our engagement with the story is typically built upon our curiosity to know the answers to these questions.
While curiosity in everyday life may be construed as nosiness and lack of respect for privacy, I think that the great thing about mystery stories is how they encourage us to experience the thrill of searching for hidden meaning, deciphering clues and solving problems, without the same social and physical boundaries we would experience in real life. With our newly-found access to people’s lives – their secrets, their relationships with others, what they do, where and when – we become glued to the edge of our seats by the anticipation that each snippet of information brings us a step closer to answering the questions posed at the beginning.
As a result I find that mystery stories also tend to be very satisfying as well as thrilling, because when the pieces of the jigsaw finally fall into place and a story arc is revealed, you get a sense of fulfilment from having your questions answered. I think about the classic scenes used by Agatha Christie, where the detective gathers all of the characters in one room and systematically re-tells the sequence of events, this time filling in the gaps with facts established during the investigation. It is a catharsis, where tensions are abruptly and dramatically released, like a ‘drop’ in music. You can see why this technique was so effective. You have the satisfaction of resolution and the drama of revelation clutching each other at the climax.
However, at the end of the story it isn’t always as clear cut as the ‘bad guy goes to jail’, ‘crime doesn’t pay’ refrain. As well as providing a further sense of resolution or satisfaction to the story, justice in mystery dramas is a theme that allows you to consider the boundaries between right and wrong, in a genre where it is nearly always a crime that is the source of mystery. It is interesting to consider how morality should operate, for example, when mental illness is involved, or a long time has passed since the crime was committed. It adds another layer of meaning that goes beyond the confines of the story’s events, and is thought-provoking in that it allows you to consider your own moral inclinations.
Overall, then, I would say that my long-standing affinity for detective mysteries is largely built on three pillars:
·         Curiosity: the exciting process of learning and interpreting information about people and events.
·         Resolution: the satisfaction of having your questions answered, and sometimes justice.
·         Morality: questions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and their wider significance.
 
What Twin Peaks changed

Before I began watching Twin Peaks, the main thing I’d heard about it was that the whole show (30 episodes and a film) hinged on the murder of one person - Laura Palmer.
This interested me. In a genre where the mystery tends to be solved in the episode in which it is introduced – or at least within two or three – I wondered how the programme managed to sustain people’s curiosity for so long. Without the satisfaction of having your questions answered, where was the sense of resolution?
Simply put: how did the producers managed to drag the whole thing out so long?!
But this fact turns out to be the genius of Twin Peaks, and why it completely altered my perception of what detective/mystery stories are.
In Twin Peaks, like in real life, drama doesn’t unfold neatly and resolve itself quickly and unproblematically, or confine itself to those directly involved in extraordinary events. From the very first episode, Laura Palmer’s murder is the gateway through which the viewer is sucked into the messy lives of ordinary people, in a small town where everybody knows everybody else. Because even in an idyllic, semi-rural, middle-class environment that appears pristine on the outside, people have secrets. People have dark and ambiguous histories. People tell lies. Equally, those who may appear bad or heartless on the surface harbour a lighter, sensitive side. And although serious crime is undoubtedly an extraordinary event, Twin Peaks departs from the archetypal mystery story by focusing on the drama, intrigue and downright strangeness that exists in the everyday, not just the extraordinary.
Curiosity, resolution and morality take on a meaning of their own in Twin Peaks, beyond the characteristic ‘criminal investigation’ storylines.
David Lynch’s brilliance as a director and producer shines through in two important techniques he uses to achieve this.
The first thing to note is a particular method of character development that Lynch uses, involving stereotypes. On first impressions, you begin to get a sense of what some of the main characters might be like. You have Sheriff Harry Truman, the law-abiding, no-nonsense cop. There’s Bobby Briggs, the typical macho high-school jock who loves to cause trouble. Leo Johnson, violent partner to Shelly Johnson, who is too afraid to confront Leo’s domestic abuse. Ben Horne, the rich local businessman who wants to own as much of Twin Peaks as possible. These are just a few examples of Twin Peaks characters that appear to fit quite neatly into the stereotypical roles of American small-town suburbia.
In traditional detective mysteries the characters largely stay within the boundaries of their given roles, apart from the murderer who is suddenly seen to be hiding a dark secret, and perhaps one or two red herrings to arouse your suspicions.
This is not the case in Twin Peaks.
Because as soon as you start to think you understand each character, Lynch abruptly uncovers a different side to their personality, pushing them beyond the limits of their stereotypes. All of a sudden you begin to question their actions and motives, realising that behind every curtain and batted eyelid are mysterious forces at work.
It soon becomes clear that Laura Palmer’s murder is certainly not the only mystery in Twin Peaks. Rather, every single person is a mystery.
No one is completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘normal’ or ‘strange’. In fact, no one is ‘completely’ anything.
And so we can see that in Twin Peaks, unlike your average detective mystery story, you don’t need extraordinary or shocking events to pique your curiosity, or question human morality. There is no simple resolution to people’s problems, where everything goes back to normal.
People’s everyday lives provide enough intrigue by themselves.
Which brings me onto the second of Lynch’s techniques that I wanted to talk about, involving the use of surrealism.
In another point of departure from your typical TV detective mystery, many of the goings-on in Twin Peaks do not appear to be ‘of this world’. At times, the series could justifiably be described as a ‘psychological horror’ or ‘supernatural drama’. Meaningful dreams and visions, multiple personalities, alternate dimensions and a variety of unusual mental disorders are just a few examples of this.
What interests me most about this element of the series, though, is how the surreal blurs into the mundane. The unusual and supernatural are a part of everyday life - slotting seamlessly into day-to-day occurrences – rather than just being the outcome of extraordinary events.
This is quite deftly symbolised by the cooperation of the two main ‘detective’ characters in the series. One is the spiritual, instinctive Special Agent Dale Cooper, an FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks to investigate the Laura Palmer case. The other is the practical, rational Sheriff Truman. In many ways they couldn’t be more different in their way of thinking or methods, and yet when combined they manage to strike a strong partnership as they attempt to get to the bottom of the mysteries that unfold.
The end result of this intertwining of the mundane and the surreal is that there is always an atmosphere or presence of mystery in Twin Peaks, rather than simply a sequence of mysterious occurrences. Every day is extraordinary, dramatic and worthy of our curiosity. And even when some of our questions are answered, there’s no ‘happy ever after’ where everything returns to normal – just like the ongoing drama that is real life.
That to me is the real beauty of Twin Peaks. Unlike any other detective mystery I’ve come across, it actively encourages us to appreciate the extraordinary in the everyday; the mystery and strangeness that is day-to-day life.
 
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My 5 favourite things about Twin Peaks
The soundtrack: Angelo Badalamenti’s music is hauntingly beautiful; the perfect accompaniment to the series. Was thrilled to hear that he is composing the score for the forthcoming series.
The quirkiness: I love the quirky habits and traits that each character has, which make for some very funny and strange scenes throughout the series.
The setting: I like the sense of place that you develop as you watch the series. You really begin to feel as if you ‘know’ Twin Peaks almost as well as the fictional characters who live there, each location with its own meanings and memories.
My favourite characters: the melodramatic Donna, the slow-minded but lovable Andy, the insightful ‘Log Lady’ and the tantalising Audrey.
Agent Cooper’s recorded monologues: a brilliant plot device that gives you access to the detective’s thoughts and observations, but also add to the mystery of the series. Who is the ‘Diane’ to which he always addresses his messages?
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Final thoughts

I’m really, really glad I decided to watch Twin Peaks this summer.
Since watching the series, I’ve realised that the qualities that I typically like in detective mysteries are all there. There is plenty to be curious about in the lives of each character. You do get some sense of resolution when truths are uncovered, even if they are almost immediately replaced by new questions. And there is more than enough to take from the series on the nature of human morality.
The feature that makes Twin Peaks stand out, however, is the way that these qualities materialise.
In its attention to the intrigue of everyday life, the simple pleasure of the traditional detective mystery story is somehow imbued with a whole new level of meaning. Twin Peaks becomes so much more than just a TV mystery drama because it provides significant insight into real life too: into the inescapable mystery and strangeness of people living seemingly ‘ordinary’ lives.

I think the idea in many ways is simple, but it was executed in Twin Peaks so well that it became revolutionary in the detective mystery genre.
I have actually just finished watching series 1 of ITV’s Broadchurch, which I didn’t have time to watch when it was originally shown because – you guessed it – I had a ton of university work. The series has won several BAFTAs, and can you guess which TV show its writer, Chris Chibnall, cites as a major influence?
Yep, it’s Twin Peaks.
And there are quite a few blatant similarities, not least the fact that the series focuses on the everyday lives of people in an ordinary small town, which has been shocked by one sudden murder.
And Twin Peaks will continue to be an inspiration for detective mysteries of all types for years to come, because its approach and its ideas resonate with people.
This is what has motivated me to start planning some conceptual art based on the figure of the ‘detective’ and the notion of ‘mystery’ which, as you can gather, I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

There are also plenty of connections to my academic interest in psychogeography. As a practice, pscyhogeography is always looking to find intrigue and excitement in the mundane environments of everyday life. The theme of the 'extraordinary in the everyday', as well as the novel technique of surrealism as a way of depicting this in film, have given me lots to think about in terms of how we might visualise the little stories and dramas that take place and produce meaning in the ordinary environments we inhabit.                                                                                                                 
I’m now eagerly looking forward to seeing what new insights the third series brings, and enjoying the fantastic art that Twin Peaks will continue to inspire.
 

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