Monday, January 25, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

To aggressively analyze and interpret a David Lynch film is to invite agitation. On one hand, many critics suggest the artist's movies are dense and impenetrable; that they are weird just for the sake of weirdness. Therefore, no possible interpretation for what occurs on screen exists, and the interpreter is simply partaking in a wild goose chase. Or worse, being self-indulgent.

Reviewing Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), for instance, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, admitted "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it. To try is to miss the point. What you see is all you get."

Yet, David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. We seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.

Quit Trying to Hold on So Tight...I'm Gone: Laura Palmer as Victim of Incest

David Lynch's films work on different metaphorical layers, and one thematic layer of Fire Walk with Me involves a truly unpleasant topic: incest.

Beautiful Laura Palmer -- the envy of every girl at Twin Peaks high school -- is the victim of incest. She has been the victim of sexual molestation by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), for several years.

Unable to cope with this monstrous reality, Laura's shattered mind has come to visually re-interpret her father's nocturnal bedroom visits as the home invasions of a swarthy stranger, a monster named "Bob."

Laura informs her psychiatrist, Harold ,that "Bob is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." Furthermore, she notes "he comes through my window at night...he's getting to know me. He wants to be me...or he'll kill me."

And sure enough, one day, Laura arrives home from school early and sees Bob prowling around in her bedroom. As if sniffing her out. It's a terrifying scene: we suddenly register the unexpected intruder in a place of safety and comfort, and almost physically blanch at his presence. Scared, Laura runs out of the house, terrified, only to see not the Evil Bob emerge after her...but rather her beloved father, Leland. He is the Monster of Her Id.

In another disturbing scene, Bob slips inside the Palmer house through Laura's window at night. In electric blue moonlight, he seduces her. In the throes of their mutual passion, Laura suddenly sees that the stranger is actually her father, Leland, and nearly goes mad at the revelation. Again, this is the thing she is trying to bury under mountains of cocaine; in alcohol. The betrayal of a trusted loved one.

How does a the typical victim deal with persistent sexual abuse and incest? According to author Ken Chisholm's article on the subject, "Some of the social maladjustments arising from incest are alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and promiscuity." Consider these factors in relationship to Laura Palmer. We already know she is addicted to cocaine. We already know she drinks.

But Laura is also sexually-involved with at least two boyfriends at school: the temperamental Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James-Dean-ish James Hurley (James Marshall). She seems to ping-pong back and forth between them. And, as prescribed above, prostitution is part of Laura's life too. We learn in Fire Walk With Me that (as in the series before...), Laura has been selling her body both at One Eyed Jacks and at the film's sleazy Bang Bang Bar.

In other words, a history and pattern of incest leads to self-destructive behavior on the part of the victim. It leads to the destruction of -- and disassociation from -- the healthy ego. This is also evident in Fire Walk with Me. "Your Laura disappeared," Laura informs James blankly, feeling unworthy and undeserved of his authentic, romantic love. "It's just me now," she explains, feeling ashamed and guilty over her behavior.

At one point, late in the film, even Laura's guardian angel seems to abandon her, vanishing from a painting in her bedroom. It's thus clear that Laura blames herself for her father's behavior, and consequently that she views herself as ugly and corrupted. She isn't the golden girl anymore, she's tarnished.

This self-hatred becomes especially plain during the moment when Laura confides in her psychiatrist Harold about "Bob's" visits.

Suddenly, the film cuts to a nightmarish view of Laura as an ivory white crone; one with alabaster skin, yellowed teeth, scarlet gums and blackened lips. She looks like a terrible, corrupted monster: an outward reflection of her low self-esteem. This is how she sees herself.

Later in the film, we see Leland Palmer -- suffering his own personal hell of guilt and shame -- imagining himself in identical terms, right down to the black lips. This is the form of the bad conscience made manifest.

Those who endure incest and sexual abuse also, over time, may experience night terrors, hallucinations or insomnia. Laura is not immune from these symptoms either. She lives through terrifying nightmares, especially ones that involve a creepy painting. On that painting is rendered a half-open door; and in Laura's dream she mindlessly treads though that door into the evil world of the Black Lodge. A place were "garmonbozia" (pain and suffering) is eaten like creamed corn, and her suffering will provide a feast. She is, literally, the Devil's candy. And she knows it.

Laura is aware that she is a moth driven to the flame (a woman consigned to Hell...) and again and again, Fire Walk With Me brings up the idea of fire in connection to Laura. Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) asks Laura a weird question. "If you fall in outer space, do you think you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?"

Laura's telling answer is that she would go faster and faster...without knowing it, and then spontaneously burn up. No angels could save her...because they're all gone. The world is devoid of angels.

Again, this answer appears to be a metaphor for Laura's increasingly "fast" life (a life made even more jittery and fast by the cocaine): dating two boys; scoring drugs; acting as a prostitute...trying desperately to escape her real life and the sexual abuse.

In the end, however, no matter how fast she goes, Laura will still be consumed by flame; destroyed. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) tells Laura -- in an important, if brief, scene that "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."

Once more, you've got to contextualize this remark in terms of the incest: the act which has made the self-loathing Laura change from golden girl to promiscuous drug abuser and prostitute. In the execution of that bad behavior, the first victim is Laura's innocence...her childhood. The second is her goodness (and now she can't even volunteer to feed the hungry in the meals on wheels program...). The third existence itself. Laura understands this. She realizes she is headed ""

Another frequent quality of incest victims is a protective impulse; an overriding need to save or rescue younger siblings from the life-destroying behavior that has ruined them. In Fire Walk with Me, Donna goes to the Bang Bang Bar with Laura. Donna drinks alcohol, takes drugs, and seduces a john. When Laura witnesses Donna's craven behavior -- the tender boughs of innocence about to burn -- she is roused to act. Unable to save herself, Laura does the next best thing: she rescues naive Donna. Afterwards, Laura warns Donna cryptically "don't wear my stuff," an indication that Donna has "tried on" Laura's lifestyle. But it doesn't fit Donna; and Laura doesn't want Donna to be like her.

There's No Tomorrow; It Will Never Get Here: The Spirit World in Fire Walk With Me

A central question regarding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me involves the rogue's gallery in the Black Lodge. This gallery includes Bob, The (backwards-talking) Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) and the One-Armed Man. They dwell in that sitting room (the velvet-lined room with zig-zag floor). Are they real? Or imaginary? Are they sentient, or symbolic?

Is Leland an all-too "human" sexual abuser? Or is he an unlucky man possessed by an evil spirit? Who do we blame for the incest: the spirit (Bob) or the body (Leland)?

In a sense, it doesn't matter a whit. It is immaterial. When criminals commit terrible acts, they often claim the "devil made them do it," right? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me may suggest a universe of Hell (in the form of the Black Lodge) and Heaven too (in the form or Ronette Pulaski's and Laura's individual guardian angels), but it never suggests that Leland is innocent.

There may be a "monster" cowering inside him; but there is a monster cowering inside all abusers, isn't there? If evil dwells in the human psyche, then it dwells in the human psyche...and we must combat it. Leland never does that. He murders Teresa Banks, and eventually he murders his own daughter, Laura, because he is so consumed of "the evil spirit." That's what makes him a villain.

That really was something with the dancing girl, wasn't it? What exactly did all that mean?

Encoded in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a self-commentary on David Lynch's approach to symbolic story telling.

Early in the film, FBI agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) are tasked by Lynch's deaf FBI chief with the investigation of Teresa's murder. After briefing them in very general terms, Lynch's character then maddeningly introduces the two agents to "Lil" a woman in a red dress wearing a blue rose. He says, in essence, that she represents the case that the men have embarked upon.

Then, in a bewildering moment, the strange Lil dances up to the two agents, grimaces -- revealing a sour face -- and makes a fist.

Then, Lil is never seen or heard from again as a living, breathing, human character. But soon after this scene, Desmond and Stanley interpret her presence. They analyze her facial expressions. They note the color of her dress. They register the presence of the blue rose, and ponder the meaning of her balled fist. On one hand, this is Lynch's oddball humor, acknowledging the Twin Peaks' aficionado's propensity for analyzing every little thing.

But in another sense, Lil -- and Desmond's explanation of Lil -- is the audience's primer to successfully reading or interpreting the figurations of this movie. Following Desmond's example, the viewer is meant to weigh characters and events symbolically. We are supposed to "see" Bob as Laura's "safe" interpretation of her father's criminal, unacceptable behavior. We are supposed to understand the drug use and prostitution as a victim's escape from guilt and shame. Even the passing of Theresa's ring we are to comprehend as a legacy of death, carried from one victim to the next. And the creamed corn? Human pain and suffering as the food of the gods.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
is really The Tragedy of Laura Palmer and the Tragedy of Small Town America. The golden girl -- the cheerleader beloved by all -- is actually a secret victim of sexual abuse...and no one sees it. Or no one cares to see it.

This is the roiling "underneath" that Lynch so frequently expose in his films, and it was never more relevant, perhaps, than in the early 1990s when this film was made. These were the early years after the notorious 1989 Glen Ridge rape case (wherein popular football jocks raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat and broom); these were the years of the Spur Posse. Suburbia's shameful secrets were spilling out into the tabloid culture in creamed-corn torrents.

Perhaps an entire American generation of teenagers was actually fire walking with us; possessed by darkest impulses.

What remains profound about Laura Palmer's tragedy today is that, in the end, David Lynch grants the character a small measure of contentment. The guardian angel she believed she lost during her last, brutal hours on Earth, returns anew (in the afterlife) to heal her pain; even as good Dale Cooper lands a comforting, supportive arm on her shoulder. Our last view of the cheerleader is of Laura smiling.

In life, Laura was relentlessly victimized...her goodness burned away by life's ugliness. In death's sitting room, of all places, peace is finally at hand.

Although this may seem decidedly bleak, it is also Lynch's balancing of the spiritual world. It may be a place of garmonbozia -- death and suffering -- but it isn't populated merely by the likes of Bob and the Man From Another Place. The winged celestial being is there too, the seraph, and that means that forgiveness is at hand.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
isn't misanthropic. In Laura Palmer, there's sympathy for the victim of abuse. Even in Leland Palmer, there's sympathy for the devil. If we do "live in a dream," as one character suggests in the film, then it is also up to us to shape that dream, and always keep Bob at bay.


  1. Another fantastic post, JKM! Depending on the day or the mood, FWWM is my fave Lynch film and I think his most underappreciated. I do remember it being crucified by critics when it came out and I think it is starting to enjoy a re-evaluation.

    I agree with Kim Newman's assessment in SIGHT & SOUND that Lynch's film is brilliant horror film even though it is rarely regarded as such. And, as you point out, he uses all the supernatural mumbo jumbo of the various Lodges as a metaphor for the incest and abuse that Laura Palmer is subjected to by her father. The performances by both Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise in this film are nothing short of astounding. Incredible stuff.

    I also think that this might be Angelo Badalamenti's best score to date. It is atmospheric and creates moods of ominous menace, dread and also moments of levity, particularly in the film's darkly humorous first third. Great stuff.

  2. I agree, great post. You hit all the important points. As an exploration of the psychology of incest, I think "Fire Walk with Me" is in some ways Lynch's most grounded-in-the-real-world film (setting aside such "straight" films as "The Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story")--and one of his bravest. It's a very messy film, of course. But it's too bad that so many of critics couldn't find their way to at least praise Sheryl Lee's daring, gutsy performance--one of my favorite pieces of acting of that decade.

  3. I love, love, LOVE this movie. I saw it FOUR times in the theater, usually by myself. The theaters were just empty and it seemed no one was interested.

    And that's a shame, because this is a beautiful, poignant film. And personally, I belive it ends on a happy note. I mean, she gets her angel back, right?

    There are some great horrific moments to be had too. My favorite scene is probably when she hangs up the photo and has that dream with the girl with the bloody nose in her bed. Strangely, she's more terrified when the girl disappears then when she just lying there! But the part that really gets me is when she opens the door and looks back at the picture and she's inside it. Yikes! That scene always gives me goosebumps...

    It was a wonderful series capped by an incredible film!

    Nice review, btw!

    Have you seen Inland Empire?

  4. I haven't seen Inland Empire yet. I hate to admit it, but I don't really know anything about it.

    But after watching the Twin Peaks pilot and now Fire Walk with Me, I've definitely decided that Lynch is my next "retrospective" director of choice, so look for more Lynchian posts...

    Thank you all for commenting -- it's so great to see that bloggers I respect so much also remember Fire Walk with Me fondly.


  5. Great commentary. I didn't see much of Twin Peaks until a cable channel showed it daily, and I watched FWWM after the end of the Bob/Leland storyline.

    I think the movie's a bit unnecessarily opaque early on; the stunt casting seems as important as anything else that's going on. But when it turns to Laura, it becomes a powerfully affecting movie, with an atmosphere of creepiness and dread that's like precious little else. The weird/supernatural elements aren't enough to distance the viewer from the real world horrors you describe.

    The TV series and the movie both have their flaws, but that doesn't matter; there's precious little that can compare to them when they're really working.

  6. These in-depth appreciations of undeservedly detested films are what make your blog stand out. Where else could I read a review of "Halloween 2" that makes me want to see it?

    The disapproval FWWM garners is as bewildering to me as Lost Highway is to Ebert. It's got everything people loved about the TV series, but placed in a cinematic context, and in context of Lynch's body of work. And it's accessible; it's oblique but hardly Eraserhead. Plus it passes my art-film sniff test - it's fun to watch.

  7. DLR:

    Thank you for that lovely comment about my made my day (or at least my morning!) :)

    I couldn't agree with you more about FWWM. My wife and I watched it a couple nights ago, and we're STILL talking about it this morning; about how great it was; about how fun it was; about how affecting it was.

    And I think we're both really taken with Sheryl Lee. She shows such depth in this movie; what a performance...



  8. Steve:

    "I think the movie's a bit unnecessarily opaque early on; the stunt casting seems as important as anything else that's going on."

    I would argue that the stunt casting works because the characters are so interesting and I found that Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland work so well off each other. Every time I watch FWWM I keep thinking, damn, I'd love to see a spin-off film with these two characters running around solving crimes! But sadly, that will never happen.

    Also, the bizarro, skewed humor of the first third of the film is typical Lynch and really doesn't prepare you for what's coming. Which is a good thing, I think. It also seems to me to be Lynch leaving behind the last vestiges of the off-kilter humor of the show for the full-on horror of the rest of the film which is Lynch unfiltered that fans of his films know and love which may explain why so many fans of the show were pissed at how radically different the film was from the show. Had they not seen any of his films?

  9. I saw this film as a 14 year with no knowledge of Twin Peaks and found it to be the most frightening film I had ever seen. It was impossible to shake and once I got around to watching the series became an enormous fan of the show. That being said, while I think FWWM is better than most people say, it seems uneven. My personal feeling is that Twin Peaks worked so well because of the mix between light (soap opera) and dark (horror), comedy and tragedy. I think of all the great lines of Coopers, the romance, and the often touching pathos of many of the characters with that ever present bit of evil underneath. The blander sections made the Lynchian bits all that more compelling for me, and all Lynch and little Frost make for a unbalanced Peaks film.

    FWWM came out after the turnabout ending of the series, offered few resolutions and more questions, but most importantly lost any sense of balance that made the show charming. The more comedic parts, although often funny have a very unpleasant, grimy feel. (The trailer park, the police station, etc). When we get to Twin Peaks and Laura's life there is some of the heavy nostalgic 50's feel the show had, but it's un-relentlessly heavy and bleak. I understand that it's focusing on Laura's last bit of life and that is bleak, but incorporating some of the other characters and moods of the show would have helped balance it.

    Thank for letting me type away. I loved your review and appreciate the discussion above too.

    (P.S. In agreement with a previous poster as this is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time.)

  10. marco ventura8:03 AM

    Great job John.