There's no doubt that Episode 8 of David Lynch and Mark Frost's masterful Twin Peaks: The Return has been divisive. Since it aired on Sunday, June 25, fan groups have been teeming with activity, with some proclaiming they're "done with the show" while others wax poetic about any and all Lynch creations (guilty as charged). However, no matter how you feel about the episode, there's no doubt that it has inspired some pretty extreme emotions, and that's exactly what great cinema does — and that's also what we're lacking in our current movie-going culture.
Over the past few years, Lynch has stated bluntly that "the art houses are dead." In an interview with the BBC in 2014 he lamented the fact that art house cinema gets less and less distribution:
"The art houses are gone and the alternative cinema… the only place people really have is film festivals to show their work on a big screen. It's a sad time for alternative cinema."
And he's not wrong. While art house cinema (which broadly encompasses alternative, experimental, and indie cinema) has always defined itself through niche films that expound on contemplative themes through experimental techniques, their heyday came sometime in the 1950s/'60s with the rise of neorealism in Italy and the French New Wave. Although art house cinema has mostly found its base in Europe, its influence on American filmmaking is undeniable, with directors like Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola all taking cues from the greats both thematically and stylistically.
Since the '60s, art house cinema in the US has been on the decline, although its themes have been incorporated into mainstream productions, making them a little more palatable for the average movie-goer. The '90s saw big film studios like Fox and Universal open up smaller distributors in a largely successful attempt to cash in on the indie movie market. And indeed, we've seen an uptick in more art house-influenced ideas, but it's not in the film industry, it's on TV.
In the same BBC interview, Lynch went on to talk about TV as the new home for art house:
"The new art house is cable television. The art house theaters that used to be have disappeared and alternative cinema, different kinds of ideas, non summer blockbuster-type films are ending up on cable television."
Take a quick flip through networks like Netflix, HBO and USA and you’ll see his point. Art house cinema’s characteristic lingering shots, dream sequences, and artistry are showing up on anything from Fargo to Mr. Robot. Take Aziz Ansari's Master of None Season 2 (which not coincidentally pays heavy homage to Italian neorealist films such as The Bicycle Thief in its first episode) as an example; in the episode “The Dinner Party” we’re treated to a three-minute shot of Dev sitting in the back of an Uber as he first comes to terms with his feelings for Francesca; or Mad Men and Don Draper's visions of the past and visits from the dead; or True Detective (Season 1, of course), which never explained (and never needs to) what Rust saw right before getting stabbed in the finale.
But art house cinema's style is so important because it demands a completely different way of viewing films. Lingering shots in which we watch a man sweep the floor for three minutes, or someone walk the entire length of a hallway, all at first seem boring if you look at them in the same way you'd watch, say, The Walking Dead (no offense intended, they’re just different kinds of cinema). We're so used to watching movies and shows that move at a fast pace in an effort to maintain interest, that it can at first seem ridiculous to slow things down to such a plodding pace. But once you realize that those shots communicate just as much as a scene with poignant dialogue, all you want to see is more. Suddenly, studying Dev’s face as he contemplates the implications of his newfound feelings is way more exciting than a high-speed car chase.
But there's also a cultural point to be made through all this. Although the complaint that we live our lives at too fast a pace has been around since the Industrial Revolution, there's no doubt that most of us float a state of constant distraction. If you never wanted to have a full thought again, you probably could, and that is a damn terrible tragedy. But this is precisely why we need art house cinema: It retrains our eyes to notice and appreciate detail, it teaches us to slow down and observe what's happening around us, and it provides the space and stimulus for us to simply connect to our own emotions in a way that has nothing to do with objective truth.
Looking at Episode 8, “Got A Light,” it's one thing to read about the Trinity Nuclear test and another to "experience" it as you delve deep into the nuclear bomb and are assaulted by one of the most disturbing scores ever created along with terrifying lights, muffled movement, and the weight of all the suffering of humanity unleashed on the world that day; it's all there for you to contemplate, and for once you have the time to do just that. Judging by the comments about Episode 8 (and all the new Twin Peaks episodes, for that matter), people are being challenged to view the show in a different way than most other popular films or TV shows, and they're absolutely loving it.
The nature of art house cinema is that it stirs emotions that lie deep within us all; emotions about love, religion, technology, human connection, memory, evil and the like, and gives us the space to contemplate them long after the film or show has ended; consider them a visual invitation to ponder a specific issue. Art house films are not just about being entertained or taking yourself out of your reality for a couple of hours, they are about taking the time to examine the complexities of life. Although Episode 8 of Twin Peaks will not be to everyone's taste, filmmakers are finding ways to sneak the art house back into cinema via TV shows. Not every shot is lingering, not every piece of dialogue is meaningful, but the art house is indeed peeping around the corning, testing the waters to see if it is welcome. Let's just hope Twin Peaks will have the same revolutionary impact on TV (and cinema, for that matter) it had when it first appeared in 1990.