Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me ★★★★½

Watched for the fifth time tonight, first on 35mm. Thought I'd post this article I wrote on the film for the Village Voice many years ago. 

Few films lend themselves to critical reevaluation as well as David Lynch’s much-maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Booed vehemently after its premiere at the Cannes film festival in 1992, practically eviscerated by the popular press during its brief theatrical run later that year, and remembered now with as much bafflement as contempt, the film’s reception and legacy might best be characterized by the infamous words of sworn Lynch defender Quentin Tarantino: “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie”. 

In a sense, it’s not hard to understand the pervasive and enduring distaste. Fire Walk With Me is deliberately oblique and difficult, even by Lynch standards, asking questions without answers and providing clues to no mystery. Its narrative is split cleanly in two, seemingly without reason, a division introduced when our hero is apparently swallowed up by a gaping hole in the center of the picture (a hole he finds beneath a parked RV in America’s least inviting trailer park, naturally). Most gallingly, especially for audiences circa ‘92, the film purports to be a prequel to perhaps the most beloved cult television series of the decade, though in truth it’s more interested in systematically dismantling the mythos and iconography of Twin Peaks than in pandering to the show’s dedicated fanbase with a bit of much-needed backstory like some feature-length trip down TV-memory lane. The film is alarmingly dark. It isn’t especially funny, or quirky, or even much in keeping with the spirit of the series. But in its own singular, deeply strange way, Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s masterpiece.

It helps to think about genre. Like the series, the film plays in pastiche: adopting conventions from the police procedural, daytime soap operas, post-war noir, and the 1950s melodrama, Fire Walk With Me is a postmodern hybrid in flux, its style ever-drifting and its formal makeup a composite of self-conscious cliches. The purpose of all this appropriation, however, isn’t merely to ironize conspicuously outmoded forms or mock exaggerated tropes—as it is in the work of the Coen brothers, to take one vaunted case—but, on the contrary, to embrace those antiquated modes and deploy those old-fashioned tropes in earnest. The film uses melodrama, in particular, to effectively replicate the function and goal of the genre: targeting the veneer of sanctity in the middle-class American home and exposing its hypocrisy and corruption. 

If Fire Walks With Me seems like a nightmare, it’s the same one reflected in James Mason’s descent into suburban madness in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. And what’s scary is that the nightmare is real. Fantasy was always a central, if only implied, component of the classical melodrama, animating the social aspirations and wish-fulfillment of a rising class founded on subjugation and fear. The melodrama sought to undermine the contradictions inherent in an imagined Good Life, its stories essentially bourgeois dreams inflated to grotesque proportions. Lynch has worked with this sort of material before. His early coup Blue Velvet, devised as a kind of distorted TV soap, dug up the sordid secrets lurking just beneath a small town’s placid veneer, suggesting that all good things have a dark side. But Fire Walk With Me taps into something considerably more terrifying: not only the evil buried somewhere in the quintessential middle-class family, but the evil buried somewhere in all of us. The point of Fire Walk With Me isn’t that there are evil people in the world—it’s that we all have the capacity for evil. 

Admirers of Twin Peaks were no doubt disillusioned by this uncharacteristic shift toward cynicism. But an important part of what makes Fire Walk With Me so arresting is how it simultaneously reflects and differs from the series. Its intention, far from filling out a story or answering lingering questions, is to restore a sort of innocence lost, commendably endowing the show’s principal victim, Laura Palmer, with a voice with which to speak for herself. Twin Peaks was defined, more than anything else, by Laura’s pointed absence; Fire Walk With Me is defined by her presence, vivid and terrified and alone. The film offers us an opportunity to experience first-hand a character who had existed through the series only as a recreated fantasy, an imagined emblem of innocence and suffering who, like Preminger’s Laura, could only be obsessed over in death. In doing so, the film suggests that the pain endured in her life was more important than the intrigue surrounding her death, and we instead come to know not the mystery of what happened but the tragedy of why it did. 

And so Laura is present in a film about loss. "For a long time you wouldn't feel anything", she says, describing what it might be like to fall through space. "Then you'd burst into fire forever. And the angels wouldn't help you, because all of the angels are gone." Though we do occasionally catch glimpses of those who would try to help her—most of whom, like Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Mclaughlin), can only do so after she’s gone—Laura’s sense of resignation is basically correct. Her fate is sealed. Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to a series whose very concept is the death of the film’s hero, which makes its ending a done deal before it even begins. Instead of a struggle against death, Laura’s journey here is one of realization and, finally, resignation, not only of what will become of her by the film’s end but of what she’s been enduring her entire life—her seduction and abuse at the hands of her father, Leland. Because we know Laura's fate, there can be no sense of tension throughout, not even in the climax; there is no fight to see if good will prevail. Instead of suspense, we're left only with sadness: the film becomes the memorialization of a tragedy already confirmed. 

Fire Walk With Me takes the show's loose cluster of supernatural phenomena and reconfigures them as a vulnerable mind's imagined demons, a coping strategy for trauma. If the series is about hunting a literal demon—BOB, a grey-haired man who is said to “possess” Leland Palmer—the film is about realizing that the demon is real. Though in a way it was its bread and butter, the series ultimately suffered, emotionally, by "explaining away" the trauma of Laura's death and by assigning Leland's evil to his demonic alter ego. But the film returns us from fantasy to reality, reasserting the evil in the man himself: Laura's death at the hands of her father thus becomes a tragedy localized in a recognizable world rather than one happening in the fantasy of fiction. The fantasy becomes figural. A history of sexual abuse becomes real.

Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole) is the central element of the film's first half: Cole (Lynch)'s "mother's sister's girl", offering deliberately inscrutable signs for the pleasure of our confusion. It's Lynch's way of signaling that there will be no easy answers: we're about to witness a tragedy unfold without explanation, horrors happening that we can't justify or explain. Laura's world is morally confused, and Lynch presents it as basically illegible: the only way we can see through to the truth of the matter is by articulating it in code, shrouding it in fantasy and mystery and conspiratorial intrigue. It’s why the film seems, at times, like a puzzle. The contrasting halves of the film's bifurcated narrative find two worlds crashing together, the first a plane of frustrated desire and inscrutable mystery, the second a void into which a young woman is swallowed up. The procedural elements of the first are fundamentally disconnected from the tragedy of the second, suggesting that, in the final estimation, we can't really on institutions to protect us. They're solving the wrong case.

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