Wrapped in Celluloid

Why the web of movie allusions in David Lynch’s show helped it take hold of the cultural imagination in a way no series ever had.

If Laura Palmer is filled with secrets, then Twin Peaks is filled with movies. It was among the very first popular screen narratives to be embedded with many overt references to the works that inspired it, all favorites of creator David Lynch. Laura Palmer is a dead blonde, but she has a brunette double in the person of her cousin, Madeleine Ferguson, who has the first name of the dead blonde in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the last name of the film’s detective, played by James Stewart. Scotty Ferguson discovers a brunette, Judy, who uncannily resembles Madeleine and feeds his obsession by trying to make over Judy in Madeleine’s image. (Judy is a name invoked repeatedly, without explanation, in Lynch’s 1992 feature-film prequel to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.) A mynah bird named Waldo and a veterinarian named Lydecker appear in one episode, alluding to Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, another story of a detective obsessed with a dead woman. Two Billy Wilder films, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, get shout-outs in the form of character names. Gordon Cole, the FBI regional bureau chief played by Lynch himself, is named after a minor character in Sunset Boulevard, and a conniving insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who appears in the seventh episode of the first season of Twin Peaks, is named after the insurance salesman at the center of Double Indemnity.

Twin Peaks is not quite a pastiche—Lynch’s vision has always been too idiosyncratic to permit outright imitation—although it comes closest in the parts of the series depicting the love lives of its teenage characters. The obvious references here are the sumptuous melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, particularly Ray’s 1955 masterpiece, Rebel Without a Cause; James Hurley, former flame of Laura Palmer, is a heartfelt tribute to the tormented outsiders played by James Dean. But in one interview, Lynch also enthused about a less-exalted specimen of the genre: A Summer Place, starring Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee as the sort of well-scrubbed yet overwrought teenage characters who abound in the melodramas of the 1950s and ’60s.

Lynch’s fixation on the ’50s is long-standing. When not scoring his work with Angelo Badalamenti’s aural reveries, he opts for vintage R&B. The dinner scene from Eraserhead makes a grotesque of the midcentury family iconography of Norman Rockwell. On the Air, the short-lived TV sitcom he and Mark Frost created after Twin Peaks, takes place at a 1950s TV network. Lynch’s enthrallment with the pop culture of his own youth can sometimes make his films feel hermetic. But the late ’80s and early ’90s, with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, were the first times Lynch’s particular obsessions aligned perfectly with the culture at large.

And so—along with a mashup of the prestige-TV chops of co-creator Frost and the dispatches from the unconscious artiness of Lynch—Twin Peaks was a pure product of its historical moment, a moment preoccupied, as Twin Peaks was, with its own past. The teenagers who live in Twin Peaks seem to have never heard of punk rock or heavy metal. They dress in twinset sweaters and wear saddle shoes and bright red lipstick. The town exists in a bubble, neither entirely of the present nor exactly a period drama. Its world was a dream America had been dreaming for the past decade under the administration of Ronald Reagan, a nostalgic reverie about a version of itself that never existed and that Twin Peaks itself would proceed to strip down to its ugliest underpinnings.

The film genre that fascinates Lynch most of all is film noir—a style that reached its pinnacle at midcentury—with its shadowy lighting, brooding detectives, and femmes fatales. Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Blue Velvet (1986) are all neo-noirs. “There’s a beguiling and magnetic mood,” Lynch once said of the genre. “There’s so much darkness, and there’s so much room to dream. They’re mysteries, and there are people in trouble, and uneasiness.” Not coincidentally, film noir hinted at the repressed memories of postwar America. While Doris Day cavorted with Rock Hudson, noir featured narrators, typically detectives, who come to their stories already irreparably damaged and cynical. The sunny vision of the American dream—suddenly available to vast numbers of veterans in the form of the GI Bill and the suburbs it built—required burying what all those men saw and suffered on the battlefields of Europe.

Lynch wasn’t much interested in the suffering of men, though. In Blue Velvet, the character played by Kyle MacLachlan, an amateur detective, decides to investigate a woman, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), who at first appears to be guilty but is soon revealed to have been repeatedly traumatized by the film’s sadistic villain, Frank (Dennis Hopper); Lynch likes to give his most terrifying villains the blandest of middle-American male names. The greatest mystery the detective encounters is Dorothy’s ability to retain her humanity in extremis, even as her reason disintegrates. Before Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost had worked on a project based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Laura Palmer is, in Lynch’s words, “radiant on the surface but dying inside”—Laura as a result of being molested and abused from early adolescence by the sinister figure known, at first, only as Bob.

As Lynch saw it, Laura Palmer and her struggle lay at the very heart of Twin Peaks. Compared to her, the women of classic film noir lack depth and stature. They might be double-crossing seductresses or doomed innocents and rescue objects, but in either case they remained romantic accoutrements to the male heroes’ stories. The 1980s had seen a revival of the genre; films like 1981’s Body Heat and a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Jack Nicholson released the same year are just two examples, both with old-fashioned femmes fatale and men rendered helpless by their lust.

Neo-noir became the stylish counterpart to what seemed like a wholesale retreat from reality. Reagan, a minor movie star from the postwar period and a man prone to confusing Hollywood fantasies with real life, was in the White House, promising to “make America great again.” A resurgent conservative movement capitalized on widespread nostalgia for a simpler way of life, one in which the divisions, violence, and guilt of America’s past and present were papered over with a wholesome façade. During the 1980s, the 1950s were like the past as Faulkner once described it: not dead, not even past. Much of America fully intended to bring them back.

Yet Twin Peaks—especially if you include, as most Lynch aficionados now do, Fire Walk With Me—wasn’t merely a neo-noir. Along the way, as Lynch became ever more preoccupied with Laura’s struggle, Twin Peaks began to quarrel with the mystification with which noir swathes its beautiful dead girls and lethal sirens. For all that the genre liked to think of itself as exposing the dirty underbelly of American life, it showed a marked lack of insight when it came to its own self-deceiving misogyny. Fire Walk With Me returned the focus to Laura Palmer, fusing itself to her agony, giving her the grandeur of a protagonist. It also scrutinized, in her father, Leland Palmer, a man unable to prevent himself from visiting the violations he once suffered on those he loved. It was the truth behind the truth, the truth that noir itself refused to look at, from which America was then in full-fledged retreat. Through the course of the series, you can detect Lynch’s realization that the films he’s loved, from Laura to Vertigo, contain their own hidden stories. Only by making an even larger story, a story expansive enough to contain all the rest of them, could he begin to get at the one that most needed to be told.

For all these reasons, it’s a strange moment for a reboot of this particular series. Now, over a quarter of a century later (nearly as many years separate Twin Peaks from the present as separated Twin Peaks from Vertigo), Laura’s secrets are less unspeakable. Today, the ’50s exert relatively little imaginative allure. Even the political populists chasing after that lost American greatness don’t seem to believe in the mask of niceness and tranquility once associated with the decade, and everyone who can afford to is fleeing leafy suburbs and small towns for the cities. For Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks is an idyll, but to the contemporary viewer, it’s a more like mirage. Small-town America has become a place where all that illicit drug-dealing would be expected rather than shocking.

But Twin Peaks has become our own cultural heritage, permeating our collective psyche the way film noir saturated Lynch’s. In a mere two seasons, the series introduced American audiences to the idea of auteur-made television, to a mystery featuring a blend of shorter and season-spanning story arcs and to the possibility that the images beamed to their small screens could be as dense and beautifully crafted as those found at movie theaters. There’s a little bit of Twin Peaks in almost every landmark series produced in the current golden age of television, from allusion-stuffed puzzle shows like Westworld to straight-up homages like Stranger Things. If its stylistic flourishes no longer look so instantly, so startlingly original to the contemporary eye, like all great art it has deeper and more lasting powers that surpass mere innovation. It has gotten under our skin, and it will stay there.