By Noel Vera
Premiere Part 1-8
July 9, 1:30 p.m.
(WARNING story to be discussed in detail — though how comprehensible the details may be is a matter of debate, with both discussion and debate possibly an exercise in futility.)
THE EPISODE’s putative title — “Got a light?” sounds odd on first reading (online you see it under the episode’s thumbnail pic) gains significance later on.
It starts off plottily enough: Evil Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan) and somewhat less evil Ray (George Griffith) have blackmailed their way out of prison, shaken off any electronic tracers, turned off into a small side road (what is it about David Lynch that he can fill interminable shots of cars nosing down dirt roads with such dread?). They confront each other, demanding money, demanding information, with C pointing the “friend” he pulled from the glove compartment (a special request provided by the warden) at Ray.
Only C’s gun somehow fails to fire. Only Ray, in a clever twist, has his own gun shooting C twice in the gut. Only with C down, the lights start flickering and shadowy figures emerge from the woods, start dancing around C’s body, massaging (or pulling apart) his belly, smearing his own gore on his face, squeezing out an egg sac larva, whatever that is, with the spirit of BOB visibly floating inside (Ray: “I saw something in Cooper. It might be the key to what this is all about.”).
Fan or non-fan of Nine Inch Nails, they serve several purposes singing their song. Lynch bathes them in what looks like the glow from a TV screen tuned to an empty channel; the band looks suitably ghastly. Their lyrics comment on immediate events (“You dig in places till your fingers bleed”) on initiating events (“She’s gone she’s gone she’s gone away”) — a preamble and transition if you like to the passage to come.
I’d mentioned the importance of light to this episode: Mr. C and Ray drive into a very dark place; the flickering (rarely a good omen in a Lynch film, even when it’s just a failing flashlight pointed into a car’s trunk) creates enough confusion for the phantoms to walk out of the woods; the industrial rock band members (Lynch seems fond of the genre) can barely be seen under dim concert spots. Cut back to Mr. C, who sits up with a gasp. Cut to black —
— to a slowly gliding camera looking down a vast tabletop of a desert landscape (it’s early morning) with titles telling us where we are: July 16, 1945, White Sands, New Mexico. A voice drones out a countdown: “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.” And so on.
And there was light.
To the sound of Krzysztof Penderecki’s strings trilling like a human scream, you see the double-pulse of a shock wave (created by a burst of soft X-rays heating air and creating an expanding shell of compressed gas) overtaking the fireball, smothering it momentarily to quickly build up again. You see details of the tabletop, originally and more appropriately called Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead) revealed — the low lying clouds, the mountains ringing the table’s edge, the erosion carvings like appendectomy scars and — if you look carefully — a series of smoke trails to the right, traces of the sounding rockets fired beforehand to help observe the shock wave’s passage).
The fireball itself looks like a puny thing, a tiny bulb standing an inch above the table, radiating a thousand watts; the explosion’s true power can be seen in the ring of gamma rays, X-rays, electromagnetic pulse racing out at the speed of light (186,000 miles a second), the shock wave practically crawling in comparison (a mere 0.21 miles per second) but more solidly textured — a briskly unfurling high-pile carpet — and no less destructive (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”). The fireball of superheated gases rises in a spinning toroid forming the characteristic mushroom cap, sucking up smoke debris and earth with it in powerful afterwinds that form the mushroom’s stem.
The flash and Penderecki’s strings might be enough to send anyone else running from the blast, but Lynch’s camera goes the opposite direction like a mother with arms thrown wide to embrace her blooming monster child. By the time camera and cloud meet the mushroom has reared up almost to its full height (some seven miles high).
The camera plunges in; we see X-ray images of swirling smoke, flashes of light — fireflies? Maybe Lynch’s attempt to depict electrons torn from their proper places, seeking equilibrium?
More fireflies (Neutrons? Alpha particles? Short-lived fission products?) then what looks like an X-ray image of fireflies. More flashes. A spiraling descent down the inside of the mushroom stem, with lightning flashes here there (yes, there’s lightning inside an atomic explosion) and debris (large rocks that look like pebbles, scale being meaningless here) flying everywhere.
It’s a remarkable sequence; most filmmakers when depicting nuclear detonations resort to documentary footage which have a power all their own, the rough footage and visibly aged film suggesting a documentary realism. But this is an explosion from a height and angle we’ve never seen before, and yet — at least to these inexpert eyes — fully conforming to the films we have of the actual Trinity blast. How did Lynch do it? Presumably by creating a digitally animated sequence that incorporates most footage we have of the blast, realized in three dimensions (the low-lying clouds, the pebbly sheet of creeping clouds, the fragile rocket trails all give the shot an almost palpable texture). As for the rest of the sequence — damned if I know how he did any of that, though Belson and Brakhage might have had an idea.
I figure at this point Lynch must have guessed someone might crack open a textbook on nuclear explosions to try make sense of the images and — narratively speaking — swerves off the road yet again. You know the rest — or would if you’ve been reading all the heroic attempts at recapping the episode: The “mother” briefly glimpsed in a big glass box back in Episode 1 (knocking menacingly at the door to the Purple Room in Episode 3) vomits a long stream of what looks like garmonbozia or spiritual creamed corn (one kernel of which looks like it contains the spirit of BOB). The kernel falls, experiencing the heat of reentry —
We revisit the Purple Room or at least some citadel that exists in the same world, the interior decorated in a style one might call part Turkish harem, part 1920 grandmother (The White Lodge?) and filled with nonstop music; a large bell-like structure rings (finally we learn one purpose of the bell last seen in Episode 3: an emergency alert). Formerly known as the Giant (Carel Struycken) walks in, peers straight at the camera (At us?), shuts the alarm. He walks into a giant movie theater (actually the Tower Theater in Los Angeles, which doubled as the Club Silencio in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive*) where he witnesses a replay (Live broadcast?) of the Trinity test, exudes his own egg sac larva whatever, this time with what looks like the spirit of Laura Palmer inside. His partner, Señorita Dido (Joy Nash), gives the orb a kiss, sends it floating into a spiraling golden tube that flings it down to Earth —
— where it lands in the New Mexico desert hatching into a repulsive little creature, half cockroach-half frog. But which egg is this? Narrative logic (yes, there is such a thing in this series!) favors the former, as a Woodsman walks into a radio station, does horrible things to the staff there, and in the process sends the surrounding town into a deep sleep; the aforementioned frogroach (I should patent the term) crawls into the mouth of a girl rendered unconscious by the aforementioned Woodsman, who repeats a hypnotic poem (“This is the water and this is the well; drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within”).
Lynch seems comfortable roaming the realms of both nuclear physics and (with help from Mark Frost) Theosophy, one of which pushes the edge of what is commonly considered real (pour enough energy into one spot and you can apparently rip the fabric of reality apart), one of which pushes the edge of one’s credulity (Aliens magically intervening in human history?). Does he believe in one, either, both? I hope the former more than the latter, though there’s little evidence one way or another. One thing I do know for sure — I’ll be tuning in next weekend, to watch Episode 9.
* (Is Lynch starting his own Expanded Cinematic Universe?)