Twin Peaks Was My First Boyfriend

by on Jul.01, 2011

There’s still a churning fantastic discussion going on at Johannes’s post Contamination (#99 balloons): David Lynch, Genre, HTML Giant, so I thought I’d take some of it topside, spin it out a bit–a little off the top of my head, yo!

As someone who agrees emphatically with Megan’s & Lara’s smart insights that a lot (most?) of the violence-against-women, a lot (most?) of the dead-girl art out there just reproduces, doesn’t crack patriarchal and/or misogynist foundations, I find myself drawn (sometimes ambivalently drawn, other times irresistibly house on fire) to the ways Lynch doesn’t smoothly replicate the world’s violence, or engage in a particularly legible complicity. He mangles, upends, twists, critiques, and yes sometimes despicably indulges in explorations of violence against women and men (of course the political weight of each gender’s victimization is quite different in quality).

There’s something actor-network-theory going on in Lynch, where the agency of victims, corpses, and objects is never eradicated. The subject-object dynamic can invert at any moment (if not a completely balanced inversion). When Laura Palmer haunts Agent Cooper, when Dorothy Vallens puts the knife in Jeffery Beaumont’s cheek, when we’re not sure who the audience is, us or the characters or Lynch watching us?

Unlike any number of blah blah slasher films (which I’ve certainly got an appetite for), Lynch refuses to let the viewer separate the threads so that s/z/he can just “get off”–seriously, hard to get off on a Lynch film–he always intervenes in your off-getting! A loud dischordant noise, interspersing disjointed images, weird camera angles, etc. & at risk of straying into the anecdotal, I should consider that this read is informed by first watching Lynch’s films almost 20 years ago with a useful focus group–my band of horny not-so-gender-savvy artsy teenage friends, mostly hetero guys (when I too was a teenaged subject half-educated, stupid with hormones, bourgie white, hungry). Lynch wasn’t easy for them or me–it wasn’t readily hot for them or me, or readily digestible. Or so I recall–maybe that’s wishful remembering about the fellas, but I for sure felt conflicted.

Plus, for me, Twin Peaks is the end-all-be-all in the Lynch oeuvre. Johannes says it perfectly:

But most of all I think Twin Peaks is great because it’s beautiful, entrancing, saturating, mysterious, intriguing, goofy, funny, spectacular, strange.

Oh, Twin Peaks, I was 13 and you were the hottest baddest saddest most beautiful thing I’d ever seen on television. Let’s be honest, I’ve always loved television. I’ve always been easy for it, and especially at 13 could watch gleefully most anything. I was a 10-hour a day TV baby. Hooked on soap operas, devoted to the burgeoning field of (largely teenaged) dramadies, a sucker for ghosts, psychics, ugly-pretty girls, murder, love, nudity. Twin Peaks, I never knew it could be like that.

Our discussion on Contamination (#99 balloons): David Lynch, Genre, HTML Giant was kicked off by Johannes’s comparison of Laura Palmer’s corpse to a McQueen design, and as many folks pointed out Lynch also does exploit the male form–male corpses galore, and Kyle Maclachlan mostly frontal even (if you’re hawk-eyed watching the scene in Blue Velvet). His men are more permeable than women when it comes to demons & naivety, though I suppose this could also be read as underselling the depth and complexity of women’s psyches. Still, as Johannes points out, Lynch doesn’t go in for that Freudian bullshit. Laura Palmer’s father gets revealed as murderer because he’s been infected by demons, but you can’t trace the metaphor to an easy Freudian source. Whew.

[Serious Lapse Bulletin: I’ve barely delved into Lynch’s representation of other imbalanced power dynamics; class (interesting!), disability (interesting!), race (disturbingly under-addressed), etc. In addition to being important, all of these inform, drastically, the gender performances in Lynch films.]

I won’t call Lynch a feminist. I hate the suggestion that objectifying a male form has the same effect as objectifying the female form (in what cultural vacuum is that possible?). Instead, I think his work makes for a really valuable feminist tool. I’d like to invite his dead girls to speak at the same roundtable as Kathy Acker’s and Diablo Cody’s, see what happens.

Finally, I lurve a lot of nefarious things–images, fashions, etc. I get a buzzy high feeling off a lot of the stuff I Hurt I am in Fashion takes to task (is that what they’re doing?). When I watch & assign Killing Us Softly, I’ve got a guilty little tug that whispers, but I like it. I have two things to say about this.

1. As someone who has always loved and been rather subject to (if critical in her subjugation) some of patriarchy’s worst visuals, and as someone who has a pretty a high tolerance for visual violence, I’d add that Lynch doesn’t have quite the same visceral effect on me as many of those. Say, an image of an emaciated model in corpse pose in a scuzzy bathtub wearing a shred of couture, or a standard slasher porntorture scene, or even a more complicated than standard a la Takashi Miike (I’m thinking of the prostitute strung upside down for supposedly stealing the brothel madame’s ring–what’s that film?). Hmm.

2a. There are a lot of us feminists who enjoy fashion, objectification of the female form, violent images even, etc. not just as a guilty pleasure, or in small doses when it’s done thoughtfully or with complex aims, but largely in the way we were culturally trained to do. That is, I suppose, a heady thrill precedes critique. I don’t know what to do with that. My instinct suggests rather than smacking it down and retraining my taste (such as it is), I oughta unpack it. It’s complicated for me in the way that heterosexuality is–how is it I get my subjugation and my pleasure from the same dynamic? Which is different than getting my pleasure from my subjugation itself, &, see above, yawn to that Fruedian/post-Freudian hoo-ha. I’m baffled, though. We could note that my partner, a dude, is a unique dude in his gender savvy coolness & that our relationship is far from standard, but I’m not hetero for him alone, and our relationship isn’t ever going to be completely divorced from patriarchal norms (is it?). I’m driven to heterosexuality as a breeder body, as a nexus of screwed up nerve endings, and I’m driven away as the same entity. I’m driven to objectifications of the female form, not all of them, but many of them, driven back away, driven to–I’ve a gothic love affair going on! Maybe I’m just hoping they’ll come back from the dead and drag me under, but that seems a little too much credit to give the culture gobbler who sits in my head directing my gaze. That is, too much credit to give myself.

2b. In the professional, as someone who works in the academic discipline of feminist studies, and someone who’s driven to live feminist in the semi-public quotidian, I find my own aesthetic tastes problematically curious. In a larger sense, I find that there’s often an intriguing schism between feminists who experientially/viscerally (not just intellectually) reject visual exploitation of the female form, and feminists who experience a more conflicted visceral response to those images. I think that gap between experiences often masquerades as some global divide: “sex-positive feminism” vs. feminism that critiques the hetero standard, or Second vs. Third Wave, but it’s really far more subtle in variation, far more complicated than that. Plus, you know, buying into binaries = shoddy scholarship like 98% of the time.

Clearly these thoughts are still clumsy & inchoate! I think Kate Durbin’s input would help, here, so I’m off to solicit her, but am anxious to hear Lara on Lars Von Trier (maybe I’ll learn to love something other than just Breaking the Waves), Megan’s review of The Sluts, from others on how much you love Twin Peaks and want to have a sleepover marathon with me, or how you reconcile the things you love instinctually (for lack of a better term) with the things you admire politically/compassionately (ack, for lack of better terms! I’d also love to hear your better terms!).


8 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson


    I love your descriptions of Lynch and your visceral reaction to Twin Peaks.

    I wonder why you feel complicated about the visceral? Your poetry obviously is very viscerally charged and throughout your post you profess an interest in these artworks/entertainment, but at the same time you feel your interest is complicated and you feel guilty that you feel visceral attraction because they don’t provide a “critique.”

    I’ll write more later, but in short I think this need for the “critique” is precisely the conservative approach to art, while the visceral (what Steven Shaviro calls “Fascination”) that is the more radical approach. And this is why in large part I dont feel part of “experimentalism” and most academic discussions about poetry/art – too much anxiety about visceralism, images etc.

    I would also hasten to add that I think Lynch is one of the most erotic filmmakers around: some of the sexiest scenes in all of cinema comes from his movies (a lot of them involving Dorothy in Blue Velvet).

    To me there’s nothing wrong or problematic with “getting off” and I don’t think the curious stylings of Lynch interferes with getting off as much as it intensifies the getting off.

    It seems the ambivalence abut the visceral is accompanied by a similar skepticism about heterosexual desire itself (here personified by teenage boys)?


  2. Johannes

    I also think that maybe the paragraph about “action-network theory” paragraph may be key in understand Lynch – how his characters do not “move” by psychology or agency but by contamination and infection.


  3. Johannes

    Also, as Carol Clover and others have shown, the getting off in horror movies aren’t that simple… I wonder if there’s an issue of genre in this post. Horror being one of the most affect-based genres and also one of the most “genre-ish” genres. And then there’s the whole issue of Soap Opera genre (which I sadly know very little about) which could be interesting to think about.

    Sorry about the outburst of thoughts…


  4. megan milks

    Terrific post, Danielle! Thanks for articulating these complicated, perhaps contradictory (maybe not) reactions to female-objectifying narratives/images. I have so much to say on these points, but I’m in the middle of a self-made writing retreat, so will have to restrain myself for the moment – internet time’s almost up (okay, it was up a half hour ago). But more on The Sluts – yes – coming right up.

  5. Johannes

    Sorry to be hogging the thread – one more point -t he inability of Danielle’s teenage buddies to get off on Twin Peaks might suggest that – as in most of Lynch – the erotics is not “straight” (even if most of the sex is man-woman variety – there is of course the famous lesbian sex scene in Mullholland Drive). The erotic scenes that are supposed to act as pure American good old fashioned romance often feels way too stagey to be erotic (Jeffrey-Sandy have the sexual relations of innocents straight out of the American myth of sexual innocence, that is to say asexual).


  6. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, folks! Megan, I’m excited to go read your post! & to hear more from you when the writing retreat’s over (good for you! I need one of those!).

    Johannes, yes, great stuff! Erotics in most horror serve to reinforce the heteronormative, which is in keeping with the patriarchal moralizing so many of these films do, but it also makes the cues easy on the viewer. The erotics in a horror film are stable (often bland) like the control in an experiment. Sometimes they appear as a pocket in the horror, as in many teen slasher flicks that take a break for some skin shots before more killing. Sometimes the erotics and the horror are integrated, but the erotics themselves are exaggerations of or darker versions of what we’re already trained to read–men killing beautiful women, “slutty” women getting their due, the torn clothes of beautiful women, men conflating murder and orgasm, Freudian nonsense, etc. We know how to read the sex as part of the good vs. evil metanarrative. It’s dirty, but it’s acceptably dirty stuff we’re all sanctioned to get turned on by.

    Blue Velvet, erotic as it is, keeps crowding the field. There’s the horror layer–knives, kidnappings, hitting–and then you add in the taboo erotics–voyeurism performed by both “good”-Jeffrey and “evil”–Frank characters (making the audience hyperaware of their own ambivalent voyeurism), playacted cranked up incest, BDSM, rape/coercion, age difference wherein the woman is older than the boy (a big eghads for puritan audiences, no?), etc. I think it messes with one’s cues in an already destabilized field of viewing. Not sanctioned.

    Even now, as an adult, Dennis Hopper makes me want to put on fourteen parkas–which is awesome, but really interferes with the sexy. He’s a visual cold shower; it’d take a lot of effort to get through or around him and maintain any erotic thrill Blue Velvet delivers. For me. (Also would have to get around how Isabella Rosselini looks like family members of mine, ew). Speaking for my boys reanimates the past to my own ends, and I’m overstating the getting-off case for the sake of investigation, but I think it’s safe to say these erotics don’t replicate standard get-off scenarios.

    There are great ograsm MRI brain studies going on that I feel are somehow related–

    Twin Peaks is a different animal, of course, because it’s playing with the soap opera genre (as does Buffy, which I love almost as much as TwP). In that frame all the taboos are carefully scripted, stylized, & deployed. It’s cuckoo when you think about it. Soap operas favor Freudian incest, rape, BDSM, all that stuff (on daytime television!), but somehow the affect is strained out–something about the way they’re done means that viewers (primarily women) can readily digest these elements as stories. Gothic without the gothic vibe, like newspaper articles. Things are more compartmentalized. One could gaze at shirtless James or Audrey coming on to Agent Cooper somewhat independent from Mr. Palmer’s creepitude or Nadine’s spastic embraces.

    & you’re exactly right about guilt. It’s not paralyzing guilt, but it’s also not a sexy kind of lightweight bad girl guilt. I prefer art that describes/investigates to art that presents a moral critique, but I expect humans (myself) to critique AND respond to that critique. I dunno. Maybe it’s more accurately physical/psychological confusion. The patriarchal world and all my training in it says “be like this” “enjoy this insofar as it confirms your status as sexualized object,” while (many of) my instincts & education say “smash that!” “not me!” I be like this, I smash this, I be it. Is everyone happy now?

    For me, a big component, perhaps the most interesting component, in Gurlesque’s actor-network theory is that the brine shrimp in the experiment–the girls!–speak, investigate their own burgeoning (boys!) pathological relationship to heterosexuality. It’s not about the psychology of the thing–some stupid, rationalizing I do this for daddy business. It’s about the transfer of contaminates–I do this because I got demon on me. Who’s me? Who’s the demon?

    Whoa, long thinking aloud. Now I apologize for hogging. xoxo

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