Monday, July 4, 2011

Burning Up With "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"

Oh, I wish I could hate this movie. I wish I could call out David Lynch for being a needlessly obscure, pretentious jerk of a director, too good to resolve that cliffhanger he left at the end of the "Twin Peaks" television series. Instead, he springs a prequel on us. A prequel! Maybe he was hoping that if the film did well, ABC would resurrect the series? Well, considering the content of the movie, I think it's safe to say that was not the case. Rather, I find I must hand over grudging kudos, to a film that was nothing that I expected.

First things first. Do you need to watch the "Twin Peaks" television series in order to understand what is going on in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"? It is much harder to follow the story if you don't know who the characters are from the outset, and why they're important. On the other hand, new viewers can avoid the severe tonal whiplash of going from the televised "Twin Peaks" to the cinematic one. The series had a fairly easy-to-follow, serialized narrative and hewed pretty close to the norms of other television dramas of the time. It was bizarre and disturbing on occasion, but always subject to moments of easy humor, atmospheric small-town charm, and the constraints of broadcast standards and practices.

"Fire Walk With Me," by contrast, is your average, non-linear, nightmarish, quasi-experimental David Lynch film. It takes an axe to a television set in the opening scene, and then proceeds to show all the dark, graphic, horrific content that they couldn't put on prime time. You see the drug use. You see the sex scenes with plenty of partial nudity. In my previous post about "Twin Peaks," I stated that I enjoyed the darker, less conventional elements of the series and hoped that we'd more of them in the film. Oh self, be careful what you wish for. I did not appreciate the show's picturesque visuals and that wonderfully balanced, easygoing but uneasy tone, until they were gone. "Fire Walk With Me" is grim, bleak, and brutal all the way through, and it may have been too much.

Initially I thought that the change in atmosphere was only temporary. The first part of the film follows new characters Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) in the town of Deer Meadow as they look into the murder of a girl named Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley). The investigation in Deer Meadow, a place where everyone is unfriendly, suspicious, and cold, can be seen as a mirror opposite to the investigation of Laura Palmer's death in Twin Peaks, where characters are eccentric, but very genial and welcoming. However, the gloom and oppressiveness carries over to the rest of the film in Twin Peaks, where we witness the last days of troubled Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). And this is where it helps to know some of the story details from the series to help decipher what is going on.

Laura discovers that the evil spirit BOB (Frank Silva) has possessed one of those nearest and dearest to her. He's the one who murdered Teresa and is after Laura next. The knowledge sends her into a spiral of ugly, self-destructive behavior, to the concern of her parents (Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie), best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, standing in for Lara Flynn Boyle), and boyfriends Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James (James Marshall). Along the way, she stumbles upon or sets up several of the subplots from the series, like the drug running scheme and the agoraphobic horticulturalist (Lenny von Dohlen). Several prophetic visions are intermixed with a jumbled narrative, and the sequence of events is still often unclear. And throughout, there's an off-putting sleaziness and vileness about everything, heightened by the fact that it's so unlike the safer, milder world of the television series.

But though the narrative incoherence may be frustrating to those "Twin Peaks" fans looking for concrete answers, and the content is often repellent, I have to say that I ultimately found the film very satisfying. Laura Palmer becomes a real character at last, rather than a phantom of a prom-queen-gone-bad. Sheryl Lee, despite not really being able to pass for a teenager, gives a solid performance that gets us to empathize with her. "Fire Walk With Me" may not explain exactly what happened to Laura or why she was the way she was, but it did open a window on her mental and emotional state for us, and gave us a glimpse of the real girl at the root of the whole mystery. It even provided some closure, through Laura's interactions with the various supernatural characters and the final scenes in the famous Red Room. I came away at the end knowing that she was okay, and so was Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the hero of the series who makes an important appearance.

Some things still rankle too much to be left unnoted, like the stunt casting and several cameos by familiar characters that didn't add much to the movie. And I have no idea what the bit with David Bowie was all about, except that it seems fitting that David Bowie should exist in the maddening world of "Twin Peaks," and by extension, the wider David Lynch universe. Ultimately, I got what I wanted from the film: a little more insight into the series. It just took two long hours to get there, I often didn't like what I found, and the few answers only brought more questions. With David Lynch films, I've long since resigned myself to letting these things go.

And as of completing the entire saga of "Twin Peaks," I am happy to say that I have finished David Lynch's filmography at last. I think I'll write up a post on my favorite Lynch movie in the near future.

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