A Lynchian Lens on NH

Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony honors the “Twin Peaks” director

Vast, fog-drenched mountaintops that lead you to wonder what might lurk beneath the evergreens’ shade. A diner where intrigue flows as freely as the coffee and homemade pie is always served with a side of local gossip. An inability to shake those nagging questions about what your neighbors might be hiding, no matter how genial they might appear on the sidewalk.

Newly revived cult classic “Twin Peaks” takes place thousands of miles away, in a fictional corner of the Pacific Northwest, and weaves a surreal — often sinister — tale of mystery and murder. But Granite Staters (or anyone familiar with the kind of dynamics that come with life in a just-off-the-beaten-path community) are likely to recognize at least some of the underlying tropes in David Lynch’s iconic crime drama.

“The totality of Lynch’s work has been to critique and satirize a kind of Norman Rockwell or View-Master America, a kind of quaintness that perhaps coalesced and was [first conceived of] in the ’40s and ’50s after the war,” observes Josh Siegel, film curator with the Museum of Modern Art. He adds that today there still exists nostalgia for a folksy American past that never truly existed.

Oddly fitting, then, that Lynch’s commentary on that vision of small-town America is precisely what’s bringing him to be recognized in one of the most idyllic corners of New Hampshire.

The director — whose work beyond “Twin Peaks” includes such films as “The Elephant Man” (1980) and “Mulholland Drive” (2001) — is this year’s recipient of the MacDowell Medal, awarded annually by the Peterborough-based arts colony of the same name.

The list of MacDowell medalists honored at this event doubles as a who’s-who of American cultural icons for the last half-century — from Toni Morrison to Georgia O’Keeffe to Stephen Sondheim. The inaugural MacDowell Medal went to Thornton Wilder, whose Pulitzer-winning play “Our Town” was famously rooted in New Hampshire and, like Lynch, mused on what lay beneath the wholesome surface of small towns, albeit in a much different light.

Siegel, a MacDowell board member who helped to select Lynch as this year’s choice, says it’s difficult to pick one — or even several — favorites among past recipients. However, he says, there is one thread that ties the group together, across novels and musicals and movies and essays and plays: Each MacDowell honoree is “an artist or a writer who has so deeply affected American culture that his or her work is instantly recognizable.”

With that in mind, and the “Twin Peaks” revival, Lynch was an easy choice. “We give certain adjectives to films like ‘Hitchcockian,’ now we have ‘Lynchian,’” says Siegel. “When we think of ‘Lynchian,’ we think of this strange and intense mix of the erotic, the violent and the comical.”

What’s more, he adds, “At this particular moment, David Lynch seems to be speaking to some of the more unsettling aspects of American life” — and that we’re still talking about his work decades after it debuted “says a lot about where we find ourselves.”

While flocks of fans have spent the summer devouring the show’s latest installments, Siegel forced himself to start back at the beginning. He’s rewatching the original television seasons, and Lynch’s accompanying 1992 film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” “to see if I can get my mind around his puzzleness.” (“Which is probably a fool’s task,” he added.)

If you, too, are looking to wrap your mind around Lynch’s peculiar on-screen puzzles, or just want to enjoy an afternoon celebrating world-renowned arts and culture on a lawn in Peterborough, mark your calendars for August 13.

Lynch himself likely won’t be on hand for this year’s MacDowell medal ceremony, but plenty of other notable names will be there to muse on his legacy in filmmaking and culture — including MacDowell chairman and author Michael Chabon, as well as journalist and Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna.