Twin Peaks S01E01: “Pilot/Northwest Passage” (08/04/90)

April 8. 1990 – this is where it all began. Although I didn’t see Twin Peaks until ten years after it aired, there has been no film or television series that has become so integral to my love of cinema. In part, that’s because Twin Peaks was my ultimate video store experience, the main venue within which I accessed film throughout my teenage years. After borrowing out the standalone – “standalone” – Twin Peaks film (actually a recut version of the pilot) and discovering somehow that there was an entire series beyond it, I scoured the video stores in my area for the remaining episodes. At the time, it was extremely uncommon for entire series to be released on VHS unless they were “quality” limited series or telemovies, so I figured that my chances of being able to access the entirety of this mercurial narrative was going to be fairly limited.


As luck would have it, however, one of my local video stores had the entire season in a box VHS set that spelled out the name of the show and provided a panorama of the Pacific Northwest landscape when all the titles were lined up next to each other in the right order. My memory of watching the series for the first time is utterly inextricable from these VHS part-objects, whose spines always contained some fragment of the series’ distinctive typography backed by a tantalising glimpse of fir trees and snow covered mountains. As if designed expressly to make the VHS objects feel like the kinds of relic that might be found in Twin Peaks itself, they were all preceded by the same series of VHS trailers. After all this time I can’t quite remember the names of any of the titles they advertised – releases long since lost in the post-video store era- – but I do remember that one of them had a mountaineering focus that was always continuous, in my mind, with the landscapes of Lynch’s iconic town.


At the same time, I vividly remember my tousle with the video store owner to permit me to borrow them all at the same time. A friend and I watched them after year 12 ended – it was our “schoolies” – on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and since my local video store was in Five Dock it was necessary for me to borrow them all out ahead of time. After taking all my details carefully and warning me that I would incur a thousand dollar fine if any of the tapes were returned in less than perfect condition, the manager grudgingly allowed me to take the lot – with a hefty deposit – reiterating my sense that I was carrying precious cargo. Over that summer, my friend and I watched, lived and dreamed Twin Peaks, which remains associated in my mind with the Northern Beaches – and that strange liminal space between the end of high school and the beginning of adult life – to this very day.


In that sense my associations with Twin Peaks probably differ from those who saw it for the first time on television, or those who participated in the first rudimentary chat rooms that popped up around cult television series in the early to mid 1990s. By the time I came to watch it, the mystery was long solved – in fact, enough time had elapsed that it wasn’t really common knowledge any more, or at least not a part of my high school zeitgeist in any discernible way. As luck would have it, however, my friend and I finished watching it two weeks before Mulholland Drive was released in cinemas, with the result that that film – for me, Lynch’s best – has always been completely continuous with Twin Peaks in my mind. At the same time, Twin Peaks turned out to be critical to my early experience of the Internet as well, since the first academic title I ever bought – Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks – was also the first online purchase my friend and I ever made, surreptitiously stealing his father’s credit card to do so.


In Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store, Daniel Herbert suggests that the “tangible phase” of VHS fandom was actually quite an anomalous period in the history of cinema. Poised between theatrical and digital modes of distribution, this brief window of VHS technology was a time when film was peculiarly available to hold, share and collect in a material and embodied way. While I missed out on the first wave of Twin Peaks fandom, there was something about experiencing it during this window of VHS fandom that feels quite alive to the series’ own fetishistic obsession with objects and trinkets, as well as the proliferation of apocryphal texts and objects around the series itself, all of which felt inextricable from the obsessive collecting mentality of a VHS universe. As much as I was excited when the first season finally made it to DVD, I was also aware that something had been lost in the subsumption of all these part objects into so many “extras,” just as the efficiency and convenience of encountering the series all in one place seemed to pale in comparison to the Lynchian experience of having to wrest it away from the over-eager manager of my local video store.


Watching it on my digital streaming service is another experience again, to the point where it feels as if the third season will need to adjust its plastic and fetishistic style to suit the more mercurial and fleeting atmosphere of this new mode of distribution. In fact, so physical does the film stock look on a flatscreen TV that I almost find myself watching the quality of the image – or watching the image as an image – as much as I am watching the objects in the frame. As a result, the collection of images that make up the stylistic syntax of the series – the firs, the lone traffic light, the log trucks, the diner – feel like synecdoches for Lynch’s cinematic register rather than objects that are being depicted through cinema, or that are separate from cinema in any discernible way. Like a time capsule that required a post-cinematic era to make its import known, these objects seem to have absorbed the cameras that captured them, slowly releasing their presence all these years later until the effect is of a kind of cinematic feedback loop that has grown more insular and more hyperreal in the twenty-five years since we inhabited it, which is presumably what has happened with Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Red Room as well.


Speaking of Dale Cooper, it’s still breathtaking how many characters, plot points and spaces are introduced here in a mere ninety minutes, with virtually every facet of the series feeling as if it could be predicted from these opening scenes. That’s not to say that the series feels planned out, or deterministic – just the opposite – but that the sense of complexity and darkness makes it feel as if almost any possible outcome might eventuate, including but not necessarily limited to those that actually ensued, which is perhaps why the third season doesn’t feel superfluous or opportunistic in any way either. Indeed, the effect is not so much of the beginning of a story as – once again – a series of narrative vibrations and resonances whose feedback is bound to grow more pronounced and intense over time, if only because their ambit is bound in turn by the series’ rigorous and enclosed sense of atmosphere, place and space. Nowhere is that clearer than in the night sequences in the final third of this opening episode, in which the extent and scale of the Pacific Northwest darkness is totally unprecedented to Dale Cooper, but also bespeaks an unthinkable level of narrative complexity to the audience as well.


Of course, this is also the first night since Laura’s death and here, as in so many other scenes in the series, it feels as if future and past and converged, as the characters – even at this early stage – start to travel into the depths of Laura’s final hours. On Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, night is a constant motif – “The Nightingale,” “Night Life in Twin Peaks,” “Into the Night” – while the soundtrack is itself drawn from Julee Cruise’s collaboration with Badalamenti and Lynch, Floating into the Night, whose tones and textures are integral to this opening episode as well. From the vantage point of the present, the nightscape seems even stickier and more viscous compared to the twilight recesses of digital media, which seem as incapable of registering total darkness as they are registering total brightness. In a digital world, it is rarely ever day or night, and certainly never as emphatically nocturnal as occurs in these final stretches of “Pilot/Northwest Passage,” whose vast expanses of Pacific Northwest night only seem to thicken and coagulate around the omnipresent, always-watching woods.


Indeed, in the standalone version that nightscape becomes so dense that it can only be represented figuratively, as a nightmare, with the concluding sequence following Dale Cooper as he returns to the hospital basement where he experiences the infamous “Red Room” dream sequence. In the series, however, that’s left until the second episode, and it works better that way, with the final scenes here gathering around where the characters find themselves twenty-four hours after Laura went missing. As the foghorn blows out across the lake – the sound design is so beautiful – a darkness deeper than night and more nocturnal than noir settles across every story, investing every object with an occult significance and every space with a supernatural sentience. So much – so much – feels at stake already – more than I could possibly describe in an episode review – and yet so much feels inextrixably swallowed up by the past as well, even if that past is rich and deep enough to have persisted some twenty-five years into the future, into our future.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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