Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Favorites - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (#47)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #47 on my original list.

What it is • Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) lives in a nice neighborhood in the bucolic Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks. She is a popular high school girl whose world seems idyllic. But a cloud falls over her expression once she steps away from her demure best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) and sneaks into a bathroom stall for a bump of cocaine. Later, she tells one boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall) to "Quit holding on, I'm long gone..." and then mocks her other boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) to his face. When she and her friend sit lazily on sofas to discuss boys, poetry, and hypotheticals about "falling through space," Laura's response evinces an acute desperation that her friend doesn't really understand. Only when Laura returns home alone and discovers pages torn from her secret diary does the trouble really begin - at least for us in the audience. For Laura, the trouble has been going on for at least five years, involving repeated rape and psychological torment by the mysterious "BOB" (Frank Silva), a creepy long-haired man who climbs through her window at night, although she grows to suspect, rightly, that there's more to this image than what she's seeing. Mystical as the flavor of the film is at times - it features eerie dreams, uncanny figures, and visits to otherworldly realms - its suffering is grounded in real human emotion. The first forty minutes play like a massive red herring, in which we follow an FBI investigation into a murder on the other side of the state. The victim's (and killer's) relationship to Laura is eventually revealed, but the characters and tone of this sequence lull us into thinking Fire Walk With Me will be one type of film (an offbeat, archly comic murder mystery), when in fact it is something else entirely: one of the most empathetic portraits of sexual violence ever placed on a screen.

Why I like it •
Well, let's put something aside for a moment: the TV show. If you've scanned this site at all, going back to the very first weeks of its existence (when I first watched Twin Peaks), you know how much work I've devoted to analyzing the David Lynch-Mark Frost series...especially in the last couple years, though we'll get to that in a moment. But Fire Walk With Me is not on here because it services fans of the show (it doesn't) or because it creatively deepens and expands that narrative (it does). Fire Walk With Me appears on my list of all-time favorite films because even with some leftover loose ends and inside references, it stands fully on its own as a cinematic masterpiece. It's one of Lynch's rawest, most powerful works, messy at times but somehow all the more effective for its confusion (the production was a rushed affair, due less to pressure than passion: this was a story Lynch desperately wanted to tell, after developing Laura from the outside in). Sheryl Lee's performance is one of the greatest - and most underappreciated - in film history, fully embodying the pain of her character with a deep commitment that haunted both her and the crew that observed this descent into Laura's harrowing hellscape. (Lynch's later Inland Empire, about an actress who gets lost inside her character, seems directly rooted in this experience.) Any great film is defined as much by brilliant sequences as overall shape and Fire Walk With Me is no exception, with some of the most searing audiovisual experiences Lynch ever placed on celluloid: the immersive, hypnotic Pink Room nightclub; the nerve-jangling verbal assault of a van-driving one-armed man; the vicious, heartrending humiliation imposed by Laura's dad Leland (Ray Wise) when she arrives to dinner with "dirty hands"; and especially the final three or four minutes, no sound save the soul-saturating strains of Angelo Badalamenti's "Voice of Love" motif, as Sheryl Lee's face conveys the catharsis Laura Palmer could never receive on a show that posited her as "the dead girl."

More from me • I may have covered Fire Walk With Me once or twice before! Ok, here goes: I first reviewed the film in 2008 after watching the series and was at once shocked, moved, impressed, and angered. The next day I declared it a flawed masterpiece and railed against the critics who misunderstood it in 1992 (this was one of the worst-reviewed movies of all time). I didn't see the film again for five years. During that interim I placed it on this Favorites list (it would have been much higher at a later date) and included a clip at 3:50 in "A Dark Dawn", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. Then in the spring of 2014 I launched a new exploration of this work which never really ended. It began with a 4-part discussion with Tony Dayoub (sadly, only my entries - on the film's roots in the series and treatment of the supernatural - are currently available), and then continued through my own David Lynch Month in which I recapped my history with the film (and shared some images), rounded up other reviews, scholarly entries, and blog posts, created a Fire Walk With Me-anchored video essay about trauma in Lynch's works, wrote another review as part of a lengthy retrospective of Lynch's entire career, and explored the film's place in the evolution of its director's oeuvre. Most importantly, I devoted "Laura is the One", the fourth part of my expansive video essay series Journey Through Twin Peaks, to an in-depth examination of how the film relates to, expands upon, and transcends the series. The most popular chapter remains "7 Facts About Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" which has also become my most popular online work period, in any medium - by a long shot. I created several video essays comparing the film to others, including Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon and Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion/The End of Evangelion, wrote a prose essay comparing Fire Walk With Me to Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid, gathered Twin Peaks fan reactions to Fire Walk With Me (from alt.tv.twin-peaks in 1992 and the dugpa forums in 2015), paid tribute to the film's radical departure from traditional "dead girl" narratives, ordered images in a visual tribute to the relationship between Agent Cooper and Laura and a collection of juxtapositions from my video essay, and created a set of memes to clarify who contributed what to the creation of Laura Palmer's character in series and film. Finally, I have discussed the film extensively in interviews with Twin Peaks authors and documentarians, and on many episodes of podcasts like Obnoxious & AnonymousTwin Peaks Unwrapped, and Sparkwood & 21. I could keep going, but I'll stop there and direct you to this thorough, easily navigable directory of my Twin Peaks & Fire Walk With Me coverage for more. To say I've devoted more attention to this movie than any other would be an understatement.

How you can see it • Unfortunately, it's not as easy to acquire as the series (whose mystery, incidentally, it spoils - this is a prequel to the series' events made after the series ended, and is best watched after the show if you intend to watch both). It is available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon or from these sites. The best way to see it is to pay for The Entire Mystery blu-ray set which includes the film along with the series (and the deleted scenes from the film) but it's expensive. The New Line edition (which has the wrong sound-mix for the infamous Pink Room sequence, but was still effective as my own introduction to the movie) is also available for purchase, or for DVD rental from Netflix. I don't recommend trying to download, for practical as well as ethical reasons; deleted scenes and fanedits are frequently mislabelled as the film, so last year I created a reference guide for the (many) confused.

What do you think? • Does the film stand on its own? Do you feel the first part of the movie is a distraction from the second, or that it adds to it? How do you see this film's role in the development of Lynch's later work?

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2 comments:

Stephen Morgan said...

A good write up. Like a lot of people I liked the film when I first saw it but did not consider it great at all, and thought it inferior to several of Lynch's other films. After a considerable gap of many years I watched it again and realise now that it is his best film, perhaps only challenged by Mulholland Drive.
I watched it after the show and it is hard to say if it stands on its own. I know people who watched it before the show so perhaps it can, although to truly understand and appreciate it I think you need the show, and the opposite is also true.
I really like the Deer Meadow section and I can't understand those that don't. A whole film of Laura's troubles would surely have been too much to take, and I think the appearance of Jeffries and the Trailer Park sequence, for example, are superb. The "disappearance" of Desmond, with the mountains behind him as he walks through the grimy trailer park, is one of favourite images in the movie, or any film.
I think that Fire Walk With Me was definitely a turning point in Lynch's career. Although the critical reception was bad - something I still find bewildering - his later films are clearly closely related to this. I am still baffled by how many times I read that "Twin Peaks fans hate the film." Apart from a few people on forums who I suspect are just wrapped up in obsessive nostalgia, most TP fans love this film and I personally think that it is unlikely that they would have made the new series if this film hadn't been made.

Joel Bocko said...

I was surprised when I read the alt.tv.twin-peaks archives and discovered, at least among that hardcore pool, the film was received quite favorably by many big Twin Peaks fans in 1992. I think it's just that that group was so small and that many casual fans (and, to be fair, a decent share of hardcore fans) were disillusioned by the film's differences from the show. But I think most of the critical/audience pushback was to do with the film's disturbing content and avant-garde style more than any disappointment that it wasn't about Cooper's later adventures (the number of people who watched that late-season arc was the smallest viewership of the entire series).

Mostly agreed with what you write. Though I focused mostly on Laura in this review, I like Deer Meadow a lot - Harry Dean Stanton's delivery of "I've already gone places...I just wanna stay where I am" is one of my favorite lines in movie history. And there's just such a cool vibe about all of it, a looseness that was never present on the series and already lets us know we're not in Kansas.

Agreed it's hard for anyone who hasn't seen the series first to figure out how it plays without it. I think for me the main benefit of having watched the series first was that it mythologizes Laura to such a large extent that it's such a visceral shock when we actually see her as a human being in the film - and especially the extent to which we really see her. I think the character and her story would be powerful on their own, but the series definitely boosts that power in a very unique way, and adds an extra poignance (and a sense of subversion, since we never really were ready for this view after 30 hours of something else) that wouldn't be there if it was just a standalone film, moving as it might still be.

Here's an interesting article I don't really agree with (certainly I think the optimal way for anyone to watch Twin Peaks is the entire series and then the film, with appropriate warnings ahead of time). But it breaks down how the film works within the narrative in kind of a cool way: http://www.the-solute.com/the-four-placements-of-fire-walk-with-me/