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