Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

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Time for one last greeting from Twin Peaks. Sorry it's taken so long to get around to this. I never intended the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to be the TV Club's Chinese Democracy but I kept getting busy with other projects and then there was a vacation in there somewhere, as distant as that already seems. Something else held me up, too. I wasn't exactly looking forward to revisiting FWWM, a film that disappointed me when I first saw it in 1992 and didn't improve for me upon watching it on DVD a couple of years ago. But maybe I was wrong. I didn't care for Lynch's Lost Highway the first time through, but when I watched it again this year for a DVD review it looked like a near-masterpiece to me. So I'd love to report that I came back from FWWM with a similar reaction, that I finally saw it, as its admirers do, as an eerie coda that deepens the mystery of the series while working as a film on its own terms.
Can't do it. Watching it yesterday I again found it pointless at best and sadistic at worst. My deepest disappointment remains unchanged since '92: It's a prequel, backtracking to the beginning of the Twin Peaks story when we want to know what happens next. And so we see the murder of Theresa Banks, visit some new-to-us FBI agents played by Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland, and learn a bit more of Leland's backstory (most notably a thwarted four-way involving his daughter, Banks, and the ever-suffering Ronette Pulaski). But the bulk of the movie is spent watching Laura spend her final week falling apart, getting humiliated, raped by her own father, and finally murdered. Wheee!
That's the film's biggest problem for a couple of reasons. It's no knock against the acting of Sheryl Lee, who commits fully to the part here and served memorably as Maddy in the series, to say that Laura Palmer is a lot more interesting dead than alive. As a corpse she's a cipher on to which the town can project all its hopes and fears. As a living, breathing, troubled girl she's only that. Twin Peaks the series used abuse and incest as elements of a larger story about the presence of evil in everyday life. By committing to telling the story of Laura's death in all its graphic detail, FWWM has to deal with the brutal realities of the subjects.
On those terms I don't think it works. With a few notable exceptions like The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, Lynch is a director most comfortable when getting at human emotions through indirect means, using the raw material of thrillers combined with bizarre images, and disorienting soundscapes as a way into some tortured psyches. Here, with the subject bluntly established upfront for anyone who watched the show, those same approaches seem exploitative in a way his other films never do. We know where poor Laura is headed and turning the long journey down with her into a horror show feels creepy in all the wrong ways and a fairly callous way to portray incest.
On this last point I'll confess I might be entirely off base. Lee has said that victims of incest have thanked her for the film. Also, the biggest FWWM fan I ever encountered told me within minutes of first meeting me that she liked the movie because it was like her life. Whether it's too insensitive or not might not be for someone removed from the subject to say, I guess.
I don't think the film's a total dog. Apart from an early scene with "Lil," which is Lynch at his cryptic-for-the-sake-of-being-cryptic worst, I like the opening sequence with Isaak and Sutherland investigating the Banks' murder. (If nothing else I like Harry Dean Stanton offering them a cup of "good morning America.") And there's something really disconcerting about the visit from long-missing Special Agent David Bowie. Later, Lynch creates some striking sequences that work on their own–a trip to strobe-lit bar by Laura and "Donna" (more on "Donna" in a moment), a journey inside the Black Lodge via an endless procession of doors–but even these aren't as successful as their equivalent moments in the series. It may be best considered as a Lynch movie rather than an extension of the show, but if so it's certainly the worst film of his career.
And as an extension of the show it doesn't work at all. The town of Twin Peaks feels weirdly underpopulated. Many key characters are missing either because their scenes were cut or the actors chose not to participate. With Lara Flynn Boyle opting out, Lynch recast Donna, swapping in the forever inadequate Moira Kelly. The scenes of Coop in the Black Lodge and a cameo from Heather Graham as a bloodied up Annie instructing Laura that, "The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can't leave. Write it in your diary," at least provides some clue as to what would have come.
But it's just a clue, housed in over two largely miserable hours that are all promise and no delivery. And yet, at the end of the Twin Peaks line it's all we have. Thus the film has become a fetish object in some circles. When I saw a Q&A; with Lynch, questions abounded about the possible release of a director's cut. (He, as ever, hid behind a veil of naiveté.) Tales abound of initial five hour cuts and anyone wanting to know more than they could ever wish about the never-released deleted material should start here and fan out.
Is there a holy grail to be reconstructed from this material? I really doubt it. It's a movie really only for those who want to find just how bitter the end of this brilliant series can be.
Grade: C-
But let's not close on that. I opened this blog series with a personal reflection so I may as well end it that way. It's been a great pleasure revisiting Twin Peaks with all of you. Watching it when it first aired was formative for me and though years passed without me revisiting the series I felt the series never left me. It might have been the right show at the right time for me. Watching it brought Lynch into a personal pantheon that then included R.E.M., Alan Moore, and David Bowie and while I've gone through periods when I've thought each had nothing left to say to me, I've found that the stuff that gets under your skin at 17 never really leaves it.
Still, there's something about Peaks in particular that remains haunting. I suspect that most of you reading this now feel the same way, whether you first watched in 1990 or 2008. It offers a vision of America at its best and worst presented via a strong, odd sensibility that's been much-imitated but never duplicated. It's a vision that's hard to shake. Wander into a small-town diner or a room with fluorescents on the fritz and try not to think of it. Try not to recall of Laura the next time you hear of a young woman cut down in her prime. Or, more insidious still, find a particularly fine slice of pie and some damn good coffee and enjoy it without flashing on Coop's wholehearted appreciation of the same. Like a spirit out of the Black Lodge, the series keeps finding ways to slip into the real world.