The finale of Twin Peaks is so audaciously impenetrable that forming conclusions at this early stage feels foolish. In the final 80 minutes of the series, David Lynch presents a sequence of events that not only defies comprehension, it is so untethered from our understanding of the series to date that he forces us to rely only on feelings and intuition. The more we try to solve the puzzle rationally, the less relevant it seems. We are asked to make peace with that, although the merits of that approach on a TV series bearing the name Twin Peaks are debatable.
Parts 15 and 16 of season three continue delivering terrific sequences, but we’re still building to something unknown. A clearer sense of larger events beneath the surface still hasn’t emerged as I hoped last week, but the final scene of Part 16 might upend everything for next week’s two-hour finale. Unless it doesn’t.
In Part 14, Lynch and Frost narrow their focus. Mr C and the Las Vegas story are left out entirely while the Twin Peaks characters are thrust into the centre of the maelstrom in two tremendous sequences that suggest events will soon converge on the town, as they always had to.
David Lynch is such an esoteric filmmaker that when he diverts into strange new ways of expressing himself, he needs the benefit of the doubt. His sensibility is not only unique but has evolved throughout his career. What may seem ineffective at first may reveal its true purpose at the end or on second viewing.
This is easy to accommodate in a two-hour film. For an 18-hour one, keeping such an open mind is much harder. Hour after hour in the new Twin Peaks, Lynch has doubled down on the same baffling choices. The existing characters in the town of Twin Peaks have barely featured, their stories given little time to gain momentum, while the Dougie/Las Vegas story is exhaustively surveyed. Given it essentially features none of the characters we know from the old show, it’s hard not to resent the huge amount of Dougie-related material as an indulgent distraction.
What did we witness on Twin Peaks this week?
Part 8 is unlike anything that has ever aired on television. Even calling it an installment of a TV show feels reductive: this hour will cast such a long shadow on the surrounding ones that it qualifies as a distinct work. Fortunately, it was also a stunning, satisfying, and – for a surreal Lynchian fantasia – surprisingly cogent experience. Unpacking and comprehending what we just saw will take time, but we certainly experienced something significant.
When you anticipate the return of a TV show as intensely as I did that of Twin Peaks, the experience of finally watching it is dizzying. Trying to assess it on its own merits while preconceptions dominate your thoughts is bewildering. The more the final product diverges from those expectations, the less trustworthy any reservations seem. And David Lynch and Mark Frost’s choices are certainly surprising.
Here at the end of part seven, Twin Peaks is manifesting momentum and purpose. But for the previous few hours, the show threatened to be a meandering mood piece, toggling between absurd comedy, glacial character drama, and sudden violence. Lynch’s execution of the script he co-wrote with Frost is rife with jarring ideas that seem debatable at this point in the journey. Some sequences and moments are unambiguously successful: off-beat but thrillingly so. Others are so self-consciously atonal or naff that their appeal will be much narrower.
Twin Peaks returns to television today.
For fans left hanging for decades by the cliffhanger ending of the original series, this is still hard to process. The immense secrecy around the project makes it even harder to imagine what’s coming. The elusive Twin Peaks narrative has spread into the real world surrounding it.
Long-time fans are naturally eager, but media coverage reveals pronounced interest where you might expect to find cynicism. Franchise resurrection – and criticism of it – is now de rigueur and has spread from film to TV, including The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, Prison Break, and many more. Twin Peaks might understandably be treated as yet another dubious instance.
But quite the contrary: has any TV revival after a long absence felt like such a worthy creative venture and been treated as such? Or at least a risk worth taking? Healthy skepticism is out there, but the prevailing mood is acceptance and curiosity rather than dismay at the reanimation of a long-dead property. Top publications are venerating the show with few caveats. Even Sight and Sound put the show on its cover. Why?
For those of us who love Twin Peaks down to our bones, the arrival of new material set in its singular realm is monumental. The forthcoming premiere of the first new episode of the show in 26 years is the main event, but co-creator Mark Frost’s new novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, has snuck in ahead to be the first to bring this world back to life.
New Twin Peaks material is significant compared to other cult properties because Frost and David Lynch have wisely restricted what has been produced. Apart from 30 episodes and feature film Fire Walk with Me, only three approved tie-in books and an audiobook exist to date. No new Twin Peaks material has emerged since 1992 except for Lynch-produced Log Lady episode introductions and the 2014 release of deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me.
This is because, unusually, Lynch and Frost own the property themselves. Given the gradual rediscovery of the show over the last decade and Hollywood’s eagerness to strip-mine established properties, a studio that owned Twin Peaks would presumably have returned to the well already, with or without its creators.
But the resulting drought in new material and Lynch and Frost’s apparent lack of interest in returning to Twin Peaks left us convinced that what we had was all there would ever be. Twin Peaks was a finite creative work, its afterlife offering only ongoing analysis and rediscovery through the eyes of family and friends. We would while away the years interpreting this elliptical and confounding text, certain its creators would never fill in the gaps or provide a resolution to one of the cruelest unresolved cliffhangers in all of television.
One facet of film fandom that I have a huge, irreconcilable crush on is the idea of lost versions of films we know, be they well regarded films that have lost key footage on the cutting room floor, or, in particular, panned films that are only maligned due to studio interference that left their true incarnation lost to either the mists of time or perhaps to a European vault, waiting to be discovered by an enterprising Hollywood film fan. We’ve been lucky enough to bear witness to many ‘lost cuts’ over the years, from the prototypical director’s cut of Blade Runner to the release last month of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. This enthusiasm does, of course, leave out the horribly cynical DVD ‘special editions’ of films, where a few minutes of pointlessness or crudity “Not Seen in Theatres!” is released and proclaimed as a grand new version. No, this is about grassroots, underdog versions of films that have fought their way into the film fan and then public consciousness, whose potential release the studio must be relentlessly harangued over. It’s about the triumph of art over commerce, and when the intended cut or prized footage is unveiled, film fans rejoice.
THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER
One that has come to my attention recently, and which inspired this article, is Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler. ‘Never heard of it’, you say, and rightly so. Until its bastardised and incomplete release in 1995 after thirty YEARS of work, the film was only a much-admired legend in the animation industry, and given its disdainfully minor release in cinemas and on video, it has largely remained that way. What appears to be a trivial animation cash-in either entitled The Thief and the Cobbler, The Princess and the Cobbler, or Arabian Knight (depending on where you live), is actually the residue from a labour of love that endeavoured to be the pinnacle of hand-drawn animation, a triumph of artistic process where financial returns were moot. The Thief and the Cobbler could have been the defining achievement in hand-drawn animation, but now it lurks as a mythical could-have-been among animation enthusiasts and a big nothing to everyone else. But there is still a chance that The Thief could emerge as it was once meant to be seen.
I came across the project earlier this year in the signature of an Internet forum posting. A user posting in the Blade Runner thread on the Home Theatre Forum included a banner encouraging fan efforts to restore The Thief and the Cobbler. Intrigued, I clicked the link and found Eddie Bowers’ tremendous site devoted to awareness of Richard Williams’s grand project. Despite the secrecy surrounding this film, you have indeed encountered this man’s work: he was animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a job he secured on the basis of the animation he had managed to complete on Thief thus far, footage which so dazzled director Robert Zemeckis and Industrial Light and Magic that Williams was an essential hire.
Even in 1988, Thief was the subject of excitable whispers. In dribs and drabs since the 1960s, Williams had produced animation of such loving detail that it put anything else actually released to theatres to shame. But Williams was not interested in a commercially lucrative end result. This was animation for animation’s sake, an attempt to break every known rule of what the medium could achieve. Although it certainly had a plot (inspired by Arabian folk tales) rather than comprising a melange of sketchy indulgences, the lack of traditional action and, most tellingly, musical numbers, made Thief a dicey project for any studio.
Williams’s success with Roger Rabbit finally secured him the funding he needed to hire a full staff and work on the film full-time, and beginning in 1990 the goal was to release the finished Thief and the Cobbler in 18 months. But when Williams screened a rough cut to the studio, they were shocked by a film they perceived to have no commercial viability. Since Disney’s resurgence in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, songs were considered central to any animated film’s wide appeal. Thief had none, and to boot, its main character maintained a Chaplineseque silence throughout. Panicked, the studio allowed The Completion Bond Company to take over, who fired Williams and moved the production from Britain to Hollywood under the direction of Saturday morning cartoon worker Fred Calvert. Williams still had 15 minutes to complete, and Calvert not only finished these utilising cheap TV-quality animation outsourced from Korea, he jettisoned numerous painstaking Williams sequences for the sake of musical numbers and other more commercially accessible features.
The result, released internationally in 1994 as The Princess and the Cobbler, was a shocking degradation of Williams’ vision. Ironically, it appears to be rip off Disney’s Aladdin from two years previously, but many in the know accuse Aladdin of cribbing from the circulating Thief workprint. Buried within Princess are preserved sequences of stunningly intricate beauty, but the film had been unutterably compromised. The following year, this version was released with yet more changes and much more dialogue than was ever intended as Arabian Knight.
This was the last incarnation ever seen of The Thief and the Cobbler, and since then it has been the source of much pining among those savvy with animation history, especially since the workprint that Williams unspooled for executives before being removed from the film has been circulating among animation insiders ever since. Roy Disney has made numerous efforts to restore the film with Williams’ active involvement, but the goal has been stymied every time by a lack of financial and creative investment.
The film has made news again this year due to a Miramax DVD release, which once again does nothing for Williams’ version, instead releasing Arabian Knight as The Thief and the Cobbler as was done for home video in the mid 90s. But more importantly, one industrious filmmaker fan, Garrett Gilchrist, has created the best possible version from unearthed superior copies of the workprint painstakingly interspersed and superimposed with surviving Williams footage of far better quality from the DVDs of Princess and the Cobbler and Arabian Knight, storyboards, and stills secured from original crew members.
I hope to see this new version very soon, and Gilchrist and other supporters hope that this Recobbled Cut will prove to Disney that a market is out there for the finished version of this landmark film, which industry professionals are virtually unanimous in hailing as the greatest technical achievement in animation history. How unbelievably excited this prospect is, especially since it isn’t inconceivable that with the right money, no interference, and Williams’ involvement (no doubt guaranteed by the former two criteria), The Thief and the Cobbler could finally be finished. Although animation junkies like myself are particularly excited by this perhaps foolhardy hope, it could be a landmark in film history in general for a major, influential project to finally be finished.
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME