Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unsung!: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Maybe for just one week the name of this column should be changed to “Hated and Ignored” because that was the reception this unique David Lynch film received upon its original release.

I have loved the work of David Lynch ever since a campus film society at my college screened his first film, Eraserhead, in the early eighties. I actually showed Eraserhead in my film studies class until I got sick of students throwing bricks and spitting at me; that’s how much they hate-hate-hated that film.

I think of Lynch more as a painter than a filmmaker – he seems more interested in creating interesting and arresting images than creating a coherent narrative. Lynch’s commercial breakthrough was Blue Velvet, which marries the obscure and disturbing imagery to a compelling mystery. By transforming his unique vision and images into clues, Lynch gave his bizarre sensibility a purpose. Viewers had to pay attention to keep up with all the sleuthing. Blue Velvet was a smash.

Twin Peaks, Lynch’s groundbreaking nighttime soap opera, effectively carried this trope to television. This was not only the first prime time network drama full of abstract expressionism, but it was also a murder mystery that invited the audience to sift through obscure and disturbing clues. Twin Peaks was a smash. No one had ever seen anything like it.

Twin Peaks, the television series, begins with the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer. The rest of the show focused on FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) trying to solve her murder. Along the way, he met all the quirky characters in the town of Twin Peaks. ABC abruptly cancelled the show after a disappointing third season; the theatrical film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released a year later.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me details the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the Homecoming Queen whose murder investigation was the focus of the television series. As such, it is both prequel and sequel to the series. We learn that Laura Palmer was involved with drugs, prostitution, and an evil man named Bob. The film is not so much a standard narrative, but (as Lynch once described his earlier film Eraserhead) “a dream of dark and troubling things.”

WHY DID EVERYONE HATE IT? People usually expect a narrative when they go to the moving pictures, and Lynch has demonstrated time and time again that he is not interested in linear narrative. His films are more like abstract paintings that can support numerous readings or interpretations.

It seems if you watched Twin Peaks on television (and millions did), you would hate the movie because so many of your favorite characters were not in it, and the film had a radically different tone than that of the show. If you did not watch the show, you would be lost and mystified during the movie, wondering what the hell it was all about – seriously, what the hell was going on? Ironically, this same phenomenon happened when Lynch directed his big screen adaptation of Dune. Fans of the book hated what Lynch did and the liberties he took, while viewers who had never read the book were lost and bewildered. In this way, Lynch satisfies no one.

In his brilliant deconstruction of the film, Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine, advanced another theory for why this film was so roundly hated (Vincent Canby famously quipped, “It is not the worst movie ever made, it just seems to be.”) Lucas suggested that, at its heart, both the television series and the film dealt with sexual abuse – that once one stripped away all the quirky trappings and abstract imagery, Lynch was detailing the heartbreaking tale of an abused father who goes on to abuse his daughter. This is a subject that makes people very uncomfortable, especially those seeking more of the cultish quirk of the much-lighter-in-tone TV series.

Another big problem was that Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper was barely in the movie. MacLachlan was a big reason for the original series’ success, but he wanted to sit out the movie, thinking he was becoming typecast in the role. At the ninth hour, MacLachlan agreed to a few days of filming, and that was the only reason the production was allowed to continue. It is clear that all the material at the start of the film involving Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) was originally meant to involve Dale Cooper.

Apparently, Lynch’s initial assembly of the film ran five hours. Every couple of years, rumors circulate that the longer version is finally being released. Oh, what I would give to see the five-hour Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me!

Yet in spite of all I have said, I love this movie. I got to see it at an early critics’ screening weeks before it was released, thanks to a former student who worked at the theater and snuck me in. I was excited to see the movie because I was such a fan of the television show. The movie did not disappoint; I held it in my head all summer long.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me is plugged into my personal horror zeitgeist. Like Hugo (though in a completely different way), I feel as if it were made just for me, that it was made specifically to make me feel anxious and afraid. It contains some of the scariest sequences I have seen in any film. Admittedly, I was primed to feel this way because I was an avid devotee of the original television show, which freaked me out as well.

PERSONAL CONFESSION: Every week, the Twin Peaks TV show aired on my neighborhood’s garbage night; I had to put the trashcan at the curb when the show was over. I feared going into the dark garage because I was afraid the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) would jump out and shriek, “Let’s rock!” David Lynch is definitely tuned into my “scared shitless” wavelength.

Some scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me are particularly noteworthy:

•    Laura receives an oil painting of a strange room with an open door; throughout the film, the painting changes.

•    Lynch returns us to the Black Lodge, where The Man From Another Place talks “backwards.” Lynch actually asked the actor to learn to say his lines backwards, then reversed the film. The effect is uncanny.

•    Laura’s murder is particularly horrific and contains imagery that is hard to take.

•    Have I mentioned Mrs. Chalfont’s nephew, the one in the paper-maché mask?

TANGENT: When my son was a little boy, one of our babysitters (Hi, Pam!) used to always watch Disney’s Peter Pan with him (on laserdisc, to show readers how long ago this was). After my son had been put to bed, she would always watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. EVERY TIME.  Clearly, my wife and I should have been more selective about who watched our child.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is currently available on DVD and VHS. The Twin Peaks television series is available on Netflix Instant Streaming.


  1. I was 15 or 16 when this came out, and I went to the first show on the Saturday of opening weekend. It was the first (and so far only) time in my life that I was completely alone in an empty auditorium for an entire movie. You think it's scary now? On that day it was absolutely horrifying. I've never been more scared in a theater, before or since.

  2. Another one I've meant to see but never got around to :-) I think I need to start with the show first though, huh?

  3. I hated Fire Walk With Me the first time I saw it. That was over a decade ago, though; I've really come to appreciate the bits I remember, and I'm excited to watch it again once I revisit Twin Peaks sometime in the next year (thanks, Netflix!)

    I was alone in the theater for two movies: Ronin and Narc. Still kind of creepy, even though the movies themselves weren't creepy.

  4. Terrific post, JB. I love your use of the "painter" metaphor to describe Lynch, and I think a lot more people would enjoy his movies if they approached them from that frame of mind. I've always taken that scene near the beginning - with the strangely dressed girl and the FBI agent detailing what all the "clues" mean - as Lynch playfully tweaking his audience while also reminding them not to miss the forest for the trees.

    Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is my second favorite Lynch film, after Mulholland Drive (I think Mulholland works all on its own, while as you already noted you need to have some knowledge of the TV show to understand FWWM). What both films have in common is a genuine empathy for the lead characters. The story of Laura Palmer is a truly tragic one, and it takes place (without the surreal imagery) much more often that most people would think. Just as The Shining is at its heart the story of a dysfunctional and abusive family, FWWM is the story of a girl who has been utterly destroyed by her father's betrayal. Not the easiest subject matter for a film, but I find it genuinely moving.

  5. Never been a Twin Peaks fan and haven't seen this movie but had always heard that what everyone hated about it was that it didn't really tell you who the murderer was....just that Laura was REALLY obsessed with oral sex.

    And I also agree that it's fair to call Lynch "a painter"...although I don't mean it as a complement.

  6. "Twin Peaks" was my favorite show when it premiered on ABC Thursday nights at 9pm, then Saturday nights at 10pm, and finally back on Thursdays at 9pm.

    This was the first television program I ever fully obsessed about, even keeping a "Twin Peaks" scrapbook which I still have.

    I love the film, read the script before it came out, and was surprised that so much was ultimately taken out.

    For instance, Heather Graham's character Annie is seen at the hospital wearing the owl cave ring at the end of the script. I would have loved to have seen that.

    One thing that has always stood out about the film is how anti-Twin Peaks it is.
    Once the TV screen is smashed, we are introduced to a small town where no one is friendly, including the sheriff and his secretary.

    Laura's portraits in the school and at home are flipped from what they were in the series.

    In a lesser film, I would say this is a prop mistake--but there are so many things like this in the film that it HAS to be on purpose.

    Laura's staircase now has another flight added on towards the left of the living room and so on and so on.

    Brilliant film, even better series.

    If this film would have done better, we were going to see Cooper/Windom Earle flashbacks in the next film culminating with what happened after the infamous second season finale.

    "How's Annie?"

    Cooper moved from innocence to corruption in the most frightening way.

    "Wow, Bob, Wow."

    Two things people should check out. Here's a scene that is missing from the final film in script form:

    Also, check out what Mark Kermode says about "Fire Walk With Me":

  7. Thanks for the tip on the Kermode piece, Cameron. I have been a big fan of his since reading his epic BFI monograph on The Exorcist (all three editions!) and enjoying his BBC documentary on the film "The Fear of God." Needless to say, I agree with him 100% in his assessment of TP:FWWM.

    1. The first video he ever worked on was the awesome "Fear in the Dark" documentary from 1991.

      His work on the British DVDs for "Dougal and the Blue Cat", "The Wicker Man" and "The Devils" are class acts too.

    2. I show "Fear in the Dark" to my film study classes every semester. It's the berries.

  8. I've put off watching this, because I never finished viewing the second season of Twin Peaks, and i've made a terrible, terrible mistake.

    Always enjoy reading "Unsung" JB, thanks for the great reviews.

    1. That's my story too, except I want to rewatch the entire series from start to finish before tackling the movie. So much to see, so little time left. :-(

  9. Ive never watched Twin Peaks. I was too young to watch it when it was originally on (either to be allowed or to "get it" even if I did). Ive also never really liked much of Lynch. I've always been turned off by the randomness, both in execution and in theory, so Ill admit that ive never "given him a chance or the benefit of the doubt". Ill take ownership of that. But as time goes on he is one of the few directors who I am not familiar with that continues to pop back up in my consciousness and I think I am willing to give him a proper go.

    I thought of giving him a go following the Lost Highway podcast, but never followed through. But now Im going to give Twin Peaks a chance, try to get through the first couple of episodes then see if I want to continue. Ive already got the agreement from my fiancee that she is down too, so its as good as done!

    "JB & F This Movie: broadening my horizons, one movie at a time." (or in this case TV show and by extension a director).

  10. JB, Pascal has been telling me to watch Twin Peaks for a while. This article convinced me. I'm a few episodes in. I'm liking it. I'll be sure to watch this movie afterwards.

  11. If there is one thing I have learned in this life, it is this, "Always listen to Pascal."

  12. 4you made my day! I m watching actually the blu ray of fire walks with le- excuse my english, i m french- and i love what you wrote, this is so true and i remember when i went seeing fire walks with me in theater, i was alone in the room and jeez i was terrified! Lynch kept what atteacts me in twin peaks - the dark side, the horror, the bizarre- and succeeded in doing a great movie while i already knew the end. Twin peaks fire walks with me is the greatest horror movie of all time and i remember a french journalist who compares it to texad chainsaw massacre!