Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

At the Austin Film Festival in 2017, Mark Frost revealed that Greek Mythology in general, and the story of Pandora’s Box in particular, were an important influence for part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. I believe this claim goes beyond an abstract criticism of the use of nuclear weapons by mankind leading to a surge of evil spirits (and UFOs) in the world. Part 8 actually depicts this process as something real, incarnate, at the root of the corruption at work in the Twin Peaks universe.

According to the classical myth, Pandora (“all-gifted/all-giving”) was the first human woman created by Hephaestus, as instructed by Zeus. Her other name was Anesidora (“she who sends up gifts”, up implying “from below” within the earth). She is said to have opened a jar (pithos) – commonly referred to as “Pandora’s box” – releasing all the evils of humanity. These evils were provided by those who dwelt on Olympus. The boon was a direct retaliation by Zeus for the theft of fire, given to humanity by Prometheus. Zeus punished the technologically advanced society by creating a woman. She was molded from earth as the first female, a “beautiful evil” whose descendants would torment the human race. Athena dressed her in a silvery gown, an embroidered veil, garlands and an ornate crown of silver. Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, accepted Pandora, who promptly scattered the contents of her jar. As a result, Hesiod tells us, the earth and sea are “full of evils” . Only hope remained in the jar. Pandora is a type of Eve, as both of them are the first woman in the world and the central character in a story of transition from an original state of plenty and ease to one of suffering and death, a transition which is brought about as a punishment for transgression of divine law.

The sequence of events depicted in part 8 closely follows this story. The flashback that takes us to the 1945 explosion of the first atom bomb on the Trinity Site in New Mexico represents the promethean theft of the atomic fire from the Gods. The development of such a technology by mankind gives it God-like powers, depicted as out of reach for humanity’s spiritual development. The blast sets the Fireman’s warning system of huge bells into action.

Once the bomb has detonated, the camera dives into its cloud, giving us a colourful kaleidoscopic visual “trip” worthy of artists like Stan Brakhage. When it exits the storm of fire, the camera sits in front of the Woodsmen’s convenience store for a moment. We’ll get back to the store in a short while. The camera then plunges through the front window of the store into a tunnel that takes us to a dark realm in which “the Experiment” floats. The mysterious being suddenly releases an impressive stream of gelatinous vomit protecting many eggs, as well a the rock with BOB’s face in it.

We know that the Frogmoth contained in one of these egg is going to contaminate the young Sarah Palmer with the spirit of Joudy in 1956, precisely 11 years after the bombing of Hiroshima, while BOB will wreak havoc in the town of Twin Peaks, killing Laura Palmer, among others. The release of the content of the Experiment’s stomach into the world, a direct result of the Trinity Test explosion/theft of fire by mankind, can thus be connected to the myth of Pandora’s box. The Experiment is akin to Pandora, the first “beautiful evil” bringing suffering and death to mankind.

According to the myth, only hope remained in Pandora’s box after its opening, once all the evils had left to plague the world. It could be argued that Laura represents the hope in question, as she is brought to life by the Fireman as a positive force to counterbalance the dark influence of Joudy and BOB. One could also see her as an inverted Pandora’s box of sorts, kept tightly closed until the very end of the series, at which point she releases the electromagnetic power of her shriek against Joudy – not after a hiccup, like the Experiment, but after the realisation that the electric fire inside the Palmer’s house is akin to the nuclear fire released by the 1945 bomb test. Her shriek has the desired effect, as it wipes out the fire in question, the one stolen from the Gods.

But let’s rewind the tape a bit. Right before the Experiment releases its legion of evil eggs into space, a long sequence in part 8 takes place near the convenience store and its swarm of soot-covered Woodsmen. The store disappears behind a thick cloud of smoke, a cloud that will only grow denser when Mr. C visits the place in part 15, on his way to the Dutchman’s. This refers of course to the Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost ship that was said to never make port, doomed to sail the open sea forever, and the sight of which was a portent of doom. This superstition originated in the region of the Cape, in South Africa, and resulted in several important works of art, such as Heinrich Heine’s Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (1833) or Richard Wagner’s opera Der Fliegende Höllander (1843), among others.

The depiction of the ship in painting tends to insist on its transparent, ghost-like nature, as well as on the fact that it usually appears (and disappears) among a sea of clouds. There is thus very good reason to think of the convenience store and its Woodsmen as a parallel to the Dutchman’s ship and crew. The store sails the oceans of reality as a ship of sorts, escaping into the mist as soon as its deed is done.

Of course, the Woodsmen are not sea pirates, but their overall look is reminiscent of the sort of ghosts one can expect on a ship such as the Dutchman’s.

The two aforementioned myths, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman, collide in a little jewel of a film, often forgotten today, directed by Albert Lewin in 1951: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

Ava Gardner plays Pandora in that movie in which the Flying Dutchman (James Mason) is a man, not a ship. This is closer to Heinrich Heine’s work, in which the Dutchman is cursed to roam the seas eternally. Nonetheless, every seven years, he is allowed ashore for a while to search for a woman ready to die for him out of love. If he were to meet such a woman, the curse would be lifted and his eternal drifting would come to an end. Set on the Mediterranean coast of 1930’s Spain, the film beautifully mixes both legends – just as in Twin Peaks: The Return.

The appearance of the Dutchman is preceded by a scene in which Pandora, deeply dissatisfied with her life and sowing chaos in her wake, agrees to marry one of her suitors if he drops his race car into the sea off a cliff. The fall generates a splash reminiscent of the nuclear mushroom from part 8. In both cases, human technology (the bomb/the car) is what leads to explosion in close connection with the release of various evils by Pandora/the Experiment.

It is only after this outburst of technological violence in nature that Pandora first sees the ship of the Dutchman’s and feels strangely attracted by it. She leaves her clothes on the beach and swims to the ship, where she meets its captain in front of a canvas, where he is busily painting the portrait of a woman who looks just like her. He refuses to explain how he managed to paint such a portrait, and she forces him to change the face of its subject – he replaces it by “the original egg”, something that resonates strongly with what takes place in part 8, the Experiment releasing its eggs while swimming naked in an ocean of darkness after the explosion in New Mexico.

The correspondences between the film and part 8 go even further. The seaside Spanish town in which the action takes place is overlooked by the mansion of the story’s narrator, an older archaeologist keeping a constant watch thanks to his telescope over the events taking place down by the sea, like a demiurge of sorts. His house is located close to a church with a huge bell and he is busy translating a journal written by the Flying Dutchman. Because of these elements, one can connect him with the figure of the Fireman who, similarly, does not hesitate to look directly at the audience, breaking the fourth wall.

The focus on the notion of time in the film, as well as the fact that Pandora appears to be a reincarnation of a former self (think Laura and Carrie), strengthen the connection with The Return. The Flying Dutchman himself (Cooper?) is of course a famous “returner”, coming back ashore every seven years to find the perfect woman, the one that might save him from his eternal curse.

Because of all these links, but also because of its intrinsic qualities, one should watch Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, excellently filmed and constructed, with beautiful acting and scenery. Time and time again.

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