Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at 20

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at 20

by Tony Dayoub

Months before Twin Peaks' national TV premiere on ABC, its pilot debuted at the Miami Film Festival, where one reviewer correctly predicted its ultimate fate:
...the series may lay an egg on television because of its drawn-out and deliberate pacing, brutality, sex with violence and a hint of something else... something deadly, yet unseen and probably repulsive.
True enough in the long term. But short term, its first 6-episode season—in which FBI Special Agent Dale B. Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) comes to town to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)—managed to enthrall the nation. The season finale, a cliffhanger in which Cooper is shot in the chest at point blank range by an unseen assailant, was sufficiently newsworthy to prompt Saturday Night Live to invite Maclachlan to host the show's 16th season premiere and propel the show's co-creator, David Lynch, onto the cover of Time magazine in anticipation of Peaks' 2nd season premiere. What are the chances either of those occurrences might ever happen again?

Disappointed by the fact that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost seemed determined to avoid ever revealing the identity of Laura's killer, audiences abandoned the show in droves. What they ended up missing was a deliberate but horrifying march to the big reveal—that Laura's dad Leland (Ray Wise), inhabited by a supernatural entity known as BOB (Frank Silva), had molested and killed his daughter. In a protracted and brutal scene—one of the most horrifying ever played out on network TV—Leland/BOB toys with his relatively innocent niece Maddie (also Lee), a lookalike of Laura's, before dispatching her. The series lost its way for a bit in the remainder of the season. If you stuck with it, as I did, then you were probably one of those loyal fans who cared less about the Laura mystery than you did about the quirky, Bizarro Mayberry that the characters and setting represented. (So enamored was I with the show, that I once made a pilgrimage to Snoqualmie, Washington, where many of the show's exteriors were shot, in order to take it in firsthand. It did not disappoint.) Too late to avoid cancellation, the show found its footing again in its final episodes, with the introduction of a love interest for Cooper, Annie (Heather Graham), a woman who he literally sacrifices his soul for. The series ended with BOB taking possession of Cooper as the real Cooper remains trapped forever in a supernatural plane known as the Black Lodge.

For months afterward, idle speculation filled the pages of fanzines (like the dearly departed Wrapped in Plastic): might ABC make a TV-movie to tie up the show's loose ends? The cast—veterans and newbies alike, who counted the series as among the best professional experiences they'd ever had—seemed game. The usually reticent Lynch was also itching to return to Twin Peaks.The speculation was soon replaced by rumors of Lynch returning with cast (down to nearly every actor) and crew to Snoqualmie. No one ever expected it to return in the manner in which it did, as a theatrical motion picture. Would it finally bring some resolution for Cooper and his fans?

No, as it turned out. Maclachlan minimized his involvement in the film because he disagreed with the direction Lynch had taken. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (FWWM) would focus on the last week of Laura Palmer's life. What must an obsessive Twin Peaks fan have made of its cinematic prequel when it first opened in theaters, exactly 20 years ago today? Well, I can tell you, because I was that fan. I remember the experience vividly, because Hurricane Andrew had hit us a week earlier. We had already done all of the heavy lifting, as it were, cleaning up debris both at home and at work (the University of Miami during freshman move-in week as it turned out). But power had still not returned, so I was climbing the walls. Despite the fact that the Miracle Center 10 still hadn't restored a/c, and the only thing they were serving was bottled water, a screening of the harrowing FWWM was still a potential respite for this bored Miamian.

My first impressions were that FWWM was a failure. It's a full half-hour before we see any of the characters we're familiar with (save for the director himself reprising his character of the nearly deaf FBI Bureau chief, Gordon Cole). In this half-hour we meet another FBI agent, Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his sidekick, Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), both investigating the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) in Deer Meadow, a town near Twin Peaks. After Desmond mysteriously disappears, Cooper briefly takes over, but with no further victims to look into the investigation stalls. Cut to Laura Palmer and the town of Twin Peaks, where Lynch seems to be retreading ground covered (if not necessarily seen) in the series. He establishes Laura's relationships with the various town denizens: timid best friend Donna (Moira Kelly replacing Lara Flynn Boyle), quarterback boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), biker and secret boyfriend James (James Marshall), etc. At first glance, Lynch seems to merely illustrate the events leading up to her murder, even if he occasionally layers in some non-sequiturs like high school students inexplicably dancing on the lawn behind Laura and Bobby. (Viewed chronologically, it at least explains why one background kid breakdances to class in the show's pilot).

But in retrospect, there is definitely more at work here. The Deer Meadow sequence, a sort of anti-Twin Peaks that somehow still retains the humorous hallmarks of the series, sets up a "banality of evil" theme by subverting our expectations in a method opposite to the way Lynch had done with his pilot a few years earlier. Where Twin Peaks Sheriff Harry S. Truman is open to cooperating with Cooper in the Laura Palmer investigation, Deer Meadow's Sheriff Cable (Gary Bullock) refuses to help, going so far as to threaten the Agent Desmond's life for fear that he might uncover Cable's corrupt drug-running scheme. Deer Meadow's local diner, Hap's, and its proprietress, are the antithesis of the Double RR Dinner and its owner, Norma: smoke-filled, desolate, and with occasional electrical surges that not only tie it to Twin Peaks' pilot (morgue scene) but other Lynch films (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and others) in which such surges represent bad omens. At the conclusion of the Deer Meadow storyline we know no more about Banks than we did before.

Cooper then comes into the picture, spiritually attuned to some of the strange circumstances surrounding Banks' murder in a way that Desmond isn't. In fact, there is a flareup of supernatural occurrences during this brief Cooper sequence, a nod to the series. Cooper and his FBI pals witness the brief return of another agent (David Bowie) who had disappeared long ago. Viewers are reacquainted with the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) and BOB in a brief glimpse into what is presumably the Black Lodge. But after momentarily gratifying fans of the show, Lynch mostly closes the door on this, affirming his intention to reimpose his original vision of Twin Peaks as depicted in its pilot, that of a sweet town not unlike Blue Velvet's Lumberton, in which an all too human undercurrent of evil runs beneath the town's innocent facade.

Far from the evil, supernatural spirit BOB is depicted as in the series, Lynch presents him as more of an imagined mask Laura projects onto her father, Leland, in an attempt for her to cope with his incestuous night visits by moving the blame onto someone or something else. In the series, Leland was a relatively good-hearted man who BOB had possessed as a child, absolved by the saintly Cooper as he lays dying. In FWWM, Leland is a monster who hides behind Laura's projection of BOB in order to murder those that witness the true horror he is capable of. Lynch reveals that Leland not only murdered Banks but that he knew her well. He conducted an affair with her for a time before Banks attempts to extort him after she finds out that her associate, Laura (a connection never before established), is his daughter. Leland eliminates the threat Banks represents, but becomes fascinated with the double life he learns his daughter is leading. Recognizing a kindred spirit, he comes on to her more vigorously. Despite some odd histrionics played out over the dinner table (reminiscent of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life) over clean finger nails, Laura continues to live in denial that it is her father who molests her. Even after witnessing Leland exit their house after a moment where the the only person she spied at home was BOB, it is only later in the film in an irrefutable moment in when BOB lays between her legs that she allows herself to see Leland as the monster who stole her innocence. I've always imagined that for viewers unfamiliar with the show, this climax is as shocking as the scene where Leland murdered Maddie. It's a scene that recasts the entire series in a different light.

Perhaps the most telling scene in the film is its opening, in which a slow zoom-out from a TV set ends with a club crashing down upon it. Lynch constantly thwarts any attempts to appease the shows fans and their questions about Cooper and Annie's ultimate fates while still reminding them that those loose ends are still dangling in a dream of Laura's midway through the film. Twenty years later, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me holds up far better than it did so soon after the series had been cancelled. FWWM is a pivot point in Lynch's career where the director first moved away from centering on male protagonists—such as Jeffrey in Blue Velvet and Sailor in Wild at Heart—and looked forward to focusing on female protagonists such as Mulholland Drive's Betty and Inland Empire's Nikki, women whose mental state—like Laura's—slowly unravels, their hallucinatory contents splayed onscreen for Lynch to pick through.


Joel Bocko said...

Nice to see you take this on in a full piece. I think the film is brilliant both as a subversion of the series and a stand-alone film (although I guess it's hard to judge it that way, since I saw the series first; however, I have heard from people who saw the movie before the show, and loved it).

It's ultimately a bit apples/oranges to compare show and film, but personally I find the film a more satisfying experience - if also way a far more wrenching one (I've only managed to watch it once, that first time when I wrote my review 4 years ago).

I like the fact that it confronts and upsets the viewer with what, in the series, essentially remains a winking tease. Some magazine printed an article around the time of the Twin Peaks premiere coyly titled "Dead Girls We Love" or something to that effect.

They could get away with this when dealing with the show, where not only Laura's body but the circumstances surrounding her death (at least until that brutal Maddie murder) are "wrapped in plastic." But they could never get away with it vis a vis the film, a frank, deeply disturbing depiction of incest.

That video viewing a few years back remains one of the most searing cinematic experiences I've ever had. A great movie.

Unknown said...

Excellent look back at this much-maligned masterpiece. I don't think people much less TWIN PEAKS fans were ready for FWWM when it first came out and pretty much all the good will he garnered from the show was pretty much gun and the critics' knives were out.

For me, this contends with BLUE VELVET as Lynch's best film. Such a powerful assault on the senses with some truly mesmerizing visuals and Lynch's trademark complex soundscape, both of which culminate in the bizarro trip to that Canadian roadhouse complete with droning industrial country music. Great stuff.

It's a shame that the film did so poorly that Lynch was unable to make a follow-up film and so we are left with poor Coop forever trapped in the Lodge.

Franco Macabro said...

To me this is the most twisted David Lynch's just so CRAZY! And dark! And it seems like theres no light at the end of the tunnel...ever, but I love it.

John said...

Thanks for this great review and for the kind mention of "Wrapped in Plastic." I've always believed that FWWM would be better appreciated as the years went by. Careful study of the film reveals that it is far more cohesive than it first appears. (That Deer Meadow sequence resonates quite strongly throughout the film.) There are fascinating--but solvable--puzzles there. What's more, I believe Lynch intended the movie not as prequel or sequel but as reintroduction to the series as a whole. (As if to say, "Now, go re-watch the series with all these new ideas in mind.") Great stuff, indeed. I think I'll have to go watch it yet again!

-- John