Throughout May, I will be taking part in an ongoing conversation on the website To Be (Cont'd) with Tony Dayoub (of Cinema Viewfinder) about the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). There are major spoilers involved. The conversation will unfold in four parts, as is the usual format on To Be (Cont'd).Thanks to Tony for inviting me and choosing the topic, and to Andrew Welch and Peter Labuza for providing the format and platform. While I have cross-posted my two entries on Lost in the Movies for archival purposes, I encourage readers to follow the link below and read the whole conversation in one place. [Unfortunately, the site is no longer active, but you can read my entries on this blog - check in again later, because Tony's may become available again soon.]
"When you told your secret name, I burst in flames, and burned..."
-"Floating", written by David Lynch, 1989
Let's talk about the final day of Laura Palmer's life. Not the night with its cocaine binges, woodland orgies, and bloody murders, but the morning before, as depicted in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Remember that soggy bowl of cereal, abandoned by the trembling teenager while her father tries to cheer her up? Or Laura's jittery mother steeling herself with a cigarette, her blank, exhausted inner state almost as ugly and jagged as her daughter's raw wound? And who can forget the ferocious hatred in Laura's eyes, years in the making, as she growls at her astonished father in her bedroom: "Stay...away from me..."? By the time we are submerged in Laura's woozy afternoon at high school, her disorientation overpowers us. Swooningly subjective dips and pans, time-lapsed clocks intercut with blurry crowds, high-angled perspectives pinning Laura to a ground that is sliding away beneath her feet...if these are not the most adventurous techniques David Lynch has ever employed, they are among his most compassionate. We've burrowed deeply into Laura's consciousness, losing ourselves on a death trip that few were willing to take.
If Twin Peaks is filled with secrets, Fire Walk With Me empties itself of them. The film's power and controversy lie in that very nakedness, offering the willing an elevated, deeply cathartic experience while alienating those looking for the show’s spooky-but-safe textures. Together, prequel movie and TV series form a fascinating dialectic. The seeds of Fire Walk With Me (1992) and its public rejection were planted during the run of Twin Peaks (1990-91), so let's investigate that subtle evolution before we gorge on the garmonbozia of the feature film. Like Agent Cooper returning to the eerie trailer park where Chet Desmond disappeared, we'll comb familiar ground for clues.
When the Twin Peaks pilot premiered on ABC, its timing couldn't have been better. The two-hour event tapped into a turn-of-the-decade zeitgeist hungry for irony and sincerity in equal measure; while the subsequent series struggled to sustain a wide audience, it had no trouble captivating the pop culture press or hip, cutting-edge viewers. Newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows featured endless columns, cover stories, and interviews with the show's cast and crew, particularly co-creator David Lynch, dubbed "Czar of Bizarre" by Time magazine. Just as Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) hit the sweet spot for boomers responding to both 50s nostalgia and post-60s darkness, so Twin Peaks was celebrated for its unusual combination of playful self-awareness and patient realism.
At the show's heart was the corpse of a beautiful young woman. Her body’s eerie stillness implied tantalizing secrets and heightened the show’s appeal. But "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was always a red herring. The real question, never openly asked, was: "Who was Laura Palmer?" The show’s answer would eventually demolish its delicate web of character, story, and tone, and ensure its inevitable demise: Laura Palmer was a victim of incest.
This revelation, accompanied by a subtle re-alignment with female victims over male redeemers, came in three stages. In September 1990, during a media blitz to introduce the second season, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was published. Superficially just a cynical merchandising tie-in, the book was in fact a devastating expose–not of an alluring if troubled "bad girl," but a deeply tormented victim of abuse. David Lynch's daughter Jennifer gave Laura Palmer her own voice for the first time; having been told Laura's dark secret when tasked with the diary, Jennifer Lynch allowed hints to haunt every anguish-drenched page.
Two months later, on the show itself, came the long-awaited reveal of Laura's killer–her father, Leland–followed by the harrowing slow-motion butchery of his niece Maddy (Sheryl Lee, who not coincidentally played Laura as well). Maddy's murder was bad enough; worse was the dawning realization that Leland must have not only killed his own daughter but raped her as well. Suddenly Twin Peaks seemed a lot less fun; its guessing game had ended and looked distasteful in retrospect. In a December 1990 Commonweal article, "Incest for the Millions," Warren Goldstein acknowledged, "I suppose I knew it, didn't want to think about it. Lynch had seduced me into his forbidden world. And now it's the morning after and I'm ashamed."
While some commentators echoed Goldstein by discovering incest at the heart of the show and even accusing Lynch of exploitation, most simply ignored the subject. When the revelation was discussed at all, it was casually written off as just another narrative twist, its primary importance dramatic rather than thematic: the moment when the mysterious goose was slaughtered for its golden eggs. Indeed, if critics didn't know what to make of the show's new center of gravity neither did the Twin Peaks staff. With Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost distracted by other projects, the show descended into camp and died a slow, painful death that spring.
If many of his early admirers were eager to forget Laura, Lynch himself was compelled in the opposite direction. Within months of the show's cancellation he initiated the final, most important transformation of the Twin Peaks legend. The prequel film Fire Walk With Me would center entirely on a suffering Laura Palmer's final days. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the normally cagey Lynch later confessed, “I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions–radiant on the surface, dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk." The director was joined in this crusade by Laura's three co-creators: series and film screenwriter Robert Engels; Jennifer Lynch, whose book informed Sheryl Lee's performance (if not her father's direction–she suspects he never read it); and Lee herself, who offered one of the most committed and devastating performances in screen history.
By envisioning Laura Palmer in the flesh, Fire Walk With Me both fulfilled and completely subverted the promise of Twin Peaks. The allure of the marvelously entertaining series had been its sense of mystery, hints of darkness and depth just over the edge. This allowed audiences and critics to have their cake and eat it too–to be spooked, amused, and moved in equal measure, delighted by the postmodern freedom with which the show could dip in and out of seriousness. When the Twin Peaks universe confronted them directly with the nature of Laura's suffering, many became uncomfortable. This wasn't what they had tuned in or turned up at the theater for, so commentators shrugged and played it cool, yawning as if Laura's pain was unimportant.
Evasions speak louder than words. As Diane Stevenson observed in her essay "Family Romance, Family Violence":
The increasing disapproval that the series encountered had something to do, one suspects, with its increasing boldness in dealing with the theme of the violence that dwells at home. In Blue Velvet this theme was more veiled and with some distortion it could still be subsumed under a conventional Freudian reading... It wouldn't be the first time that a charge of incoherence or boredom masks a refusal to deal with what is being expressed.As Stevenson goes on to note, Fire Walk With Me only compounded and underlined the show's expression–and the corresponding viewer's avoidance.
In the upcoming posts, I hope we can deal not just with what is being expressed, but how it is expressed. How do Lynch and Lee place us inside Laura's mind so effectively? What particular gestures and techniques does Lynch employ to reinvent his story? I'm also interested in your own evolving perspective on the film–what did you reject on first viewing, and what made you change your mind? Unlike me, you followed both the series and the film on their initial release. What can you offer in the way of a contemporaneous fan's perspective? Are there any particular arguments about Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, or Lynch that you're itching to rebut? Finally, returning to my theme above, how does the direct presentation of Laura Palmer's experience change our perspective on the first half of the movie, the TV show that spawned it, Lynch's wider oeuvre, and perhaps even American society itself?