A Varied Thrush in the Coalmine: The Stratification of Twin Peaks’ Opening Sequence
When Twin Peaks originally aired in 1990, the landscape of television changed forever. Viewers and television executives alike began to understand that the art-house could be an American household with a television screen. Since Laura Palmer told Agent Cooper she would see him in 25 years, and the release of the film prequel, Fire Walk with Me, the world has changed dramatically. I find myself asking in an era of peak television, what does a new season of Twin Peaks mean after a 25-year cultural sabbatical? How does it evolve thematically for the viewer? What are the hallmarks of our societal development and how will they represent themselves?
The 2017 return of Twin Peaks is a unique cultural stratification of American culture and world events. I have found the absence of one key symbol in this analysis that struck me as the defining moment of humanity’s tenacity in the 21st century:
The disappearance of the varied thrush is the symbol of a decaying planet.
You may be asking yourself, what is a varied thrush? A varied thrush is a bird common in the Pacific Northwest. In the original Twin Peaks the bird is the first shot of the opening sequence. Other writers and scholars have often mistaken the bird for a Bewick’s wren, a much smaller bird with a lighter shade of orange. Recently, members of the National Audubon Society verified the bird as a varied thrush, which seems to be the confirmed match.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why Lynch may have chosen to remove the bird from the opening titles. The bird is not connected in any way to the series other than providing a sense of location, a live festooning of outdoorsy texture in a Northwest community. But this disappearance speaks volumes and reveals the forces of modernity compromising the series itself. The original pilot titles were 2 minutes and 30 seconds in length compared to the return sequence at 1 minute and 30 seconds. The melodic soundtrack and images are cut down, trimmed, or removed entirely; a poetic deforestation of what was once the habitat to a songbird known for its long minor-key whistles, repeated after deliberate pauses that seems like a sound without a source. It’s an almost electric noise that transcends what we expect from avian wildlife.
The faster runtime of the regular opening sequence of Twin Peaks 2017 is the most glaring difference. It’s unaware of the fact that it’s catering to a new, younger audience that’s logged on and tuned in on their phones. In a 2007 interview, David Lynch passionately castigates the growing trends in mobile viewership…
“If you’re playing the movie on a telephone you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It is such sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that between 5 and 50 million birds are killed in the U.S. each year by tower-kill, a phenomenon that occurs when birds are killed by antenna towers. The varied thrush is one species of bird murdered by the need for additional digital telecommunication and electric transmission towers to service the perpetual thirst for mobile communication. Furthermore, suburban development has irrevocably harmed thrush species, clearing forest homes for development. The disruption so lasting, the birds lose as much as half their breeding years as they struggle to start over.
What now replaces the bird is the culmination of Lynch’s television success, increased production value, and 25 years worth of cinematic technological advance; a flying drone shot soaring through the mist and fog high above the trees of Twin Peaks. This dramatically cross-dissolves to the rushing waterfall. The water quickly brings us to the new reality never before seen in the title sequence, the red curtains of The Black Lodge, followed by the off-axis spinning of the black and white zig-zag floor tiling.
Lynch masterfully exercises these mechanized cinematography elements to bring us to contemporary times, a Twin Peak trying to get a grip on things, a collective consciousness that finds itself in this Black Lodge called Earth that has gone past the point of no return from the effects of global warming since the premiere 25 years ago.
Another symbolic image lost from the original 90s title sequence is the lengthy meta machine-manufacturing of saw blades. The following shot, a large Redwood displayed on a flashy rail car as a dedication to the glorified logging industry of northern small town America. This industry has seemingly vanished in the boarded-up factory shot in the 2017 opening. The original sequence concludes with the aforementioned shot of the mighty Snoqualmie Falls and flowing river.
The appearance of The Black Lodge texture is a vivid addition to the 2017 opening montage. It captures the tone of the unhinged cosmic boundlessness explored through an entirely new and very different season of Twin Peaks, the pinnacle of this being part 8 when Lynch grasps at the limits of apprehension to describe the creation of darkness and evil itself. Using seemingly endless visual effects similar to a variety of experimental artists like Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Bruce Conner, Terrence Malick and Goddard; instrumentally scored with Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, it emotes what this experience of existence means past the point of no return.
I’d like to point out one additional shot only in the part one opening of Twin Peak 2017. Following the abandoned factory, it slowly fades to the slow motion, slow-shutter shot of Laura Palmer’s friend running through the Twin Peaks High School courtyard. It’s a haunting image, something similar to the granulated live broadcast footage of school shootings. It’s a defining shot for a Twin Peaks that lost much of its innocence, poignantly expressed by Rodney Mitchum in part 15 after a violent hail of gunfire in a suburban neighborhood:
“People are under a lot of stress.”
The varied thrush was the only living animal in the opening sequence. It’s now gone. The globalized and connected world has changed its Twin Peaks habitat forever. There is a sense of loss, of destruction, and absence. A Twin Peaks devoid of wildlife, but like the slowed and modified voices in the Black Lodge that delay comprehension to the viewer, the call of the varied thrush masks itself in an electric sound that one day may be clear.