Digital Ghosts: Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) and La Jetée (1962)

In The End of Cinema?: A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age (2015), André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion consider “an aspect of digitalized film that overlaps at one and the same time the user’s everyday experiences, ontological issues, and the institutionalized division of images into territories.”1 They continue, identifying the distinction between still and moving/“animated” images that “digital capturing and encoding tends to eradicate.”2 We can locate this breakdown on the cell phone screen, where one can animate or freeze an image with the slightest touch. Gaudreault and Marion in fact observe a generalized perplexity at the still image that resists such manipulation, suggesting that the animated/animatable image is the new norm, and that the still image “has now sworn allegiance to the superior principle of movement.”3 The emphasis here is on the unprecedented level of individualized consumer control, as “the users themselves, when they are before a screen configuration involving Animation, can choose a still ‘contemplation’ mode…or an ‘animated’ mode.” Circulating well outside the strictures of the 20th-century cinematic contract—which mandated audience submission to the projected image and implacable unfolding of the narrative—the Digital “puts within reach of every viewer the singular prosody and rhythm of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).”4

La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1962)

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

Marker’s experiment in photomontage, his probing of the liminal space described by Gaudreault and Marion, has weighed heavily on my interpretation of the preeminent media event of 2017: Showtime’s eighteen-episode revival of Twin Peaks, co-written by original showrunners David Lynch and Mark Frost and directed in its entirety by Lynch. Whether Twin Peaks warrants classification as cinema or television, or whether or not its production parameters were conducive to unfettered auteurist expression are not my foci here. Rather, my current obsession is the way in which the slippery essence of the 21st-century still image—not technically “photographic” and only ever temporarily immune to some animating force—serves as the series’ foundational aesthetic principle. It is on this level that I find the connections to La Jetée undeniable, and will in fact suggest an understanding of Twin Peaks as an aesthetic inversion of Marker’s photo-roman, focusing on the ways in which the earlier work’s epistemological enquiry and the latter’s attraction to the apocalyptic put them in a bizarre but meaningful dialogue. I find this a suitable topic with which to begin this series on what I term digital ghosts, examining the ways in which video technology scrambles out comprehension of cinematic images of the spectral. What power and meaning do such images retain as cinema renegotiates its relationship to physical reality?

Taking place twenty-five years after the finale of the original series, Twin Peaks: The Return makes good use of the still, most often to resurrect deceased members of the original cast. The face of the late Frank Silva as the entity “BOB” is superimposed on that of Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper (to visualize demonic possession) and also on a magical, flying CGI orb, while the late Don S. Davis as Major Garland Briggs appears as a giant floating head occupying some purple-tinged netherworld. As for articulating the emotional weight these images hold for the Twin Peaks die-hard, I could not hope to improve on what Gina Telaroli wrote for Filmmaker in July 2017, before the series had even concluded:

Twin Peaks: The Return is foundationally about (the often shushed) process of aging and dying. … Each episode brings a new shock in an old friend’s appearance and in the realization of how young people look versus how they looked then. … But it isn’t just characters who have been effected by Father Time; the actual form and content of the show is also being dictated by astounding flurry of actual life and death, by who is alive and who has passed away. … Each twist and turn, each loosely connected segment is ultimately an answer to someone’s unexpected absence.

But it is also worth emphasizing how positively Lynchian these effects seem, to an extent that almost justifies the historical overvaluing of “cohesion” in auteurist canons. Though created out of necessity and mostly farmed out to the VFX artists at BUF Compagnie, the effects are rendered in a rough, garish way recalling Lynch’s earliest works suggestive of mixed-media, especially The Grandmother (1970). Compare, for instance, the digital de-aging of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Part 17 (sublime, because unconvincing) to the resurrection of a 22-year-old Sean Young in Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017; “More human than human”).

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

Blade Runner 2048 (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

This shoestring resourcefulness hits a self-reflexive peak in a brief scene in Part 5, when FBI Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) sits in her Philadelphia office examining two photographs of the long-absent, recently resurfaced Cooper. The first photo is a mug shot taken in 2016; unlike Tammy, we know this to be an image of Cooper’s evil doppelgänger, a character whose exploits we have watched over the previous four installments. The second photograph is of the real Cooper in 1989, taken shortly before his mysterious disappearance; it is actually a still from the fifth episode of the original series, from a scene in which the agent interrogates Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station. Even if the viewer cannot precisely place this image (I myself first thought it was an image from the pilot episode, before verifying on Netflix), it is quite clearly “fake”: the angle of the photograph, the recognizable wood-panel background, and Cooper’s open-mouthed expression completely shatter the believability of the image as a prop, which in turn underscores the awkwardness of this—or any—character handling a physical photograph in 2016. (This effect is repeated, as comedy, when an agent produces a large, glossy photograph of Mount Rushmore upon arriving in South Dakota.) In effect, the aura of the image transcends the diegesis, collapsing the distinction between the characters’ search for Cooper and the viewer’s nostalgia for the original series; by the series’ fifth installment it is therefore clear that the photographic/“photographic” is a central visual and organizational element.

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

As for the comparison to La Jetée: Marker’s photo-roman is of course a popular reference point in conversations about the boundary between the photographic and cinematic image, but similarities to Twin Peak accrue quickly even on the level of plot. Vivian Sobchak’s description of La Jetée as a “study of desire, memory, and time” might just as easily describe Lynch’s series is hardly extraordinary.5 But what of Catherine Lupton’s assertion that Marker’s narrative “turns on the fatal attraction of images and the price paid for that desire”? Both stories center on a lone protagonist obsessed with a frozen image of idealized female beauty: Marker’s nameless protagonist on the face of a woman he merely glimpsed in his youth, Lynch’s Cooper on the iconic framed portrait of Laura Palmer, whose murder he began investigating in 1989. Both narratives culminate in a rescue mission via time travel, which veers toward an ironic twist on the Orpheus Myth: In La Jetée, the protagonist unwittingly travels “back” to the moment of his own death, a death he witnessed as a child but did not comprehend, and in Twin Peaks Agent Cooper’s attempt to save Laura Palmer sends them both into what appears to be an alternate dimension.

La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1962)

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

The similarities of these narrative sketches, however, are only significant for the ways in which they are grafted onto their respective aesthetic identities. In La Jetée, that would be the story’s presentation through a series of still photographs, a strategy that, for Sobchack, emphasizes the gulf between cinema’s “existential momentum” and the still photograph’s association “with loss, with pastness, and with death, its meaning and value intimately bound within the structure and investments of nostalgia.”6 Crucial to this cumulative effect are the film’s few seconds of actual cinematic motion (filmed on a 35 mm Arriflex), when the protagonist’s beloved stares into the camera and blinks. This moment, which readings all too frequently ignore or treat as a momentary respite that throws the slideshow effect into sharper relief, is in fact crucial to the accumulation of existential tension, especially for the repeat viewer. These few seconds of being radically and irreversibly redefine the feeling of perpetual becoming instilled by the photomontage.

Throughout Twin Peaks: The Return, the source of this tension is inverted, as Lynch’s pristine digital compositions always threaten a return to total stillness. There are indeed moments and details that work against this effect, recalling La Jetée’s lone blink; the much-maligned restiveness of Chrysta Bell’s Agent Preston, for example, provides essential and comical counterpoint to the gargoyle stoniness of her superior officers. And, to be sure, stillness is hardly new to the oeuvre of this painter-turned-director. But here, in a work made possible by the digital animation of photographic dead matter, the possibility that the free-flowing televisual tap might run dry, that the moving image might revert to its static state, has near-apocalyptic reverberations. I am referring not only to the moments when bodies lose their three-dimensionality seconds before disintegrating or being ripped offscreen by supernatural forces, but also to the lengthy exposition-dumping conversations that snag on dropped lines, lengthy pauses, repeated phrases, and close-ups on grim incomprehension. The mysterious being known only as “the Fireman” (Carel Struychen), residing in an antiquated movie palace, intervenes in affairs both human and demonic by freezing and manipulating the mise-en-scène of projected films. And of course, Agent Cooper, as he stumbles through trauma-induced near-catatonia, rarely functions as more than a still image, not least of all when he is pathetically compelled to imitate the pose of the cowboy statue outside his office park or the fight stance of a boxer on a vintage poster. And as for the series’ infernal, “overcranked” final image, over which roll the credits of Part 18—has Lynch ever before taken us this close to Nothingness?

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

Writing in 1956, Jacques Rivette (later a Twin Peaks fanatic) attempted to define mise-en-scène, the critical bugbear essential to his cohort’s auteurist praxis. He described it as “the relation of a precise complex of sets and characters, a network of relationships, an architecture of connections, an animated complex that seems suspended in space.”7 Marker, in 1962, harnessed that animating force to watch it literally grant life. Lynch, threatening to throw the whole thing into reverse, illuminates a uniquely 21st-century death drive.

1 André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The End of Cinema?: A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 76.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid, 77.

4 Ibid, 78.

5 Vivian Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic ‘Presence’” in Film and Theory: An Anthology, eds. Robert Stam and Toby Miller (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2000), 73.

6 Ibid.

7 Jacques Rivette, “Cahiers Readers and the Politique des Auteurs,” Cahiers du Cinéma no. 63 (October 1956): 54-55. Italics added.