The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Desire Under the Douglas Firs


Martha P. Nochimson

Film Quarterly, Vol.46, No.2. Winter 1992/93





The dazzled affection that Dale Cooper, hero of "Twin Peaks," inspired in a large television spectatorship can only partly be explained by the appeal of actor Kyle MacLachlan. Nor can it be ascribed merely to the time-tested popularity of the detective figure; on the contrary, Cooper lays waste to a multitude of film and television detective cliches. Since his creators came to the series with distinguished careers in each of the major media, David Lynch and MacLachlan himself in film and Mark Frost in television, some inventive synthesis between the traditions was expected, but Dale Cooper is more than a little juggling of two formulas. "Coop" wears the regulation suit and trench coat but sets a fresh and compelling standard for media detectives and opens a new chapter in the relationship between mystery and desire.

Cooper's eager desire to enter the labyrinths of mystery ties knots in the venerable Hollywood Mystery Tradition (HMT), although the overall narrative line of the series initially suggests that Lynch has brought that tradition with him in his first foray into television. In the HMT, the life of a male protagonist is disrupted by an encounter with his darker side when desire meets the body of a deadly (or dead) woman. In "Twin Peaks," FBI Agent Cooper solves the mystery of who murdered the desirable Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and ends up staring into a mirror at an image of himself so monstrous that none can doubt that his stint on the case has plunged him into darkness. But when I asked David Lynch why Cooper's bridge to self-knowledge is a dead woman, I was greeted with silence. Then: "It isn't her." (note #1)

Lynch asserts that Laura, "Twin Peaks'" femme fatale, is not the point of initiation. As Lynch goes on to point out, his detective's fascination with mystery precedes the particularity of the case. Dale Cooper comes to Twin Peaks already filled with a passion for mystery, and Laura's death offers him a major occasion to indulge it. Readiness by itself, however, does not go to the heart of "Twin Peaks'" innovation. What kind of readiness is the question.

There is a kind of readiness that is standard in the Television Mystery Tradition (TMT). The basic model for the TMT is not the erotically stunned investigator but ever-ready Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, the standard television detective is not seduced into his narratives; he enters them with a passion to dispel any illegibility represented by any body of crime which is not a disruption in his life but rather its raison d'etre. For the Holmesian television detective, lack of clarity is the desirable aspect of mystery, an intellectually aphrodisiac opportunity for orgasmic restoration of clarity. If this seems a contradiction in terms, let doubters observe the quivering of Jeremy Brett as Holmes contemplates a jumble of clues. But again the fit is incomplete. Cooper is Holmesian only in his predisposition for mystery; he is far too sensually stimulated by Douglas firs, among other Twin Peaks delights, to qualify as a man of cerebral lust.

Ironically, Cooper's striking originality is best understood in contrast to what his seemingly different filmic and home-box colleagues share: the disavowal of vulnerability of illegibility in the body of the detective (the fear of castration?). (note #2) In the movies, the disavowal is accomplished through a displacement of anxiety about the body onto a woman. When the detective's body is brought into play, all fraility is transferred to the body of a femme fatale. For example, the obiligatory assaults all Hollywood detectives endure are inevitably contextualized as either directly or indirectly brought about through the unreliability or treachery of a desirable woman's body not theirs. Once attacked, the detective's body demonstrates an eerie dependability under pressure the cinema sleuth is second only to Bugs Bunny in ignoring torn limbs or bullet holes as he struggles to solve the mystery. The shifts and changes associated with the body, so risky in the world of the film detective, are totally feminized. Television's asexual, cerebral Holmesian is even more drastically disembodied. Here, the detective's otherness to body is created by displacing all the vagaries of physicality onto the miasmic body of the world. Involvement causes contamination (crime); by contrast, the detective postures as a detached, virtually fleshless site of cleansing. Accustomed as we are to this contempt for the body in the detective genre, we are slow to question it or its effectiveness. Familiarity makes it seem right.

However, it isn't truly right for television, a medium that by nature deflates the dualism of the orthodox detective through its unorthodox normalization of shifts and slippage and thus its normalization of the vicissitudes of the flesh. (note #3) The popularity of Dale Cooper is a tacit admission that on a visceral level the television audience knows how wrong the traditional detective is in that medium. As we shall see, Cooper made us gasp with delight precisely because he identifies with the vulnerability of his body. Uniting precision of mind with flow of body in his pursuit of mystery, Cooper emerges as the first detective truly appropriate to the medium of television.

David Lynch and Mark Frost point the way toward a television aesthetic through the incorporation of the detective genre into the serial format. Within the serial context, with its mini-closures which suggest partial distinctions rather than absolute divisions, Cooper invites us to see how desire for mystery can produce in the detective an interpretation of mind and body in an ever widening gyre of wonder. The erotically anxious, shadow-haunted milieu of the Hollywood detective is not absent from "Twin Peaks." Nor is the antiseptic Holmesian stance. But Cooper's mystery involes a heretofore unthinkable freedom from the masculine fear of the body that obsessive diavowals traditional to the detective genre suggest.

back up next

Martha Nochimson wrote The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart in Hollywood.

Papers | Twin Peaks pages | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann