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Northwest passage (Pt. 1)

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Recently, I noted Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man, in my Dust Devil Dreams piece “Returning to earth.” There is a lot to be learned in that film, as well as in the 1990-91 ABC series Twin Peaks.

The journey to hell, then purgatory and then paradise, or so it would seem is alluded to. There are many layers to Dead Man’s onion, like that of the actual poet and mystic William Blake, after which, Johnny Depp’s character is named.

I think of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which was originally called Northwest Passage. And in a way, it would have been a more appropriate name in that the passage – or portal – is in the rugged, mysterious and remote landscape of the Pacific Northwest – the setting for both Twin Peaks and Dead Man.

Yes, an appropriate place for such journeys of transformation – and a passage to enlightenment.

In Dead Man, William “Bill” Blake arrives in Machine, Washington (?) aboard a train, populated by rough, frontier characters, and a locomotive “fireman” (played by Crispin Glover) who suggests that the end of the line – Machine – is “Hell.”

Blake, from the eastern city of Cleveland, Ohio, meanwhile, is dressed in urbane clothing, seemingly out of place – altogether innocent, reminding one of the actual William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (syncs with U2’s recent album of the same name). Blake warned of being stuck at the stage of "innocence" and not growing any further. For growth to occur, challenges must be met.

And  in Twin Peaks, upstanding lawman Special Agent Dale Cooper, from Philadelphia – another “eastern” city -  arrives in Twin Peaks, Washington, in an FBI car, dressed in a black suit, and likewise, “out of place.” He has different ideas. Is more polished and sophisticated, but not condescending. Neither is Blake as he tries to get that accounting job he had thought had been promised to him. Both will face serious challenges upon arrival in their new, leafy environs.

A symbol for lost innocence is quite clear in a moving scene where Blake – having embraced the natural world and spiritual growth – lies down next to a dead fawn on the forest floor.

In Twin Peaks, Cooper’s opposite, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) – a former FBI partner and a seeker of dark power – has arrived in town, hoping to gain entrance via a “portal” into the Black Lodge and access its immense power for his own benefit, and not the benefit of others. Where was Earle’s good side? Was he too “out of balance”? I would argue that he was.

In fact, Earle notes the “fawn” – a symbol of purity and innocence – in a monologue he gives about the White/Black lodges: “Once upon a time there was a land of great goodness called the White Lodge. Gentle fawns gamboled there amongst happy, laughing spirits. The sounds of innocence and joy filled the air and when it rained, it rained sweet nectar that infused one’s heart with the desire to live one’s life in truth and beauty.”

Earle continues, calling the White Lodge a “ghastly place.”

Continuing, his tone darkens, switched to describing the opposite of the White Lodge – the Black Lodge.

A place of almost unimaginable power, chock full of dark forces and vicious secrets … spirits there are as likely to rip the flesh from your bones than greet you with a happy ‘good day.’ … and to harvest these spirits in this hidden land … would offer up a power so vast that it’s bearer might reorder the Earth itself to his liking. Now, this place I speak of is known as the Black Lodge and I intend to find it.”

For anyone who has watched Twin Peaks’ second season – unfairly maligned in many quarters – some seriously interesting and important revelations come down the pike. The nature of the Air Force’s Project BLUE BOOK, their interest in UFOs and the supernatural. It reminds me of Sidney Gottlieb’s Operation OFTEN, and how Gottlieb – who had backing from the CIA – was a Windom Earle-esque character, embracing the dark arts and one to be avoided, lest you become a pawn in his diabolical chess game.

In Dead Man, I see the bounty hunter Cole Wilson (Lance Henricksen) as the Earle character. He sees a dead U.S. Marshal on the ground, his head surrounded by a circle of wooden sticks. The image disgusts him, spitting that it looked like a “goddamn religious icon.” Wilson is not to be redeemed in this afterlife.

But are he and other denizens of this murky world condemned to a spiritual existence of everlasting torment? William Blake would likely argue that they are not.

In a fantastic piece from 2001 analyzing the spiritual nature of Dead Man, the author, Briana Berg, writes this about the actual William Blake: “William Blake believed in something deeper than Hell for the sinful and Heaven for the virtuous. His philosophy of life encompassed ideas that reached the wisdom of Buddhism: ‘…I do not consider either the Just or the Wicked to be in a Supreme State, but to be every one of them States of the Sleep which the soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of Good and Evil when it leaves Paradise following the Serpent.’ Blake is indeed asleep, mislead, unaware of the darkness he has lost himself in until Nobody brings him back to the light.”

Both Blake and Cooper have Native Americans helping them along their path. For Blake, it is “Nobody,” the Makah Indian played by Gary Farmer. But then, as Berg writes, Nobody and Blake “complete each other and reflect characteristics of the other,” just as Cooper and Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) complete one another in their understanding of the world beyond our own.

Twin Peaks creator David Lynch and Dead Man’s inspiration, William Blake, both seem to understand Eastern philosophy and Buddhist teachings.

As Berg writes of Dead Man’s Blake and Nobody: “Blake is indeed asleep, misled, unaware of the darkness he has lost himself in until Nobody brings him back to the light.”

And Nobody, as guide, takes him through the wilderness to the coast and the boat - and to enlightenment - just as Cooper and the Bookhouse Boys get to Glastonberry Grove in Ghostwood Forest and the passageway to the Black Lodge to save Annie Blackburn. One wonders if Major Briggs would have jumped in the Black Lodge (he had been in the White Lodge and the U.S. Air Force was allegedly manipulating it in some way) to save the good Cooper. 

We will delve further into the comparisons between Twin Peaks and Dead Man in Part 2.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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