Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Got a light?" The blind centre of the atomic experience (Twin Peaks redux)

The Lynch universe is full of record players, speakers, radios, and other sonic devices. It also sometimes permits a television or movie screen. A chilling scene in Fire Walk With Me froze Agent Cooper's after-image on a CCTV screen, as Phillip Jeffries stormed down a hallway. Here the televisual augurs the supernatural effects that lie behind the normative facade of everyday life. Twin Peaks: The Return has extended this idea beyond all expectation. In episode 8 it literally blows up in our face.

Back in Episode 1 of what passes for a third season of the classic surrealist drama, we were introduced to Sam Colby. He has a dull job changing the memory cards on a bank of cameras. These have their viewfinders trained on a glass box, sealed internally, but open to the air outside the high-rise. He sits on a comfy seat (which, naturally, has room for two viewers). He stares intently. And we stare too, wondering what we are looking for. Will anything happen? Given that "the box" was once common slang for television, the message is clear. As viewers of this programme, we too will sit patiently looking for clues, while events happen (or don't) in inexorable fashion. When something does happen, it will be sudden, unexpected, and ferociously violent. As our proxy, Colby does a poor job. Easily distracted, he misses Cooper's fleeting re-appearance in the quotidian.

In Episode 8 an alarm rings, so the Giant (named ??????? in the credits, but still played by the wonderful Carel Struycken) proceeds to the theatre. There he watches a broadcast of an atomic bomb test, framed on the proscenium stage. It's a report from some other time and place. And he knows what to do... levitate and extrude golden fibres, until they birth a translucent sphere.

As viewers, we are both confused and one step ahead. For we have already been subject to the full atomic experience, in a sequence that must rank as one of the most powerful on television. (If it's still television we are watching. Grant this for now.) The scene starts with a long zoom into a slow motion explosion on the horizon. We travel across a landscape covered in roiling vapour, closer to the central mushroom cloud, and then right inside. At this point the imagery fragments into abstraction, dancing sparks severing percept from percept. Time and space are here shattered in an act beyond human understanding.

This explosion appears to be the root of the evil unleashed upon the world in the form of BOB (one letter short of "BOMB"). But the brilliance of this sequence is not in the context of the Twin Peaks mythology. Banal matters like plot and character hardly matter, as the abstract content of this episode makes apparent. Rather, the wonder here is that Lynch is replicating the actual historical experience (visual and psychic) of watching the first atomic bomb broadcasts.

This thesis requires us to revisit Operation Tumbler, a series of tests designed to explain how blast pressure can be accurately measured in an atomic detonation. (There was always some reason for some further test.) The third part of the series, Tumbler Charlie, used a Mk 4 atom bomb of weight 10,440 lb, dropped from a B-50 bomber at 3447 feet over Nevada Test Site Area 7. But the military and scientific rationale were, on this occasion, eclipsed by a far more significant fact. This was to be the first live broadcast of an atomic explosion.

Television cameras were positioned at Mount Charleston, 11 miles from ground zero. Despite this distance, it was feared that the blast might destroy the equipment. Indeed, such concerns were justified. Power failed 14 minutes before the blast and remained off as the detonation lit up the sky, at 9:30 local time on 22 April 1952. Three minutes later the power was restored, but the cameras revealed only billowing cloud.

As insurance, a second battery of cameras had been positioned at an even greater distance. These operated throughout the event, but did not necessarily broadcast the expected image. Depending on which television station you were watching, the coverage consisted of smoke and dust, flickers of black, geometric swirls, or a diagonal tearing of the screen. Not so different, then, to Lynch's representation!

Perhaps the clearest telecast was on KTLA. Out of a murky white backdrop, a black cloud ascends. It has a blinding white centre, mistaken by most for the blast light. But this optical null zone was in fact due to a malfunction of the orthicon camera tube. This device had been designed by RCA to use a low-velocity electron scanning beam. This was more efficient than earlier designs, but was unstable under bright light, producing "the appearance of a large drop of water evaporating slowly over part of the scene", according to Richard Webb.

Tung-Hui Hu has expressed the significance of this elision in startling fashion:

[T]he burned hole forms a circuit between us and an outside hidden from us, an abrupt puncture of actual violence onto the realm of the virtual. Not only an image of violence, it is also a tangible interface between the viewer and the time of death, between real time and the time of the real. The hole is the result of the bomb touching the film negative or the orthicon tube, but also represents the event that touches us across history, implicating us, as creators of the bomb, in its making. When we discover there is only a hole where the image of "time zero" should have been, we retroject this knowledge back into the film or recording, and the event that initially felt instantaneous at time zero now expands in time, as a detail in a photograph once did for Roland Barthes.

There is no finer representation of this effect than Lynch has provided us in Twin Peaks. He is not just giving us an origin story in the context of the show's mythology, but demonstrating for us the impossibility of gathering ultimate meaning from anything televisual. In fact, this might be his own origin story he is telling, one that begins and ends by taking comfort in the filtered nostalgia of the auditory. Consider the Giant's partner, Senorita Dido, sitting listening in her lounge. Consider that the first instructions Cooper (and the viewer) receives in the series is to "listen to the sounds".

Meanwhile the woodsmen represent the charred victims of atomic apocalypse. "Got a light?" they ask endlessly. In fact, yes, we have got a light. We have got far too much light. This surplus of energy we choose to study, as though mesmerised, in test after test, as we crystallise the desert sands of Nevada, Bikini, Enewetak Atoll, Johnston Island, and Kiritimati.

Meanwhile, the question asked directly cannot be answered. We can't utter words, only gurgle inarticulate intimations of primordial darkness, like the blood that oozes from a crushed skull. The pressure's too much, in this zero point, this darkness.

We turn a blind eye. It's white in the centre, where the light has bled right through.


Fay, Jennifer. 2016. "Atomic Screen Test". Modernism/Modernity 23.3, 611-630.

Hu, Tung-Hui. 2012. "Real Time/Zero Time". Discourse 34.2-3, 163-184.

KTLA. 1952. "Tumbler Charlie A-bomb test, 22 April 1952" (telecast).

Lynch, David. 2017. Twin Peaks: The Return (TV series), Showtime.


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