Twin Peaks, Rural America, and the Emergence of Immersive Media in Washington State

IMG_6440

Mount Vernon, Washington, as seen from Little Mountain

We’re aware that Trump’s election further exposed the cultural divide between urban and rural America. In the postmortem, those of us who live in cities tended to agree that we need to empathize more with our fellow citizens who live in places without access to Whole Foods. I grew up in rural Washington State, and now live in Seattle, so this issue is important to me. The rural/urban divide is a line that runs through my life.

If you were to stick a pin the middle of a map of Seattle, you might hit my apartment. For all its growth pains and unfulfilled progressive ideals, Seattle, I’m convinced, is one of the world’s most future-facing cities, a diversity-celebrating home to immigrants and technologists who cherish art and the natural world. Standing on the sidewalk outside my building, taking in a view of the Space Needle against the backdrop of the Olympics, stirs me with astonished gratitude. Theaters, parks, bookstores, a green belt, and the city’s best French bakery are minutes from my door. More importantly it’s the people who surround me—the weirder the better—who make me feel at home.

I grew up an hour north of where I live now, in Skagit Valley, on seven acres of forest, ponds, and pasture, with a dozen sheep, a few pigs, and some occasional chickens. When I was twelve years old I picked tulip and daffodil bulbs for a summer in the fields of the Skagit delta. I’ve fired shotguns and ridden motor bikes, attended mass on Sunday and professional wrestling exhibitions in a community college gym. I observed the migratory patterns of snow geese, watched chainsaw competitions at logger rodeos, drove tractors, and learned to enjoy the fecund aroma of freshly spread manure.

I reflexively romanticize my rural upbringing, I recognize, but the older I get the more grateful I am for the hay forts, tree houses, and canoe trips of my youth. Summers I lived in the woods, eating huckleberries and shooting arrows, digging for clams, exploring the tide pools of the San Juan Islands. Rural Washington State in the eighties is an interior realm that I access for comfort in my daydreams.

I recently reconnected with my old, dear friend Epi Sedano. When I met Epi on the first day of kindergarten, he didn’t speak English, but I immediately got his sense of humor. The son of Mexican migrant laborers who settled in the valley year-round, Epi was my most loyal childhood pal, my freestyle wrestling partner, and now my friend on Facebook. Nowadays, Epi works in the pharmaceutical industry, a career that occasionally takes him overseas to places like Singapore. Recently, over beers at Conway Tavern, Epi and I expressed amazement at where our lives had taken us since the days when we were Dr. Who-obsessed nerds living among cattle and duck hunters. At one point in our conversation, Epi said that the key to both our lives had been imagination. He said we had ended up where we are because we had imagined everything was possible, and no one had bothered to tell us otherwise.

By the time I was a teenager there was no question that I would leave my home town. As I graduated from high school, the last great regional music scene of the twentieth century beckoned me south. At the Evergreen State College, I absorbed bands, art, ideas. Riot Grrls, Burroughs, Mapplethorpe, the Melvins, Arbus, McLuhan, Tarantino, Pynchon, Barthes. In college I fell in with a group of kids who’d grown up on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry hop from downtown Seattle. Sometimes I’d catch a friend expressing a condescending attitude about farmers or other small-town folks, and I’d feel compelled to defend the sorts of people I grew up with. But I also came to distain what I perceived to be the ignorance and bigotry that thrive in rural places. In order to become more fully who I was meant to be and accomplish my art on a scale appropriate to my slowly-developing talent, I knew I had to live in a city. So inevitably I came to Seattle, where I found enough opportunities and culture to occupy me these past twenty years.

For many years, whenever I visited my hometown I cast a disparaging eye on the so-so restaurants and prevailing sense of low ambitions. I despaired when I saw that Skagit County had gone for Bush in the 2004 election. But as I’ve showed my own city-dwelling kids my hometown, I have come to appreciate what a gift it had been to come of age in this upper left corner of the contiguous United States.

In Mount Vernon, there are pockets of culture that existed when I was in high school that showed me glimpses of the outside world in the decades before the World Wide Web. Easton’s Books, the bibliophile sanctuary that’s still run by my high school mentor Dave Cornelius, continues to serve the community with genre paperbacks and the most well-stocked philosophy section I’ve ever seen in a bookstore. The Lincoln Theater, where I watched “foreign films” in high school, still screens art house movies. And in enclaves like Edison and LaConner, the foodie sensibilities of Portlandia have found an easy alliance with the valley’s organic farms.

To be clear, Mount Vernon, placed smack between Seattle and Vancouver and threaded like a bead by a major interstate freeway, is in many ways an atypical rural setting. The seventies’ influx of hippies, drawn perhaps by magic mushrooms native to the area’s pastures, brought more art and better music to the valley. Among the transplanted freaks was novelist Tom Robbins, who wrote books populated with enlightened and foolish eccentrics from his home in LaConner, and who in recent years has become a friend.

Residents of Skagit Valley are an hour from symphonies, theater, and the occasional Picasso. But it’s also a county that is 75.2% white and barely 1% African American. The more deplorable attitudes that I associate with rural America—racism, anti-intellectualism, homophobia—find a foothold here as well.

As the pundits would have it, rural and urban America face each other across an insurmountable chasm, but I believe the relationship is far more enmeshed than the culture warriors would have us believe. The figurative fields and streams of the Internet may be delivered more slowly in places with literal fields and streams, but it’s the same Internet that I access via my favorite café’s Wifi. When urban elites trash the rubes in flyover country, it’s not like they can’t hear us. Which brings me to what I believe may be the greatest contributor to America’s rural-urban culture war—television.

Let’s agree that television shapes how we perceive ourselves. We look for reflections of who we are in the characters who populate our sitcoms and police procedurals. Conversations about diversity on TV rightly focus on how to improve the ethnic and gender parity of programming. But there’s also regional parity, and I’d venture that the ways in which television has depicted rural America in the past forty years have significantly contributed to the disconnect between leftist urbanites and Trump voters in the hinterlands.

Turning on the television in the seventies and eighties, we were treated to rural settings largely situated in the past. Little House on the Prairie, both the television show starring large-haired Michael Landon and the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, presented an Anglicized fantasy of pioneer life. Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show, which I watched as syndicated reruns as a kid, traficked in a sort of homespun folksiness, while The Dukes of Hazard celebrated “good old boy” southern attitudes. If you didn’t quite catch the racist nuance, the name of the show’s iconic car, pimped out with a Confederate flag no less, is the General Lee. More offensive to me as a kid, however, was the variety show Hee-Haw, a sort of redneck Laugh-In where straw hats and hootenannies were in plenty supply. Whenever I happened upon it I shuddered, wondering if this was how people in cities thought people in the country actually behaved.

As a teenager, I surveyed the television landscape and fantasized about one day telling stories, in some medium, set in the kind of rural America that I saw around me. My rural America was one in which some high school students got into heady discussions about Nietzsche and Heidegger while others dealt cocaine. My rural America was more queer, more hallucinogenic, more literary, and more punk rock. Television told me that my surroundings should be animated by the amusing foibles of simpletons. The rural world I saw before me was more sinister, more intellectual, and more artistically vibrant than what Hollywood and 30 Rockefeller Center would have me believe.

Then came Twin Peaks.

True, there was already a quirky show, Northern Exposure, filmed in Washington State, but set in Alaska. I found it entertaining enough. But in 1990, Twin Peaks reinvented television itself; in time the show has widely come to be considered a precursor for today’s bingeable, novelistic dramas. If Twin Peaks had been set in, say, a town in the middle of Wyoming, I still would have loved it to death. The fact it was set in Washington State meant that it doubled as both the high weirdness I craved and permission to further commit to my own artistic ambitions. I got the message: you can create weird art on a globally significant scale that’s set in the Pacific Northwest.

Almost thirty years later, a third season of Twin Peaks is about to be released, with many of the original cast. (Side note: the following is just too weirdly coincidental not to mention. I happen to be writing these words from my office at a UW coworking space, and it just so happens that the woman sitting right behind me, at this very moment, is Diana Fairbank. Diana, among her many talents, is an actress who has a part in the new Twin Peaks. She has been as tight-lipped about her role as she’s been effusive in her praise of David Lynch. I might be working at a desk next to the next Log Lady!)

For Twin Peaks fans living in Washington state, season three represents another opportunity to luxuriate in David Lynch’s knack for capturing Northwest textures with a camera. His shots of douglas firs, their branches whispering in the wind, alone stirs deep memories.

Movies and TV shows set in the Pacific Northwest are rare, not without reason. In recent months I’ve paid more attention to Washington’s legislative efforts to lure film and television projects to the state. We’re sandwiched between the robust film industry of Vancouver, B.C. and the city of Portland, whose municipal film and television production resources dwarf those of all of Washington. The Evergreen State has never had much of a presence in the world of cinema. I believe this creates an insidious feedback loop—with fewer films and TV shows set in this state, it’s harder for artists who grow up here to imagine that they can contribute to the film and TV industry.

That may be changing. Immersive media has taken hold in the Pacific Northwest, anchored to the region by the hardware companies and startups that are inspiring creatives whose skills in filmmaking, game design, and other disciplines can be easily ported into new forms.

I believe that we have all the resources necessary to create globally and historically significant immersive art in the Pacific Northwest. We have a robust and growing community of VR creators, an infrastructure of labs, studios, and incubators, and early access to next-generation hardware and software. What’s holding us back most may simply be an attitude that art produced in the Northwest is somehow inferior to art produced elsewhere. And I wonder how much this myth is perpetuated to preserve the LA power center of the traditional entertainment industries.

We live in a period when we’re seeing immersive media move from the theoretical to the possible. Our task is to shepherd these new forms from the possible to the probable. At that point, the audiences themselves move the medium from the probable to the inevitable. To many artists growing up in rural America, their challenge is to simply get to the point of believing in the possible. And we get to that point through the examples of masterpieces.

Twin Peaks is a cultural phenomenon that transcends its sheer entertainment value. It’s the kind of art, like the music of the Velvet Underground, that opens one’s sense of creative possibility and inspires other artists to create. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be pursuing a career in virtual reality content production if it weren’t for the damn fine coffee, red room, and mystery in the woods that David Lynch delivered to our TV sets back when the owls weren’t what they seem.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s