Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Back Door to the Black Lodge (Fire Walk With Me conversation w/ Tony Dayoub - Part 3 of 4)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Back Door to the Black Lodge (Fire Walk With Me conversation w/ Tony Dayoub - Part 3 of 4)


This is the third entry in my four-part correspondence with Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder. We are discussing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on the film conversation site To Be (Cont'd). [That site has since gone inactive, but my pieces are available in full on this site and Tony has re-published his on his own site as well - links to all are collected here.]

Two weeks ago I kicked off the conversation with my first entry, "Twin Peaks is Dead - Long Live Laura Palmer!" and Tony continued with "Poetry Becomes Prose in Fire Walk With Me".

Tony,

Entering the world of Fire Walk With Me for the first time, I was thrilled by its air of uncertainty. Lynch's rhythms and images provoked and perplexed me: the static-filled TV set where we would expect the show’s opening theme song; the plastic-wrapped corpse of Teresa Banks floating downstream, unclaimed and unloved; the FBI meeting in a skimpy Oregon airfield, sour-faced Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole) offering coded information via a wiggle, stitch, and blue flower. And then we were off to Deer Meadow, to investigate Teresa's murder. You've already described the Bizarro World qualities of Twin Peaks' doppelganger town, but perhaps even more unsettling than what Lynch shows us there is how he introduces us to it.

In Deer Meadow, a moody breeze unsettles Lynch's compositions–the edges of the frames wander subtly, as if we might drift away at any moment (anticipating the floating camerawork of later scenes set in Twin Peaks). Angelo Badalamenti's uncharacteristically subdued jazz hums softly in the background, complemented by the sporadic buzz of open sockets and the faint Indian war cries carried by electrical wires. Even the small-town set design is vaguely peculiar, the sheriff's station located in an ordinary house (like the "This Is It" club in Blue Velvet), blurring the public and private. The investigation into this unwelcoming village is led by the aloof Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak), standing in for the gregarious Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, limiting his part to a cameo) before he too disappears from the film. By now even Twin Peaks fans would be disoriented. We're all falling down the rabbit hole together.


And yet is Deer Meadow really so different from Twin Peaks? True, bad manners prevail, poverty is omnipresent, and law enforcement is corrupt. But the amity of Twin Peaks doesn't shelter it from evil. While Teresa Banks is a drifter and a loner, and Laura Palmer is a popular girl from a middle-class family, both will suffer the exact same fate at the hands of Laura's father, a respectable member of the community. Fire Walk With Me offers Laura relief only through death, placing a green ring on her finger to protect her from Leland/BOB's possession but not his violence. This is a far cry from the hopeful restorations that occur in Blue Velvet (1986), Dune (1984), The Elephant Man (1980), and even Eraserhead (1977). Deer Meadow, wearing its ugliness on its sleeve, indicates where Lynch will be taking us, not only in Fire Walk With Me but for the rest of his career.

As a first-time viewer fresh from the series, I was less surprised than gratified by this darkness, as Lynch reframed the events surrounding Laura's (and Teresa's) murder to emphasize her father's responsibility. This confirmed my suspicions from the show itself, despite its excuses of demonic possession. What shocked me was the emotional gravitas Lynch, Lee, and Wise brought to their scenes and characters. This seriousness sprang from a different universe than the playful surrealism, mixed tone, or even occasional violence of Twin Peaks, and I responded viscerally. While moved by Fire Walk With Me's raw honesty, I was also angered by the lingering supernatural elements (not so much the metaphorical BOB as the metaphysical Black Lodge, dwelling place of the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) and the series' other woodland spirits). Linked to a brutal portrayal of incest and psychological damage, the mystique of the mystical evaporated. I praised the film with strong qualifications; since that first viewing, however, I have come to accept and even embrace the way Fire Walk With Me synthesizes the literal and allegorical.

Lynch's mythological integration provides a thematic link between Fire Walk With Me and his subsequent films (with their shifting identities and dreams-within-dreams), but also a deeply related stylistic link. Fire Walk With Me is the second step in Lynch's sharp transformation as a filmmaker, which began with Wild at Heart (1990), with its nanosecond asides, sharp rhythmic and tonal shifts, and rock'n'roll-fueled intensity (replacing the classical precision and restraint of the director's previous films). Cool-blue rather than red-hot, Fire Walk With Me escalates Wild at Heart's experiments: long dissolves and superimpositions, unsteady Steadicam POV shots, and rapid cuts across time, space, and other dimensions. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby moaned, "Because of the director's repeated use of long, lingering lap-dissolves, in which the images of one scene remain on the screen beneath the images of the succeeding scene, the film appears to be an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations." Other critics joined the chorus, comparing the film's effect to a cocaine comedown and generally complaining about an unholy trinity of sloppy technique, sordid theme, and muddy narrative.

At least they noticed the film's connection of form, subject, and viewpoint. Wild at Heart's style suited its characters but felt slightly shallow; the formal flourishes in Fire Walk With Me express something much deeper. Lynch understood that he and his characters were moving towards a decentered consciousness, and that a corresponding sense of spiritual vertigo must be evoked in the viewer. No longer are we observing the world from the safety of Blue Velvet's closet; we are disoriented by new techniques suggesting darkness and confusion intermingled with surface reality, rather than lying beneath it. Likewise, Lynch's narrative frameworks were becoming more complex; Fire Walk With Me is his first film to "double," telling two tangentially-related stories back-to-back (a process increasingly ambitious with each subsequent screenplay, until Inland Empire (2006) tosses multiple storylines in the air and shoots them where they land). Despite the transitional power of Fire Walk With Me, the unity of this stylistic, thematic, and structural transformation did not develop overnight–it evolved over the course of Twin Peaks before culminating in the film.

While the differences between show and film are striking (your previous post covered them well, and I don't have much to add), equally striking is the difference between the pilot and final episode of Twin Peaks itself–specifically, Lynch's approach as a filmmaker. On each of the six episodes he directed, Lynch subtly expanded the supernatural components and stylistic experimentation. Compare the relaxed atmosphere, gentle irony, and heightened but still realistic milieu of Lynch's first foray into Twin Peaks to the stylized, actively bizarre, and thoroughly otherworldly sensations of his final hour. Formally this means less "invisible" camerawork and editing, thematically a greater incorporation of "reality"-bending mythology. Lynch emerged from the experience a bolder, more radical filmmaker, eager to marry the early experimentation of Eraserhead with realistic settings, but also a more tragic storyteller, charged with a new sense of spiritual mission.

In Fire Walk With Me, Lynch coins the term "garmonbozia," defined as "pain and sorrow" in a subtitle, to describe the grotesque creamed corn gobbled up in the Black Lodge. As with every spiritual concept in the film, the idea retains its psychic charge while offered up as physical reality. For the first time in the Twin Peaks universe, Fire Walk With Me's goblins and ghouls materialize in the open daylight, underscoring moments of emotional tension or psychological decay. Visitations occur even at FBI headquarters, where the conventional filters and distance of narrative filmmaking break down, swamping us in uncanny nightmare. You correctly observe that Lynch underscores the realistic elements of his story in Fire Walk With Me; and yet, he is also doubling down on the "supernatural"–although that easy category no longer fits what he's doing.


How can Lynch simultaneously ground this film in social reality while allowing more fantastical elements to share the same space? For him, these fantasies aren't fantasies at all but projections of mystical truth (belonging not just to one character but to the entire collective unconscious, perhaps even to a cosmic order). These truths–primal forces, if you will–are far more powerful than the world of everyday appearances around us–indeed, they animate those very appearances. Rather than juxtapose the "natural" and "supernatural," Lynch fuses them to expose the foolishness of their distinction; this is not about claiming that spiritual beings and paranormal activity share our physical reality, so much as recognizing the very limitations of materialism to capture a consciousness which transcends it. In her book David Lynch Swerves, Martha Nochimson posits quantum mechanics and Hinduism's Vedic texts as inspirations for Lynch's "threshold experiences"; whatever their source, Lynch's elastic treatments of time, space, and spirit defy most traditional Western frameworks.

The upshot in Fire Walk With Me is that "BOB possesses Leland" becomes "BOB = Leland." The Black Lodge is no longer merely "out there"–it's within all of us, and we're all within it. Halfway through Fire Walk With Me, Laura hangs an eerie picture of an empty room with an open door on her wall, displacing the previous picture of an angel watching over little children. This new painting is a symbol of both existential dread and existential duty. During the night, Laura will pass through this door and enter the Black Lodge where, among other discoveries, she will find a time-warped Agent Cooper from the Twin Peaks finale (he will also comfort her in the film's poignant conclusion). If Cooper hasn't escaped in 25 years, neither has Lynch. Every single one of his subsequent features has taken place in this realm of uncertainty, where outside authority is unreliable, selfhood is malleable and fragile, and we can neither deny nor repress the darkness, trapped as we are with our own garmonbozia.

Tony, to bring the conversation full-circle, let's return to Laura Palmer. How do Lynch and Lee bring this previously mute character to life? What do you make of Laura's arc in the film, especially her decisions near the end - does she become an active rather than passive participant in her own fate?

-Joel

Next - Part 4, Tony's response: "Lynch's Affinity for Laura Palmer"

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