Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: Fire Walk With Me

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: Fire Walk With Me


These short Twin Peaks episode responses are spoiler-free for upcoming episodes, presented here for first-time viewers who want to read a veteran viewer's perspective on each entry while remaining in the dark about what's to come. They were first published as comments on a Reddit rewatch in 2016.

In 1992 a Reagan Republican (you read that right) shifted the hero of his most popular story from a chipper, straight-arrow FBI agent to a traumatized drug-addicted teenage prostitute.

A highly-rated murder mystery, featured on the cover of every pop culture magazine two years earlier, was adapted for the big screen with the victim herself as a star, a gesture so subversive that, 22 years later, it seems preposterous to imagine a True Detective movie in which Dora Lange was the main character.

Sheryl Lee, whom David Lynch had plucked out of complete obscurity to appear as a corpse (she had only theatrical and local Seattle short film credits to her name) wound up carrying a major feature film with one of the most astonishing performances ever recorded on celluloid. (It's a mark of how good she was that despite Fire Walk With Me's awful reception, she received an Independent Spirit nomination - of course, in a just world she would have won an Oscar and gone on to a prestigious Hollywood career...if she wanted it.)

Nothing about Fire Walk With Me's existence makes sense. It's a film that simply shouldn't be there; as offbeat and inconceivable as Twin Peaks itself was, the film makes it look tame by comparison. What Twin Peaks was to TV, Fire Walk With Me is to Twin Peaks.

There are essentially two different groups of FWWM viewers (actually, there are many more than two, but we'll stick with two for the sake of simplicity). In the first group are those who tune in hoping for something like the show, who after spending week after week - 30 episodes in total - with the diverse, charming array of townsfolk like Pete, Audrey, Lucy, Catherine, Ben, Truman, Andy, Ed, Nadine, and so on naturally expect to check in with our pals and are deeply disappointed when we don't. And only about 5-10 minutes of Cooper, the man who carried Twin Peaks on his back? This must be some elaborate joke. The real Twin Peaks: The Movie must be hiding behind this one like Bob behind the dresser, ready to pop out and laugh at us for believing in the reality of a 2 1/2 hour horror film about incest starring a character who was dead the whole time on the series, and whose entire story - including her climactic bloody death - we already know. Not to mention the bizarre half hour prologue starring Harry Dean Stanton and David Bowie, replacing Cooper with the guy from 24 and the guy who sang Wicked Game. As strange as the show got - and that finale was straight-up experimental - it always stayed inside certain bounds, the conventions of a serialized narrative, even as it stretched those bounds past their breaking points. Stylistically, the episodes looked a certain way even when a Lynch (or even a Keaton) went out on a limb: they were methodically paced, featuring long takes and wide master shots, nothing like the quickly-cut, woozy-Steadicam, extreme close-up style of this movie. What's going on? What was Lynch smoking?

I can certainly understand that viewpoint in the abstract, but it's hard for me to understand how they can't see the other side too. The second group, to which I belong, feels like it has tapped into a hidden, crucial frequency. Somehow we knew this world existed all along, also behind every good or bad episode of the show, and especially behind the placid, ominous pilot. Watching this film for the first time, we aren't going a new direction, we are ripping the facade away and staring at what lay beneath the whole time. The disorientation that anyone will feel coming to this film from the show, as we amble along with a series of strangers (aside from Lynch himself), somehow feels right to us, like a dream that has just gotten more intense and accordingly more real. And when the theme music kicks in, over that comforting mountain vista, and then Laura herself walks towards us on the sidewalk, the paradox increases. We've never been closer to home yet we've never felt further away. Everything is different - even Donna. But this tells us not that the film has departed from a gold standard but that before we were hearing echoes and now we've reached the source. Like a visionary (or an acidhead!) walking around their own neighborhood and marveling at the familiar with new eyes, there is a feeling of lost illusions.

Fire Walk With Me gives me the same feeling as the final forty-five minutes of Mulholland Drive. Not deja vu exactly but, as Major Briggs put it, a reunion with the deepest wellspring of our being.

I've never met a character quite like Laura before. I do think the impression is deepened by the way the show builds up her mythology but I also suspect she'd have a similar impact even watching the film cold, at least for me. Somehow Lynch and Lee are able to take us right to the heart of the character without any expository monologues or "revealing" gestures/winks at the audience. We meet her as if we're watching her from outside, the way all the other characters are, but before long we really aren't - we're miraculously in her headspace. More than one observer (James Grey, Mark Kermode, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace) has noted that this may be the most empathetic film of all time.

It was despised. I mean HATED. I have never encountered a film that so many critics hated so much. This wasn't the usual snarky, relishing-the-cuts reaction, or the bored/baffled/let's change the subject response though there were aspects of that (they mostly felt defensive). This was rage, disgust, contempt such as has greeted few other films by accepted masters, certainly few this widely. Lynch has never backed away from the movie (when asked about it he says he likes it and has no regrets), but he's also seldom gone out of his way to bring it up. Along with Dune, it was the only film left off his filmography in the book Catching the Big Fish ten years ago, and I recently watched an hours-long Q&A from just a year ago in which every single other film was queried - but not FWWM. When it is written about now, at least by critics or scholars, it is usually in admiring, even ecstatic tones. Since the Entire Mystery blu-ray, I've noticed a majority of fans celebrating rather than denigrating it (before that, anecdotally, it seemed to me that a slight majority were negative).

But it still gets lost in the broader, casual Twin Peaks discussion. I wonder if Showtime will air it next year, when they supposedly will rerun the series? They had better, and not just because rumors, hints, and common sense about what has always drawn Lynch to Twin Peaks suggest that its shadow will loom large over "season three." They had better because Fire Walk With Me is the naked heart of Twin Peaks, and there can be no full appreciation of Twin Peaks without at least taking in what Fire Walk With Me has to offer, Laura's story in all its raw immediacy.

The first line of Twin Peaks belongs to Pete..."Gone fishin'". And what did he - and we - catch?

Garmonbozia: pain and sorrow.




Want more? Here's my other coverage of the episode:


More for first-time viewers (SPOILER-FREE for season 3)
(but be careful of video recommendations at the end of YouTube videos)

+ My "Journey Through Twin Peaks" chapter introducing the film, from 2015 (includes a vaguely spoiler-ish, and graphic, clip from LOST HIGHWAY):


+ And my most popular work, the chapter comparing the series and film:


+ And the chapter on the FBI's role in the film:



+ And the chapter on the spirit world in the film:



+ And the chapter on Laura's character development in the film:



+ And the chapter on the importance of the train car sequence (my favorite chapter of the series):



+ And finally, the very first chapter of the video series from 2014, which I can now share (it included clips from Fire Walk With Me and late episodes):


My original review of the film, from 2008

+ "Critical idiocy on Fire Walk With Me", from 2008

+ 4-part conversation on the film with Tony Dayoub, from 2014

+ Reviewing the film alongside Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid, from 2015

+ The film on its own (as part of a Favorites series), from 2016

+ Why Fire Walk With Me belongs in the Criterion Collection, from 2017

+ My appearance on a Twin Peaks Unwrapped episode on Fire Walk With Me, from 2016, is one of my many podcasts and/or interviews covering the film; check my Fire Walk With Me label for many more pieces featuring the film (those published after May 2017 may discuss season 3, and those published after August 2014 may discuss The Missing Pieces)

The comments section below may contain spoilers for season 3.

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