(WARNING!!! What follows may contain spoilers for the television series Twin Peaks and for the films The Great Santini and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. To read would be to rob yourself of one of life’s greatest pleasures, i.e., NOT knowing who killed Laura Palmer. Read if you wish, but srsly tho, if you decide to spoil Twin Peaks for yourself, a pox upon your house.)
My recent obsession with David Lynch’s 1992 masterpiece Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has ignited an interest in dramatic representations of family dynamics, specifically of dysfunctional families. I think we as a society underestimate just how pervasive various kinds of domestic violence are. More people than you think are abused, manipulated, and smothered in their childhood than you might suspect. If asked few people will admit their families were poisonous nightmares, usually because nobody wants to believe this and by the time they have reached adulthood they have either been brainwashed or have in some way rationalized their parents’ behavior towards them. If you had asked those same people the same question at age five, before they were conditioned by their parents to accept domination and coercion as a part of life, they might be more apt to give you an honest answer with no sugar on top.
My new interest in family dynamics reminded me of a film which I dismissed long ago as an unpleasant bore, namely the 1979 Robert Duvall / Blythe Danner vehicle The Great Santini. Far from being a bore, upon a second viewing The Great Santini is a brilliant, angst-ridden film about the struggles of a military family in the South whose leader, the aforementioned Duvall and titular character, has descended into dissipation in the absence of a war to fight. The Great Santini is indirectly related to Fire Walk with Me in several ways.
For one, they are both about the secret horrors of small town America. Widely considered an American ideal of gentility, generosity, and good family values, Santini and Fire Walk with Me both expose the hidden tragedies which lies just below the Norman Rockwell surface. In Twin Peaks these hidden tragedies are suddenly and quite shockingly shoved out into the open by the seemingly unexpected murder of prom queen Laura Palmer. Investigation of her death reveals the darker side of Twin Peaks, exposing the drugs, the dirty business deals, the affairs, the abuse, the incest in the town.
In Santini, the Santini himself, Bull Meechum (Duvall) is transferred by the Marines to the town of Beaufort, South Carolina. The children are not happy about being moved so often, but they bite their tongues because they know resistance is futile. Parents assume that a child’s strongest emotional bond is with his family, and never seem to consider that this may not be the case. Once settled, the family tries to resume their normal lives, which proves increasingly difficult as Bull’s mid-life, post-war depression mixes with the poisonous underbelly of Beaufort.
Mrs. Meechum, Lillian, is a devout and very spiritual southern Catholic, in the style of Scarlett O’Hara’s family, and Beaufort is haunted, much like a Flannery O’Connor story, by the ghosts of the Old South, when Catholic plantation owners ran the show and a modern feudalism prevailed. The South of Santini still remembers its glory days, but it is also plagued by the old scars of slavery and racism to which most of the town turns a blind eye. The eldest son Ben, finds the town as inscrutable as his macho, hyper-competitive father who is constantly telling him to be a man and to grow up and join the corps and to make Santini proud. Ironically, Ben may be the only real man in the picture, despite some vicious inbreeds’ taunting of his close friendship with a young stuttering black man named Toomer.
Indeed, almost every man in the film (Ben and Toomer excluded), seems to be a hopelessly repressed and closeted homosexual. Meechum attempts to “surprise” one of his old war buddies by attacking him with his pants down in a restroom stall. His friend anticipates his shenanigans, though, and ambushes him first by wrestling his to the ground and subduing him by mounting the Bull from behind. The Bull has no healthy relationships with any of the women in his life. Ben’s and Toomer’s tormentors, despite all their macho posturing, are oddly effeminate. It makes sense then that Bull and men like him would turn to the military, building up a love of violence and competition, to prove to themselves their own masculinity. Bull runs his house like a barracks, barking orders at his wife and children, waking them up loudly in the middle of the night, obviously trying to demonstrate how absolutely not feminine he is. Ben, however, has nothing to prove, and always conducts himself honorably and selflessly, ever turning the other cheek to the constant abuse from his father. He has no need to dominate and control others.
Fire Walk with Me is also about a father’s domination of his child. In the series, it was revealed that Laura Palmer was killed by her father Leland after years of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Fire Walk with Me puts all of this on display in shocking and intense horror, particularly in one riveting scene in which Leland taunts Laura for failing to wash her hands. The years of incestuous rape aside, these little acts of violence – like freaking out over a violation of an arbitrary social custom – are what truly destroy families, towns, and societies. The murder of Laura Palmer is only a symptom of Twin Peak’s inability to come to terms with the dark and hidden sins which happen behind closed doors in homely, well-lighted living rooms.
Both Bull and Leland suffer from distorted views of masculinity – one which is not selfless and self-sacrificing as a man should be (the term virtue comes from the Latin vir for man), but rather vampiric, thriving off the sufferings and weaknesses of others. Bull perceives Ben as a weak limp-wrist, and torments him for it, slapping him around frequently, verbally abusing him on the basketball court, chiding the boy’s mother for being too soft on him. Ben of course is fall stronger, and far more authentically masculine, than Bull will ever be, which only angers Bull more. When Ben tells Bull that he loves him, Bull becomes enraged and would likely snap Ben’s neck if he weren’t raving drunk. Ben suffers from the cross of caring too much. His sister’s salvation is her bored indifference, having long since figured out that her father is not worth wasting love. But Ben is doomed to love his father forever, no matter how wickedly he behaves.
The Great Santini of course ends happily, or rather the ending is satisfying if not exactly joyful. The same cannot be said for Fire Walk with Me. Fire Walk with Me ends with the brutal murder of a young girl. Only the faintest glimmer of hope can be gleaned from the film’s final shots, leaving much to be imagined as to Laura’s and Leland’s redemption. Maybe in the future their cycle will be complete, but as it stands, Laura’s journey is only partly finished, leaving her in a limbo state of anticipation. The reassuring Agent Cooper who stands beside her in the afterlife is perhaps a good sign, and her reception of the angel may even be some kind of absolution, but as of now the last image of Twin Peaks remains painfully ambiguous.
At the end of Santini, Bull is killed in an airplane crash brought on by one of his macho boy scout escapades. His family, free from the once perpetual strain of Bull’s depravity and wickedness, quickly evacuates the house and moves on with their lives, hopefully to new and more peaceful pastures. The military gives Bull a big send-off, with Bull’s aforementioned bathroom buddy commending him for his valor. All of this is absolute nonsense of course, and the height of the military’s inherent hypocrisy. The family is grief-stricken for sure, but as they drive off into the wide-open South singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, there is a sense of relief and solace as the weight of Bull’s oppression has finally been lifted.