If you don't want to know anything about Twin Peaks, particularly the big secret, stop reading now.
For weeks I've been absorbed in "Twin Peaks," the 1990 television series, masterminded by David Lynch, which kept viewers tuning in week after week to find out "who killed Laura Palmer?" "Twin Peaks" was many things. It was often funny, but not in any one, easily identifiable way. It could be goofy, knowingly ironic, sweetly silly, absurd. It was also suspenseful, with new twists and turns leading us down a convoluted path to discover who the murderer was. It was frightening, in fact genuinely terrifying, though always just for moments, with comic relief usually coming to the rescue before long. And, of course, it was bizarre. Dancing dwarfs in red rooms, a psychic FBI agent, a woman who carried a log around with her at all times, a black lodge, a white lodge - all cryptic messages alluding to some hidden mystery, a mystery much deeper than the question of who stabbed the teenage beauty queen and threw her body in the river.
And, also, "Twin Peaks" was sad. Seldom acutely sad, the way it could be acutely frightening, although the scene in which Laura's parents find out she's been murdered dwells on their grief. Rather, there was an undertone of sadness, often so diluted it just seemed part of the pulpy overtones of the show, a mock-emotion that Lynch used to get at that eerie, ethereal flavor he was seeking. But every now and then the sadness seemed genuine, and when each episode closed with the picture of Laura Palmer, so perfect, so beautiful, and now so dead, that sadness lingered.
The movie, a prequel which details the last days of Laura, knows that it doesn't have any new secrets to reveal. Laura's murderer was exposed halfway through the second season and though the show tried to move on, it never recovered. Pauline Kael wrote that Marlon Brando's unseen presence pervaded and gave weight to the second Godfather film, even though he wasn't in it. The same is true of Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks" and so what the film offers, far more valuable than the facts or the "secrets" of her last days, is their texture. We're drawn into the film to see Laura as she really was. I was immensely excited to see Fire Walk With Me and about halfway through I was convinced that it was a movie of rare power and accomplishment. Now that I've seen all of it, I still think so and yet I can't say for certain how I feel about it.
First things first, Fire Walk With Me is a movie drenched in pain. The jokiness of the series, the purposefully saccharine emotions, the overplayed performances and score are, after the possibly unnecessary first act, out. Laura Palmer's story is not a movie-of-the-week; it doesn't tease and then soothe our emotions, titillating us with the promise of catharsis and keeping us far enough away to avoid getting hurt. It's actually one of the most upsetting works of art I've ever seen.
The film opens with a satirical, laconic tone, following two FBI agents as they investigate the murder of a young woman in an isolated hamlet that makes Twin Peaks look like the center of the universe. The local law enforcement elevates stand-offishness into an art form, and the diner is inhabited by decaying goons illuminated by a harsh light that keeps spurting on and off in the background. Clues lead the investigators to the trailer park where the victim lived, and one agent discovers that there's a green ring under one of the trailers. He crawls under to get it and we abruptly move on to other matters, never to see him again.
Relocating to Philadelphia, the film presents a truly random and exceedingly strange scene involving FBI agents (including Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Cooper, who was the star of the series), dreamlike flashes involving the dancing red dwarf from the show, the stringy long-haired man known as Bob (see the You Tube clip at the end of my last entry), and David Bowie in an unnecessary cameo. Throughout this scene, Cooper, almost insanely chipper and cheerful on the show, is grim and somber. It's our first clue that we may not be in Kansas anymore.
But then, all of a sudden, we're back on familiar territory. That mountain vista, the sign reading "Welcome to Twin Peaks," and most of all the theme music that opened every episode of the show, pulling you into its world of small-town mystery. And then we see her: Laura Palmer. Not a corpse. Not being impersonated by her cousin Maddie. Not a dream vision appearing to Cooper, nor an image on a video recording of a picnic, nor a photograph sitting on the household mantle. Laura Palmer, in the flesh, the real thing. She's off to school and it's as if we've stepped back through a portal into a time we'd never expected to see. Movies have a unique and potent ability to break one of the surest laws of our existence. Time can be shattered, history unearthed, the past rediscovered.
Laura walks to school, and we pick up familiar characters along the way: Bobby Briggs, the arrogant jock who's dating Laura; the Dean-like James who is her secret lover; best friend Donna (no longer played by Lara Flynn Boyle, who is missed). Some disappointment sets in as we wonder if this will be one of those reunions that doesn't quite capture the magic. After all, the cast members are all a few years older, events are forced to coincide with what we know will happen later, and we're exploring a scenario that was always shrouded in mystery, where our imagination might come up with something more captivating than what we're going to see. But before long, the movie has transcended the show, presenting what the series only evoked, and taking us deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness that "Twin Peaks" only hinted at.
Once the film has reunited us with Laura Palmer, we stay almost entirely with her. There's one aside, showing Cooper in the office with a fellow agent, speculating on her future murder. Eventually, there's no question of cutting away from Laura's story; it simply isn't possible, because she's taken over the film so thoroughly that to try and include anything else would be an absurdity. In fact, one comes to resent that the film bothered to show us anything before her scenes; the early storyline with the FBI agents retroactively seems trivial and even cheap when held up against Laura's suffering.
Watching the series, I wasn't sure if Sheryl Lee was a good actor or just had a "star" quality that held the camera. This movie answers that question: Sheryl Lee gives an outstanding, searing performance. She doesn't hold anything back and the initial shock of seeing Laura Palmer expose her raw emotions wears off as we become astonished that we could be seeing anyone this emotionally naked. The Laura Palmer hinted at in the show was almost a parody of the prom queen with a dark side: as her voice on the tape recorder cooed about how she was suffering, it all seemed like a joke, but one we were all more than eager to buy into. Sheryl Lee strips the cutesy, winking quality away from Laura Palmer and shreds it to pieces. Her pain is real, her anguish is piercing, and at times it's difficult to watch.
There's a scene in which Laura Palmer dresses up and goes out to the roadhouse, a bar which is a familiar sight from the show. But we've never seen it quite like this. Laura steels herself and nods at Jacques, the local pimp, who sends two men over to sit with her. She hurls acidic come-ons their way and her bruised, angry sexuality bristles and electrifies the room. I'm tempted to call what unfolds in the next fifteen minutes (to put a time frame on it seems inappropriate; the sequence envelops us like a trance) the most astonishing work David Lynch has ever done. This is really dark stuff, and it goes further than Mulholland Drive, further than Blue Velvet, into a realm that no other movie I've seen quite approaches.
But that's not the half of it. Even more upsetting than this scene is a family dinner in the Palmer household. Laura's wound-up father torments her about the dirtiness of her hands, gripping them and staring into her trembling face, screaming at her as his wife shrieks for him to stop. Watching the show it always seemed, even after the climactic revelations, that Laura's troubles stemmed from outside her day-to-day family life. Not here. The scene is sickening to watch, and we begin to enter into the troublesome territory.
Roger Ebert, in his zero-star (later revised to one-star) review of Blue Velvet, wrote "Those very scenes of stark stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what's wrong with the movie. They're so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true. But 'Blue Velvet' surrounds them with a story that's marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending it's all part of a campy in-joke." And later, "There's another thing. [Isabella] Rossellini is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve...She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film."
Perhaps because Blue Velvet was never really one of my favorite Lynch films, I never bothered to defend it against Ebert's views. If I had, I would probably say that in Lynch's world the comic, silly aspects only serve to point up the brutality of the reality that emerges. That they are to be taken as an acknowledgement of how lightness exists in the real world, concealing the darker reality underneath. And so on. But having seen Fire Walk With Me, Ebert's words ring in my ears, with a slight revision. When a character, and the audience, is forced to endure traumatic experiences, shouldn't your film be serious?
To be fair, Fire Walk With Me is never as jokey or broad as Blue Velvet or, for that matter, "Twin Peaks" the show. And yet. Do Laura Palmer's brutal sexual experiences belong in the same film as 50s pastiche FBI subplots, celebrity cameos, overwrought musical cues, or even the mystical backwards-talking dwarfs and black lodges that were so powerful on the series? Suddenly all this supernatural mumbo-jumbo, which had been the weightiest elements of the storyline, seem demeaning.
In the movie's most horrifying scene, Bob crawls through Laura's window, as she says he has done since she was twelve and starts to have sex with her. She keeps asking him who he is and finally she gets a clear look at his face: it's her father.
Twin Peaks is a story about the trauma of incest.
This is one of the heaviest subjects a film can take, especially if it's serious about it (and otherwise, what's the point?). And the movie is haunting, chilling, horrifying in its presentation of Laura's bottomless pit of anguish. But it also tries to pass Leland Palmer's actions off as the machinations of an evil spirit. Bob tells Laura that he thought he had fooled her into thinking her rapist was her father, when it was in fact him - she didn't realize the reverse was true. But the reverse isn't really true. No matter how you cut it, the man who comes in her window is Leland Palmer, her father, and if Lynch tries to tell us otherwise he's just downplaying the shock value of his own material.
I'm a great believer in the powers of mysticism, the uncanny, surrealism, and the language of dreams, and I don't believe they are antithetical to serious subjects. But here there is the irresistible feeling that all of the movie's supernatural elements end up obfuscating, and hence, cheapening the movie's true heart of darkness. Part of me wishes that Lynch had abandoned the black lodge, and the dwarf, and Agent Cooper, and the dreams, and the FBI investigation. Keep Bob as a metaphor, certainly, a way to shed light on the power of denial. But focus the movie, honestly, on its appalling subject: the complete destruction of an innocent human being by the person closest to her.
I give Lynch credit for appearing to avoid all conscious attempts to play for laughs. He never tries to comfort or soothe his audience. But despite what he thinks, the story he has chosen to tell is not about evil as a metaphysical force, or links to the collective unconscious, or anything like that. It's about one very fucked-up girl and even if Twin Peaks is an important film, I really don't know if it's serious enough. And that bothers me.
This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.