Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Note: The following contains significant spoilers for Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Twin Peaks: The Return. It should also be said, none of what follows will make any sense if you aren’t already familiar with the franchise. So if you don’t know what The Black Lodge is, or if you don’t shiver at the mention of “BOB,” the following will be a real head-scratcher. To be fair, the whole franchise is a head-scratcher in the first place, so proceed as you wish.
Throughout the entire Twin Peaks franchise, David Lynch forced us to bear witness to trauma: Laura Palmer’s abuse at the hands of her father, Shelly Johnson’s at the hands of Leo, the murders by Ike the Spike. The list could go on and on. And the violence is rarely implied. It’s center frame. Lynch wants us to see the brutality of the world in all of its horrors.
The same thing is true of mourning. When someone breaks down weeping or—just as often—screaming in agony or horror, we’re forced to sit with them until it feels awkward. The camera lingers.
Lynch offers a sort of witness bearing that is desperately needed in an age as numb and distracted as our own. While there are a dozen shows on primetime television that feature murder and sex crimes, their formulaic approach and predictable resolutions make them safe, giving the viewer a false sense of assurance that bad guys will indeed get their due. We all know this isn’t the case, but rarely do we turn on the TV hoping to be reminded of that. Even when some sort of justice is achieved, we can’t erase the harm done. The wounds remain, as Twin Peaks makes so clear, tracing the consequences of evil in long and painful threads.
This is the proper response to such a horror—to stand alongside those affected, to embrace a kind of holy silence that does not pretend to comprehend or dare try to fix it. Only to bear witness.Throughout the series, we have followed Dale Cooper’s ever-expanding investigation. At first, his job was to determine who killed Laura Palmer, but soon, he was investigating the darker spiritual phenomena behind her death. Eventually he seeks to take on the Black Lodge—a spiritual dwelling place, home to a variety of evil spirits sent from the lodge into the world to wreak havoc and spread death. In The Return, Cooper’s boss Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) frames Cooper’s mission within a still-larger project, a long-term search for a kind of mother-of-all-evil named Judy.
The momentum of the show leads us deeper into these two realities: trauma and evil. And the task of Cooper, Cole, and others is to push back against the darkness and, perhaps, save the world.
The Return could have ended with episode 17, when the spirit of BOB is finally defeated and sent back, once again, to the Black Lodge. It would have felt resolved, providing a sense of justice to the whole franchise. It also would have bookended the fever dream that made up episode 8, where we’re given the background mythology of evil in Twin Peaks—an atomic bomb that opened a rift in space and time and allowed BOB to enter into the world.
Except that episode 8 also gave us the entrance of Laura Palmer into the world. When the Black Lodge saw its opening to send BOB, the Fireman—watching on the movie screen from within the White Lodge—sent Laura’s spirit into the world too. While BOB’s story has a satisfying ending, Laura’s does not, and this explains the need for episode 18, which is ultimately Cooper’s quest to bring closure to Laura’s story.
Laura’s death represents the collision of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge; here, evil struck a profound victory, confining her spirit to the Black Lodge forever and trapping Cooper for 25 years.
So Cooper journeys back. He passes through doorways and portals, through time and space. He talks to a giant steaming teapot, climbs a staircase, and finds himself transported to the night of Laura Palmer’s death.
Laura is walking through the woods, on the way to her fateful encounter with Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault, when Cooper intervenes. He leads her towards Jack Rabbit’s Palace, hoping to save her and himself and strike a blow to the Black Lodge and its evil entities in the world.
Something goes wrong, though. Laura screams and vanishes, and Cooper returns, via the Black Lodge, to present day, where Diane awaits him.
The world he returns to is familiar yet strange. Diane and Cooper begin a road trip, and after a night of joyless sex, Cooper awakens alone, with only a note from Diane addressed to “Richard” and signed by “Linda.” Has she changed? Has he? Have they both? Who is this Cooper that returned from another time and place?
At a diner in Odessa, Texas, in an altercation with three men abusing a waitress, it seems he’s become less Dale Cooper and more Mr. C, frightening and powerful.
After leaving the diner, he finds Laura Palmer, older now, looking confused. She introduces herself as Carrie Page, and Cooper tells her she needs to come back with him to Twin Peaks. The dead body on her sofa makes her all-too-eager to comply.
On their nearly silent drive, the camera alternates between the figures in the car and long shots of the passing road. Cooper is tense and anxious. Laura sleeps.
At last they arrive at Twin Peaks, and here too, the town is familiar yet strange. For the first time, the Double R diner is closed as the car passes. Certain landmarks are missing. Something is fundamentally altered.
Of all places to return Laura, Cooper brings her to her childhood home. It’s a choice that seems as cruel as it is odd—returning Laura to the place of her greatest trauma, the place where her father brutally raped her for years. Carrie Page doesn’t recognize it though, and follows, confused, as Cooper leads her to the door.
They walk tentatively up the steps and knock. The door is answered by someone unfamiliar, who says her name is Alice Tremond. Where is Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother? Alice doesn’t know this name. The previous owner’s name was Chalfont. Dale looks confused.
Close watchers of the show should hear alarm bells here. Mrs. Tremond and Mrs. Chalfont are Black Lodge entities, embodied in an old woman in both the original series and Fire Walk with Me. It’s a bad omen. Whatever Cooper had in mind here—perhaps reuniting Laura with her mother—has failed. The Black Lodge still has a presence in this strange version of Twin Peaks and, more specifically, has gripped the Palmer home.
They descend the steps back to the street, back towards the car. Cooper stops in the middle of the street and turns to face the house again. He staggers, shock registering on his face.
“What year is it?” he asks. It’s as if the loss of 25 years has struck him for the first time, knocking the wind out of him.
In the distance, a muffled voice shouts Laura’s name. Laura’s face twists, and she screams in horror. The lights in the Palmer house flash and burst. The camera cuts to black, and the credits roll.
Cooper’s work ended in failure. Not only did he fail to heal Laura and protect her from the Black Lodge; the world itself seems changed for the worse. Diane is gone. His own identity is garbled. Is he Richard, as Diane refers to him in the motel? Is he Mr. C, as he appears to be in the diner? Or is he still Special Agent Cooper, the iconic hero who can triumphantly announce, “I am the FBI”?
None of these seem true as he stands outside the Palmer home. He is, instead, an old man, literally lost in time asking, “What year is it?” Laura’s subsequent scream only confirms what he’s learned. Trauma can’t be undone, and our efforts to do so may make things worse.
Perhaps the better response to trauma came much earlier, in Part 6, in a scene that was truly the most horrific moment in all of The Return. It involved a young child being hit by a truck—an image that, like so many others, Lynch refuses to turn away from. Not only that: he stays with the aftermath of the scene, where the child’s mother knelt in the road and wailed in misery at her son’s death. As she wept, Carl Rodd (played brilliantly by Harry Dean Stanton) approached her, touched her, and made eye contact. It’s a moment of deep compassion and humanity, offering no cures or fixes, only a glimpse of solidarity in the face of true evil.
This is the proper response to such a horror—to stand alongside those affected, to embrace a kind of holy silence that does not pretend to comprehend or dare try to fix it. Only to bear witness.
This is what Twin Peaks invites us to do—to bear witness to evil in all of its incomprehensibility. Lynch tells a story with a thousand riddles and rarely answers any of them. He seeks to provoke and disturb and dares you to watch. His skill with tone-shifting is what makes it bearable. Just when you can’t take it any more, Cole turns to the camera, shouts, “Coffee Time,” and gives an absurd thumbs-up. It’s much like real life, where a crowd at a funeral is as prone to laughter as to tears when reminiscing about the dead.
I’ve thought long and hard about how Lynch’s Buddhism might be informing this story. Perhaps, with Buddhism’s emphasis on suffering, Lynch wants to invite a Buddha-like stoicism in the face of these horrors, to emphasize their inevitability and show that our struggle against them, like a hangman’s noose, only tightens their grip.
And there’s a certain truth to that. Our pasts cannot be avoided or undone. Nor can they be ignored. Instead, they must be reckoned with. Like Lynch’s camera, they demand that we don’t look away, that we linger, that perhaps we don’t comprehend, but at least we bear witness to them. Apart from such a gaze, we can’t ever expect to truly understand mercy, grace, or beauty.
Our own faith demands a willingness take such a look at the world, ourselves, and our pasts. What is on offer in Christ is not an erasure of all things but a reconciliation of them. The puritan’s emphasis on self-examination makes sense in this way: a deep look inward at one’s own sin and suffering is the pathway to fully understanding the richness of God’s mercy. And on yet another point, Lynch is profoundly right. Our own efforts at reconciling the past are inadequate and are destined to fail. We cannot undo the traumas we’ve experienced—whether at the hands of others or ourselves. Instead we have to come to accept who we are and where we are, and search for another kind of solace.
What is missing, of course, from Twin Peaks’ understanding of all of this is that there is yet another place where one can gaze to try and reconcile our suffering: the cross of Christ. The crucified Savior is in many ways just as incomprehensible as any other trauma. If we think we “get it,” we’ve probably minimized the scope of both its hope and its power. And yet, this is the place where grace and suffering meet. Our suffering finds identification in the suffering of God, who did not have to endure the humiliation of the cross, but actively embraced its shame in order to bring us home to himself. We have a God who doesn’t merely erase or ignore the past, but who can look upon our pasts with a deep empathy. He’s a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief.
In Twin Peaks, the evil entities from the Black Lodge feed upon Garmonbozia, which looks like creamed corn but is actually made up of pain and suffering. They inflict pain in the world in order to feast upon it, growing more powerful as they create more pain. In Jesus we have the opposite: one who was all-powerful but made himself weak; one who sought out pain and suffering in order to spare others.
It is true that our traumas cannot be undone. But in Christ, they can be held, empathized with, and healed.
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