BFI David Lynch Season – Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Grab yourself a cup of joe, heat up a wedge of that sweet, sweet cherry pie and smell those Pseudo-tsuga – we’re back in Twin Peaks. David Lynch’s hugely influential collaboration with writer/producer Mark Frost was a cultural bolt of lightning that screamed into the staid and formulaic TV landscape of the early nineties, a groundbreaking serial with its invasion of the surreal, the innovative and the macabre into the living rooms of millions of confused and beguiled Americans. Playing for an all too brief two seasons the programme followed the investigation of the murder of Laura Palmer, the high school sweetheart of a sleepy Washington town whose holier than thou, saintly demeanour wasn’t quite what it seemed. With its occult combination of small town Americana, horrific metaphors on the family unit and the potential for evil lurking behind those white picket fences the phenomenon got itself onto the cover of Time and rocketed Lynch’s profile beyond the chattering circles of cinema fans, and its influence on subsequently acclaimed series such as The X Files, Buffy, Eerie Indiana, The League Of Gentlemen, Carnivale, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Homicide, Northern Exposure*, Lost, Big Love, True Blood and other landmark small screen narratives is undisputed. After the second season ratings began to ebb, reputedly due to increasing executive meddling, the forced revelation of the mysterious killer behind Laura’s death and the introduction of increasingly absurd plotlines and schemes the programme was cancelled after a legendarily destructive finale, allegedly designed by Lynch and Frost to deliberately scupper the series and prevent any resurrection of their cherished creation. But Lynch couldn’t let it go and felt there was a still a story in this universe that he was compelled to tell, to return to the scene of the crime with what on reflection must be one of the first examples of the much maligned prequel, to chart the final days and hours of the doomed Laura, much to critics and audiences confusion who understandably wanted a resolution to the series clustered and challenging small screen crescendo. The first screening at Cannes prompted a hostile reaction of boos and disgusted walkouts – nothing new there – but the intervening years have seen the film achieve something of a critical re-appraisal as part of the directors body of work, and many Lynch acolytes (myself included) now include the film amongst the highest echelons of his work alongside Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, personally speakingthis was certainly up there amongst the three most anticipated films for a menagerie big screen revision. So let’s get started with the proviso that spoilers will abound, both for the TV series and movie, both are over twenty years old but here we are…
Assuming that the audience knows the back-story – there are no scene setting montages or explanatory dialogue here – Lynch plunges straight into the action with two FBI agents assigned to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, a doomed young woman whose links with Laura are suggested with an identical autopsy revelation, a LSD suggesting microdot inserted under the fingernail that sports a cryptic letter. Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak, plausibly wooden) leads the duo as a stoic and no-nonsense lead officer, accompanied by the squinting, possibly aspergers attuned Agent Stanley (a squinting Kiefer Sutherland) who embark on this mysterious quest, their mission instigated with this memorable example of codes, glyphs and secrets. After circumnavigating the obstructions of the local officials the team trace Teresa’s trailer park domicile and things start to turn strange. Cut to the drowsy lumbertown of Twin Peaks, a dreamy Washington state town where an amber light still means slow down rather than hit the gas. Enter Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the belle of the local high school, the pretty young cheerleader, head of her class, the girl next door and prom queen certainty. Unfortunately for Laura we happen to be in the Lynchiverse so it’s all a facade, and in fact she’s a coke snorting, whiskey gulping neurotic strumpet who happens to be banging just about everyone in town to feed her myriad addictions and has taken to hooking on the side, although you can’t really blame her for this behaviour as she also happens to be frequently raped by a homicidal demon who has possessed her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). Where the TV series opened with the discovery of her plastic entombed corpse floating down the river like some industrial sarcophagus, in Fire Walk With Me Lynch takes us back to the strange premonitions and twisted days leading up to her murder, her twin relationships with the wet biker James (James Hurley) and bad boy Bobbi Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and her suspicions that her life is sliding into an abyss that she can see no way out of….
Conventional wisdom dictates that when you have a beloved series with a cult like fan base, any movie spin-off would take the narrative further and answer a few questions left hanging at the finale. In Fire Walk With Me Lynch performs the exact opposite, showing us different approaches and reveals to facts that have already been established, preferring to strengthen the uncanny mythology that the series built around the mysterious Black Lodge and White Lodge hidden out in the woods, around the relationship between the shivering Bob and the one-armed man, and the numerous eccentrics and criminals who orbit this supernatural fresco. We know that Laura dies and we know who killed her, but this sympathetic woman paralysed in a asphyxiating web spun by her father’s possession and serial abuse is a suffocating experience, with flashes of surreal humor to lighten the fragments of a terrifying, strobe lit screeching horror. The lack of a significant career for Sheryl Lee is as mysterious as this the series eerie whispers, she is a remarkable, charismatic presence who flits between distressed innocence and sultry temptation, I remember being a bit perturbed when she popped up in Winters Bone as it took me a few seconds to place her. Kyle MacLachlan, along with some of his acting companions were reluctant to revisit their roles for fear of typecasting but Lynch persuaded him to step into Agent Coopers shoes one more time on the proviso that his role be significantly reduced, but he still appears in one of the films most memorable sequences;
One of Bowie’s more successful, albeit brusque acting performances if you ask me. Potentially ahead of the curve with unconscious commentary on an increasingly surveiled society (although I doubt that was the intention in 1992, although it is revisited in his next film Lost Highway but we’ll come back to that in the next review) Lynch is mining our subconscious fears and desires through eidolic symbolism, fabricated through his magnificent combinations of droning sound, porous images and hazy iconography. Again we are treading paths dark and twisted, the perverted and unholy sealed behind a perspex shield of rationality, inexorably scratching at the contours of our reality and sometimes finding purchase. I love the idea of the FBI as some sect of buddhist samurai with firearms, crisply pressed white shirts and crew cuts, these paladins battling these Cimmerian influences on behalf of some undefined, eternal power of love, or should that be transcendental love? The figures of the spooky Mrs. Tremond (Francis Bay) and her intense grandson obviously hark back to his first film The Grandmother, and Lynch’s fixation on head trauma also arises in a horrendously botched drug deal out in the spectral, flickering woods. It was in Twin Peaks that Lynch lifted the reverse cranking utilised by Jean Cocteau in the likes of Orphee to signal other dimensions, not to mention an obvious influence of dual psychologies, of portals and apertures leading to alternate realities and limbo like dominions, it’s one of the most successful techniques he has utilised to support and enhance his world view and world building activities, no-one to my mind has employed such a simple procedure to generate such unsettling power. He certainly has something about women in peril as it dominates all his subsequent works, from the doppelgänger Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway needing to evade her criminal pimps, from Betty’s tarnished career in Mulhollland Drive, or whatever the fuck is supposed to be happening to Laura Dern in INLAND EMPIRE he seems to have a penchant for framing females as saintly angels or fallen whores, it’s no wonder that some critics have issues with this but I think they’re not entirely justified, he’s more interested in simple, direct dualities on which to hang his movies, like the church scene in Blue Velvet this is another heartfelt, ‘pure’ moment which can either succeed or fail, depending on the audiences predilections;
The final movement of the film, the crimson draped waiting room between our earthly pursuits and ecclesiastical bliss that is presented here in full spoiler sympathy is quite the big screen experience, and so far this is the most enjoyable and memorable viewing that I have experienced during the whole season. I was privileged enough to see the original foreign market VHS tape with the incongruous and memorable tacked on ending that was specifically shot for the international market, I will never forgot seeing this for the first time, my first exposure to Lynch (I’d certainly seen Dune and possibly The Elephant Man before this but of course didn’t recognise them as ‘Lynch’ works) and it always nostalgically reminds me of the years that have slipped away, in the most tender and affectionate way possible. Using my incredible deductive powers I have unearthed this mammoth fan edit of the whole sorry Palmer scandal, here is a funny documentary where a few notorious characters get to air their views, here is the background to that oft imitated and rave appropriated soundtrack and here are some browser crashing, behind the scene photos from the shoot and here is some fun, that site is certainly more effective than the sadly overlooked computer game. Finally, its taken me a week of searching and putting this together (and for some reason this has been a real struggle, only tonight have I really grasped my muse and powered through 3/4 of this) but I finally fucking found it, here is the extraordinary, depraved Red Room sequence which is amongst the best movements that Lynch has ever committed to screen, and beware as this music video might just make you crazy;
*Yes I know they started at the same time but that series clearly adopted some of Twin Peaks mannerisms and designs as its run continued. I’m not criticising as I fucking loved Northern Exposure, I’m just saying…..and I’ve just committed myself to seeing Inland Empire again to conclude this mammoth undertaking, god help my eternal soul….