“It’s as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there, and when I come to the end of the corridor there’s nothing but darkness. And I know that when I walk into the darkness that I’ll die.”
– Madeleine Elster, Vertigo
When David Lynch hired Sheryl Lee to play the character of Laura Palmer in the 1990 television series Twin Peaks, he cast her as an image: a photograph of Laura in her homecoming dress, her hair sculpted around the dark gleam of a tiara, the integrity of her face broken only by the narrow, unreadable curve of her smile. The photo hovered behind the end credits of the show for most of its initial run. She was also cast in the pilot episode of the series as another kind of image—a dead body, the color of a seashell, wrapped in a cocoon of semiopaque plastic and brushed gently onto the edge of a Washington lakeshore.
Four episodes later, Laura reappears. Except it’s not her. For one thing, she’s alive. The color and texture of her hair has shifted, from a waterfall of blonde to a mass of brunette curls. We register her as Laura even as she introduces herself—causing considerable and simultaneous dissonance in the experience of the viewer and of the characters in Twin Peaks who orbit Laura’s absence—as Madeleine Ferguson, Laura’s cousin, who has either traveled from Missoula, Montana or fallen through a distortion in time and space in order to attend Laura’s funeral. Maddy is also distinguished from Laura through the thickness and surface glare of her almost comically large glasses, a second set of eyes suspended in the air in front of her. The expressions that filter through them tend to absorb and reflect the shock that overwhelms the people who mistake her for Laura, before collapsing into more ordinary (at least for Twin Peaks) configurations: delight, worry, conspiracy, deep psychological terror. But Maddy is always seeing—and being seen as—double.
Ten years earlier, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski was in the process of shooting a film that he had once pitched to Charles Bluhdorn, the head of Paramount at the time, as a movie about “a woman who fucks an octopus.”
As it turns out, in the 1981 film Possession, Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani) is having an affair with something that actually appears to be an octopus. Distressingly wet tentacles issue from its oblong head; two black, empty eyes gaze inexpressibly through their narrow slits. Anna is driven into the multiple writhing arms of this octopus by a passion so unmanageable that it seems at the very least supernaturally derived if not outright spiritual, her feelings for the creature less a product of delusion than of an unbridled and unusually-applied devotion. Naturally, she ends up killing people over it.
Just before his death, one of the two men Anna murders in the film manages to glimpse the complete, syrupy substance of the creature. “He’s very tired,” Anna tells him. “He made love to me all night.” The octopus shivers and shifts with an inhuman elasticity on the bed in their apartment, located in the Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Germany, the street outside of which is bisected by the Berlin Wall. The Wall itself divided Germany literally, but also symbolically divided Europe, representing a greater ideological rift that migrated through the continent, carving it into distinct zones of capitalism and communism, of prosperity and austerity, and of—as Żuławski characterized it—good and evil, particularly the kind of evil he had experienced as a citizen and as an artist in communist Poland. The Wall, in his eyes, was the architectural embodiment of the divided self, a concrete river sailing through the center of consciousness.
Traditionally, stories about possession, even as they try to diagnose the source of someone’s social transgression, tend to obscure the human being at their center, rendering their personality and their motivations as murky and temporary as passing shadows. It’s a form of literature overwhelmingly produced by men who, in their fatal misunderstanding of women, imagined that their psyches were regulated by obscure and immoral forces. It’s also a particularly rich dramatic invention that allows, for both writers and actors, an unusual flexibility between identities; possession divides up someone’s personhood into such unrelated fragments that what occurs inside of their head often resembles dialogue more than monologue.
In Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the women of the Greek city of Thebes are possessed by Dionysus, who longs to be recognized by the city’s king and its greater population as the son of Zeus. The women drink thick volumes of wine and have sex in the woods. They ritually dismember and consume animals. They are bathed by the tongues of snakes. Pentheus, the King who had forbidden all Dionysian displays in Thebes, is decapitated by his possessed mother Agave. Her mouth foams and her eyes roam recklessly around in their sockets as she carries his head back to the city. She presents the severed head to her father, Cadmus, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion; she even calls out to her son, who, were he available, would be but another witness to the brutal dislocation of his own corpse. Cadmus, horrified at his daughter’s actions, asks her to look at the sky and tell him what she sees. Agave describes the sky as if it were heavy with religious light, the weight of heaven pressing down on its surface. Her father suggests that her vision of the sky was produced by some inner enchantment. Agave agrees, and, as the Dionysian spell dissolves, she begins to apprehend what she’s done. Her gaze travels down toward her son’s head. “I see the greatest grief,” she cries, “wretched that I am.” At the end of the play, she finds herself banished from the city of Thebes.
This is the classical arc of possession: mania transitions into amnesia, amnesia into recovery, recovery into grief, grief into exile. But what if there were no original personality for the possessed to be reunited with? What if the alleged possession is merely the same personality, but unfolded and smoothed out like a map of human consciousness, until it includes all potential perspectives and performances? Who is Agave, and who is Anna, then? Are they singular? Double? Potentially infinite?
Andrzej Żuławski made Possession in part because the Polish government had banned or fatally interrupted the shooting schedule of his previous films; in 1977 they halted production on Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe and ordered that all of his sets be destroyed. Żuławski responded by moving to France and diving into the writing of Possession, which, in addition to the alienation he felt from his own country, had absorbed the adjacent tensions of his divorce from his first wife. “The film was my private life,” Żuławski says in The Other Side of the Wall, Daniel Bird’s documentary about the writing and filming of Possession. “I had no home, no family.” Żuławski based the character of Anna on his ex-wife, Małgorzata Braunek, a Polish actress who had starred in two of his previous films. The character of Heinrich is the New Age erotic martial artist that apparently somewhat resembles the physical person she slept with.
If one were to continue to pursue this biographical reading it would eventually suggest that Żuławski is Mark, portrayed by Sam Neill as the aggrieved husband and theoretical protagonist of Possession, sniffing his wife’s clothes and scrutinizing the spiritual texts which have suddenly materialized in her library—but the movie doesn’t necessarily unfold this way. It isn’t organized according to the traditional emotional hierarchies of domestic dramas. The camera, for one, is devoted almost exclusively to Anna (and, in turn, Adjani) whenever she appears on screen. In the process of writing Possession, Żuławski had fallen in love again with her character, and saw depths in her that the men in the film can’t access through the impenetrable opacity of their self-absorption. In the film, tensions build between Mark and Anna to the point where they start to physically fight each other. “I can’t stand you touching me,” Anna screams. “I fuck around with everybody when you turn around.” She slaps Mark, and the camera patiently observes the fluid progression of Adjani’s expressions, as they gradually warp from horror and apprehension into a smile and a weightless shiver of laughter. Unlike traditional stories of possession and exorcism, I think Żuławski wrote Possession not to explain a woman, but to understand her.
In the film’s most infamous scene, which Adjani would eventually classify as “emotional pornography,” Anna has what appears to be a miscarriage in the Berlin subway; she throws herself against the walls of the station, the convulsive flutter of her limbs almost seeming balletic, a geometric integrity to her individual movements. The look on her face collapses horror, anxiety, and apprehension into a single, screaming expression; in the rapidly shifting depths of her eyes there seems to occur a realization that her actions have brought her perilously close to the limits of herself. Blood and a foreign, milky substance merge and flow in thick rivulets around her dress. In directing the scene Żuławski instructed Adjani to “fuck the air.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is among the essential modern texts about the specter of possession, continually relevant for how it manages to invade even contemporary cinema, in particular the films of David Lynch. It features ghosts, doubles, and its own strange bends and inversions in time. It’s a film that can be easily explained in the grammar of realism—an elaborate murder plot traumatizes the main character, Scottie, and the trauma plays out a second time, because trauma always finds a way to reenact itself—but the characters seem to follow each other through a shifting fog. The method by which Scottie pursues Madeleine Elster early in the film—tailing her in his car—produces long scenes of driving where the architecture of San Francisco unfolds as intuitively and senselessly as the discrete sections of a dream.
A few scenes later, Scottie approaches the Legion of Honor, a museum in which Madeleine routinely gazes at a large portrait of Carlotta Valdes, the spirit of whom, the viewer and Scottie are led to believe, has possessed Madeleine. Hitchcock places a dissolve between Scottie’s approach and his actual appearance within the museum, so that it feels as if he didn’t physically walk into the building as much as he was drawn inward by a vortex at its center. It is, again, like a dream, particularly in the seamless quality of its movement, its insistence on continuity where there is none. In dreams we never feel as if we are “walking,” exactly; it’s a species of motion located somewhere between walking and floating, and it’s one over which we exert very little control. We don’t traverse the landscape of dreams as much as we seem to let the landscape twist itself around us.
It is suggested in Twin Peaks that Maddy and Laura spent significant, formative time together when they were younger, and delighted in pretending to be each other, flowing back and forth between their individual identities to the genuine confusion of the people who encountered them. But in the show itself Maddy often feels less like her own character than a reactionary construction, a living echo of Laura—as if the depth of the town’s grief had produced a precise cellular copy of their homecoming queen. She contains little to none of Laura’s darkness—she initially extends her stay in Twin Peaks just to support her grieving aunt and uncle.
Yet Maddy is still drawn into the depthlessness of Laura’s shadow; she lingers in Twin Peaks for so long—assisting the Palmers with domestic tasks and collaborating with Donna Hayward and James Hurley on their independent investigation of Laura’s death—that she begins to forget exactly how long she’s actually been there. Days? Weeks? Is it possible that she’s always lived there, and was unlocked from some peripheral subspace when Laura died? The flow of time is so liquid in Twin Peaks the town—and in Twin Peaks the show—that it grows increasingly difficult to locate one’s position inside of it. You can lose yourself in the constant swoon of its waves.
In Bird’s documentary, Żuławski says that he could have filmed Possession in any city, but his attraction to West Berlin revolved mostly around the monolithic quality of the Wall; the film he made is structured around its imposing authority and gravity. It opens with a scene where the camera follows the curve of the Wall, interrupted by static shots of the crosses that had sprouted along the western side of it, symbolic gravestones for individuals who had been shot by border guards as they attempted to escape into West Berlin.
Anna herself is divided, literally cleaved into two people. Her doppelganger, named Helen, works as a teacher at an elementary school that Bob—Mark and Anna’s son—attends. Where Anna’s eyes are a piercing blue, Helen’s are a more remote bluish-green, like strange discolored petri dishes in which her pupils sit. It is she who attempts to comfort Mark and take care of Bob during Anna’s long, inexplicable absences. In the kitchen, as Helen helps Mark wash dishes, Mark slips into a monologue in which he angrily, impotently projects his insecurities and resentments onto Anna and onto women as a species. “I’m at war against women,” he says. “They have no foresight. There’s nothing about them that is stable. There’s nothing to trust. They’re dangerous.”
“There’s nothing in common among women except menstruation,” Helen retorts. “I come from a place where evil seems easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh.” She doesn’t look at Mark as she says this; she stares, seemingly transfixed, at the blade of a knife, from which she wipes away a lingering knot of raw meat. “It becomes people so you know exactly the danger of being deformed by it. Which doesn’t mean I admire your world. But I find it pathetic, these stories of women contaminating the universe.”
In the apartment in Kreuzberg, Anna is also struggling with an internal division, between her love for Mark and her devotion to the octopus which will eventually assemble itself into a new Mark. This Mark doppelganger finally emerges at the end of the film, at the top of a circuitous staircase which the original, dying Mark has agonizingly ascended. (The staircase’s design reminds me of Vertigo, of the staircase in the tower in the Mission San Juan Bautista, which Scottie ascends in order to stop Madeleine—and later, Madeleine’s double, Judy—from killing herself, each flight an interlocking darkness that climbs toward a blinding rectangle of light.)
The photorealistic accuracy of the Mark double—only his eyes have altered, drained of their native blue and replaced by a blurred and uneasy brown, as if someone had turned off a light behind them—may be a byproduct of the simplicity and integrity of Anna’s love for the original Mark, which persists even as she cheats on him. Her objective after all—if, in the swirling center of her possession, she is even truly capable of having objectives—was to duplicate her husband. Anna and Mark end the film in an embrace; they lie atop each other on the final landing of the staircase, soaked in each other’s blood. As Żuławski says in the commentary, in the end, Possession is a very small love story, between, in his words, “people who can’t connect, can’t comprehend, can’t be together”; it just happens to take place amid vast political architecture.
People go on Vertigo pilgrimages in San Francisco, retracing Scottie and Madeleine’s steps as if it were possible to access the liquid reality of the film in the locations where it presses most insistently upon the membrane of our own. The French filmmaker Chris Marker loved Vertigo so much that he devoted a small fraction of his 1983 video essay Sans Soleil to a tour of its locations in San Francisco. Sonya Redi wrote about her own retracing of Vertigo’s movements in an earlier issue of this magazine. As she approaches Fort Point, where Madeleine attempted to throw herself into the San Francisco Bay, she seems to touch the membrane. “The waves run into rocks, and I struggle to move back to the car,” she writes. “It doesn’t take much to see why Madeline would let go here. It’s a very tempting place to let one’s self fall.” So often places in reality can feel possessed by a fiction that’s been applied to them. Vertigo takes place in the city of San Francisco, but how much of San Francisco is still taking place in the city of Vertigo?
People also try to experience the integrity of Twin Peaks in the geographically dislocated areas of the Pacific Northwest where it was shot, towns like Snoqualmie and Poulsbo, Washington, the former of which contains the exterior of the Great Northern Hotel, while the latter’s Kiana Lodge forms the hotel’s interior texture. (The lakeshore where Laura’s body is discovered is located just outside of the Kiana Lodge.) A few fans and critics online have documented their Possession-themed tours of Berlin, and Daniel Bird’s Possession documentary returns to a few of the film’s locations itself—among them is the apartment in Kreuzberg, where, as Bird’s camera pans across the landscape, one perceives trees, long grasses, parking spaces, all flourishing in the absence where the Wall used to stand. The sky flows awkwardly into the still relatively new valleys between each tree, suggesting that all sociological and ideological distinctions, indeed the separation between good and evil itself, will be compressed and flattened and buried beneath the dense infrastructure of natural and artificial progress—an organic accumulation of time in which there are plenty of places to park your car.
One can’t revisit the tower that Scottie ascends in Vertigo though; it doesn’t exist. “From this fake tower—the only thing that Hitchcock had added—he imagined Scotty as time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it,” says the unnamed narrator in Sans Soleil. According to her, Scottie invented “a double for Madeline in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story that had begun at Golden Gate when he had pulled Madeline out of San Francisco Bay, when he had saved her from death before casting her back to death.” To walk into the Mission with the fiction of Hitchcock’s tower in mind is almost like intentionally remembering something incorrectly. Can you visit an absence? Can you be visited by one?
There is a scene late in the first season of Twin Peaks where Laura’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, sees Maddy drifting through Easter Park. Maddy is wearing a stiff blonde wig, and she looks as if she’s waiting for someone to walk by and recognize her as someone else, to draw her out of the repetition that centrally characterizes her existence. Jacoby mistakes her for Laura and becomes paralyzed at the sight of her. He looks as if he’s seen a ghost, or an angel, or both.
When people confuse Maddy for Laura, it’s as if she is suddenly able to access a part of her dead cousin’s consciousness. “When we were growing up, Laura and I were so close,” she tells James, as her gaze drifts toward the vacant surface of a lake. “It was scary. I could feel her thoughts, like our brains were connected or something. And when she died suddenly, I got the chance to be Laura. At least other people saw me that way. Like the way that you looked at me. I liked that too.” James, who was seeing Laura just before her death, had also fallen in love with Maddy, but was incapable of analyzing the feeling, unable to determine if his attraction wasn’t just an unconscious reproduction of his love for Laura. James is, of course, confused. James is always confused; as the designated hopelessly-devoted boyfriend of the Twin Peaks universe—intentionally scooped of all distinguishing features except for a kind of uneventful handsomeness—he’s the least equipped of any of the characters in Twin Peaks for introspection. But reality is also confused, bending itself around an absence just as those trees and cars seem to bend around the absence of the Berlin Wall in Kreuzberg. It is desperately trying to heal over a wound in the material of time.
When Twin Peaks premiered on American television in 1990, it initially arranged itself around the allure and ambiguity of its central question: Who killed Laura Palmer? Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost never intended to answer the question, even as they were aware of the killer’s true identity. They deliberately conceived of Twin Peaks as the ultimate unresolved mystery, a show that was less a straight noir or a procedural than a kind of cinematic fractal, an infinitely repeating question mark where the expectations of genre and audience would require or even demand a period. The closer Agent Cooper came to solving the mystery at the show’s center, the further the center would move away from him, and innumerable new mysteries would spring up in its place.
As the pace of the show’s second season slowed and digressed and shed most of its casual, general audience, ABC demanded that Lynch and Frost reveal the killer. Both were hostile to the decision, and it effectively alienated Frost and Lynch, the primary architects of the series, from the remainder of the show. But the episode that contains the reveal, directed by Lynch, features one of the most harrowing sequences of film ever broadcast on television.
Trauma finds a way to reenact itself. The night before she intends to leave Twin Peaks, Maddy descends the stairs of the Palmer home looking for her aunt and uncle. “Aunt Sarah? Uncle Leland? What is that smell? It smells like something’s burning!” At the bottom of the stairs, she enters an annihilatingly bright cone of incandescent light. Across the room she sees Leland Palmer, her uncle, Laura’s father, immersed in a dark suit and white plastic gloves. He smiles. Behind the smile Maddy also certainly glimpses BOB, the malevolent spirit that inhabits Leland’s body. At this point Leland and BOB are fully integrated, their personalities harmonizing at a deep, sympathetic frequency. In the background one hears a strange, asymmetrical skipping, a fluttering pulse. A needle circulates through the run-out groove of a record, reading and rereading the band of silence encoded into its final seconds. It is almost anti-musical; it sounds wrong. Worse, it’s endless, a rhythm with no sense of inner purpose or destination. An audible emptiness, constantly recreating itself in the air. It’s like hearing a recording of something that’s missing. She screams.
In 1991, David Lynch filmed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, both a notional sequel and prequel to the show, one that figure eights curiously from the show’s start to its original finish. For Lynch the question at the heart of Twin Peaks had necessarily changed, warped in response to the way the story had been both ended abruptly by the network and extended artificially, into more mystical regions, by the show’s writers. He rehired Sheryl Lee to play Laura Palmer, this time not as a photograph or as a dead body or as a double or even as a formerly-living person encoded into the shivering grain of a home movie, but Laura Palmer, as she lived. The question was no longer “Who killed Laura Palmer?” For Lynch, the more interesting question, and the one he ended up pursuing, was “Who is Laura Palmer?”
Approximately 30 minutes into Fire Walk with Me we see her, Laura Palmer, walking through waves of sunlight on her way to school. Laura inhaling coke in a bathroom stall. Laura meeting James in an empty gymnasium and telling him, in drowsy, apocalyptic tones, “I’m gone, long gone, like a turkey through the corn…Gobble gobble.” Laura and Donna, staring at the ceiling of the Palmer house, discussing the physics of falling through the void of space. “Do you think…you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” Donna asks. “Faster and faster,” Laura says, the space between her individual words widening. “For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. Then you burst into fire. Forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you because they’ve all gone away.”
Laura is falling through space. Detached, dissociated, located at some distance below the surface of herself, she walks through the world certain that her fate is to be swallowed up by evil. She has suffered sexual abuse for years at the whims of a man named Bob, who slips through her window at night, and who she can sometimes hear whispering through the flickering hum of the ceiling fan. “I want to taste through your mouth,” he says. In TheMissing Pieces—a collection of deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me, but arranged in such a way that it seems to exist on its own continuum—there’s a scene of Laura staring at the ceiling fan until its rotation slows and stutters. Laura’s expression, flooded with strobing incandescent light, widens and distorts into a smile that stretches hideously beyond the limits of her face. It’s as if someone else were trying to smile through her.
The viewer is ostensibly aware that BOB is a spirit that inhabits Laura’s father, Leland, which makes Laura’s gradual realization only more heartbreaking. Most of this heartbreak is generated by Lee’s improbably devoted performance. At the dinner table in the Palmer house, her every gesture trembles when Ray Wise’s Leland interrogates her about the cleanliness of her hands. “Look, there’s dirt way under this fingernail,” he says. It is impossible to tell if it’s Leland or BOB acting in this scene; Wise’s performance suggests the two personalities indistinguishably collapse into each other like text on overlaid transparencies. He seizes her necklace, a gift from James. “Did Bobby give you this?” he asks, pinching her cheek. Her whole body visibly vibrates with horror and sadness, her cheeks glossy with tears. “It was an incredibly lonely role to play,” Lee said in interviews at the time. “One of Laura’s big things is her loneliness, and that is what I’ll always remember about her the most…I don’t think a day went by that I didn’t feel an incredible loneliness.”
Critics responded poorly to Fire Walk with Me; its focus on Laura recontextualized or submerged the aspects of Twin Peaks with which they had become familiar and endeared, and the character of Laura Palmer herself was an unnecessary physical facsimile of the more intriguing aura of mystery that flowed around her dead body. It seemed to reverse-engineer the series as a story of inevitability and profound sadness. But Fire Walk with Me is structured symmetrically with the series—that is, it’s organized around Laura’s death and the way it reverberates backwards and forwards through time, and the emotional and temporal distortions it opens in the lives of the people who knew her. What Lynch, I suppose, had always wanted to tell us was that the real Laura and the image of Laura were two different people, and that Laura was potentially more people than even that, and the way the town of Twin Peaks contracted emotionally, physically, and metaphysically around her absence produced innumerable other Lauras as well, just one of them being her cousin from “Missoula,” Maddy Ferguson.
Of course, to see someone dead reiterated in the present moment is a feature of dreams and hallucinations. But the dead can still appear to infiltrate reality, taking up space in the more oblique artifacts of one’s experience—memory, periphery, even film and photography, where reality isn’t reflected directly so much as it’s blurred and arranged into a continuum of impression and invention. The dead can slip into the composition of memories that they originally did not attend. A loss is often experienced less as an absence than as a pronounced weight and opacity at the corners of one’s vision—you feel as if you are always on the verge of re-encountering the missing person, of seeing them restored to the mundane contexts in which you used to see them alive, instead of witnessing these same contexts fill up with emptiness and silence. The dead hang just outside of one’s visibility, looking as if they’re distracted by some expanding thought or focused in on a mundane task, the way we remember people when we aren’t thinking about them directly, arrested in time, a motionless blur in a candid photograph. I think of when the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan saw the apparition of his old college professor, Andrew Lytle, suspended in his peripheral vision as he approached the stairs in a train station in Paris. “I could see enough to tell that he wasn’t young,” he writes, “but was maybe 20 years younger than when I’d known him, wearing the black framed engineer’s glasses he’d worn at just that time in his life, looking up and very serious, climbing the steps to the light, where I lost him.”
Also in Paris, I think of the eponymous character of the KrzysztofKieślowski filmThe Double Life of Veronique, the sourceless grief she experiences at the same time her doppelganger, Weronika, collapses and dies in Poland—even though the two had never met, had just barely glimpsed each other in a crowded square in Kraków. Later, Veronique sifts through a series of photographs she took of the square and belatedly recognizes her other, deceased self. I also think of when my grandmother died, and how afterward I would dream regularly of myself as a child, leaping with extreme concentration across the stepping stones in her yard, taking care not to slip into the small lakes of gravel that pooled around them; when I looked up from my task I would see my grandmother waving at me through her kitchen window. It’s less a dream than it is a memory, but it isn’t attached to a specific hour or day or year in time; the memory is general, an almost fictional assembly of echoes. In the dream I see my grandmother as a collage of herself, wearing clothing—a kind of red, floral-patterned envelope in which she moves or, truer to the physics of dreams, floats—that I’ve only seen in photographs of her from the ‘70s, her hair piled into the loose association of dark brunette curls I had known as a child. She smiles, and, pinned to her nostrils, I can see the transparent arc of her breathing tube, which became a permanent accessory of her face in the last few years of her life, as it trembles against her upper lip. It isn’t her. Yet it’s her. There are a number of glass butterflies perched by her kitchen window through which the sunlight drowsily separates. I think of Emily Dickinson, writing, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house; / The brain has corridors surpassing / Material place.”
In 2017, 27 years after the show first premiered, we can witness Laura Palmer receding back into the flat and disembodied substance of an image, even as her death continues to ripple through time and space; her high school portrait is layered semi-transparently over the dense wreaths of fog and clusters of trees that decorate the landscape of the Pacific Northwest in the opening credits of each new episode of the belated third season of Twin Peaks. The doppelgangers, which figure into at least two of the innumerable, interpenetrating plotlines, are this time not new Laura Palmers but divisions and subdivisions of the man who was hired to investigate her death, Special Agent Dale Cooper: his dark counterpoint, Mr. C, and a kind of blurred and decayed xerox of himself, Douglas Jones.
Laura only irregularly appears in the text of The Return, whether referenced or explicitly resurrected. In the eighth episode of what had otherwise been a contemporaneous season, we are suddenly hurtled back in time to 1945, to the New Mexico desert, where Lynch’s camera approaches and then sails directly into the radial bloom of a mushroom cloud, the center of which is populated by stars humming and liquefying in a black void. At a considerable distance from the nuclear detonation, potentially sealed up in its own sphere of time, a tall, enigmatic Lodge spirit named The Giant witnesses the explosion on a screen located in a massive industrial chamber. He floats toward the ceiling and produces a glowing orb from his mouth. Through the membrane of the golden sphere, one sees the image of Laura Palmer’s face as it appeared in her high school portrait, smiling, projecting an ease and security which she struggled to experience in her own life. The orb is absorbed into the television screen, where it drifts toward an image of Earth.
We only see Laura twice more in reality, both instances located in the final episode of The Return, which folds up time like a roadmap; we (and Cooper) are literally returned to 1989, to a scene in Fire Walk with Me where Laura and James fight in the woods. As soon as James rides away on his motorcycle, Cooper takes Laura’s hand and attempts to lead her away from the certainty of her own death. The trees sway and repeat themselves meaninglessly around them as they walk slowly through the woods. Back in present-day Twin Peaks, in the Palmer house, Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother, smashes Laura’s portrait and attempts to divide it into further unreadable fragments by striking it repeatedly with a broken bottle. Though she destroys the frame, its glass gathered in small piles around the photograph, Sarah is unable to disturb the integrity of Laura’s image. Suddenly, in 1989, Laura screams, and she’s gone, deleted from the scenery and replaced by another thicket of identical trees, leaving Cooper stranded in the past.
Then we see the real, contemporary Laura at last. Theoretically, 25 years after the investigation that consumed each of their lives began, Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer are standing in the middle of the street outside of the Palmer household. Except it isn’t Laura. She introduces herself to Cooper as Carrie Page, though Cooper is desperately trying to make her remember or believe otherwise. And it might not be Cooper either, but some fluid combination of his three mortal incarnations, Cooper, Dougie, and Mr. C. They appear odd and alien in the glow of the streetlight, dislodged from their native timeline.
The scene reminds me of the end of Vertigo—where Scottie brings Judy, who appears to be identical to Madeleine, back to the tower in the Mission—in that the principle male actor is trying to coax a personality he recognizes out of someone who happens to share her appearance but is not her. Cooper is locked, as Chris Marker suggested in Sans Soleil, “in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story.” He is trying to restore Carrie to an original that may not, in this particular pocket of time, have ever existed. He looks uneasy, uncertain of his next step and of his own place in the narrative. He leans forward, rotating his hand in the air, as if he’s trying to rearrange the particular reality in front of him. “What year is this?” he asks.
Carrie hears a blurred voice in the distance. It doesn’t seem to be coming from the house’s exterior, instead it sounds as if it’s issuing from a metaphysical wound located a layer below the already unstable reality of the Palmer house. “Laura?” the voice cries. It’s Sarah. Carrie’s expression migrates from confusion to total apprehension. She screams. All of the lights in the Palmer house are extinguished, and the film itself goes black. In the darkness, before the arrival of the credits, which stream over an image of Laura whispering into Cooper’s ear, I feel like I glimpse something. Then I start to wonder if perhaps it is less of a “something” than a “nothing,” a kind of “not there.” An absence. A meaning which I could not access but which would regardless populate every inch of space in my mind. I think I saw: a wall at night, casting a slow shadow over a street in West Berlin in 1980, and all the innumerable shadows that were pressed together inside of the wall itself.