Friday, November 30, 2018

Weird On Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Six: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

“Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
‘Fire...walk with me.’”

Rob: Welcome to Weird on Top, the only David Lynch scholarship on the internet. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: This is a big week for us, as we’re finally tackling the movie that inspired this whole adventure in the first place: 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Needless to say, our conversation may spoil the original Twin Peaks series, Fire Walk with Me, and possibly The Missing Pieces, the feature-length compilation of footage deleted from the film. Probably Twin Peaks: The Return, too. Look, if you don’t know who Laura Palmer is, who killed her, and how her story shaped the very fabric of good and evil in the universe, you should probably go figure that out and then come back.

Alejandra: We’ll wait here.
Rob: Good? Alright, so. Both a sequel and a prequel to the original Twin Peaks series, Fire Walk with Me explores the mysterious death of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) and the last days of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), both significant cases for FBI Agent Gordon Cole’s (David Lynch) Blue Rose Task Force. The movie opens with Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) traveling to Deer Meadow, Washington, where their examination of Banks’ body reveals a number of supernatural curiosities. Meanwhile, Agents Cole, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) encounter a vision of the long-lost Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie). Jeffries reveals further supernatural curiosities, including the existence of BOB (Frank Silva) and The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson).

One year later, we meet up with Laura Palmer, a senior at Twin Peaks High School. She’s beautiful and popular, but she’s keeping secrets from her boyfriend (Dana Ashbrook as Bobby), her best friend (Moira Kelly as Donna, taking over for Lara Flynn Boyle), her side jawn (James Marshall as James), and her parents (Ray Wise as Leland and Grace Zabriskie as Sarah). Juggling various cocaine and prostitution-related hustles, Laura is relentlessly haunted by nightmares of BOB and the mysterious Black Lodge that he and his cohorts inhabit. When she discovers a horrible secret that holds the key to her traumatic past, she begins hurtling toward an inescapable fate and grasping for the spiritual salvation she was unable to find on Earth.

Fire Walk with Me, though eagerly anticipated by Twin Peaks fans left hanging by the show’s ambiguous final episode (“How’s Annie?”), was met with mainstream indifference upon its initial release, grossing just $4 million in North America against a $10 million budget. Critics savaged the film: The New York Times wrote, rather gleefully, “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” Yikes. Home video has since helped rehabilitate its reputation (culminating in the Criterion Collection’s special edition Blu-ray in 2017), and it’s now cited by many Lynch fans as one of the most important entries in his filmography. At the very least, it’s a crucial pivot point in the Twin Peaks story and absolutely essential for those hoping to understand Twin Peaks: The Return.

Ale, I’m going to get out of the way and let you talk about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Alejandra: I have so much to say about Fire Walk With Me that I hardly know where to start. To me, it is by far Lynch’s most magical work in that it feels so much bigger than anything else he’s put out. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but there is just such a wide spectrum of emotion to be felt when watching Fire Walk With Me that I don’t feel to be as wide in his other work. Usually with his other films, I feel one thing pretty intensely, but with Fire Walk With Me I find myself feeling so many things simultaneously. Many times I even feel things that should be conflicting — terrified but safe, cold but warm, exceptionally distressed but completely comforted all at once. Because of this, it has become one of my most reached-for comfort movies. That’s a weird thing to say about such a tragic story, but I think it has to do a lot with the closing scene, which is one of my all time favorite movie moments and something I hope to talk about more later.

I’m glad you brought up the film’s rehabilitated reputation because I constantly wonder how much of that had to do with Twin Peaks: The Return, or if it’s only so beloved among Lynch fans while most everyone else still believes Fire Walk With Me to be terribly made. I never had a problem with the film, and obviously really loved it, but it certainly grew on me even more upon revisiting after having seen The Return. I think the two are so important to each other, and it makes sense for people to enjoy the film more today than they did in the ‘90s because of The Return’s existence. For that, I am eternally grateful. How do you feel about the film? Did you always love it or is it more of a newfound appreciation?

Rob: It’s taken me a number of viewings to figure out exactly how I feel about Fire Walk with Me. I resisted it for a long time, actually, and I’m almost positive I had seen Twin Peaks in its entirety at least twice before finally sitting down with it. It’s possible that its reputation at the time was so bad that I chose to preserve my positive memories of the show (which notoriously takes a sharp downturn in quality for most of the second season before rebounding when Lynch returned for the finale) rather than see everything collapse again into what I understood to be a disjointed blob of inscrutable nonsense. What’s more, without co-creator Mark Frost’s steady guidance, Lynch’s abstract sensibilities would surely take things so far beyond the pale that they’d become unrecognizable. Now that I’ve finally absorbed Fire Walk with Me, I’m happy to report that I was right. Left to his own devices, Lynch (with co-writer Robert Engles) delivers a brutal, emotional, and deeply troubling prequel story almost entirely removed from the quirky soap operatics of the original series. In a word, it’s perfect.
This isn’t to say it’s not without its issues or eccentricities. Fire Walk with Me should not be anyone’s first David Lynch film, nor should it — despite the “prequel” designation — be anyone’s entry point into the world of Twin Peaks. It’s completely inaccessible to the unengaged and, at times, barely follows the logical conventions of storytelling. Fan favorite characters like Norma, Big Ed, Shelly, Truman, Hawk, Lucy, Andy, Audrey, and Ben play limited roles or are missing entirely, and even the legendary Special Agent Dale Cooper is relegated to the sidelines (by request of actor Kyle MacLachlan, who allegedly resented Lynch absence during the show’s second season). That’s okay, though, because this isn’t their story; It’s Laura’s. Sheryl Lee breathes life into a character whose posthumous role in the series was that of a plot device. Laura was, frankly, unimportant. Her murder was just an excuse to get other characters together so that they could explore this weird and wonderful world. Fire Walk with Me, in contrast, makes her troubled and heartbreaking personal journey essential.

Alejandra: Yes! Going into this week’s column, I was absolutely most excited to talk about my journey with my own feelings about Laura. To be honest, I never really gave a shit about her in Twin Peaks because you’re absolutely right when you say that the show wasn’t about her at all. Actually, I remember being so confused as to why so many people felt affection towards her because if anything, the show makes her seem like a pretty terrible person. That obviously never justified the unspeakable things that happened to her, but I stopped trying to make myself care about her pretty early on. That is, until I saw Fire Walk With Me and fell completely in love with her. I don’t know that I have ever felt so deeply moved by another character in a movie before, or that I’ve ever wanted to save somebody fictional this much. Lee’s performance was chilling to the bone; I feel like her screams are still echoing inside of me somewhere. God, can anything even be said about Laura Palmer that would do her character justice? I just feel like I was able to see so much good in Laura that I could not see in her in the series. Her love for her best friend, her family, and the townspeople of Twin Peaks is so evident in the way that she refuses to bring them into the dark world she becomes a part of, and later completely loses it when she realizes she almost draws Donna in to it. I guess that was always present in the series based on how affected the town is by her death, but to actually see it makes a world of a difference. She frustrates those around her because of how isolated she becomes, but her choice to take on her demons completely on her own instead of involving those she loves is the most tragic element of all. I wonder if she could have been saved otherwise.
Rob: And then to have The Return not only revisit and re-contextualize these events (that moment on James’ bike where Laura screams at what appears to be nothing plays so differently after The Return), but then pose that question in an entirely different way: Was it ever possible to save Laura Palmer? If you could literally undo her death, would that actually save her? Could she save herself?

Alejandra: Which brings me back to the very end of Fire Walk With Me, which is one of the most breathtaking moments in film that I feel very lucky to have ever seen. Early in the film, Donna asks Laura whether she thinks if they were falling in space that they would slow down after a while or go faster and faster. After a long pause, Laura answers— “...faster and faster. For a long time, you wouldn’t feel anything, and then you’d burst into fire forever, and the angels wouldn’t help you because they’ve all gone away.” After her death, we find Laura in the red room being comforted by Cooper with his hand placed firmly on her shoulder. Confused at first, she is looking up at Cooper who dons a half smile as if to say that the worst is finally over for Laura. Laura begins to look away when suddenly, in a burst of blue light, an angel appears to Laura and she begins to cry and laugh. In a moment that has been etched in my mind since the moment I saw it, Laura Palmer realizes that she was wrong — the angels were there the whole time. We saw them all over Laura’s home in paintings or as figurines in Laura’s room, and finally, Laura sees them too.
Rob: Which brings me to the next important point: Fire Walk with Me also solidifies Twin Peaks as a story of trauma, its roots, and its consequences. In her essay “That Which Is and Is Not: Twin Peaks and Trauma,” Kelsey Ford writes, “Trauma’s impact on time can be severe and fracturing: Moments are lost, others are expanded beyond their import. It can feel as if we exist inside of a scene falsely or incongruously. Pieces don’t fit together. There’s always too little and too much of everything. Blink and you’re somewhere else, sometime else.” Though she was referring to the time-traveling idiosyncrasies that make up the back half of The Return (Your point about Cooper being in the Red Room both before and after his “first” appearance, for example), those motifs are born in the dreamlike, staccato storytelling of Fire Walk with Me. It’s here that Laura discovers BOB’s hold over her father and his sinister intentions for her. It’s here that we see the extent to which she’s forced to destroy her body just to cope with her pain. It’s here that she accepts her role in a glorious battle against pure, elemental evil.

Alejandra: I am so grateful you showed me that essay, and I’m so grateful for the existence of Fire Walk With Me. I know that it might not be the most perfect film structurally or in terms of writing, but as weird as it sounds, I think it is one of the most emotionally intelligent movies I’ve ever seen. It handles those themes of trauma and isolation exceptionally well, but I think the ending proves that Laura was never completely lost to those things which is an important message to remember when we each go through our own moments of darkness and desperation. I loved watching this with you, and almost feel like putting it on again as soon as we’re done here! Do you have any closing thoughts for Fire Walk With Me?
Rob: Just to say that it taught me so much about how to read Lynch’s work on a semiotic level, which will come in handy when we eventually talk about Mulholland Drive. Our logical, problem-solving brains always want things to fit together and make sense, but Lynch will never bend to that. Searching for 100% consistency in objects and symbols like Laura’s ring, the Log Lady, or creamed corn won’t get you anywhere. It’s about the emotion or instinct they stand in for, and once you give yourself over to that, you’ll find so much more depth and meaning than in a simple 1-1 association. I feel like a colossal douchebag saying this, but it’s proof that Lynch is literally painting with cinema. He’s creating dreams for us to play in that light up parts of our brains we don’t usually use when watching movies. Your appreciation of Fire Walk with Me largely depends on your willingness to have that kind of experience. I hope everyone takes that chance!

We’ll be back in a bit to talk about David Lynch’s first commercial hit, 1980’s The Elephant Man. Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.


  1. Fire Walk With Me is one of my top ten favorite films of all time and I still cite it ass one of only three films that genuinely scared the shit out of me and still does to this day. Being a fan of the series I couldn't wait to see this when it came out and I was fortunate enough to have caught it in the theater for the week that it played at my local mall theater. The theater was completely empty as well which just added to the atmosphere. I liked reading both of your thoughts on a film that means a lot to me and that I had to defend for years and years and years.

    1. I am so envious that you got to watch on the big screen. It’s probably my most watched criterion

  2. Great discussion! I agree with everything. I saw it when it was first released, but didn't really appreciate it (although Bob behind the dresser was one of the most frightening things I had ever seen). A couple years later, I got the laserdisc (!!) and came to truly love this movie. I think even if THE RETURN had never happened, this movie would still have found its niche.