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Desire Under the Douglas Firs


Unlike most detective screen fiction, "Twin Peaks" does not represent the hidden, the fearful, the illegible, the body, and the feminine as interchangable concepts. Certainly the discovery of Laura's body seems to signal the otherness of woman as a terrifying disturbance for men, one familiar from Hollywood narratives and even from television, since the concept of Body is so super-saturated with feminine associations that femininity permeates even the seemingly neutral television presentation of an unreliable physical world. Yet, on "Twin Peaks," otherness rather quickly loses its gendered aspects. Physical disruption may alert us to difference, but here the difference is not predicated on a binary opposition between male and female, and when a female expresses difference, it is not always either frightening or unfortunate. Similarly, masculinity pointedly does not guarantee reliability, as the murderer turns out to be Laura's father, Leland Palmer. Possessed by BOB, Leland's body is unreliable, veiled, and secretive; at moments he is murderous, at other times compulsively racked by dancing and singing. His ominous difference defies ordinary gender construction. Conversely, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), daughter of Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the richest man in town, who also dances compulsively, is defined as Special Agent Dale Cooper's special agent.

A young girl struggling with inner longings, Audrey is, like Cooper, a seeker who has her own very special mind-body connection. Audrey's off-beat, disruptive presence as body cannot be identified in terms of the conventional distrust of the female body in a text in which Leland Palmer also exists. Moreover, it is worked into the narrative as part of her legitimate desire to participate in a world from which her father's ruthless domination of the town threatens to exclude her. When Audrey uses her body to compel a group of Norwegian businessmen to interrupt their work, she disrupts a fraud her father is perpetrating on them. When she surprises the madam of a brothel owned by her father with her ability to twist a cherry stem into a three-ring pretzel shape using only her tongue, she wins a job and the opportunity to find out more about both Laura's death and what Ben Horne has hidden from her.

Nowhere is difference more fully demystified than in Cooper's heuristic dreams. Indeed, Cooper's dream at the end of the third episode suggests that in order to deal with mystery the detective must move between masculinity and feminity in a way that obviates the whole issue of castration fears. Cooper's dream shows him "a place between two worlds": the Red Room. It is a large enclosure surrounded on all sides by billowing red drapes. Aside from these, it contains only three black art deco upholstered chairs, a torch lamp, and a Grecian white marble statue of a female nude, the floor beneath tiled in an Escher-like geometric pattern. In the dream, an aging Cooper is seated in one of the chairs. Another is occupied by a Little Man (Michael Anderson) about three feet in height wearing a red suit. The other chair is soon filled by Laura, as she was in life, but dressed strangely in an evening gown much like a costume from a 1940s B picture: low-cut, black velvet, deeply slit. Laura and the Little Man speak as though a 78-rpm record were playing at 33 1/3 rpm. Their gestures are enigmatic. This is particularly true of the Little Man, who undulates as he talks, "speaking" a body language at least as meaning-laden as his dialogue, and equally hard to decipher.

Cooper looks attentive during the dream, never rises from the chair, and barely speaks. He watches the Little Man dance to repetitive, rhythmic music with a cool blues melodic line played on a saxophone. Cooper is fascinated (and ultimately tutored) by the Little Man, even though there is a lack of logic to what he says or what he does: dancing, rubbing his hands, or simply turning his back to Cooper and shaking. Similarly, Cooper's eye (and ear) is overwhelmed by a Laura who is barely understandable because of the manipulation of the sound track. She too makes illegible gestures.

At the end of the dream, Laura kisses the aged Cooper sensually and whispers in his ear, unheard by the audience. When Cooper wakes hair standing on end he can only remember that Laura has solved the mystery for him. Until the middle of the second season, Cooper seeks to retrieve what he now knows. The important moment when Cooper "hears" Laura with his conscious mind will be fully discussed below. Here, we must ponder the significance of Cooper's dream for his coding as a man, and as a detective hero.

The Red Room is a place where everything that has always been true of onscreen murder mysteries whether in the movies or on television is inverted. Cooper's site of discovery resembles the site of crime in ordinary detective stories: a place where no action can be identified in terms of pragmatic or logical purpose. Unlike other detectives, however, Cooper discovers more from body than from mind. Rational language and action barely exist in the Red Room. Here body speaks, as it were; Laura, nothing but inert body in the "real world" of Twin Peaks, possesses the solution to her own murder and is willing and able to share it with Cooper in his dream. Unlike the femme fatale, Laura is neither sexualized nor desexualized object. She is another subject. There is pleasure when Cooper gains knowledge through merging with her she tells him the name of her murderer when she kisses him but the desire satisifed in this kiss is a compound of his desire to understand and her desire to communicate. Similarly, the merging of two subjects is suggested later, when we learn through a diary entry that Laura and Cooper have had identical dreams of the Red Room. As Laura is not object, she is not the detective's impediment. Cooper is hampered by his own limits. Her illegibility is not the displacement of his own, but the corollary of his need to understand his body.

In Hollywood, the secrets of femininity are conventionally distinguished from the clarity of masculinity. But, in "Twin Peaks," Laura's secrets identify her with Cooper. Her secrets are presented in tandem with those of the Little Man, whose illegibility creates intimations of masculine murkiness. This small, wiggling, dancing, rosy figure has clear phallic associations, even in being called "the Little Man." To make the association clearer, the Little Man of Cooper's dream frequently undulates in front of a Greek marble female nude such that he is often framed with statue's crotch behind his head. (Her genital identity is emphasized by her hand, which both covers and points to it.) The existence of such a Little Man as Cooper's guide suggests that readiness to seek Laura's killer is identified with Cooper's receptivity both to her (and her ambiguity) and to the complexities of an almost illegible phallic reality.

In the Holmesian detective, the scrutinizing eye and the phallus become one, suggesting that the detective's potency transcends the unreliability of the body. In "Twin Peaks," the phallic energy of Cooper's body is readily distinguished from the logical scrutiny of his detective's eye. As in the Dream of the Red Room, insight is a product of a magic partnership between the eye and the oblique meaning of the phallic image. Cooper's logic must be put on hold in order for him to explore the phallic magic. Cooper's magic phallic helpers take two forms which reflect the anatomical changeability of the male member. After the Little Man, a second phallic helper appears, a Giant (Carel Struycken).

The Giant, identified as a phallic presence in an angle-up shot foregrounding his crotch, appears to Cooper in a vision as the FBI agent lies on the floor of his hotel room, apparently bleeding to death. At the end of the first season, Cooper is shot by an unknown assassin when he opens the door to what he thinks is room service. As the second season begins, the open doorway becomes a frame highly charged with expectation while we wait for someone to enter it and come to the aid of our hero. When at last someone arrives, it is the senile Old Waiter (Hank Worden). For an agonizing but comic eternity, the doddering old man makes irrelevant small talk while Cooper asks him to get a doctor. Surprisingly, the badly wounded Cooper is not annoyed by the old man's senility and politely indulges his caprices. Cooper even returns the old fellow "a thumbs-up" as he leaves and what looks like Cooper's last chance goes out the door. Cooper lies there for a long screen minute, after which a brilliant light floods him and the Giant pays his first call. The Giant's speech is distorted in a way reminiscent of the Red Room. Giving Cooper several oblique clues to the mystery, he takes Cooper's ring, saying that it will be returned when Cooper finds the "things the Giant has told him to be true." We do not understand the significance of the ring until much later.

The phallic incapacity of the waiter in the "real world" plays against the stereotypes in the detective genre. A hiatus in the ordinary male potency and logic seems to be necessary in order for Cooper to cross a boundary and gain access to a part of himself that is impeded by the limitations of the G-Man's organizational code. Being shot, says Cooper to himself as he lies on the floor, is not as bad as people think, as long as "you can keep the fear from your mind." Indeed, he muses, "that's pretty much what life is like. O.K., as long as you can keep the fear from your mind." The vulnerability of the body is here portrayed as an advantage for Coop not one that we would care to see pressed beyond the point of no return, but an opportunity to look at reality from an altered perspective.

Cooper's productive vacations from logic are a significant departure from the oppressive literality of American television (and films) that obsessively emphasizes phallic power to foreclosure any such "lapses in virility." (note #7) The two forms of phallic power in conventional screen fiction are the thrusting mind/eye and the thrusting fist or gun. The idiosyncracy of "Twin Peaks" in this respect is the deferral of that forward thrust, visually emphasized by the literal emptiness of frame left by the open door to Cooper's room. We wait and wait for it to be filled by that male strike force we have been trained to expect. Only after a long hiatus do Harry and his deputies burst in, guns drawn, filling the empty door frame with the usual rescuers. In comparison with the phallic power of the Giant there is something diminished, foolish, and loveable in this conventional rescue.

But phallic onslaught is not alwasy so benign. Indeed, on "Twin Peaks," unlimited by a commitment to law, it is the source of evil. Just before Cooper's path leads him to correctly identify Leland as Laura's murderer, MIKE tells Cooper about the rejected but not forgotten joys of his days as BOB's partner, speaks in a kind of frenzy of his experience with BOB of the Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction. BOB devours life as he closes the Golden Circle to satisfy his boundless appetites. The cannibalistic aspect of this energy is all too clear to us not from Laura's murder, which we never see, but from the death of her cousin, Maddy, which recreates the original atrocity. When we see Leland kill his niece, BOB and Leland dissolve in and out of one another during the act; the bright light common to both BOB's appearances and Cooper's waking visions reveals BOB/Leland both kissing and killing the girl, kissing her as if he were devouring her face, Phallic energy is a continuum with BOB on one end and Cooper on the other.

The Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction described by MIKE to Cooper is an unusual address (possibly unheard-of on American prime-time television) to the phallocentrism that is the unacknowledged motivator of Hollywood fictions. The Golden Circle is an energy that, in returning to itself, seeks the obliteration of the feminine, whose existence threatens the closing of the masculine self-referential circle. When the Giant returns the ring to Cooper as he finally hears Laura's dream voice, the gesture celebrates Cooper's major achievement in solving the murder. Securely on his finger, the small ring indicates that the Golden Circle of Appetite is under control. In solving the mystery, Cooper restrains the energy of phallic onslaught. His reward for doing so is to hear and see once again his dream of Laura, the desirable woman whom phallocentrism has suppressed from the narrative, and to bring back her voice and body, even though this means crossing the boundary between life and death.

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Martha Nochimson wrote The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart in Hollywood.

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© Mike Hartmann