Lost in the Movies: Critical idiocy vis a vis Fire Walk With Me

Critical idiocy vis a vis Fire Walk With Me

This will be my final post on "Twin Peaks," I promise (at least for a few days). Last night I reviewed Fire Walk With Me, acknowledging my ambivalence about the way the film mixed its highly disturbing subject matter with the supernatural elements. Since then, the film and especially Laura Palmer, have continued to haunt me. I must concede that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of those films whose raw power overwhelms any troublesome elements, ensuring the film, flaws and all, a place in the pantheon of unforgettable classics. Which makes it all the more astonishing how thoroughly critics missed the boat.

My entry makes it clear that, while I had problems with the film, I was completely under its spell from beginning to end. And that Sheryl Lee's performance and David Lynch's direction were astonishing accomplishments. So imagine my surprise when I checked out a few contemporary reviews; even knowing that Fire Walk With Me was not well-received, I was not prepared for the sheer vitriol it was greeted with by reviewers of 1992.

A visit to Metacritic reveals an abysmal average score of 28 (out of a possible 100!) Reviews range from tepid praise to unabated hostility. Here's Vincent Canby in the New York Times: "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be...its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death..." He was bored! How can you be bored with this movie? Repelled, certainly; angered, possibly; perplexed, ok. But bored? For good measure, Canby throws in a catty remark about Sheryl Lee (saying she looks about 10 years older than the actress actually was). Putting it delicately, what a jerk!*

Canby continues by shrugging in a too-cool-for-school way at Lynch's "modest" surrealism, in effect saying that he ain't no Bunuel. This kind of pseudo-scholarly attitude, prattling on about influences in lieu of actually engaging with the work, perplexes me. Fire Walk With Me, if nothing else, is a film pulsating with emotion. To be unmoved, to not even get a glimmer of its depths, suggests a severe handicap and, I suspect, discredits any critic from having the slightest idea what they are talking about. However, this seems to be a fairly typical reaction to the film. In Variety, Todd McCarthy watches one of the greatest performances of a troubled young woman in screen history, and yawns, "Laura Palmer, after all the talk, is not a very interesting or compelling character and long before the climax has become a tiresome teenager". At least TV Guide notes the "harrowing but poignantly sympathetic quality" of Sheryl Lee's performance and The Globe and Mail - which offers up the lowest score, a nice round zero - lambastes Lynch's work as "disgusting" and "misanthropic," proving that at least they were effected. These reviews are the exception; the typical critical stance was to stand back, arms folded, protected by a smirk and eye roll, completely writing this film off.

Whatever fundamental moral or aesthetic flaws Fire Walk With Me carries, to wave it away so cavalierly constitutes a total disgrace to the critical profession. Being eight or nine when the film was released and having no awareness of it, I was wondering if anyone who was around at the time, and is a fan of the film, would be willing to contribute their thoughts on what went wrong and how they felt about it now and then. I've seen compelling and fascinating films overlooked or misunderstood, but I've never seen a work of such power completely and utterly dismissed.

[In a few days, I'll finally write up an in-depth analysis of the whole series. Until then, I should get back to reviewing movies that don't take place in a small town in Wyoming Washington State. But for what it's worth, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was the most powerful cinematic experience I've had in the past year, and that's saying something.]

*Edited from something originally quite harsh. 3/15


Anonymous said...

This was a difficult film to "get" on a first viewing - even for fans of the series, because its tone was radically different (darker, more in-your-face realistic) from the series. It was universally misunderstood - perhaps as a defense mechanism.

At least Sheryl Lee got an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work - at a time when the Independent Spirit Awards still meant something.

Joel Bocko said...

There's no doubt about that - and it's doubly true if a fan of the series wasn't familiar with Lynch's feature-film work. But as far as the critics go, I'm not sure what their excuse was. Sometimes they sound as if they're just sick of Lynch, like he had his moment circa '86 - '90 and now he's just passe. Like a fad they were into or something.

I was glad to see that about the Independent Spirit Award too, but it only makes it more of a shame that she didn't really have a career afterwards. What happened?

(A cursory imdb search shows mostly TV work, plus an unseen-by-me modern remake of Notes of the Underground, one of my favorite books, which is described by on person as "a good movie" and another as "an absolutely wretched treatment." I'll have to check it out.)

Tony Dayoub said...

First of all, let me give you kudos on a wonderful series of posts. I saw your response to one of my comments on Glenn Kenny's blog, and it lured me over here. I'm very happy I came.

"I was wondering if anyone who was around at the time, and is a fan of the film, would be willing to contribute their thoughts on what went wrong and how they felt about it now and then. I've seen compelling and fascinating films overlooked or misunderstood, but I've never seen a work of such power completely and utterly dismissed."

Now, let me set the stage regarding FWWM. I had seen "Dune" in its initial theatrical release. Though I thought it was a mess, it was an exceedingly grand and beautiful one. Saw "Blue Velvet" on video and couldn't see what the big deal was... neither saw how great nor awful it was based on reviews I had read.

I saw the pilot for "Twin Peaks" when it first premiered at the Miami Film Festival, and was a fan of Lynch's from then on. As it has for many, it became a gateway into Lynch's work for me. Subsequent viewings of his earlier films were reassessed as I gleaned a new perspective of the man from his work on "Peaks".

We must remember, that Lynch's collaborator, Mark Frost, had an equal hand in creating the series. He had an even greater share of the head writing/producing duties once the series proper got under way. Lynch had left the show in Frost's hands midway through the first season, to direct "Wild at Heart" in the interim.

While he would return to direct the first two episodes of the second season, Lynch was not as involved with the second season. Not only was he busy with editing "Wild at Heart" during the production of the first half of season 2, he was out promoting the show.

At that time, "Peaks" had hit a saturation point in the mainstream media, as folks wondered who shot Agent Cooper all summer long. Lynch was the public face of the creative duo and appeared everywhere to promote it. I kid you not, it was comparable to "The Dark Knight" frenzy occuring right now. This culminated with Lynch appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and Kyle MacLachlan hosting Saturday Night Live the week Season 2 premiered.

A lot of pressure was on Lynch to resolve the murder of Laura Palmer, but audiences started to tune out, realizing that the answer may be a long time forthcoming. They had been let down since the matter of Cooper's assailant was left hanging upon the show's return. Caving in to pressure, Lynch agreed to resolve the identity of the killer for ABC, and came back to direct that episode himself.

Now watch that episode again. If the show would have ended right there, with the murderer still at large, the show would have had a perfect run. The end of that episode even seems like a good place to stop. But it continued, with an increasing descent into slapstick that, while appreciated by many fans of the show who enjoyed the characters (including myself), changed the overall tone of the show. Lynch had washed his hands of the show to a great degree after being forced to resolve the mystery. Frost had done his best to come up with something else to sustain the narrative. And MacLachlan was growing increasingly bored with the plot.

For a few episodes, the show seemed static as it tried to regain its legs, before taking off again with the Windom Earle/Black Lodge plot. Lynch knew the show's days were numbered so when he returned to shoot the finale, he trashed the original script, and pretty much finished the show with a deliberate attempt at closing the book on "Twin Peaks" while still leaving a door open should the show be renewed.

Two years later, FWWM debuts. Fans were looking forward to seeing there beloved Twin Peaks characters return. Though aware that the film would take place during Laura's last days, they had been led to believe that there would be some resolution to Cooper's dilemma, because of MacLachlan's cameo in a film that takes place before Cooper actually became part of the story. The backlash had started in the mainstream though, as the series was being looked at as having a great first season with a second, uneven, season that mostly disappointed.

As buzz started creeping out that the film was being dumped in a low number of theaters by New Line at the tail end of the summer season, with little to no promotion, the anticipation started to drop. The reviews were universally bad. But the death knell was the film itself.

If you were a "Twin Peaks" fan, it almost felt like Lynch was thunbing his nose at you. With the opening shot of a hatchet buried into a TV setting the metaphoric tone, Lynch followed up with a half-hour of screen-time devoted to characters we didn't know, investigating Teresa banks' murder in the very anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Meadow. Then a short cameo by Cooper which resolved nothing. Finally, a visit to Twin Peaks, where we see Laura hanging out with a Donna we never knew. Not to mention that numerous well-loved characters that had been confirmed to appear in the film had been cut out of the movie. And above all, the folksy humor of the show had disappeared.

I was shocked. But after the initial shock wore off three days later, I realized that the film had insinuated itself in my thoughts in a way so unlike the series. I remembered Sheryl Lee's performance. I was curious how Lynch had turned the series' inviting town, with its overcast skies, into the movie's undeniably sunnier berg that now seemed so threatening.

Above all, the movie accomplished a major feat. It reframed a decidedly supernatural story of a woman's death and its effect on a town into a more personal story. Now, the supernatural imagery seemed more metaphorical, turning the "creature" BOB into a girl's delusional disguise for her monstrous father who was conducting a very real incestuous affair with her. My sympathy for Leland evaporates after seeing this film. Especially since you never see BOB with Teresa Banks. Instead you see a middle-aged family man concerned that his first victim must be eliminated to protect his reputation.

While I, like you and many others, have come to appreciate this film in later years, I suspect that a lot of the "geek" fandom that fell for the show's more supernatural elements, were turned off by the more realistic aspects of the movie.

Effectively, Lynch had hit the reset button, bringing the tone of this film much more in line with the tone of the pilot, which chronologically follows the events of this film. He even hired the pilot's cinematographer for FWWM. And I am happy for that, become the film's insinuation into my thoughts has only been matched by a short list of films, including the series pilot.

Sorry for the lengthy answer, but a lot of this came to mind when I read your post.

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, thanks for the great comment (as far as I'm concerned the longer the better - it took a few days but I'm glad the Twin Peaks posts are generating soe commentary now.)

You did a great job providing a context for the film and the show. I can definitely see how expectations would be so brutally thwarted by Fire Walk With Me.

As for Mark Frost, I keep wanting to bring him up - feeling bad that the show's co-creator has been pretty much ignored (didn't he and Lynch have a falling out?) but haven't really had the opportunity to yet. An in-depth review of the show, maybe in a couple parts, is forthcoming so I will definitely explore his role there.

I never really understood the desire to wrap the Palmer murder up so quickly, but maybe I'm just used to today's TV world where unanswered questions become the reason to keep watching the series year after year (God knows, Lost owes an enormous debt to Twin Peaks for paving the very road it walks on). I can see why people would want to know Cooper's assassin, but not why they would want the very mystery the show is based on resolved so quickly. Maybe Twin Peaks should have been a miniseries (though then it's influence might not have been so great).

Your comment on similarities between the pilot and the film is interesting - I actually found them to be really different. The pilot, which I re-watched after Fire Walk With Me, has the feel of video though it was shot on film (due, in large part, to Lynch's fondness for turned-up audio ambience and for slow pacing and "dead time" - formal aspects which will be discussed in my review of the series). Unlike the other episodes Lynch directed, and certainly unlike the film, the pilot is almost self-consciously un-cinematic. Everything is very economical and pared-down, in consumate TV style.

Also, the tone of the pilot felt very from the film - more deadpan, almost postmodern in its simultaneous needling of and wallowing in soap-opera emotionality. Cooper's entrance into the pilot was extremely welcome - he provides a levity and joie-de-vivre which is lacking in the pilot till then, and is certainly not utilized in the movie.

When returning to the pilot, I finally watched the alternate ending. Really weird - especially the use of the red room for no apparent reason (if people thought Fire Walk With Me was maddening and obscure, they should check out the "international version" of Twin Peaks' pilot). Did you see that one, and if so, what did you think?

James Hansen said...

Again, I haven't seen FWWM in quite a number of years, but I have talked to several people who have watched it (because of interest in Lynch or just because they are film guys) who didn't know the show and all of them think it is a mess. It can be really effective for people who are looking for something in it (as it is for me) but if you go into the film and don't know much then it can really be seen as an uninspired, disjunctive mess. I don't think that, but it could be part of the negative critical reaction. And although I find comments about Lynch being demeaning to women pretty off base, people unaware of the series would just get more fuel for their fire seeing how Laura is treated. Alas, I think its a really good movie that, despite its differences, is a worth addition to a great series.

Tony Dayoub said...

A couple of things:

-Series long storylines were not in vogue at the time, mostly because networks still reigned supreme and hadn't found a succesful way of executing it outside the miniseries format. Shows like "The X-Files" (which I think also owes a great deal to "Peaks") did a lot to smooth the transition, by alternating "mythology" stories with "stand-alones". So did cable dramas like "The Sopranos".

-Funny that your perception is that the pilot was "uncinematic." The general thought at the time was how Lynch had finally brought "cinema" to the world of TV. That was the justiication for showing it at the Miami Film Festival in the first place. Not only did he use actors that were mostly famous for their filmwork, he shot it in an unconventional location for TV (i.e. not LA or NYC), deliberately failed to resolve the mystery before it ended, and let the thing have a pace of its own (advertisement concerns be damned). The scene where Mrs. Palmer shrieks at the realization that her daughter is dead was frequently cited as an unusually long and tragic scene for TV drama. Sure he played with conventions of the TV medium, but strictly to turn them on their head. For example, Cooper was the first FBI agent in TV history who's involvement in the case was ENCOURAGED by the local law enforcement.

-You're right about Cooper's introduction serving as some welcome relief. My point was that the pilot up to that point seems very closely related to the film in tone. But definitely not exactly the same. Now jump from the pilot to the episode where David Duchovny first appears as Denise Bryson and you'll notice the jarring shift in tone both storywise and visually.

-The international version is harder for me to analyze objectively. It's hard to say whether I would have been as enamored with that world or Lynch had I only seen that. Best to look at it through the prism of "Mulholland Drive".

That film started life as a pilot for ABC as well. This is why "Mulholland" has interesting non-sequitur cameos by the likes of Chad Everett, Ann Miller, and Robert Forster, actors of some note, but of little importance to the story proper. They would have been part of the ensemble cast, and their stories would have unfolded later had the pilot progressed to series.

When they turned it down, Lynch got permission to release it theatrically, and tacked on about a half-hour to give it a proper ending. The new ending begins roughly just before Naomi Watts and Laura Harring have their lesbian encounter, and makes about as much sense. But the movie got attention from critics and even the Academy.

I'd like to think that the international version of "Twin Peaks" would have fared as well, but I doubt it. Lynch was hardly the star director he is post-TP.

-I enjoy your blog tremendously and have linked to it permanently on my site. Hope some of my readers check it out. Keep up the interesting musings.

Joel Bocko said...


I can definitely see how watching the movie without knowing the show would make it seem like a mess (having no context for the red room, or Bob, or Mike, for example). But I still can't figure how critics saw it as uninspired. Oh well.


Your observations on the pilot are fascinating. Of course, you're right - compared to something studio-bound dramatic and comedy series of the 80s, Twin Peaks must have been a revelation. And some of the story elements you point out are also highly unusual. I guess it just shows you how standards change. I'd maintain that compared to TV shows of the time, Twin Peaks was comparatively very cinematic, but I still think there's a gap between the means used on the pilot and Lynch's other films (for what it's worth, I think Lynch may have narrowed that gap more with other episodes he directed).

It would be fascinating to see where Lynch would have gone with Mulholland Drive as a series. Actually, I think the film's third act makes a great deal of sense and actually makes the overall movie feel more poignant and tragic. I've noticed this with Lynch, for all the charges of obscurity and random bizarreness that get thrown his way, he usually likes to attach the vague, uncanny sensations he stirs up to specific ideas and actions. None of his movies are really abstract. I mean, compare Mulholland Drive to Robert Altman's 3 Women! Lynch doesn't seem to just do surrealism for its own sake, though it definitely has a power even divorced from the subject matter.

Anyway, I think I had someone spoil the ending of Mulholland Drive for my way, so I probably knew how to make sense of what I was seeing. But I definitely think it's more logical than the alternate Twin Peaks. Was the red room shot for this version and then only added into the series later on when Lynch didn't want to let it go? (The "twenty-five years later" tag certainly doesn't explain much, though it does at least let us know why Cooper has old-age make-up on). I'll have to look that up.

Joel Bocko said...

Hmmm, looks like I should have previewed the lost comment before posting...a couple errors in there.

Anyway, to tie things up, I'm very familiar with film history but not so much with TV. It's fascinating to see how Twin Peaks has shaped the history of that medium.

And thanks for the shout-out, Tony, I too hope others follow the link (and if/when I fix up my page I will put up a link to yours too).

Anonymous said...

If you want to see a really good positive review of the film, check out Ed Gonzalez's 4-star review at Slant Magazine. It's even included on their "100 Essential Films" list. He definitely seems to get what a lot of critics have missed.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Anon. - I thought I had read that one before but upon revisiting, it seems that I haven't.

The metaphorical aspect of the movie reminds me of a story from Jung's autobiography about a psychotic woman who lived in a fantasy world (she consorted with butterfly-like vampires on the moon) as a result of incest. I think this is the most powerful reading of the film and I guess what made me uncomfortable at the time of this review (I haven't seen it since) was the sense that the fantasy elements were titilating and exciting in their strangeness - it seemed like that had no place alongside the harsh reality of Laura's suffering. But troubled as it may be, this is a great, great movie that lives on in the imagination after viewing. It's still remarkable to me that critics not only objected to it, but appeared entirely unmoved.

On a different note, you should check out the political series I'm engaged in now - I'd like to see some discussions get started with the recent posts but so far no one's biting.

Anonymous said...

I was 22 when FWWM came out. I never watched the series until years later. I walked out of the theater in a daze. FWWM is, and continues to be my favorite movie of all time. Even though David Lynch, in my opinion, has yet to top it, I still will drag myself out to see his latest movie.

Lost Highway? Alright. Mulholland Drive? pushing it. Inland Empire? Didn't like it at all and I'm one to give Lynch quite the benefit of doubt. That one wasn't even in the same universe.

Joel Bocko said...


Thanks for your recollections - I love to hear from people who saw the film before the series, as most of us (including me) experienced in the full context of Twin Peaks and may have a different perspective. What were your impressions - aside from being dazed and wowed - of the film, given your ignorance of the larger Twin Peaks universe? I'd love to know how you related to it in that regard.

Surprised you weren't taken with Mulholland Drive, though - that was and remains my favorite Lynch, and I think it may be his masterpiec.e

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