Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

ReflectionsRecently I said it’s a great time to be a David Lynch fan, and since the announcement of its return, I’ve only become more optimistic. It’s a long road to 2016 and many fans have begun re-watching the original series. But if you’re looking for more, I recommend Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes.

Dukes conducted and compiled interviews with about 90 people, ranging from television executives and agents to actors and crew that worked on the short-lived series. Co-creator Mark Frost gives significant contributions as do Angelo Badalamenti and several of the series’ directors. David Lynch, notoriously silent about his own work, is not to be found in Reflections. This is not surprising, but his absence is felt.

Fans of the show will be quickly swept up into the germinal stages of the project. It’s exhilarating to read about the hundreds of tiny pieces that had to fall into place for Twin Peaks to air on ABC. From the scripting stages, enthusiasm for the project was fiercely contagious, and just about everyone involved seems to have understood they were part of something monumental.

This book may give newcomers a sense of the cultural impact the show had in its time, and a better understanding of how that impact has spread out across television to this day. But I recommend some familiarity with the show and its players; putting faces to the names on the page brings out the colour and significance of many of these interviews.

Unfortunately, the demise of Twin Peaks wasn’t pretty, and Reflections gives a thorough account of the attendant frustrations and disappointment. As optimistic as everyone was in season one, political pressures, creative troubles and declining ratings left many of the players cynical about Twin Peaks. The hopefulness felt in the book’s opening chapters slowly gives way to the harsh realities of network television, and we as readers are along for the ride.

Reflections offers great breadth of opinion about the television series, but aside from a few disparaging remarks, it almost completely ignores the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While this movie is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, Fire Walk With Me is in my opinion the keystone of the series, and provides a crucial (and horrifying and beautiful) endnote to the creative efforts behind Twin Peaks. Although Frost was not involved in the movie, nor Lynch in the book, there are more than enough voices to cover the topic, and Reflections suffers for the omission.

Otherwise, Dukes has done a beautiful job of curating the material. He allows the interviewees to tell their story, giving his readers a backstage pass to one of the most important television events of the 20th century. Reflections is also a beautifully produced book, with gorgeous cover art and exclusive (B&W) photos on nice paper. It makes a perfect addition to the bookshelf of any Twin Peaks fan.

How To Argue Badly And Fool People

In the last few months I followed a handful of Twitter accounts about neuroscience. Occasionally I’ll read a post that is intriguing, offering the latest insights into the mind and the workings of the brain based on scientific evidence. But recently @NeuroNow posted an argument that disturbed me. The writer of the article was the millionaire New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.

In the article, he criticized “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael S. A. Graziano, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. He says Graziano’s post will generate conversation, and he wanted to contribute. When I read the contribution, I was frustrated and decided to add my two cents to Chopra’s two cents.

Chopra writes: “[Graziano] states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science.” Quite falsely, he says, so surely Chopra must have a better explanation for consciousness, and surely he will cite this explanation to refute Graziano’s point.

Wrong. And this is Chopra’s appeal; he uses authoritative-sounding language to hide the fact that he has no explanation at all outside of his hodgepodge of pseudo-mystical solipsism. Let me show a handful of examples so the next time you think of taking Chopra seriously, you can avoid his little traps.

Graziano says that human beings are not a special act of creation, but a twig on the tree of evolution. Chopra writes, “Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig.” The word “actually” makes him sound really authoritative doesn’t it?

Saying our nervous systems make us unique in evolution is nonsense. Our nervous systems are similar to other primate nervous systems. Also, one could argue that every species is “unique” in evolution. The fur, ears, incredible sense of smell, loyalty, and limited intelligence make dogs unique evolution too. Being the apex predator of the sea makes sharks unique in evolution. All of this is meaningless, yet the sentence makes him sound like an expert while sidestepping the real issue.

Graziano’s position, roughly, is that electrical and chemical activity in the brain forms experience, and that what we experience as “mind” is the actual electro-chemical activity and not some metaphysical observer. We know that chemical or electrical changes in the brain manifest in experience because we can test this. But Chopra says this is wrong, and says that Graziano’s argument is like solving the question on gender equality by saying that women don’t exist. Yes, he actually wrote that.

This is a crude attack, meant to turn you against Graziano and blind you to his argument. I mean, how could you listen to someone who says women don’t exist? Well, Chopra’s analogy is an immoral ad hominem attack, that to my mind, has no logical connection with Graziano’s actual argument and merely aims to paint Graziano with a broad brush of sexism for no reason other than the fact that Chopra wants to refute him. This fact alone should let you safely cross Chopra off your reading list forevermore. Chopra seems so sure Graziano’s opinion is wrong because he really, really wants it to be. If Chopra had a coherent, alternative Theory of Mind, he would present it with evidence. But he doesn’t. Battling science with emotions and slander, however subtle, is just distasteful.

Graziano argues that a computer and camera can determine that grass is green, and that what we perceive as green is similar in principle (recognizing contrasts in the spectrum of light). Chopra states this is “flat wrong.” He says that the experience of colour is dependent on a human nervous system, photons have no colour, and that a camera and computer have “no perceptual ability whatever.”

This is a favorite manoeuver of Chopra’s: to retreat into solipsism to refute empirical evidence. He’s basically saying that experience only exists to human beings, and if you push him on this point, I suspect he would stand firm. He is of the type who believe a tree makes no sound if it falls in a forest with no observer.

This is another semantic trick. What we call “sound” is a human experience, filtered through a human nervous system, and it’s called “sound” because we’re the only species that uses human words. So what we call “sound” is technically a human phenomenon, translating vibrations in the atmosphere through the ear into internal experience.

But if a tree falls in the forest with no human around, the tree still falls, and the atmosphere is still disturbed. The vibrations still ripple out across the woods, and it’s those vibrations that become “sound” to our ears and minds (should we be present). The fact that there isn’t a human present to call it sound doesn’t mean the phenomenon we call “sound” isn’t going on. It obviously must be going on, and we know this because of our huge and expanding knowledge of the physics Chopra tries to ignore.

And to say a camera and computer can have “no perceptual ability whatever” is the same argument. Chopra thinks that “perception” must only be a human being having a subjective experience. But the light still goes through the camera’s lens, and the computer creates a representation of the external world for processing. Chopra here suffers from the same species-centric chauvinism as before; he seems to support the idea that humans are the only species to have real experiences, and everything outside of the human experience isn’t real. This is a bad argument of definitions and philosophy, not science, and certainly not neuroscience.

We can confidently infer that light from an event travels through a lens and can be interpreted by a computer, recreated in detail, and we know the information is in the computer. But Chopra refuses to acknowledge that this has happened until a human puts his or her eyes on it, and then he attributes the phenomena to some vaguely miraculous human perception. This is not science, it is fairy magic, and I’m disappointed and troubled that a so-called “neuroscience” article would print such an anti-scientific, ill-considered worldview. Like so many of Chopra’s ideas, it is purely an argument from ignorance.

To Graziano’s claim that we should be skeptical of the validity of our inner feelings, Chopra cites Sam Harris as a defender of subjective experience. But Chopra has almost never agreed with Harris in the past. Harris is a materialist and a (real) neuroscientist, and I bet he would gladly tell Chopra that the mind is a product of the brain. Appealing to an authority he has never sided with in the past—one who seemingly has the exact opposite worldview—shows desperation.

Graziano says the brain builds up models about items in the world, and the models are often not accurate. Chopra says this point “is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable.” Chopra seems here to believe the brain is not a product of evolution, subject to flaws, trial and error, and so forth; that the brain is a special and perfect gift from heaven. He can’t really believe this, can he?

Both human eyes have a blind spot (which is easily proven with visual tests) yet we never notice it. The visual information in the blind area of each eye is picked up by the other eye, but even looking through one eye we don’t “notice” it unless we know how to look for it. Our impressions of the world are incomplete without us even acknowledging this. Also, as Dennett points out, the mysterious affliction known as “blindsight” shows that brains unreliably report the world.

And what about light and colour? We know (from scientific testing) that light comes in different wavelengths we call colour, but our eyes cannot see this fact. Instead, our perception adjusts to the context of light to give us a general “best impression.” This is the brain inaccurately representing the external world and should be all the proof we need that our brains can be unreliable. Also, dreams. Also, any time someone has ever made a mistake.

            “Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.” – Michael S. A. Graziano

Chopra says, “neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.” This piece of incoherence, when you strip it down, is just a juvenile, terrible argument. He’s basically saying that molecules can’t do much, so how can something made of molecules get anything done? Think about that. His argument goes as follows, by analogy: I need a car to drive to the store, but molecules can’t drive to the store, and my car is made of molecules, therefore my car can’t drive me to the store.

In the final paragraph Chopra revisits his human-as-center-of-all-experience argument, saying “information” requires a mind. This is a squishy, semantic argument only, even if it sounds authoritative. Any data about a tree is “information.” But the attributes of trees exist even without humans around to call that data “information,” and so much of Chopra’s argument uses this obfuscation that it’s shocking.

I literally can’t tell if Deepak Chopra is maliciously trying to confuse the point to promote his brand, or if he’s genuinely, absolutely confused. Either way, it seems wrong that he’s allowed to call himself a doctor, and it’s especially shameful that he and his religiously addled ideas should be promoted by a Twitter account allegedly supporting neuroscience. There is nothing scientific about the man or his theories, and just because he’s found out how to word things strongly doesn’t make him right. After my first read of this article, my thought was that he’s flat wrong. After reading it again, and checking to make sure my quotes were accurate, I’ve come to believe he’s “not even wrong.”

Does Twin Peaks Hold Up?

Recently a friend admitted he hasn’t seen Twin Peaks, and asked me if it holds up to TV today. I hit him with a log and told him I’ve been too big a fan too long to have any objectivity. But I started thinking about it, and I don’t think a yes or no answer does justice to the question.

Twin Peaks was a bit of an experiment. The network took a chance on something different and it took off. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” became an international issue. The build up was tremendous, but the network wanted the mystery solved shortly into season two, basically dismantling the underlying story engine.

The pilot episode of Twin Peaks remains one of the best pieces of television ever made. The opening pulls us into the town where dozens of unique characters live idiosyncratic lives and there are secrets in every shadow. The writing is incredible, and the visual style, oneiric music and sense of place form an absorbing cinematic landscape.

Mark Frost and David Lynch mapped out the full first season before production (a mid-season pick-up of 7 episodes), and I think the show grew into its serial form well, expanding the town and getting markedly stranger. Many shows take us into weird territory these days, but they didn’t then, and even now they can’t touch Twin Peaks‘ sense of style.

The second season was much more troubled. 22 episodes were written on the fly and they proceeded with a fairly embattled production. This season comes on strong, and then after its finest moments the story begins to lag. Lynch and Frost were away from the production on other projects, and gradually the humour became more absurd, the mystery lost traction, and it took nearly to the end of the second season to start producing great TV again.

So does Twin Peaks hold up? It’s a very uneven show. When they were in the groove, they made some of the finest television of all time. When they lost their way, some of it is weak and just plain silly. If you can get past the surface flaws and into the mythological space of the show, the dream realms and darkness in the woods, it’s a captivating world you’ll never want to leave.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch the pilot. It is 90 minutes, the same runtime as most throwaway comedies, and it is available on Netflix. (Make sure you don’t watch the European version of the pilot, as it has a false ending.) If it doesn’t grab you, you can walk away, but I might look at you funny.

Welcome To The Waiting Room: Twin Peaks 2016

Twin Peaks trended worldwide yesterday when Showtime announced that a third season of the show will air in 2016. The event will be a 9-episode miniseries, written by original creators David Lynch and Mark Frost with Lynch directing every coffee-soaked episode.

Rumors of a reboot have piled up for years, at one point prompting Lynch to flatly deny there would ever be a continuation of the show. But on October 3rd, Lynch and Frost simultaneously tweeted THIS:

If you’re like me, you know that when two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention. Fans of the show have been waiting for something to happen for 25 years, and Monday morning, they saw THIS:

It was fun to wheel through the timeline and see everyone lighting up. Social media has already brought us Twin Peaks blogs and podcasts, artwork and custom coffee cups, spoofs and mash-ups, and more content than any fan could absorb. But the online craze is its own event.

Social media is hard proof that Twin Peaks fans are a serious market force; they’re fiercely addicted and loyal to the show and Amazon knows it. But I’ve consciously tried to avoid the Packard Rumor Mill to keep my expectations realistic.

Twin Peaks was the first great piece of art I ever ‘got’. It became my benchmark for genius on television (and elsewhere). And the best part of the show, and its creators, was their ability to deliver the unexpected. So I’m confident in the reboot. Lynch and Frost had something then, and they’ve both grown as artists.

I’ve had over 20 years to re-watch, ponder and mythologize (I saw it first in 1994), and the show has a very personal meaning for me. If I try to keep up with all the speculation on Twitter my head will probably explode. Ignoring it is nearly impossible, but ideally I’d like to sit down in 2016 to new content without thinking about any of the speculation, like a babe in the woods, if you will.

2016 is a long way off, so welcome to The Waiting Room. Fortunately I have my gorgeous Blu-ray box set to keep me company until then. And when the reboot does finally arrive…well, one day my blog will have something to say about that.