Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Clues and Solutions

In Dennis Potter's great TV miniseries, The Singing Detective, the main character Philip Marlow, a mystery writer, talks about the public's yearning for works of art that yield to easy undestanding: "People want all solutions and no clues," he says. "What I want is all clues and no solutions."

Though he writes mystery stories, Marlow doesn't believe in their basic premise. They have everything backwards, he argues. Getting clues and hints and suggestions that lead to guesses and doubt and a constant measure of uncertainty is how life actually works on a daily basis, he says. 

I'm reminded of this quote because of Twin Peaks: The Return, of course, and how the idea of clues being predominant over solutions is basically a guiding principle in the work of David Lynch.  I'm a huge Lynch fan and I couldn't be happier that Twin Peaks is back. Not everyone loves Twin Peaks or Lynch's films, and I get that, and I don't want to get into a sweeping analysis of Lynch's work in general and Twin Peaks in particular (the old show or the new one) here. But it's curious to think about how the idea of creating work centered more around clues than answers and solutions is so rarely explored in television, even in this age when so much good stuff is made.  

First off, let's be honest: Marlow in The Singing Detective overstates the case by saying he wants "no solutions." A book, film or TV series that has no solution whatsoever after an abundance of clues and questions would prove frustrating. It's precisely the movement from puzzlement to clarity and understanding that makes mystery stories forever popular and satisfying.  So a work with a lot of clues should provide some answers.  That goes without saying.  But the answers don't necessarily have to be spelled out or easily digestible or readily apparent to the viewer (if we're talking film or TV).  And it's here that Lynch excels like nobody else.  A narrative can proceed structured around a number of simultaneously unfolding mysteries (which each have their clues), and the viewer, instead of making linear, rational, point to point mental connections among the clues, makes more intuitive or subconscious connections. Some of the mysteries in the drama may be answered clearly while others remain murky.  What's certain, though, is that the viewer has to have the sense that the creator(s) behind the drama knows exactly where things are going and why. This is what is so remarkable about Lynch at his best (as he is in the new Twin Peaks): scene by scene, you may not understand the why behind everything, but you get the undeniable impression that Lynch does.  In Twin Peaks, there is a plot unfolding (with detours and zigs and zags, yes, but there's a definite plot with many strands developing), and you feel that purposefulness strongly.  I'd say, in fact, that this is where his work seems most dreamlike. It's not just in the mood of overall "weirdness" or the often surreal imagery. It's also in that sense you get when you awake from a dream and there are gaps in your memory of the dream and you may not be able to put your finger on the dream's entire meaning, but you know - know without question - that the dream meant something important.  You know that each image your subconscious conjured up was there for a reason.  Your mind didn't throw images at you arbitrarily, as it were.  This is exactly the feeling one gets watching Twin Peaks, except that you're inside somebody else's dream, trying to decipher a stream of images coming from somebody else.

I'd love to see more works on television that structure their narratives around the principle of mystery.  Not a mystery story, per se (there's enough of those obviously), but a story built around the idea of mystery, something akin to Dennis Potter's formulation of more clues than definite answers. Lost tried something like this, and pulled it off quite well until its last season, though it must be said that as the seasons went by, you started to wonder whether the writers knew for sure where the story was going.  The sense of absolute purpose and control that Twin Peaks has did not come through as firmly in Lost.  At least in part, that could be because you can't sustain this sort of mystery for as many episodes as Lost did without getting tangled up.  

Also in this vein was the late 1960's British TV show, The Prisoner, co-created and starring Patrick McGoohan.  Way ahead of its time when made, this show was part spy story, part psychological thriller, part science fiction, and part Kafkaesque nightmare.  It had a 17 episode run that was filled with tension and enigmas, and its last episode most certainly left a number of plot points hanging. Unlike with Lost, you do not get the impression that the writers lost control of their narrative. McGoohan wrote the final episode, and though he avoids giving clear answers, he does leave the audience room to provide different interpretations.  Still, it must be said, this method runs risks; after that episode of The Prisoner aired in Britain (it had a large audience), viewers were so angry about the unanswered questions that they came to Patrick McGoohan's house and demanded explanations.  As he later said, "There was a near-riot and I was going to be lynched.  And I had to go into hiding in the mountains for two weeks, until things calmed down."

So I guess the moral is, you do the more clues than solutions thing at your own peril.  And it may help if audiences have the appropriate expectations going in.  I just wish there were more TV people and filmmakers out there who had the vision and temerity to attempt this type of narrative. And to do it well.  The fact is, we don't.  But so be it. In the meantime, we've got David Lynch and Twin Peaks. 

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