Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Fire Walk With Me belongs in the Criterion Collection

Friday, November 3, 2017

Fire Walk With Me belongs in the Criterion Collection


This is an entry in 5 Weeks of Fire Walk With Me. Next week I will discuss the history of the movie's production, reception, and legacy.

What is this movie? Is it a movie at all? Of course it is, and attempts to claim otherwise dissolve into babbling mystification. Yet they persist - primarily because the TV show which Fire Walk With Me descends from remains more legendary than the film but also because the film itself is so abrasive and overwhelming that it makes sense to retreat into the most convenient explanation: this is a TV spin-off and, good or bad, it can only be appreciated in relation to the series. Furthermore, many viewers, probably a substantial majority, reach Fire Walk With Me after watching two seasons of a surreal soap opera, so it's difficult for most to disentangle their knowledge of the show from their experience of the film even if the relationship is subversive rather than complementary. In a few weeks, I'll write about Fire Walk With Me both as a component of a larger story and as a standalone film (or perhaps several: a lucid psychodrama, a formally hypnotic art film, a hybrid slasher/American giallo/psychological horror flick, an entry in David Lynch's own unique bigger-than-life - and certainly bigger than TV - filmography). For now, I don't merely want to isolate Fire Walk With Me from Twin Peaks but to explain why it can stand side by side with the other titles in the Criterion Collection, which it officially joined two and half weeks ago. Fire Walk With Me needs defending not just for its place within a saga, or even as a bold rejection of that saga defined precisely by said rejection (still therefore dependent on what it negates), but as a movie movie, a piece of cinema history valuable on its own filmic terms.

Fire Walk With Me has always faced challenges with every opportunity, and the Criterion release is no exception. From non-fans, the reaction I've encountered has frequently been perplexed and dismissive. I checked out a few podcasts in anticipation of the release and was disappointed to be reminded that despite the film's impressive advances over the past few years, there's still a lingering misunderstanding about what it is and what it achieves. It is simultaneously treated as a curiosity because of its roots in a TV series (why is just one part of the story being released - is Criterion planning to include other chapters of Twin Peaks eventually?), and written off because its relationship to the show is so fraught (too little Cooper, loses the humor, you know the drill). Their eyes scan the title and stop at Twin Peaks, for better or worse - often the latter even, or especially, if they did like the series. Plus the film's reputation precedes it, and while it's come a long way from being booed at Cannes (sorry, Robert Engels, but the press screening was booed!) and ripped to shreds by Vincent Canby, no film that was once slapped with the "one of the worst films of all time" label can completely shed this within a couple decades. This particularly turkey is lucky to have flown even halfway out of the corn. Meanwhile admirers of the film have questioned Criterion's choice here too, especially when other Lynch gems like Lost Highway remain hard to find in their best possible package. After all, it's not as if Fire Walk With Me is unavailable in a pristine copy (though no one should overlook the financial incentive - not to mention the cultural connotations - of offering a standalone release rather than forcing people to buy it as part of a larger package).

A Lynch-supervised HD transfer of the feature film was already included in a deluxe Twin Peaks blu-ray package three years ago, along with The Missing Pieces collection of deleted scenes, an interview with the actors who played Laura, Leland, and Sarah Palmer, and a collection of trailers. The only new bonus features on this release are interviews with Sheryl Lee and Angelo Badalamenti (while it should go without saying that the former is absolutely nothing to sniff at - Lee's discussion of this intense role is always moving and insightful - the second isn't either, as Badalamenti's wonderful Mulholland Drive Criterion interview already indicated and his live performance of "The Voice of Love" here confirms). On the other hand, several extras from that earlier blu set are not available on these discs, including the excellent Moving Through Time making-of documentary and an older, more befuddling documentary from the New Line DVD (ridiculously edited, but containing some fascinating interview fragments). Curiously - cryptically, one might say - the segment of the "Palmer family" interview in which Lynch actually interviews the actors as the characters has also been excised. The booklet includes an interview already available in Chris Rodley's superb Lynch on Lynch book and even the cover art only slightly alters the theatrical poster used for several previous releases (though I'm quite fond of the larger flames and slight reframing of the locket, which recalibrates the familiar image with the subtlety of a Lichtenstein). All in all, is this just for the absolute completists or perhaps the presumably small number of fans who love the film but don't want to shell out for The Entire Mystery deluxe set?

Maybe...but from now on, when a budding young film enthusiast or a wizened old collector peruses the Criterion section while shopping for DVDs and blu-rays - physically or virtually, if the distinction matters - they will encounter Fire Walk With Me. This will have ramifications both direct (many will finally watch a film they'd been uninterested in, or rewatch it with new, appreciative eyes now that it can't be so readily dismissed) and indirect (it will come up in conversations, sneak its way onto lists, colonize minds that wouldn't bother if it was just seen as a feature-length TV episode). Context matters and re-framing a presentation situates us in almost subliminal ways. A Criterion edition is a PR coup and it comes at the perfect time, when Fire Walk With Me is both riding on renewed interest in Twin Peaks, and threatened by being swallowed up by that larger, occasionally obfuscating, phenomenon (case in point is producer Sabrina Sutherland's revelation that Lynch would consider recutting the film and drowning Laura's portrait in a surfeit of town ephemera, dismaying news that I'll write about further if and when it becomes more relevant - hopefully never). This reinforces that Fire Walk With Me matters, and that it matters as a work of art in its own right, not simply an addendum to something else. If its inclusion in the Twin Peaks box set of three years ago was the one punch, this is the two punch, even more vital to knock out the demons that dog it.

We can certainly survey the collection and note the many correspondences Fire Walk With Me shares with others spines in the series, even while striking its own path. Laura Palmer's gruff, charismatic teenage rebellion - destructive (primarily self-) even as it longs for love - gazes across the bridge of adolescence at its younger (yet historically older) correspondent, Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. Both move toward a final frozen visage although befitting the three years she has on him (or more likely the transcendence wrought from her traumatic death), Laura's freeze frame is wiser and more at peace than Antoine's. Like the knight in The Seventh Seal, Laura plays a game with Death and cheats her tormentor not by living but by tricking him into sparing the lives of others. The cruelty of her abuse is at times as stark - if never quite as graphic - as that experienced in Salo although her victimhood gains a defiant voice, unlike those pawns of a fascist elite, smothered as much by their film's coldness as their own brutal captivity. The dreamtime of the film, in which a bourgeois blonde teenage girl wanders off and disappears in a sun-dappled ether ("What's with that Laura?"), suggestively linked to indigineous culture, echoes Picnic at Hanging Rock without quite retaining Peter Weir's impenetrable ambiguity (no matter Lynch's love of mystery). And Federico Fellini, one of Lynch's most beloved filmmakers (whose deathbed he visited), captures a hint of Laura, however different, in his own world-weary yet perpetually innocent (and thus perpetually heartbroken) sex worker, the title character of Nights of Cabiria, who also cries tears of joy after what should be a final betrayal.

All that without even moving beyond Criterion #50! Let's stop there, as the point is made in a paragraph: this film tells as riveting a story, carves as evocative an atmosphere, and, most emphatically, paints as vital a protagonist as any classic piece of cinema you care to contemplate. Besides, Fire Walk With Me belongs in the Criterion Collection not only for what it complements, but for what it brings to the (formica) table. This does have something to do with the complicated, tangled aura which at times holds it back - because Twin Peaks leads people to Fire Walk With Me in the first place, the movie is able to sustain a fandom which most two-hour features cannot. Somehow, this avant-garde exploration of incest, a movie acclaimed by no less an esoteric auteur than Jacques Rivette ("all I know is I left the theater floating six feet above the ground"), a film featuring a ten-minute sequence during which characters must shout, subtitled, over a cacophonous dirge, can generate Tumblr gifs, pithy tweets, earnest fanfiction and video tributes, and the adoption of screen-grabs for avatars and icons across multiple social media platforms. I think this is an energy that art cinema desperately needs; if I welcome the bold big-screen experimentalism that Fire Walk With Me shoves into the comfortably conventional universe of TV fandom, I also celebrate the cheerfully blunt identification and emotional immersion with which Fire Walk With Me's fan following can saturate a film culture increasingly unmoored from its roots in mass enthusiasm.

On recent rewatch, I was also reminded that Fire Walk With Me, despite and partly because of its links to a genuine (if eventually rather cultish) pop culture phenomenon, remains a difficult film, imperfect, complicated, frustrating, never ready to be simply slotted away in its masterpiece status, however one is haunted by the lingering sense that it greatly deserves such plaudits. While the Deer Meadow sequence is a wonderfully bemusing sliver on its own, and both it and the more clumsy Cooper sequences provide a vital, subversive link to the series (cementing the film as a callout of Twin Peaks' privileging of the male detective viewpoint) I've never been fully convinced that they actually work in the context of Fire Walk With Me as a self-contained narrative about Laura's struggle to find her own truth. Lynch's narrative pivots in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive feel much more natural, even if this provided a necessary antecedent to get him there. Even the Laura sections are messy; while Mary Sweeney crafts some beautifully haunting dissolves and juxtapositions, working toward a rhythm that will manifest most richly in her later collaborations with Lynch, she has to struggle at times to assmeble the ill-fitting pieces; the high school sequences in particular are often awkward and ungainly.

The Lynch-Engels screenplay provides enough of a template for the finished film to achieve greatness, but reads as rather astonishingly sloppy on its own terms - a grabbag of impulses ("let's revisit all our town favorites!", "let's expand the mythology!", "let's show a living Laura", "but wait, let's also find a part for David Bowie!") - and not only cuts but additions (particularly the rewrite of the train car scene) were necessary to wrest a film from this mess, and just barely. The strain shows at various points. What bothered me immensely on my first viewing never quite goes away even though my vantage point has changed: Lynch still flirts with the idea that a demon-made-me-do-it excuse is necessary to explain a loving middle-class father's abuse of his daughter even as the movie challenges this reductive (and frankly, dramatically uninteresting) reading at every turn. That Lynch's love of ambiguity actually represents a turn away from the show's evasive possessive politics in this particular case is redemptive, but not entirely exculpatory of the fact that ambiguity isn't really welcome in a tale of parental abuse. Beyond this more fundamental compromise, the movie is imperfect in the way any real passion project is and must be imperfect: far from an intellectual exercise, Lynch practically vomited up this movie from his subconscious, a fever dream he was forced to share, even though it nearly destroyed him. As such it is bound to be jagged and klutzy, veering wildly between impulse and duty within a ridiculously condensed production schedule (from concept to premiere in less than a year). As Lynch himself said to Rodley, "It's as free and as experimental as it could be within the dictates it had to follow."

Perhaps perversely, Fire Walk With Me's flaws contribute to its gawky charm, an ugly duckling quality that makes one feel protective of the beleaguered property. The same is true of the bullying it received, all the more acute given the vulnerability it depicted onscreen - any vicious outcry against a deeply personal work is bound to incite a defensive response among those who appreciate its emotional opennes, but this is all the more true when the narrative itself is about a suffering, misunderstood martyr. Both the actual and misconstrued flaws contribute, along with the film's serpentine yes-it-is, no-it-isn't relationship with a larger Twin Peaks, to a never-diminishing fascination with the film's world. You can never come to a tidy enough conclusion to put it away and move on. Personally, the movie's raw, bracing power kept me from rewatching it for five years - I didn't want to impinge on the impact of that first viewing for as long as possible. Once I did return, however, I was never really able to leave.

My hope for Fire Walk With Me in the future, to which I believe its inclusion in the Criterion Collection can contribute, is that more and more people come to the film without knowing Twin Peaks and are riveted and transformed by its strangeness, its boldness, its compassion. I hope this includes not only dedicated cinephiles - keen on individual movies which capture your consciousness for their short duration - but also more casual viewers who aren't thinking about its place in a larger mythology or its contributions to the art form, but are simply transported by a story and a character who, however doomed, have achieved immortality.

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