by Tony Dayoub
This is the second post in a four-part series. Catch up on part one here.
I was not one of those fans who felt that the show quickly “descended into camp,” as you put it, with the resolution of who killed Laura Palmer. Like Special Agent Dale B. Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), I was so in love with the town and its denizens that I relished any tangent from the relatively straight line David Lynch and Mark Frost had so far led us along. Remember, Lynch and Frost had never meant to resolve the mystery, hoping instead to use it as a backdrop for spinning off other storylines, like a traditional soap. Sometimes, these tangents went nowhere, or at least nowhere of interest–most notoriously in the very noirish storyline where James Hurley (James Marshall) is seduced by a femme fatale and set up for her husband’s murder. Other times, I was as delighted as the show intended viewers to be, no matter how silly the subplot (yes, I admit that I adored the inane romance between Lana and Mayor Milford). Staunch supporter that I was, I enjoyed how sprawling and diffuse the show’s mythology had grown–Black and White Lodges, Bookhouses, dwarves, giants, owls and all.
As word started going around its fan community that Lynch was mounting a feature film version starring most of its cast, my only fear was that it would simply button up a lot of cliffhangers with little time to expand on this universe I was so drawn to. I was surprised to discover that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me would in fact be a prequel to the series. And obstinately so. Lynch reportedly included most of the show’s cast in one to two hours of footage ultimately excised from the final cut. The final film spent an hour-and-45-minutes covering Laura’s final week alive, preceded by a half-hour prologue focusing on the mystery of the Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) murder in Deer Meadow, starring a whole new cast (save for David Lynch’s own Gordon Cole) of previously unseen players.
Perhaps more than Fire Walk with Me’s relentlessly grim tone, it was the inordinate amount of time spent in Deer Meadow that irked fans the most. Fans had waited over a year to find out what had happened to Cooper (trapped in another plane of existence at the end of the show), Audrey Horne (caught in an explosion at a local bank), and many others. Lynch not only refused to answer those questions or revisit those characters, he traveled back to a time before the series and spent a half hour on Teresa Banks, whose only apparent link to Laura was that she was murdered by the supernatural BOB (Frank Silva). It nagged me that whenever I would revisit Fire Walk with Me, I was unfailingly drawn to this chapter and to the enigmatic Teresa Banks. As I grew into a more discerning viewer it became apparent that the Teresa Banks chapter is essential to the Laura Palmer story–it’s like a Rosetta stone that unlocks Lynch’s dramatic intentions for Fire Walk with Me.
I was taken with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s characterization of the series in an April 1990 article for the Chicago Reader, called “Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks,” in which he says, “What emerges in the pilot is a kind of ongoing working arrangement between bourgeois surrealism and conventional narrative–a relationship that probably reflects to some degree the collaboration between Lynch and veteran TV writer Frost.” Earlier in the piece, Rosenbaum explains, “If a fluorescent light splutters over Laura’s corpse in the morgue, creating a typically Lynchian visual and rhythmic pattern, there’s a line of dialogue by an attendant (‘I think it’s a bad transformer’) that serves to account for it.” Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was decidedly not that kind of film, probably because of Mark Frost’s absence from the project. What emerges is the idea that perhaps it was Frost who was most responsible for the show’s zanier humor, its overtly noirish elements, and its fetishizing of coffee culture symbolism. Much of that is absent from Fire Walk with Me and may account for what initially turned off its most diehard fans, myself included.
As you say, Twin Peaks’ popularity seemed to wane as the theme of incest became more prominent. Despite Lynch’s refusal to fully part ways with its more surreal aspects–the red-curtained Lodge, the tiny Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), BOB, etc.–Fire Walk with Me is even more adamant that Laura’s killer is her father Leland (Ray Wise) and that incest played a large part in the formation of her twisted double life. In the series, the intertwining of the BOB apparition with Leland effectively absolved him. By attributing it to a demonic possession, one is able to morally justify (not condone) Leland’s horrific grooming of Laura for a life filled with sexual perversity. In the series, even when we see Leland kill Laura’s cousin Maddy, BOB’s intermittent onscreen presence more explicitly expresses a sado-masochistic sexual impulse than whenever Lynch cuts back to Leland. Fire Walk with Me does just the opposite. Instead of revealing Leland to be BOB, it reveals BOB, a sort of spiritual straw man, to be Leland. First, in a scene in which Laura walks into her bedroom and sees BOB lurking inside. Terrified, she runs outside and hides in the bushes, only to see her dad emerge from the house. More disturbing is the film’s final, unmistakable revelation, when BOB sneaks into her room to rape her, and Laura (who is likely drugged) finally realizes her assailant is really Leland.
Lynch makes Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a corrective to the series. The horror that could once be explained away by the show’s more surreal elements becomes more mundane. And much of the groundwork for this is laid in the Deer Meadow chapter. Of all the film’s sequences, it is the one whose rhythms hew most closely to those of the series, with an intuitive investigator sent into a small Northwestern town to investigate the murder of a young woman. But everything is askew if not downright topsy-turvy. Our FBI investigator Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) is laidback where Cooper is straitlaced. His forensics sidekick Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) is dim where Cooper’s, Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer), is sharp, and sharp-tongued, to a fault. The local constabulary is as uncooperative and shady as Twin Peaks’ is upright and forthcoming. Teresa Banks herself is a shadow of Laura Palmer. Pretty yes, but a drifter with no family or friends whose only apparent job was as a waitress, not the family-oriented homecoming queen Laura appeared to be on the surface. There is a sense that Banks’ murder is as banal as Laura’s is conspicuous, and that Banks’ death will be forgotten. The Deer Meadow sequence grounds the Twin Peaks mythos by presenting a grayer, more commonplace version of murder that resembles real life more than Laura Palmer’s sensational killing does.
Most significantly, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me reveals a piece of information withheld from the series. Even Agent Cooper never figured out that Teresa and Laura knew each other. But the movie reveals that both were prostitutes for the same pimp, Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz). More importantly, Teresa sleeps with Laura’s father Leland. In one scene, while in the throes of passion, he creepily says, “Teresa Banks, you look just like my Laura.” He later tells her, “Next time, let’s party with those girlfriends you told me about.” When Leland shows up for that rendezvous, he realizes one of Teresa’s friends is Laura and cuts out before she sees him. Teresa see how shaken he is by the encounter and realizes that her girlfriend Laura is Leland’s Laura.
It’s no wonder that fans of the series were disturbed and frustrated by Fire Walk with Me. With this film, Lynch pivots toward the more real-life elements that might have motivated Leland’s serial murders, his desire to cover up his philandering, his deplorable incestuous relationship with his daughter, and a need to hide any linkage between the two. It’s a turn back to the kind of film Lynch has always preferred making, one in which the ordinary surface merely serves as a façade for something more disturbing roiling underneath. Fire Walk with Me also serves as a pivot point in his filmography, one which would lead to more films with female protagonists and a greater, more fluid integration between the disturbingly real and the surreal.
Joel, were you surprised by the way Fire Walk with Me reframed some of the events surrounding Laura’s murder? What are some of the stylistic elements Lynch took from Fire Walk with Me to his subsequent films? How significant do you believe the differences between the series and the film are to understanding Lynch as a filmmaker?
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