TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME
Let us contemplate that word: sad . . .
Think how often we use it. Think how often we use it incorrectly. We use it to mean anything but sad most of the time. Frequently we mean “pathetic” or “lame” in the judgmental, condescending sense. Other times, when we’re in a more sympathetic mood, we use sad as a synonym for “sorrowful” or “melancholy”, mostly because we have not the most refined vocabulary. None of these common usages get completely at the true and proper connotations of a word like sad, which can be very descriptive when used right.
Few films can be described as “sad”, for “sad” has a connotation of hopelessness to it and who wants to see a hopeless movie? You can’t say The Passion of the Christ is sad, because all that pain and suffering is endured for final redemption. Same thing with a tear-jerker like 1939’s Dark Victory, because even after all the melodramatic weeping we still have to shoehorn in the title somewhere. “Sad” also seems to indicate a kind of resignation to an inevitable fate. In a truly sad movie, there are no last-ditch efforts to save oneself as in a tragedy like Moby-Dick or Sweeney Todd.
A truly sad movie has likable, ordinary characters barreling down the path of destruction, unwilling and unable to help themselves, and helped along the way by lots of melancholic atmosphere. There may or may not be some hint of redemption at the end. Usually it will be left ambiguous. The film that most fits this model, at least the one most on my mind today, is David Lynch’s much-maligned 1992 masterpiece Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Booed at the Cannes Film Festival and despised by critics and audiences upon its release, Fire Walk with Me was banished to a ghetto of obscurity and rarity for over twenty years. Now, with the recent release of the Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery blu-ray boxed set, Fire Walk with Me finally presents itself for deeper reflection and evaluation.
David Lynch is the master of the modern melodrama. Some have confused his take on melodrama as sentimentality, but the two are not the same. In our cinematic moment in time, characterized by irony and detachment, David Lynch’s habits are often hard to swallow. He is the anti-Kubrick, even though he barrows heavily from Kubrick’s arsenal of tricks. For those of you who thought Blue Velvet didn’t go far enough into bonkers sado-masochistic killer land, Fire Walk with Me is the perfect flick for you. Everything is turned up to eleven and then some. Instead of whimpering in fear, characters split their lungs. Instead of mickey-mousing along with the action, the soundtrack soars to operatic heights. Watching any one scene isolated from the rest of the film might instigate and laugh riot, but taken as a whole Fire Walk with Me is a potent emotional roller-coaster, as ugly as it is beautiful, repulsively hard to watch but at the same time mesmerizing.
Fire Walk with Me concerns the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer, a seventeen-year-old beset on all sides by evil forces which will eventually claim her life. She has turned to cocaine, drug-dealing, prostitution, and promiscuity to dull the pain of her imminent demise, but the only true place of refuge for her is in her relationship with her best friend Donna Hayward (portrayed with a heartbreaking gentility by a young Moira Kelly, truly the heart and soul of Fire Walk with Me). She is troubled by a malicious entity called BOB, who has been abusing her for years, who says he wants to smell through her nose and taste through her mouth, whose true identity Laura can’t bring herself to fathom. Fire Walk with Me is about Laura’s realization that her life is coming speedily to a close.
There is a wonderful scene early on in the film where Donna, in absent-minded speculation asks, “If you were falling in space, would you slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” Laura thinks a moment and then answers, perhaps with more detail than Donna cares to hear, “Faster and faster, until after a while you wouldn’t feel anything, and then your body would just burst into fire. And the angel’s wouldn’t help you, ’cause they’ve all gone away”. Such is the stuff that dreams are made of. This brief interaction demonstrates Laura’s hopelessness, her utter aloneness in the universe. More on those angels later. Donna’s attempts to understand Laura’s plight end in a seedy encounter with the Twin Peaks night-life, which Donna will hardly remember, but only make Laura feel guilty for corrupting her friend. The whole film is one escalation after another, Laura digging herself deeper and deeper into her grave, until by the end there is no way to go but down.
The climax of the film is a highly stylized, abstract portrayal of Laura’s ultimate capture and murder in an abandoned train car on the outskirts of Twin Peaks. It is an incredible scene, shot in a frenzy of screaming and blood-letting, obscured by a supernatural flashing blue strobe-light and underscored by the Agnus Dei from Cherubini’s Requiem Mass in C Minor (to which I’m happily listening at this very moment). Is Lynch saying that in some way Laura is a sacrifice, another Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world? Maybe, maybe not. It is good old fashioned melodrama at its best. The scene is both terrifying and spellbinding. Very seldom do we get an emotional pay-off this devastating.
Almost seamlessly Laura passes from this life into the Lynchian afterlife, the Black Lodge, a strangely domesticated environment where everyone talks backwards and eats creamed corn. Twin Peaks is all about the “intercourse between two worlds”, and how thin the veil is between reality and other realms of existence. In the Black Lodge Laura meets Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the loveably eccentric FBI agent who the very next morning will be driving into Twin Peaks to investigate her murder. Together the two stare into the flashing lights as Laura finally glimpses her angel and weeps with joy. Perhaps the angels haven’t all gone away after all. It’s not exactly closure is it? This is the only hint of redemption we see in an overwhelmingly dark film, but it’s enough. Fire Walk with Me ends on this image of juxtaposed beauty and tragedy, the fate of Laura and her Special Agent still up in the air.
Fire Walk with Me has undergone somewhat of a critical re-evaluation in recent years. Mark Kermode calls it one of the best horror films of the 90s. It is certainly something. It is far from perfect, incredibly rough around the edges, and definitely not for everyone. Even someone as hardened and cynical as myself finds it a little hard to take. It is an exhausting undertaking even for the most desensitized film-goer, right up there with Black Swan and Palindromes in terms of its delight in making the audience uncomfortable. It succeeds because of the amount of talent and effort put into it, especially the performances of its two leading actresses Sheryl Lee (as Laura) and Moira Kelly (as Donna), whose doomed relationship will break your heart. This is a colossally mournful film, intensely personal and over-the-top.
Julee Cruise’s Questions in a World of Blue, the film’s funeral dirge for Laura Palmer: