David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.
After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.
The question of “necessity” often comes up with Fire Walk with Me, Lynch’s cinematic prequel to the series. There were a lot of fans who were puzzled by Lynch’s decision to go back in time and investigate the last seven days of Laura Palmer, instead of resolving the cliffhanger of the series involving Agent Cooper (about to be resolved very soon). There is a conflict at the center of the film as to whether Laura should have remained a mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks or not, along with the fact that a lot of the events in the film were told by ways of exposition in the series. The steep decline in popularity and viewership during the show’s problematic 2nd season also did Lynch no favours, and it seems like no surprise at all in retrospect that Fire Walk with Me was received with an unmatched hostility during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, with Quentin Tarantino proclaiming that “Lynch disappeared so far up his own ass he has no desire to watch another David Lynch film” and the film critic Vincent Canby declaring that “Fire Walk With Me isn’t the worst film ever: it just pretends to be, with its 134 minutes inducing a state of simulated brain death.” This was a major disappointment for Lynch, who had indeed taken this reception to heart and who considered the movie to be a fulfillment of a very personal vision, and had prophesized that the movie will be seen in a more favorable light in the years to come. This has partially indeed come true; the BBC film critic celebrity Mark Kermode calls it “a Lynch masterpiece,” and filmmakers like James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant) and Gregg Akari (Mysterious Skin) have all expressed their appreciation for the film. The truth just may lie somewhere in the middle, between the senseless detesting and hyperbolic foaming.
Fire Walk with Me is an important milestone in Lynch’s career, in the sense that the viewer is not stuck anymore as a voyeur, together in the closet with Jeffrey Beaumont, watching the suffering unfold, but is thrown in the midst of that suffering and misery, which may seem overbearing for a lot of people who were used to the humour, light-heartedness and an optimistic side to the series, and even in Lynch’s previous work like Blue Velvet. Lynch is not interested in the light side of things in Fire Walk With Me, and as such, gives another dimension to a victim that started off as an object wrapped in plastic, but is now a fully formed subject, a fully-fledged character that forces the viewer to look deep into the underworld of Twin Peaks which hides incest, abuse and murder.
Even in the odd opening section of the film, which follows FBI agents played by Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland, there is a prevalent sense of coldness and resentment, crystallized in a town called Deer Meadow, which is a grotesque, filthy anti-mirror reflection of Twin Peaks, where everybody is unkind, suspicious, ugly, and completely worn down, throwing the cosiness and hospitality of Twin Peaks right out the window. Unlike the angelic, peaceful body of Laura Palmer, the body of Teresa Banks is malformed and gnarled, giving no escape whatsoever from the fact that this victim was brutally murdered—a microcosm of themes of Fire Walk with Me as opposed to the hypocritical comfort of Twin Peaks the series. It is also no wonder that Fire Walk with Me rather unsubtly begins with the smashing of a TV screen, with Lynch clearly notifying the audience that there are no TV restrictions to be seen here, and that he is going all the way down the rabbit hole of nastiness.
From a technical point of view, Fire Walk with Me features Lynch’s most unsettling sound design: a disharmony of discordant, jarring, hellish, chainsaw-like tones, along with some of his most disturbing hallucinogenic, surreal sequences, leading to conclude that Fire Walk with Me may be the closest Lynch came to making a straight-up horror film, and what a terrifying film it indeed is, especially with BOB, Laura’s torturer, snarling and creeping from the window into the most intimate and private of sanctuaries, namely the bed in a parents’ house. The technical aspect is again commendable in the mesmerizing “Pink Room” sequence, a dazzling, filthy, sleazy personification of Laura’s downward spiral in the world of drugs, whoring and clubbing, accompanied by a catchy Lynch composition The Pink Room and certain camera movements that come very close to a true drug trip. The other sequence that is not for the weak-hearted is the ominous, visceral visit to the demonic spirit land of Twin Peaks, “above the convenience store,” and who is a better guide to such a terrifying place than an insanely disoriented David Bowie with a terrible Southern accent?
This set of essays has on more than one occasion claimed that although Lynch does deal in surreal, bizarre and otherworldly, he is also a very realistic filmmaker in terms of how he portrays human suffering, and human emotion—the constant raw, uneasy, disquieting feel of Fire Walk with Me is likely very close in its disorienting mood to what it feels like being terrorized by somebody who should have been a watchful protector and guardian. This is the biggest accomplishment of Fire Walk with Me, something that makes it crucial and indispensable in the world of Twin Peaks: while the series has glossed over incest and persuaded itself that, after opening the Pandora’s box of child abuse, a topic rarely covered to such an extent in American television, it was acceptable to cheapen it with the stereotypical “demonic possession” angle, namely that Leland Palmer, the father of Laura, was purely a vessel for the boogeyman from the woods to come and possess. Lynch in Fire Walk with Me muddies the waters and makes Leland very much culpable in his crimes, and the fascinating, ambiguous line between where the father ends and the demon begins is much more compelling to analyze. The highlights of the film are precisely in these unbearably intense sequences where the truth starts to unravel for Laura, particularly in the “Wash your hands!” scene, where Leland, played flawlessly by Ray Wise, makes a comment to his wife in reference to his daughter, “How do you know what she likes?!,” likely sending chills down the spine of every viewer who has a beating pulse.
Sheryl Lee’s captivating and fearless performance has grown in stature over the years, and even though there are parts which scream “ACTING!” with her choice of facial expressions, the commitment to the role is worth every respect. The cast and crew that worked on the film have commented on Lee’s ferocious dedication to the role, which undoubtedly took its psychological toll, since the film demands of the lead actress to go to the extraordinary depths of a completely mentally broken victim due to the continuous sexual and psychological abuse. Lee stated that she was approached by many victims of incest after the film was made, and how realistic her portrayal on film truly was (the word “realistic” doesn’t come quite often when discussing a David Lynch film—and maybe it should appear more). It is also interesting to note that the poor reception of the film was not the case in Japan, where the movie had a strong cult following from the beginning. Ray Wise plays the aforementioned ambiguity with a sinister delight, and most of the other actors who return from the series are again comfortable in their roles. Kyle MacLachlan appears sparsely as Cooper (he originally turned down the part, causing rewrites in the prologue and being replaced by Chris Isaak’s role, reducing his screen time even more), but his presence is always welcome, especially in the final scene as a watchful guardian to Laura who finally gets her inner peace.
Yet there are problems with the film. It drags tremendously in the final act, and the endless misery and crying do get to the point where the viewer becomes increasingly numb and distant to the tragedy unfolding on screen. The Christian, angelic iconography in the final scenes of the film—including provoking a silly deus ex machina with the character of Ronette Pulaski, the 2nd abducted victim along with Laura—seems very incongruous with Lynch’s otherwise more equivocal use of historical symbols. Some of the dialogue, especially in the scenes with Laura and her hidden lover James, is flat-out ridiculous, and since Fire Walk with Me plays it completely straight, the “satire of soap-opera” ceases to be a justifiable reason for lines like “I’m a turkey in a corn.” This is where Mark Frost’s consistent and experienced vision is sorely missed (he was more interested in making a sequel, with Lynch then developing the script with Robert Engels). Fire Walk with Me is, therefore, fractured, inconsistent, decaying and messy, just like Laura’s psyche, which may have been the point. One will have to wait for Lynch’s new vision of Twin Peaks to just see how well Fire Walk with Me will fit into the equation, but according to the director, it is essential for the new 18-part series. Enough years have passed since the original poor reception of the film to not be dismissive towards it, especially since it contains some of the most frightening, but also human aspects of Lynch’s filmography. Was it necessary? Some of the most uncomfortable things in life are necessary–maybe that’s exactly how it works in Lynchland as well.
Written by Lovorko Marić
Here’s David Lynch & Robert Engels’ screenplay for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Production still photographer: Lorey Sebastian © New Line Cinema, CiBy 2000, Twin Peaks Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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