Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
“No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.” – George Eliot
Laura Palmer: “Quit trying to hold on so tight. I’m gone – long gone.”
Fire Walk With Me (I’ll call it FWWM from here on out) is one long, strange trip, maaaaaaan. Lynch’s film is undeniably powerful but it’s also, at least for this viewer, deeply, deeply upsetting. It’s the sort of film that I ultimately admire more than love, or even like. Technically accomplished, beautifully shot, and compellingly acted, the film achieves a kind of strobe-like, hypnotic intensity through Lynch’s unconventional narrative choices and abrupt smashcuts and, to both its benefit and detriment, it achieves a sickening forcefulness as Lynch delves into the details of Laura Palmer’s tragic life and death. This is a film that is almost fetishistic in its depiction of emotional and sexual abuse, while remaining impressionistic and surreal in its depiction of the emotional toll that this abuse takes on Laura, her father, her mother, her friends, and the town itself. This combination results in a movie-watching experience that, for me, was both physically and psychically exhausting. If I’m honest, at this point I’d have to say that in the end I’m more a fan of Dale Cooper than I am of Twin Peaks as a whole. I’m a fan of his oddball righteousness and his curiously hardboiled compassion. I’m a fan of the connections he facilitates, and the unique skill set he brings to his job. Without the character of Cooper Twin Peaks simply doesn’t hold the same fascination for me. Despite his appearance in the film’s crucial final scene and his brief introduction in the Philadelphia offices of the FBI, Cooper’s barely present here which is exactly right, since this is Laura’s story. But without his hopefulness and optimism, Lynch’s Twin Peaks becomes almost an unbearably oppressive place. Lynch builds such oppressive dread, such a haunted/haunting atmosphere, that a moment as simple as Leland sitting alone at the dinner table is infused with a menace that’s genuinely hard to watch (It’s clear to me now that Laura’s mother knew exactly what was happening in their house, and that knowledge retroactively makes her grief even more terrible, because she’s to some extent culpable).
FWWM opens on a note of surreal eulogy. Angelo Badlamenti’s score washes over us, the strains of his orchestrations once again straddling the line between Le Jazz Hot and Red Shoe Diaries, producing a mood that’s at once artificial and slightly cheesy, but also undeniably, primally seductive. The credits float by on a background of shifting grays and blacks, abstract eddies in an obtuse stream. Lynch then pulls away to reveal a television set broadcasting nothing but static – a seemingly-obvious referencing of his television show’s cancellation. Lynch makes his statement right up front, sending an axe crashing through the top of the set, destroying it in a violent, sudden burst of light and heat as we hear a woman scream. One can interpret this wordless imagery in a number of ways. Perhaps Lynch is trying to literalize the killing off of his television show. Or perhaps Lynch is saying that he’s freeing this story from the confines of the so-called Idiot Box, and that this iteration of the story will not be hampered by the concerns and limitations of censors. Or, perhaps, Lynch is simply showing us a narrative out of order, with no implied symbolism at all. Like most of the symbolism featured in Twin Peaks, it’s impossible to tell what’s meant by the images. We project our own meaning. The near-impossibility of independently interpreting Peaks’ symbols in the “correct” (i.e. Authorially-intended) manner is, I think, very much a part of the subtext of this film. There are questions to be asked of this show, of this film, but the answers, if they come at all, are likely to be locked in shapes and signs that can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Take, for instance, Gordon Cole’s friend, Lil.
When she shows up near the beginning of the film, telegraphing a series of coded messages through body language, hair color and attire, she might as well be one walking metaphor for Twin Peaks’ mysteries. All of Lil’s coded signals have a specific meaning, and I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence that Lynch himself plays the character employing these codes; who ultimately assigns their meaning. The problem with these signals, and with the most surreal elements/symbols of both Twin Peaks and FWWM? They’re only interpretable if you have someone to interpret them for you. And who’s to say whether that interpretation is correct?
The symbology of Twin Peaks – Lynch’s symbology, not Frost’s – to some extent refuses interpretation, and typically there’s not a helpful FBI Agent around to translate those symbols into meaning. Without the translator, the symbols become opaque. And perversely, that lends them more power, at least as far as I’m concerned. What does Lil’s Blue Rose mean? We don’t know – and the not knowing increases the power of the Blue Rose.
FWWM’s first half-hour follows two FBI agents we’ve never met before, played ably enough by Chris Isaac (who’s kind of great, and who doesn’t act as much as he should) and Kiefer Sutherland(!…?), as they work on the murder of one Teresa Banks – the first woman that we know of to have Bob’s “autograph” inserted under her fingernail. The two agents rattle around in a town called Deer Meadow, which serves as a kind of dark mirror to the quirky/friendly community of Twin Peaks. Folks who complain that this sequence feels divorced from the rest of the film are both right and spectacularly wrong. There is little-to-no obvious connective narrative tissue between the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer and the Teresa Banks material that comes before it. However, there is strong connective tissue between these opening scenes and the larger “mythology” of Twin Peaks. On that level, FWWM’s opening is a lot of fun which is good, because there’s precious little about FWWM that could be described as “fun.”
Philip Jeffries: “We live inside a dream.”
That’s a succinct summation of what Lynch is going for in terms of the mythology of Twin Peaks. From the beginning, the show offered up a heavily dream-like atmosphere, and its mythology has been consistently dream-like in both its depiction and its uncertain underlying meaning. Moments like Cooper’s image lingering in the surveillance camera after he’s already left the room make no sense – and, crucially, Lynch makes no attempt at explaining those moments – yet they nonetheless convey a kind of inexplicable power.
To briefly sum up the mythologically-related shenanigans present in FWWM:
The Lodge inhabitants seem to have a thing for FBI agents. Chester Desmond (Isaac) disappears from the trailer park where he discovers Teresa Banks’ ring – presumably transported to the Red Room or a place like it. Agent Philip Jeffries (an unexpected-but-welcome David Bowie) has been missing for some time (Cole calls him “the long-lost Philip Jeffries”) and it seems as though he’s missing, at least in part, because of the Lodge spirits. Cooper himself is also “taken” at the end of the series, and as we learn during the course of the film from a dream-embedded, bloodied Annie Blackburn, he’s trapped there and cannot leave (thus answering for us the question of whether it’s “really” Cooper we see in the last scene of the final episode). It’s impossible to tell if the spirits’ predilection toward G-men is something that’s meaningful or not. But it is possible to note simply that the Lodge spirits are “abducting” men devoted to order and justice. Jeffries comment upon reappearing in the FBI’s Philadelphia office (““Who do you think that is there?”) also suggests that he’s either aware of, or has encountered, the ‘bad’ Dale before, hinting at the time/space-warping properties of the Red Room.
During his time “away,” Jeffries appears to have attended a meeting of the Lodge-related spirits, in the room above a convenience store that Mike spoke of back in Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer. This brief glimpse into a larger metaphysical world significantly expands the cast of spirits that we grew to know over the course of the show. Three unidentified woodsmen inhabit the background and a masked man we’ve never seen takes special prominence during the flashes. There’s also a monkey. ‘Cause, y’know, monkeys are awesome. This monkey pops up twice, once in a sequence where the tuxedoed boy pulls his mask off to reveal a monkey face (and shoring up my opinion that Twin Peaks is in part a commentary on the struggle with savage, animalistic impulses) and again at the end of the film where he says “Judy,” which is a pretty impressive trick for a monkey to pull off. Notably, the Giant is not present in this scene, suggesting that despite his appearance to Cooper in the final episode, the Giant is not a Black Lodge spirit. In the end, it’s impossible to make much sense of the meeting we see, or of Jeffries in general.
Electricity appears to be a key to the spiritual mythology of Twin Peaks, something I’d hinted at as far back as Laura’s morgue scene. Whether electricity is a means of transportation/manifestation for Lodge spirits, or whether electrical abnormalities simply signal their presence is not clear. But it is clear that the two things are connected. A possibly interesting detail: the number on the electrical pole at the trailer park that Lynch cuts two twice over the course of that scene is 9 – a number that changes when you flip it upside down, creating a mirror image of itself. Recall the astrological signs for Jupiter and Saturn, and how they mirror each other when similarly inverted, and remember (1) that Jupiter and Saturn are key parts of the Lodge mythology (see the lamp shaped like Saturn that sits conspicuously on the table in the Red Room) and that mirroring and twinning are an obvious preoccupation in Twin Peaks – right up to and including the title. Lynch loves doubles, dopplegangers, twins, mirror images. Where the Peaks Sherriff’s Department is full of straight-shooting, familial law enforcers, Deer Meadow’s Station is filled with snarky, unhelpful types who barely hide an unspoken malevolence (and for some reason, the Sherriff’s Deputy has Brookyln accent…because why not?). The Deer Meadow restaurant that the agents visit late at night is a florescent-lit, grimy contrast to the welcoming warmth of the Double R Diner.
Finally, we learn some intriguing things about the spirits of the Lodge. At one point, the Little Man proclaims “I am the arm,” implying that he may (somehow) actually be the arm that Mike removed, in order to escape the influence of Evil. This in turn suggests that the Little Man is himself an Evil entity, and this suspicion is confirmed when Bob arrives in the Red Room toward the end of the film to share his “garmonbozia” with the Little Man and with Mike. Garmonbozia is, apparently, the Lodge spirits’ word for “pain and suffering,” and the fact that this pain and suffering is turned into creamed corn for the spirits to eat is (1) reeeeally f*cking bizarre and (2) an answer for why the tuxedoed boy was holding a heaping pile of creamed corn in his hands when Donna stumbled upon him and his “grandmother” back toward the beginning of Season 2. You can also see creamed corn prepared in bowls during the scene above the convenience store, on the formica table that Little Man and Bob sit at. We’ve been told that Bob and his fellow spirits feed on “fear, and the pleasures.” Now we know something about that, even if what we now know is completely bonkers.
A theme that spoke to me consistently over the course of this film is the theme of identity. When Jeffries reappears in the Phil office he points at Cooper and asks, accusingly, “do you know who that is?” when Leland and Teresa Banks are in bed together they share the following exchange:
Leland: “Who am I?”
Teresa: “I don’t know.”
Leland: “That’s right.”
At one point, Laura speaks to a patch of flickering light and asks “who are you? Who are you really?” The theme of identity is also addressed visually, as both Laura and her father are shown suddenly replaced by white-faced, ghoulish “versions” of themselves, but are also clearly NOT themselves. All of which is nifty, and certainly in keeping with Lynch’s preoccupations.
The Little Man: “With this ring, I thee wed.”
I’ve written before about how central the concept of circles, rings, and cycles are on Twin Peaks, and that importance is only increased during the course of FWWM. The mysterious green ring that plays such a prominent and totally-unexplained part in the narrative is branded with the same symbol that we previously saw in Owl Cave, linking the ring to the cave and ultimately to the Red Room/Black Lodge. The fact that the Little Man is seen holding it/holding it out several times over the course of the film indicates the ring’s apparent ability to bring people into the Red Room/Black Lodge and to the Little Man. After a dream seemingly enabled by the picture that the mysterious Mrs. Tremond gifts to Laura, she wakes to find the ring there in bed with her, but then wakes again, and the ring is gone. Dreams within dreams within dreams and circles within circles within circles.
Cooper: “Don’t take the ring, Laura. Don’t take the ring.”
But the ring’s “mystical” significance isn’t what strikes me most about its symbolism. Rather, I’m struck by how rings and circles can act to symbolize cycles of abuse. This is utterly appropriate, because FWWM is ultimately concerned (obsessed?) with abuse and with the circle/ring of violence, fear and betrayal that such abuse engenders. As intriguing as all of Lynch’s surreally-mystical imagery is – as tantalizing and elliptical as these clues are – they aren’t the reason for this film’s existence. This film exists because David Lynch wanted to return to the black heart beating quietly at the center of his show; Lynch wanted to revisit the horror of his familial Paradise Lost. At its core, once you strip away the surreal voodoo that he do so well, Lynch’s film is a study of one young woman’s fall from grace and eventual elliptical redemption. In her final moments, Laura refuses the ring of abuse she’s inherited from her father, and stops a cycle that could have – would have – played out on and into infinity, with her body (and Bob’s presence) as the driving enabler. And here’s where I give up on trying to write pages upon pages of material about the film – because Laura’s downward spiral isn’t the sort of thing you analyze. It’s not the sort of thing you pick apart and examine for potential symbolic meaning. It’s the sort of thing you experience, letting it wash over you and impact you on an emotional level. Which is where my criticisms come in.
Lynch seems to have great empathy for Laura Palmer, and his obvious rapport with Sheryl Lee results in a performance that’s open and brave. It’s a shame, then, that Laura’s story here ends up feeling weirdly compressed and airless. If I were to sum up my impression of FWWM in one phrase it would be “harrowing, but strangely empty.” Despite the undeniable power of Lee’s performance as Laura and despite the undeniable craft on display here, FWWM’s recounting of Laura’s final days doesn’t feel necessary. Being shown the decadence that Laura participated in doesn’t deepen her tragedy or heighten our sympathies, it only underlines the surprising power in alluding to sin versus the diminished power in witnessing that sin firsthand. The show’s method of doling out information and revelation regarding Laura’s secret life was, for me, highly effective. It showed us just enough to understand the depths Laura had sunk to, while leaving us free to fill in the many gaps with our imaginations, in the process rendering Laura’s character in near-mythological terms. FWWM dips us into the muck and the mire, but the filth we find ourselves in is shockingly….mundane when compared to the depravities summoned by our imaginations in response to the flashes of Laura’s life we glimpsed secondhand. Seeing Laura do cocaine is somehow less troubling (to this viewer) than the post-death discovery, revealed through a found baggie with trace amounts of powder, that she did cocaine.
In the end, salvation for David Lynch is as inexplicable as damnation. The final fate of Laura Palmer is some kind of absolution, offered by an Angel as literal as any symbology from the show. Why is Ronette freed from her bonds in the train car, while Laura is left to die? Why does an angel appear to Laura only after death, within the Red Room, and appear to grant her absolution? And maybe more importantly from a theological/philosophical perspective, why does the picture of the angel (the symbol of the angel – symbols again playing a centrally-important role) disappear from Laura’s painting? We can speculate, but we cannot answer anymore than we can answer why it is that Cooper ends the series with Bob lurking in/as his reflection. To the end the forces of good and evil remain as forces of nature – barely predictable, largely inexplicable. Whatever reasons for Laura’s suffering and subsequent “ascension” are left open, blanketed in a protective silence that seems to say that the reasons for salvation and damnation are not nearly as important as the fact of their existence.
I can’t say that I enjoyed FWWM, but I can say that I respect the film Lynch made. As an extension of the Twin Peaks story it is sometimes-powerful, enigmatic stuff. Despite my disappointment with the film overall, I find myself haunted by its final imagery in the best sense of the word. There’s no explaining this last glimpse of the world of Twin Peaks. There’s no understanding why it is that Laura is visited by an angel as a Lodge-bound Cooper lays a comforting hand upon her shoulder. What there is, ultimately, is a sense of longed-for release. A sense that Laura has found peace at last, in a realm Beyond Life And Death, with the Knightly Cooper by her side. It’s a striking, confounding note to end Lynch’s story with, and it works beautifully. Evil may be a prime focus of Twin Peaks’ story, but it’s the quiet power of Good that rings out, clear and strong and true, as Fire Walk With Me comes to a close.
Join me here on Chud.com next Friday to vote for the next show I’ll cover here in Lost & Found. In the meantime, please to enjoy Mike Patton and Fantomas performing Fire Walk With Me.