Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Finding the Missing Pages: interview w/ Lindsay Hallam, author of Devil's Advocates - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Friday, November 16, 2018

Finding the Missing Pages: interview w/ Lindsay Hallam, author of Devil's Advocates - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me


This is the fifth entry in 5 Weeks of Fire Walk With Me, concluding the series.

With the explosion of Twin Peaks literature following Brad Dukes' 2014 oral history Reflections, it's become easy to forget how thin that library was for several decades. Despite its presence in David Lynch monographs and the occasional TV history, virtually no books broached the series as their central subject. Now, thankfully, our shelves have been well-stocked with scholarly studies, episodes guides, fan theories, and historical overviews. Even so, until very recently there remained a glaring blind spot in this collection. The 1992 prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has grown in reputation since its initial critical savaging and box office disaster, but most Peaks books still - of necessity - treat it as an offshoot of the series (occasionally, it's even sidelined as an irrelevant tangent). Certainly no tome took the film as its sole focus until now. Two books have been published since the premiere of The Return in 2017, one by Maura McHugh for the Midnight Marauders series (which I've not yet read but am looking forward to) and the other by Lindsay Hallam for the Devil's Advocates series.

Devil's Advocates - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is primarily divided into four big chapters: "Filled With Secrets: Fire Walk With Me as a Twin Peaks Film"; "Cherry Pie Wrapped in Barbed Wire: Fire Walk With Me as a Horror Movie"; "'Since I was Twelve': Fire Walk With Me as a Trauma Film"; and "We Live Inside a Dream: Fire Walk With Me as a David Lynch Film". These thematic studies are interspersed with a selective study of the film's plot (not exactly chronological, different scenes are aligned with different topics) and make ample use of both an overflowing bibliography and Hallam's own keen insight; the book manages the neat trick of being a grand survey and a personal perspective. Hallam, a British film scholar who specializes in horror and trauma cinema, doesn't just cite her fellow authors, she engages directly with their words: amplifying arguments, contesting claims, and connecting different points of view. She concludes her study by looking at the paratexts that surround the film (including not just the original series and supplemental spin-offs but Showtime's 2017 third season) and, perhaps most interestingly, tracing Fire Walk With Me's echoes in recent art horror films like It Follows and Personal Shopper.

While her scholarship breaks new ground, Hallam's enthusiasm is also contagious. She's a diehard Twin Peaks fans going back to her teenage years in Australian suburbia. We decided to start our conversation not in the bracing clarity of her final analysis, but the intoxicating confusion of her first encounter...

What was your initiation into Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me?

I grew up in Perth in western Australia, which is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world.  In the northern suburbs...Blue Velvet always felt like where I was growing up. I was getting into films - cinema of the 1970s in particular - and remember reading references to Twin Peaks. I found a video of the pilot and it turned out to be the European version of the pilot. And of course it has that different ending with Cooper’s dream set twenty-five years in the future - I thought they had found the killer already! I remember being completely bewildered by it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then I found there was this whole television show and I wanted to watch more. I went to the video library again and they had these old box sets. The second season, I think, was in three box sets. It said "Twin Peaks season two" and I thought, ok, well I’ve seen the pilot so I’ll check this out. It was the first episode of season two! Again I was like, now he’s shot? What is going on? But I ended up taking it back to the library and whoever had the first season had brought it back so I got that out.

For some reason that totally overwhelming, strange, completely confusing introduction actually made me obsessed with it. I had to go all around Perth - and of course I couldn’t drive at the time - so I had to enlist my mom and dad and older brother and sister to drive me around Perth and find all four of the video box sets. Your obsession grows when you have to work for it! I managed to watch it all. Fire Walk With Me came out in Australia a year or two after, ’93 or ’94, it took a while. It was rated R in Australia which means if you are under the age of eighteen it is illegal for you to see it. I had to convince my mom...my mom knew how obsessed I was with Twin Peaks, so she got it out for me. I hope I'm not getting her into any trouble there but it was many, many years ago! So there were always these obstacles for me to see it all.

There's such a huge bibliography in the back with all these different resources. How much of this recent literature and analysis were you familiar with going into the project and how much did you discover through writing this book?

When I was younger I could never really get ahold of the Wrapped in Plastic magazine - I was in Australia, and I didn't have money. I met someone at one point who had a few copies, and I borrowed and ended up photocopying them! I was just so into it. As I grew older and got into film studies, one of the first film books I ever bought was Michel Chion's book David Lynch and I made highlights and underlines and notes throughout that. And [Chris Rodley's] Lynch on Lynch is the Bible for so many people. Martha P. Nochimson, I read her first book [The Passion of David Lynch] and came back to it again as well as her most recent book [David Lynch Swerves]. I think she is incredible. Her work is in many ways the pinnacle of Lynchian scholarship for me. Also John Thorne's book [The Essential Wrapped in Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks] I had already, and the Full of Secrets anthology. A lot of it I had been reading for many, many years although I found a few things through my research. For example Tim Lucas wrote a really great essay for Video Watchdog that came out when the film was released. He was one of the few people that was championing the film at first; there were all those negative reviews.

I love the way you're in dialogue with a lot of the authors, particularly John Thorne and Martha Nochimson. I was wondering as well, not just in terms of the analysis you read but also learning about the history, what was the biggest surprise for you in this research process?

A lot of people thought David Lynch was just repeating himself. That was a surprise. In context, there was that whole thing at the time when David Lynch became so well-known. He was on the cover of Time Magazine; maybe there was a bit of Lynch fatigue setting in and people felt like they knew what he was doing. It was almost like he was doing this shtick again which obviously I disagree with! So that was one thing. The reason why I thought it was rejected was actually not the reason that it was rejected. Another surprise I found was something I mention in the book when I'm going through the scene of Laura's murder. I was looking at an interview with Frank Silva [who plays Bob] in Fangoria and he was talking about filming that murder scene and how they ended up filming it on Halloween night. On that night, near Washington, a woman had been murdered and her name was Teresa Briggs! There was this strange confluence of events and feelings happening around that murder scene, a weird art-imitating-life-imitating-art thing.

I'd never heard that before either. I had heard the fact that Halloween was Silva's birthday, which is kinda funny. But I'd never heard the darker part, the murder happening at the same time. Now, obviously this book is in a horror series, Devil's Advocates - did you want to write a book about Fire Walk With Me as horror and seek them out, or did you get in contact with them about writing a book for the series and decide to do it on Fire Walk With Me?

I was aware of the Devil's Advocates series and Jon Atkinson, who is the editor of the Devil's Advocates series, was at a conference that I was at. So I went up to him because I remember looking at the books, going, "I want to write one of those!" He said to e-mail a pitch, so I pitched him a couple of films that I wanted to write about. Fire Walk With Me was at the top of the list, and he got back to me saying that, of the four I gave him, he was really interested in either Takashi Miike's Audition or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. And I e-mailed back immediately saying I wanted to do Fire Walk With Me. My research background is in horror cinema and I have always felt like the film was very much a horror film. There was a piece online that the critic Mark Kermode put up a few years ago; he mentioned that he loved the film, that he felt it was one of the great modern horror masterpieces, so I remember thinking, ok, well I'm not the only one thinks this! I realized that was the main hook that I really started with: "How is it a horror movie?" And then from there I also wanted to bring in another theoretical aspect that I'm interested in, which is the area of affect.

Yeah, that was really interesting.

I teach a module called Cinema of Affect at the University of East London. I'd also taught on a class that is about memory and we do a lot about trauma theory. A few years ago I wrote an article about torture porn horror films and post-9/11 trauma, so I was familiar with this whole area of trauma cinema that emerged: trauma theory. Certainly, Fire Walk With Me fits into that category as well - the way it makes you feel. You have this visceral response to what you see onscreen, the strangeness, but also the connection to Laura Palmer and what she's going through, her trauma. Those are all the different things that were in my mind about the film, that I wanted to explore.

In the book you do a really good job explaining the idea of affect and how it pertains to watching film. For readers of this interview, can you give a very quick rundown of how you use that theory and those readings of cinema and what affect means in those terms?

In terms of film theory, over the past few decades there's been a lot of work (especially to do with horror - and with David Lynch) that looks at those films through a psychoanalytic lens, going back to Freud and Jacques Lacan. In response, there's been a turning away from that way of looking at films and trying to think more about how films are felt, how they are experienced as a bodily event. You have these very visceral responses and then you might start to think about what it all means. So it's not so much about what does this mean, but how does it make me feel? There's also more of a focus on the image, the idea of foregrounding the image over the narrative - and also how other senses are evoked through vision and sound, through the cinematic medium. It's this different way of thinking about cinema. I always say to students, in some way it's quite a difficult thing to grasp at first. Because you're trying to put into words things that are before words or before language or beyond something that you could put into words. When I think about my own love of cinema, it's all about the experience that I'm having. Certainly with horror cinema, it's all about that feeling that you get, that exhilaration that you get from watching the films.

One of the things I enjoyed too was the way you chose four frameworks to look at it through. Coincidentally, off and on over the past year I've been working on an essay called 4 Ways to Watch Fire Walk With Me and it uses three of the same four that you use: the horror film, the David Lynch film, and the TV episodes. The other category I ended up doing was an art film, looking at some European auteur-driven movies from the sixties, but all of those happened to be trauma films as well so it's almost the same sort of framework. What was your process of coming to use those categories to structure the book?

Obviously the first one was "it is a horror movie" because that was my research background and Devil's Advocates is a series about horror films. Then there was also my interest in this idea of trauma cinema or trauma theory, and how cinema is uniquely able to deal with memory in particular and trauma onscreen. I'd already written a chapter on horror cinema and trauma, I was teaching on that. Being a David Lynch fan, I wanted to take the opportunity to also talk about his other films and the fact that this was David Lynch's film and that Mark Frost wasn't involved. I think there was an article that you wrote just recently where you actually mention how Fire Walk With Me is Lynch's thing and then Mark Frost has The Secret History of Twin Peaks. Unfortunately Mark Frost is always overlooked in discussions of Twin Peaks as a whole. But I think in the case of this film, it does feel like it is Lynch's vision and I wanted to look at it in context of his filmography.

Also, there's been a lot of discussion again going back to the horror genre, people talking about this idea of elevated genre, of post-horror, of art horror, of indie horror, of all these more recent horror films that people have been saying, "They're not like horror, they're more than that!" Like It Comes at Night or It Follows or Raw or Get Out or The Neon Demon, so I wanted to contribute to that debate and say well, all these films that are being cited as elevated genre, hasn't Lynch been doing that for a long time? There's a very long history of arthouse auteurs working in the horror genre. There's always this point of view about horror, this feeling that it's this low cultural form and that it is just about scaring you. And horror films aren't just about scaring you, they can do so much more than that. Fire Walk With Me is a prime example of all that horror can do.

In the later sections of this book you're able to take that analysis of affect and horror films generally and just comparing Fire Walk With Me in the context of horror films, and apply it to quite a few recent films. You're talking about films that Fire Walk With Me may have influenced or where even if someone wasn't referencing it directly, they were working in its shadow. You talk about Neon Demon, The Witch, Personal Shopper, and It Follows. How did you choose those titles and what did you want to do in that section of the book?

There's been so much that's been written about Twin Peaks the series having influence on television today. You have the great book written by Andreas Halskov, TV Peaks, which does that extremely well. I wanted to talk perhaps about how the film Fire Walk With Me has influenced other films. And I know that there have been directors who have said that they really, really love the film. James Gray, who did The Yards, has been very vocal in his love for the film. Lynne Ramsey as well, her most recent film You Were Never Really Here is very much about the experience or the impact of trauma which, you know, there's certainly connections to Fire Walk With Me there. But the main films I chose were other horror films or films that straddled that line between horror or art cinema.

I chose films that have been part of that recent debate, and also that had a young woman protagonist. I think now that I should have chosen at least one film directed by a woman. Jennifer Lynch of course would have been an interesting director as well to talk about. I know Chained has a serial killer named Bob in it for instance. But also I think her work is really interesting. I guess she probably wouldn't want to be judged in relation to her father.

One other film I thought of is Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin; he's cited Fire Walk With Me a lot and Sheryl Lee had a small part in his last film.

The way Mysterious Skin is all about the trauma and impact of sexual abuse, Fire Walk With Me must have been a touchstone.

And also using genre stories as a means of dealing with trauma, in that case sci-fi and alien encounters. Were there any frameworks or perspectives that you considered and then rejected, or did you end up including pretty much all of the frameworks that you wanted to use to analyze Fire Walk With Me?

What ended up in the book was in my initial book proposal. The thing is, I was writing the book while the new series was on television so last summer was great - it was just a full-on Twin Peaks summer. Obviously while the new series was on I wanted to think more about that. So I've managed to get that in a bit when I have the chapter on the "paratext." Another area I really wanted to look at...I saw Bigger than Life for the first time only a few years ago and not only was I shocked by how good it is, I saw so many parallels not just to Fire Walk With Me but also to Blue Velvet. One of the things that really stood out to me was a parallel between the main character in that, played by James Mason, and Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, this father figure that's slowly unraveling and has this psychotic side. This patriarchal authority becomes monstrous and terrifying. Of course in Bigger Than Life, they have the explanation that he's on this medication. James Mason has this amazing scene where he's at this parent-teacher meeting; he's a teacher and he rants about how terrible children are. It's that dark side of the American small town and the nuclear family at the center of the 1950s.

Out of curiosity, have you seen Breaking Bad?

Oh yeah, definitely.

I was struck by how in the first episode, the first half is almost a remake of Bigger Than Life.

Yes!

He's a teacher and isn't he working at a car wash in both movies too? I would not think Breaking Bad and Fire Walk With Me have much in common but they have that thread.

I'm writing a chapter for Scott Ryan and David Bushman's upcoming book on women of Lynch. This will be a chance for me to explore more that connection I found between Lynch's work in general and melodrama. I mention Bigger Than Life. I mention Peyton Place. What else did I look at? Kings Row, this film from the 1940s with Ronald Reagan in it. I found out that the girl in Kings Row, the daughter who is sexually abused by her father and then murdered, plays the mother of a character in Peyton Place who is raped by her stepfather. And the daughter in Peyton Place is Hope Lange who ended up playing Laura Dern's mother in Blue Velvet. So there's this weird thread.

And of course Russ Tamblyn is in Peyton Place too, Dr. Jacoby.

There's all these actors. For example I talk a lot about Douglas Sirk films, obviously. In Imitation of Life you've got Dan O'Herlihy who is Andrew Packard - you keep seeing all these Twin Peaks actors in all these old melodramas. There were a couple of weeks where I was just watching all these old melodramas, it was so great. I'm not sure when the [Women of Lynch] book comes out but that's the chapter I've submitted. And again it was very much linked to what I was exploring in the Fire Walk With Me book which was about how these were linked to women's trauma. I could have written so much more! I was restricted in my word count.

The Fire Walk With Me book is very concise, but it feels extremely comprehensive. You've got the plot in there, then you do a deeper dive into different analysis of scenes, you do production background, bigger synopsis, the reception of it, how it played out in later texts, there's just so many bases covered. You mentioned that Fire Walk With Me was not something you'd ever written about, even though the film had played such a major role in your choice of career and particularly your field of expertise.

As I was doing my PhD, I was becoming more interested in horror cinema but...I don't know, it just took me a while to really start to write about Twin Peaks. Before, I felt that it was too close, it was my thing and I didn't want to share it with anyone else. Around 2015 there was a conference about Twin Peaks at the University of Salford here in the UK. And I thought, the time has come. That conference paper ended up on Senses of Cinema"The Television Auteur". Of course, with the new series I just thought, I want to write about it now. That opened the floodgates. From writing about it for Senses of Cinema, writing the book, connecting with the Blue Rose magazine, being asked to do more things on Twin Peaks. I also did a conference paper earlier this year at Sheffield Hallam University on the new series as horror and a conference paper when I went back to Australia in July. It's gonna be a while before I have stopped writing and thinking about it.

One thing I'd like to address is these contradictions between Fire Walk With Me as a horror film and Fire Walk With Me as a realistic study of trauma. I know on my initial viewing of Fire Walk With Me, I was troubled by the fact that it was both telling this very powerful psychologically-rooted story and then also expanding on the supernatural mythos of the show. Over time, I've been able to reconcile those things but I was wondering if you struggled with any of those elements.

There have been some articles that pointed out that perhaps the television series lets Leland off the hook: well, he was possessed by Bob. One of the things that you get from the film is that it corrects that. Firstly, by going into Laura's experience, which I think is so horrifying. If anything, making you feel that horror and fear and devastation along with Laura connects us to her. And I don't think it trivializes her experience at all, I think it takes you deeper into it. Also I think it shows more about Leland as well, for example with Teresa Banks' murder. It's Leland that's doing it. Laura also could've become like Bob or been possessed by Bob. She chooses not to but Leland obviously did. It's not just saying that he was just possessed and then had no will or responsibility for what he was perpetrating. I think the film explores that much more than the television series ever did. And I think horror films always have been dismissed as this low cultural form exploiting and glorifying horrible situations and violence. I just don't think that's the case at all with a lot of horror films. A lot of horror films are very much about trauma and the effects of it, and I don't think it's trivializing it in any way.

Is the film's importance as a standalone work of art at all compromised by its framing as one among many pieces of Twin Peaks? That's something you've seen more of in recent years, first through the Entire Mystery box set, which contextualized Fire Walk With Me as part of the series, then The Missing Pieces. Those deleted scenes are tied much more to the town and parts of the series. And then of course in season three Fire Walk With Me has actually been incorporated literally into the body of the series itself. Did you find any sort of limitations or complications with that or do you think it's mostly a positive development?

There's that whole journey of the film...being first of all derided, people often citing the television show as the gamechanger and then there was this horrible film afterwards that people dismiss. With The Entire Mystery, including it in that was correcting the previous dismissal of it and saying no, it is an important part of the Twin Peaks universe. And also the critical reappraisal that happened was important. Maybe being part of that box set was part of that. With the new season coming and David Lynch saying that the prequel was going to be really important to the new season, that probably made people look at it again. At the same time you had the Criterion Collection [incorporating Fire Walk With Me on its own], that cultural cache. If you're selected to be a Criterion Collection film, that's bestowing a classic status. So I think that was really important as well.

But David Lynch himself, especially when the film first came out, said that you could watch the film by itself. In some ways, I think you could. You could watch the film not having seen the series because it's so much about Laura. You're just seeing her life, and her final days, and what led to that. The bits that are referencing the television show, you could just say: oh, that's David Lynch being David Lynch. The weirdness, you can probably just not go into if you didn't want to. Or it could even spark some really interesting new interpretations of people trying to reconcile what everything means within the context of the film itself. I think being part of the Twin Peaks universe is good for the film because you can see how they can all work together and certainly with this new season, how the film inspired a lot of the new series. People have started to realize how incredible the film is, and that maybe everyone got it wrong at first, which is very satisfying to see!

Can you to talk a little bit about David Lynch's collaborators? I know we touched on Jennifer Lynch already, but there's also Sheryl Lee's role in actually helping create Fire Walk With Me. In interviews with her and Phoebe Augustine, they say they talked to him about the end of the script, feeling it was too purely negative. They needed something more hopeful and then he came up with the angels, out of those conversations with them.

Really, at the end of the day, no one would know as much about the character as the actor portraying them does. It totally makes sense that Sheryl Lee would know the best way to end Laura's story in the film. There's other interviews where she talks about that traumatic, really awful rape scene where she realizes that Bob is actually Leland. At one point David Lynch wanted to bring in a pig's head and Sheryl Lee just went, Nope. That's not gonna happen. I think it's really important to see that as much as everyone says that David Lynch is a visionary and auteur, and I agree that he is, certainly with Fire Walk With Me Sheryl Lee can also take ownership of a lot of the material. A lot of what ended up in the film, a lot of what the film is, is because of her and because of her performance. Also, the fact that she was carrying around Jennifer Lynch's book, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the fact that it was there on set with her, she probably was reading it before she did a take. That would have been informing what she was doing as well. Also Mary Sweeney being the editor, It's important that he had a woman also editing the film - it's great that he has all these women collaborators around him. That is partly, I think, why Fire Walk With Me is so successful, so emotional and so impactful.

Sherilyn Fenn in The Return provides an insight into that as well, where they wrote a part for her that she really didn't like and there was almost a standoff for a little while. They were waiting to film her scenes, and then her and Lynch worked it out. He wrote new material for her based on that refusal. Not only did he write new material, but I think that material itself, with the fight between her and the husband character reflects...it's very meta, put it that way!

And again, the actor would know more about the character probably than the writer and director in this instance. Lynch listens to his actors. There are many stories about how anyone on his film sets can come up with ideas and he'll take them on board. He has his own very strong personal vision, but he's not completely closed off from what other people can bring to the table. And it can end up making the product better and richer. The whole thing with Audrey, I know a lot of people were disappointed that Audrey came in so late, and it was just this strange thing with her and her husband. But it brings up so many more questions as to what is going on with her, where is she. That again is very in keeping with Twin Peaks and with Lynch's style. You don't get these nice resolutions.


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