Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, an appreciation

The other night, I watched what typically takes the slot for my favorite movie of all time: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s 1992 prequel to the then-recently canceled series. The film did not do well in its introduction to the world. It was famously booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and none other than Quentin Tarantino (there to screen his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs), previously an avowed fan, swore off Lynch as a director going forward. Its rushed production was also troubled, with several main actors from the series opting not to participate due to their negative experience on the show, and Kyle MacLachlan only agreeing to reprise his iconic role as Special Agent Dale Cooper at a reduced capacity.

The movie’s domestic theatrical run proved underwhelming and was largely greeted with lukewarm-at-best reviews, and at worst provoked a reaction downright hostile. Even some fans felt betrayed, watching the more comedic tone of the series swapped out with this unrelentingly dark and depressing and emotionally violent version. FWWM was written off as a failure that completely killed Twin Peaks, Lynch’s career as a filmmaker seriously put in question.

When I first saw the film I was twelve years old, and rented it because I’d always been curious about Twin Peaks. I had seen only part of one episode, shortly before the show was canceled, where the characters are stumbling around in a place called Owl Cave. At the time, I had no clue how mysterious cave drawings had anything to do with the murder of this Laura Palmer person I’d heard so much about, but I found myself intrigued. In early 1993, I taped Lynch’s bizarre HBO anthology Hotel Room, and although I couldn’t quite get my head around it, I still liked what I saw. I figured it was time to check out Fire Walk With Me, and see how I felt about the world of Twin Peaks.

That was a mistake, and one which changed my life.

I did not understand this movie at all. I followed it generally well for the first twenty minutes or so, but when David Bowie showed up as a phantom-like FBI agent, and then there were backwards-talking dwarfs and people in masks jumping around and creepy kids turning into monkeys, I was completely and totally lost. Things did not improve for the segment of the film dealing with Laura Palmer, where I was subjected to a seemingly endless string of scenes featuring this poor girl being abused and abusing herself and living in denial about her father molesting her, before finally being murdered by him.

Or was she?

That was another problem. I couldn’t even tell you exactly who killed Laura Palmer, and I watched the goddamn thing happen. It seemed like it was her father Leland, but then he kept transforming into this ugly long-haired biker dude named BOB. Was BOB real and Leland Palmer possessed? Was this just in Laura’s head because she couldn’t face the truth? Was some other weird thing happening and I just didn’t get it? I felt like I’d spent an eternity trapped in someone else’s debilitating nightmare. By the time the movie mercifully ended, I wasn’t sure if I liked or hated it, and immediately went to bed.

Then I woke up the next morning, and decided I loved Fire Walk With Me. Its mysteries were in some ways infuriating, but also held me captive. Not long after, I fell into the universe of Twin Peaks, and the further filmography of David Lynch, and nothing was the same ever again. It changed the way I saw movies, taught me that art isn’t a bad word, and started me on the path of accepting myself as a creative person.

The movie still matters to me. In the intervening years, I’ve seen it many times, and its appeal has never wavered even as I’ve changed and grown. It’s certainly become more difficult to watch in some ways, as I’ve now personally known people who’ve endured things like rape and molestation, or suffered from drug addiction and other self-destructive behavior. But I still see it as an underrated, powerful film, one which does not damage the legacy of Twin Peaks but simply puts a different (and necessary) spin on it.

There are some schools of criticism which approach the movie as David Lynch’s rebuttal to the TV series, an attempt at course correction towards an artistic mistake. Lynch himself has always been critical of the direction of the show’s second and final season. A variety of factors impeded his involvement with season two: his commitments to Wild At Heart meant he could not co-write the opening handful of episodes (though Lynch did return in time to direct them), leaving more day-to-day creative decisions in the hands of co-creator Mark Frost; he reportedly did not get along with Harley Peyton, one of the main writers of the series; he disagreed with the decision to reveal Laura’s killer midway through the show, a revelation originally not meant to come until near the end of the story; and he found himself unprepared for the rigors and demanding schedule involved in making a weekly television series.

However, I take issue with this assessment that the prequel was Lynch’s pointed effort to annihilate the series, as if he is an intellectual film genius and the lowly television writers didn’t understand his vision. It’s very tempting to see it this way, of course, but the fact of the matter is that Twin Peaks is a product of both David Lynch and Mark Frost. Though Frost was not involved with FWWM (he was busy directing his film Storyville), he and Lynch have always shared a kind of creative symbiosis, and this pitting by critics of Lynch’s more abstract approach against Frost’s more literal take is to deny the creative partnership which birthed Twin Peaks in the first place.

And while some elements of Twin Peaks are often attributed to the other writers — in particular, the increasingly supernatural aspects of the story — Frost has confirmed that many of these ideas actually came from himself and Lynch, as they were excited to introduce a mystical level to the show.

What Fire Walk With Me does do, however, is not react against the series so much as shatter its limits. The very opening image depicts a static-laden television being smashed into oblivion, a sly nod that we are no longer bound by the constraints of broadcast TV. Likewise, the initial segment of the film — which is more rooted in the cadences and humor of the series — is styled almost as an anti-Twin Peaks. Everything about Deer Meadow is cleverly constructed as an opposite or negative image of the show. Sheriff Cable is unhelpful and antagonistic, his department quite possibly corrupt. Hap’s Diner is a grotesque, half-dead parody of the RR. Instead of the Great Northern, we have the Fat Trout Trailer Park, where Carl Rodd answers the show’s famous line about a damn fine cup of coffee with “That’s the best GODDAMN coffee you’re gonna get anywhere, buddy.” And Agent Chester Desmond proves to be the opposite of Cooper: cocky, sarcastic, secretive, and not as constrained by rules. (His initials are even the reverse of Cooper’s).

Obviously, the most direct way the movie breaks the chains of the show is in its depiction of sex, violence, and drug use. But that feels superficial compared to the larger impact the film has in relation to its source material. Namely, this is a story about rape and self-hatred. Deep, deep self-hatred. Since the show saved the revelation that Leland Palmer killed his daughter until shortly before his demise, the audience was never forced to really process the uncomfortable implications of that reveal. For most of the series we see Leland as a broken man unable to cope with the loss of his daughter. He is empathetic, his grief palpable. The viewer only witnesses the truly insane and animalistic side of Leland for a few episodes, and never interacting with the now long-dead Laura.

Fire Walk With Me is an attempt to no longer let us off the hook. Here, we are confronted with the horrible reality that the Palmer household was never as we imagined it. Leland could be an openly abusive, frightening presence in the home. Sarah Palmer is clearly aware of the truth, on some level, but lives in such deep denial that her neuroses now come off less as those of a grieving mother (as presented in the series), and more of a damaged, long-suffering woman on the verge of collapsing. And Laura dwells in a state of confusion, where her home life can turn against her at any moment, and a terrifying awareness is constantly on the periphery of her mind. She throws herself into dangerous situations not because she’s seeking excitement, but because her life is unsafe anyway.

This all reads as much more severe than the implications of the show, where Leland simply had a double life as a possessee of an evil spirit named BOB, his darker existence a well-kept secret hidden from almost everyone. It’s much more difficult and terrifying to see him as a man openly terrorizing his own daughter, and Sarah complicit in the abuse she won’t let herself confront.

Laura too is in denial. A part of her knows BOB is really her father. Moreover, we now see how afraid Laura is of becoming like Leland, of growing into a dual existence where she is a functional and beloved member of the community on the outside but a corrupt, malicious person slowly killing herself in secret. (Making her an undeniable incarnation of the town as a whole). Laura certainly has that darkness. She manipulates and uses others, numbs herself to pain, and is seduced and tempted by what BOB represents. She can feel corruption growing within her, the trend towards abuse inherited.

Perhaps one of the greatest stretches of film Lynch has ever directed is the segment focused on Laura’s wild night out, where she goes from the Roadhouse to a club on the Canadian border (revealed to be called the Power & the Glory in the deleted scenes). Outside of the Roadhouse, Laura is accosted by the Log Lady, who recites an almost-poem about the loss of innocence. A shaken Laura sobs hysterically in the bar as Julee Cruise sings “Questions in a World of Blue,” eerily reflecting Laura’s emotional state. Laura finally compartmentalizes her devastation, resuming her evening of prostituting herself, and travels to the Canadian bar where she proceeds to get high and drunk and humiliate her best friend Donna just because she can.

This sequence is nothing if not the dark centerpiece of the movie. No scene in the film illustrates the depth of Laura’s sadness and self-inflicted shame as much as those moments in the Roadhouse, where it becomes heartbreakingly clear how desperate and lonely she truly is. For a brief second, the reality of what she’s doing to herself crushes her very being. Laura wants to be loved, and despite all the men in her life, she is not loved. She is used, abused, obsessed over, but not loved, many of these men parasitically dependent upon her for their emotional and sexual needs. (It’s not for nothing that the main musical theme of the movie is an instrumental version of a song called “She Would Die For Love”). And the people who do love Laura either mistreat her, or she in turn mistreats them. In this moment, Donna (who’s secretly followed Laura to the Roadhouse) is really the only person in the world who cares about her. Laura responds by turning the rest of the night into a very drawn out “fuck you” to Donna.

Like that, the evening flips, and we move to the nightmare version of the Roadhouse, the Power & the Glory. The place is presented as a hellscape of indulgence, its floor coated in a film of grime and beer bottles and lit cigarettes. Julee Cruise’s ethereal, angelic voice is replaced with a harsh, monotonous, punishingly loud form of psychedelic blues metal. The dialogue is so overtaken by the music that the scene has to be subtitled, providing an echo to the subtitles of the Black Lodge. Laura gets lost in the debauchery, but she snaps out of it when she sees a drunk, half-naked Donna getting ready to fuck one of Laura’s johns. Laura halts the evening and drags Donna back home. “I don’t want you to be like me,” Laura tells her the next morning.

For anyone unsure as to what the point of FWWM really is, it becomes unmistakable here. We are watching a woman trying to destroy herself. She wants to die, and we know she will die. This segment of the film is like a macro version of Laura’s broken heart necklace: we see the part of her that is dying for love, and then the part of her that kills and poisons what she loves. All of this comes back to BOB, and the sick, festering vehemence that he represents. It’s made crystal clear that BOB means to make Laura his new host. When Laura places the Lodge ring on her finger in the train car, she is choosing to die. She is choosing to not pass this abuse and darkness onward.

Fire Walk With Me is often as frightening as any horror movie. This is not to mention Lynch’s proclivity for wresting deeply disturbing images out of mundane things, be it a utility pole, creamed corn, or the close-up of a monkey’s face. But scenes such as Laura suddenly encountering BOB lurking in her bedroom, or of her screaming at something in the woods only she can see (during her final conversation with James), continue to unsettle, all these years later.

So, is BOB real? This appears to be one of the central questions of Twin Peaks, and apparently answered in the show’s second season. After all, following Leland’s death, the characters openly debated BOB’s existence, only for the final episode (where Cooper emerges from the Black Lodge inhabited by BOB) to confirm that BOB is not just a psychological invention.

Yet, it is undeniable that one very correct reading of FWWM on its own is that BOB is a delusion, created and shared by father and daughter to hide the truth from themselves. Leland has been raping his daughter for years, and a much more comfortable reality is that he’s merely been invaded by an alien entity, his actions out of his control.

On a non-literal level, this is exactly one of the key meanings of Fire Walk With Me . . . that we prefer to see evil not as a potential within even the most ostensibly normal or conventionally happy people, but as an outside force which overtakes us, given form in the exaggerated representation of something like BOB. If one were to extend this into a more literal interpretation, it can be argued that many of the otherworldly elements are simply Laura’s fantasy, a world into which she’s retreated. Bowie’s character of Phillip Jeffries even states “we live inside a dream.” Who’s dream would this be, if not Laura’s?

However, this is tempered somewhat by the fact that BOB, like many concepts that are associated with evil or the demonic, does not necessarily have to be Evil with a capital E, but a manifestation of man’s repressed primal instincts. For power. For sex. For violence. For sensation. We hide from these urges, deny them, push them away, and they come to life as something vicious and unstoppable. Albert even states this in the series, when he muses “Maybe that’s all BOB is: the evil that men do.” This strikes to the very heart of Twin Peaks, which depicts a world where civilization, normalcy, and apparent goodness are always at war with baser tendencies. In a way, BOB feels like a force of nature, as much as the mountains or the forests, but the more sinister, chaotic aspect of nature. In this respect, BOB is the Beast, the figurehead for these amoral/immoral impulses.

In fact, this interpretation of BOB allows for a more nuanced viewing of the story’s depiction of supposed possession. Instead of it simply being that Leland is controlled by BOB, and therefore free of any responsibility for his actions, it can be argued that BOB does not possess others as much as he lives through and manipulates their dark sides. Just as the White Lodge has the Black, all people have a shadow self, and it is this shadow self to which BOB attaches. In a sense, Leland and (later) Cooper are not possessed: their dark sides or doppelgangers are now running the show, under the influence of BOB, who feeds on fear and impulsive behavior. Where exactly does Leland’s dark side end and BOB begin? The line is blurry, and becomes blurrier the longer this experience goes on. FWWM depicts Leland as being any which way at any possible time, which increases how threatening he is to us and to Laura, because we can never find our footing.

No matter if BOB is an abstraction for man’s base nature, a literal delusion, or true otherworldly presence, he serves largely the same function, because in each of these readings, we are not absolved from being part of that darkness. The truth of whether he is metaphorically a fantasy or actually a fantasy is almost irrelevant.

But in regards to the supernatural elements of Twin Peaks, FWWM significantly expands what was introduced on the series. Perhaps the most potent revelation is that the beings we often associate with the Lodge(s) are suggested to be a group of spirits or aliens, meddling in human affairs. In addition to BOB and the Little Man From Another Place, we also see the return of Mrs. Tremond and her grandson (now known as the Chalfonts) and the addition of mysterious new characters such as the Electrician and the Woodsman. The film confirms that the Little Man is Mike, or at least Mike’s dark side that he claims to have cast off. However, similar to how it presents the Palmers, the movie clouds our understanding of Mike by showing him still vulnerable to his addiction, in this case pain and suffering. Like an addict — and despite the fact that Mike (through Philip Gerard) is trying to stop BOB — after Laura’s murder he ventures into the Lodge to receive his fix of garmonbozia.

We also witness the introduction of Phillip Jeffries, who disappeared while investigating a case involving a woman named Judy and now has some connection to the power of the Lodge. Jeffries is hinted to have possibly caused a distortion in space and time, which fits with the movie’s non-linear take on the concept, as Cooper is also shown in sequences set after the series despite this being a prequel.

(Apart from these more heady mythological revelations, the movie cleverly and quietly resolves some questions from the series, clarifying the origins of “Let’s rock!” and Mike’s cryptic reference to the “stitches with the red thread,” and also finally explaining who the “Sam” is that Cooper mentioned in the pilot).

In 2014 fans had the experience of watching the film in a whole new light, following the release of The Missing Pieces, Lynch’s feature length assemblage of many of the movie’s deleted and extended scenes. It acts as a type of canonical appendix to the main feature (or “More Things That Happened,” in Lynchian deleted scene parlance). The Missing Pieces amends one of the most grievous elements of FWWM: the omission of many characters from the original series. Pete, Nadine, Ed, Doc Hayward, Major Briggs, Josie, Dr. Jacoby, Lucy, Andy, Hawk and most notably Sheriff Truman are all nowhere to be found in the movie, though their respective actors had filmed scenes. (Some characters — such as Ben and Jerry Horne— were featured in scripted scenes ultimately scrapped before shooting, while others such as Audrey, Windom Earle, Catherine, Andrew, and Jean Renault never made it into the first official draft, for various reasons).

These missing pieces are lovely and wonderful and a revelation after a 22-year period of no Twin Peaks, but Lynch was right to delete them, as most feel like throwaways from the series and are therefore tonally at odds with the main story of Laura Palmer. A hilarious clip showing Lucy rambling about how raccoons won’t leave her aunt alone, for instance, feels out of place in a film focused on an abused girl’s impending murder. The most emotionally relevant deleted scenes refer back to Laura, in particular one showing the Palmer family goofing around while discussing the upcoming visit of the Norwegians (depicting the lighter, happier side of the family, otherwise not found in the movie). Another, truly touching moment features the Haywards attempting to comfort Laura, but they themselves are haunted by something unspoken, the truth about Laura hanging in the air.

Some of the deleted scenes do deepen the show’s mythology, however. Of particular import is the extremely extended sequence involving Jeffries, showing his side of the events depicted in the final film. These scenes make it very clear that Jeffries is (unintentionally) time traveling and/or teleporting, using the same bizarre electrical energy as BOB and his ilk. It also expands the “meeting” between the Lodge beings above the convenience store, illustrating that they are indeed from another world and have used electrical currents to manifest in our plane of reality. (The addition of Laura’s demonically grinning face, superimposed as Jeffries slides between two points in time before finally appearing in Philadelphia, could either be read as this being her fantasy, or that she is a conduit for these beings which have chosen her and has become increasingly susceptible to their power).

The supernatural elements of Fire Walk With Me speak to David Lynch’s own preoccupation with certain concepts, namely spirituality and the thin line between dreams and the so-called real world. FWWM actually touches on a handful of notions that Lynch explored in his now infamous unproduced screenplay Ronnie Rocket. That script, subtitled “The Absurd Mystery of the Strange Forces of Existence,” featured worlds within worlds, and beings who use electricity to manipulate reality. Fire Walk With Me represents Lynch’s return to these ideas, incorporating them into the world of Twin Peaks and its mythology while staying true to what was previously established in the two seasons of the show.

Though critics tend to focus on the ripe psychological implications of his work, Lynch has at his core always been a spiritual filmmaker. Look no further than Eraserhead to see his concerns. We first see Henry in a formless, floating state, the soul waiting to be made manifest. He is then born into a world of darkness and decay and absurdity, becoming lost within himself as he tries to find a sense of escape from the gnawing anxieties of his mind and the meaninglessness of everyday life. Finally he enters a place of light and purity, though it’s unclear if he has found true peace or collapsed into an illusion.

Following Eraserhead, Lynch’s films became less overtly abstract. The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Wild At Heart all have straightforward narratives, at least on the surface. Fire Walk With Me saw him return to a less concrete realm, one in which he’s primarily stayed for the remainder of his career (with the exception of the very appropriately titled The Straight Story). Because Lynch is an abstract artist working in a medium that often demands a clear-cut and literal storyline, his later films tend to blur the division between the concrete and the abstract, allowing them to exist in multiple dimensions — literal, psychological, spiritual — at once.

Lost Highway involves a man who has seemingly entered into a fantasy to avoid facing the fact that he murdered his wife, reinventing himself as someone else only to have that fantasy world infiltrated by the very paranoia and obsession which drove him to violence in the first place. Mulholland Dr., meanwhile, features the opposite structure, where the first two-thirds of the film are a dreamworld in the mind of a struggling actress, before she awakes in the final third and faces the much grimmer reality of her life, like a satanic inversion of The Wizard of Oz.

But while those are the definite narrative breakdowns of each film, both of them offering a form of psychological structure, there are implications which go beyond the psychological, since in each film the characters encounter something from their fantasies in what is supposedly the real world. (Fred meets the demonic Mystery Man, whereas Betty/Diane sees the Cowboy and the menacing elderly couple). To reduce either movie solely to a discussion of “this part was real, this part was a dream” is to somewhat diminish their power by making their narratives too literal. Likewise, simply saying “Fred met an evil wizard” or “Betty is trapped in an alternate universe” is also to make them too literal.

David Lynch depicts state of being, where the outside world transforms to reflect the inner spiritual worlds of his characters. Not merely their psychological states, but the existential confusion which arises from no longer understanding what is happening to them. Whether Fred has tricked himself into living in an illusion where he doesn’t have to own up to murdering his wife, or he’s for some reason the mark of cosmic forces which are toying with him, he ends up in the same place: confused, afraid, paranoid, and doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, be that mentally, in a time loop, or through some type of reincarnation. Likewise, Betty/Diane has her former lover murdered, and even though the first two-thirds of the film are quite literally a dream, the entire movie is really her metaphysical nightmare, a sort of Bardo Thodol where she’s forced to confront the failure of her dreams, the illusory nature of Hollywood, and the sins she herself has committed.

Look no further than Lynch’s Inland Empire for the ultimate manifestation of this approach. The movie is a dense and complex web of stories within stories, dreams within dreams, identities within identities, a labyrinth of many small worlds. The more concrete narrative frames of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. — this part is real, this part is a fantasy— are gone. Like Eraserhead, it is a spiritual exploration of its main character, with various nods to different psychological planes, past lives, inner purgatories, and ultimately a mystical freeing of the soul. The very title, Inland Empire, alludes to the fact that there are worlds within us. As Jeffries stated, “we live inside a dream.” To Lynch, life is a dream because we make the world around us. It is our inner states which we project into reality. Maybe there are supernatural, external forces which interact with us, or maybe those are just different facets of our being, but either way, Lynch’s films draw from these largely spiritual notions.

Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s most spiritual and metaphysical film since Eraserhead. Like Henry, Laura is lost in a world of confusion and madness. Her greatest fear is that she is too far gone: corrupt, worthless, given over to darkness and unsalvageable. The disappearing of Laura’s angel, regardless of whether the angel is literally real, is the disappearance of Laura’s hope that she has any goodness or innocence left. Of course, she does still have these things. They are still available to her, but she’s unable to see it, her vision clouded by those dark woods.

When Laura finally encounters her angel in the Red Room, it recalls Henry meeting the Lady in the Radiator at the end of Eraserhead. A long sought after symbol of hope finally bares itself. Laura cries and laughs with joy, as if the very act of weeping is cleansing her soul. Perhaps the angel is an illusion conjured by the Lodge or even Laura herself, but Laura’s happiness is genuine. She’s been reunited with what she thought had abandoned her forever. Laura Palmer is not some worthless monster beyond redemption. Despite the sheer tragedy of her life, she is not damned. She never was.

And, since it thankfully has been critically reevaluated in recent years, neither was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

As the movie approaches its 25th anniversary, I can now say I live in a world where I don’t get side-eye or a confused stare when I list it as my favorite film. More and more fans and critics have given it a reappraisal and have found a whole new appreciation for what David Lynch was trying to do with FWWM, and I couldn’t be happier. And, of course, we’re fast approaching the new season of Twin Peaks on Showtime.

When Fire Walk With Me was first made, it’s clear the intention was to set up additional sequels and continue where the series left off. Annie’s “write it in your diary” message to Laura was obviously attempting to plant the seed for resolving Cooper being trapped in the Lodge, and some of the deleted scenes from the movie’s original ending even picked up where the series concluded. The introduction of the Lodge ring and the Blue Rose cases, unique to FWWM at the time, certainly suggests they were to be important factors going forward, and Mark Frost has since incorporated both elements into his recent Secret History of Twin Peaks novel.

Until the new Twin Peaks airs, it’s impossible to know if any of these plot points are still in play, or what the focus of the new episodes will be. As for the legacy of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, it returned the focus of the story to its original center, Laura Palmer, the troubled young woman whose double life mirrored the conflicted world around her. It’s a harrowing glimpse into what was always bubbling underneath the series. FWWM is now getting its due, with various positive thinkpieces, a reissue and remaster of the vinyl soundtrack, anniversary screenings in select theaters, and the recent addition of a complementary Twin Peaks film (The Missing Pieces) all celebrating what was once considered a subpar or even objectively awful movie.

Lynch’s work is typically not something to be explained, but experienced. The best art leaves us with questions. Fire Walk With Me will continue to have us asking questions in a world of blue for a very long time.

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