I’m doing something a little different with this week’s review. As I explain below, I have recently fallen down the rabbit hole of Twin Peaks, so I took advantage of re-watching the feature film Fire Walk with Me as a chance to add to my Revisited feature. That’s where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about. I’m also mixing in a funny story about the first time I watched the movie with my partner Rachel.
“Through the darkness of future's past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds...
Fire... walk with me."
In the summer of 2014, Rachel and I had been dating just shy of four years when I put her through the worst movie-going experience of her life. Around that time, I was regularly checking every theater in town for repertory screenings to make sure I didn’t miss seeing something great on the big screen. I saw that the Texas Theater would be showing Fire Walk with Me, David Lynch’s prequel movie to his and Mark Frost’s absurdist take on the soap opera, the short-lived TV series Twin Peaks.
The Texas Theater screening was scheduled for the day before my birthday! You can’t say no to a birthday request, right? Rach was soon to discover that, yes, she would and should be more than happy to do just that.
I do not have a great track record of recommending movies for Rachel to watch. The thought process that most people probably go through when deciding to recommend a movie to another human being involves considering if that human being would enjoy the movie. That’s not really my jam. I’ve gotten MUCH better about it over the years – I think even Rach would agree – but my M.O. in those days was “I love it, so YOU should love it, too!” If nothing else did, our trip to Fire Walk with Me made me see the error of my ways.
I discovered the screening so that we had plenty of time to watch the show before seeing the movie. I had become a fan of Twin Peaks before Rachel and I met, seven or eight years prior to this fateful screening. I fell in love with the show’s quirky, idiosyncratic style; its absurd cast of characters and even more absurd, soapy storylines; its masterful balance of light, goofy comedy with dark, disturbing undertones.
Rach was not a fan. She thought the show was ridiculous; less a meta-commentary on soap operas than just a lame soap opera itself. But she would soon consider it high art in comparison to her feelings about Fire Walk with Me.
Despite her misgivings after watching the 30 episodes of Twin Peaks, Rach was a good sport – as she almost always has been when I’ve forced her to watch movies that she couldn’t give a rat’s ass about – and we made the trek to the Texas Theater. I never got the feeling she wasn’t into it during the actual screening. That was probably because I was wrapped up in the movie myself, and it can be hard to gauge the reaction of a single person in a dark theater.
I had no idea what was about to hit me on the car ride home. Because the love of my life is a person with manners and grace who knows how to behave in a movie theater, Rach kept her disdain for Fire Walk with Me to herself during the screening. She likes to say (with a laugh) that she shouted at me the whole way home about how much she hated the movie. I think “shouted” is a little strong but let me tell you: She. Did. Not. Like. It.
It’s been five years now, so I don’t remember the exact words. I call myself the Forgetful Film Critic for a reason. There were phrases like “it made no sense,” “obnoxious,” “terrible.” More than her exact take on the film, my memory of that car ride is me laughing my ass off at how pissed off the movie made her. It filled her with a white-hot rage the likes of which I never expect to see again.
Rach has said on numerous occasions that if we had been watching Fire Walk with Me at home, she would have paused it several times to shout at me about it. I got that experience a few years prior to this one when I forced her to watch Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I also had the same reaction: uncontrollable laughter at how incensed she was by it. Oh, the dinosaurs! But that’s a tale for another day.
The main takeaway here is this: she’s obviously wrong (he says with a glint in his eye and a mischievous grin on his face).
If you aren’t aware, Lynch and Frost resurrected Twin Peaks as a limited series event on Showtime in 2017. Because life is busy and there are just too many things to watch, I am only now getting to this new set of episodes. Of course, I couldn’t watch the new without revisiting the old. I watched the original series and followed that up with Lynch’s prequel film that covers the last week in Laura Palmer’s life.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (FWwM) came right in the middle of the most indecipherable period to date in David Lynch’s career. In a filmography that includes Eraserhead and Inland Empire, that’s saying something. FWwM falls between the manic Wild at Heart and the opaque drama Lost Highway, in which a character goes to sleep in a jail cell portrayed by one actor (Bill Pullman) and wakes up the next day as a completely different character, portrayed by a different actor (Balthazar Getty).
Lynch lets us know in the opening credit sequence to FWwM that it is his intention to do something completely different from the television series. The credits play over initially out of focus TV static – side note: In our all digital TV world, is it even possible to find the black-and-white swirling static anymore? The image slowly pulls back, so that first the static comes into focus before we see the television set on which it’s playing. Then, as the last credit fades – Directed by David Lynch – someone smashes the TV and we hear a scream. The television show Twin Peaks is dead. FWwM will be a new experience.
To further emphasize this point, we get something of a prologue to the main story. A year before the events of Twin Peaks, before Laura Palmer was killed, there was another murder of a young woman. Teresa Banks was killed a few towns over from Twin Peaks, and FBI agents Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley are investigating the crime.
The town of Deer Meadow, Washington, where Banks’ body was found, is the exact opposite of our beloved Twin Peaks. The cops are all jerks who loathe the FBI agents, who are seen as invading the local cops’ jurisdiction. We’ll find no good-hearted Sheriff Harry S. Truman here, ready to welcome the help of the FBI. The local diner, too, is shabby and darkly lit. The server who waits on agents Desmond and Stanley is combative and rude, a far cry from the welcoming smile of Norma Jennings in her charming Double R diner.
Agent Desmond mysteriously disappears during the investigation. Lynch stages this disappearance in his inimitable way, with a freeze frame and fade to black as Desmond finds a ring with a familiar symbol on it. Enter the hero of Twin Peaks: the optimistic, justice-loving FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.
Only here star Kyle MacLachlan plays Agent Cooper a little off from what we saw on the television series. He’s darker, more troubled. It might have something to do with fact that MacLachlan was hesitant to sign on for the film version at all. Lynch scaled back Cooper’s part in the picture when MacLachlan expressed concern over being typecast in future roles.
It works for Lynch’s change in focus on FWwM. Missing is any hint of the droll sense of humor and quirky sensibility of Twin Peaks. Instead, Lynch almost exclusively explores the dark underbelly of this small town, much like he did in his earlier film Blue Velvet. The harsh change in aesthetic might have been the reason for the critical and financial failure the film suffered upon its release.
Lynch admitted as much in a special feature interview included in a 2014 Blu-ray box set release of Twin Peaks and FWwM. The particulars of Laura Palmer’s murder, which FWwM shows in graphic detail, was just too much to ask of viewers. The public doesn’t exactly rush out to get tickets for incest and murder, as Lynch puts it in the interview.
Indeed, it’s not easy to reconcile my own adoration for Lynch’s style and artistic acumen with my distaste for how he treats women on screen. Lynch uses women as objects often in his movies. The late film critic Roger Ebert had an infamously disgusted reaction to the way Isabella Rossellini’s character was abused in Blue Velvet. In both Twin Peaks and FWwM, Lynch shows a predilection for displaying women’s dead bodies. That’s in contrast to his work in later films like Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, a movie that features a lesbian relationship that has made it a cult hit within the LGBT+ community.
As a cinematic experience, the scene of the movie – and the one that enraged Rachel the most – is the one in which Laura goes to a Canadian sex club and her best friend, Donna, tags along. Lynch stages the extended sequence for maximum sensory overload. He has the rock music blasting so loudly on the soundtrack that he must provide subtitles so we can understand what the characters are saying. The overall effect is a hypnotic one. As the trance-like state falls over us, we learn, along with Donna, just how broken Laura is due to the abuse she has suffered.
There are also plenty of inscrutable moments in FWwM that I couldn’t pretend to understand without reading explainer articles after my viewing. Moments like a child character from the TV series – who looks and talks exactly like David Lynch, no less – jumping out from the shadows of a motel wearing a creepy mask with an exaggerated nose. Or the significance of the ring that is offered to Laura in a dream, the same ring that Agent Desmond finds just before he disappears in the prologue of the film.
No, I am not going to pretend that I’m smart enough to figure that stuff out on my own. But I trust that Lynch has a reason for everything he puts on screen. His masterful and unique staging of this kind of material is more than worth the price of admission. His cinematic voice is one-of-a-kind, and I am always interested in hearing it. I am smart enough – finally – to know that as I start watching the 2017 version of Twin Peaks, I won’t be asking Rachel if she’d care to join me.*
* I have started the 2017 season 3 of Twin Peaks, and I did, in fact, ask Rach if she wanted to join me. BUT, I only did so because SHE EXPRESSED INTEREST FIRST! True, she said she might want to watch just so she could give me hell about it. I thought that meant she would watch the first episode, despise it, let me know how awful it was, and then I would be on my own for the rest of the episodes. To my surprise, she has stuck around for the first three episodes, and while she’s not a fan, it has intrigued her enough to want to know what happens next. I think it’s great so far. Just like with the movie, Lynch is doing something completely different. This iteration of Twin Peaks is nothing like the original show, and is much more like his later period stuff (Inland Empire in particular).
Why it got 4 stars:
- The subject material and the treatment of that material is about as dark as it gets, but Lynch’s inimitable take and style on it is fascinating. The worlds he creates are ugly places, but I’m drawn to them.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- That interpretive dance in the first 15 minutes of the movie. So, so good.
- I like Chris Isaak as Agent Desmond, but he’s no Dale Cooper. Kiefer Sutherland’s idiosyncratic performance as Agent Stanley is great fun.
- Angelo Badalamenti’s score isn’t as dominant here as in the original show (which is also the case with the 2017 version), but it’s just as effective at creating an incredibly rich mood. The creep-out factor is half due to the ominous droning of his music underneath everything else.
- I think I could watch hours of scenes set in the Black Lodge/the Red Room. I was texting with a friend about the new season of Twin Peaks, and he said, “I wish Lynch would make infinite shows like it.” Co-signed.
- A re-appraisal of FWwM has been taking place (it probably started back in 2017) since it’s initial critical and box office failure. I’m happy to add to that here.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Watched a Blu-ray from my local library. It looked and sounded excellent. I was afraid the sensory overload of the Canadian bar/sex club scene wouldn’t be as powerful since I wasn’t watching it in a theater, but my little home cinema really came through for me. The scene was every bit as hypnotic and disorienting as a theatrical screening.