Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Psychobabble Movie Challenge: 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' (1992)

Mike:

While running Psychobabble from 2009 through 2011, I occasionally moonlighted over at my good friend Jeffrey Dinsmore’s site Awkward Press.com. Together we played amateur Siskels and Eberts, sifting through classic and not-so-classic movies in a feature we called The Awkward Movie Challenge. Precisely 16 months after our farewell analysis of The Lost Boys, Jeffrey and I are resuming the challenge here on Psychobabble to take a twentieth anniversary look at David Lynch’s big screen prequel to his small screen cult classic “Twin Peaks”.

One of the reasons I called on Jeffrey’s help for this piece is because I’ve written about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me quite a lot on this site, particularly in last year’s 120 150 Essential Horror Movies. Since Jeffrey has not pored over this movie as much as I have, I figured he’d bring a fresh perspective to it and save me a lot of typing. I also figured that if he hates the movie, which is one of my favorites, I’d finally have a concrete excuse to murder him, which is something I’ve been plotting for a good decade or so.

So I now hand you faithful Psychobabble readers over to Jeffrey Dinsmore. Take it, Jeffrey:

Jeffrey:

“Twin Peaks”, the TV series, debuted a week before my 15th birthday. At that age, Blue Velvet had already knocked A Clockwork Orange out of the top spot on my all-time favorite movies list, a position it retains to this day. Yes, my parents should be in jail, and at least half of them already are. But that’s a discussion topic for another time.

Point being, when I heard David Lynch was doing a TV series, it was as exciting to me as some dumb sporto thing would have been to a normal 14 year-old boy. I was hooked from episode one: the gorgeous visuals, the otherworldly dialogue, the absurd humor, the terror, the mystery: everything I loved about Lynch’s movies had been distilled into one magnificent package for the small screen. And better yet, it was going to be there every single week!

During the initial run of “Twin Peaks”, I only missed a single episode, due to an eighth grade school band “concert” in which I was one of eight “drummers” smashing the same cacophonous rhythm on a snare (I'm pretty sure everyone involved probably would have been better off if I’d just stayed home and watched “TP”). I read and loved The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. And when the movie was released, I was one of approximately seventeen people in the state of Michigan who rushed out to see it.
I had not revisited the film until Mr. Psychobabble asked me to lend some street cred to this cash grab he calls a website. Let me start by acknowledging that, although I consider myself a fan, I am not the expert on “Twin Peaks” that our beloved host is. I have seen the entire series through maybe twice, the first season maybe a couple more times than that. I haven’t watched any of it in about three years, and when I rewatched the film, I was hoping to approach it as a stand-alone film without letting my knowledge of the series intrude upon my analysis.

Sadly, I set myself up for an impossible task. Fire Walk With Me simply doesn’t work as a self-contained film. It wasn’t made for the fans, although true fans will certainly find a lot to enjoy about it. It wasn’t made to convert any new fans to the “Twin Peaks” franchise (although it probably did its part to repel a few). This movie was made for one reason and one reason only: because David Lynch wanted to spend more time in the world of Twin Peaks.

In fact, from the very first moment of the film, Lynch does everything he can to poke fun at the fair-weather fans and critics who initially embraced and then quickly turned against his groundbreaking, if occasionally meandering series. The opening credits play over fuzzed-out TV static. When the credits are over, we pull out of the static to reveal a TV … which is immediately smashed with an ax. Although I realize it can be a fool’s errand to assign specific intention to Lynch’s films, I can’t help but see this sequence as a great, big, glorious "fuck you" to anyone who came to the theater expecting to have all their “Twin Peaks” questions answered. The picture seems fuzzy? How does it look after I smash the TV?
A few minutes later, Lynch further mocks the need for answers that fueled the series backlash. Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) is called in by Lynch’s character Gordon Cole to investigate the murder of one Teresa Banks. In a hilarious sequence, Cole introduces Desmond to his “mother’s sister’s girl,” Lil, who does a bizarre chicken-legged dance. In the following scene, Desmond describes the symbolic meaning of every aspect of Lil’s dance and appearance, from her “sour face” to her hand movements to her clothing. Desmond becomes the pre-Internet “Twin Peaks” fan boy who parses every frame of his videotape to find the answers to mysteries that Lynch always intended to remain unsolved.

The remainder of the film opening is both entirely memorable and totally incomprehensible. Harry Dean Stanton shows up as the owner of a trailer park where Banks used to live; soon after that, Desmond finds a mysterious ring and disappears. Kyle McLachlan’s Agent Cooper makes a brief appearance in a strange sequence featuring David Bowie. Aside from two recurring characters, the entire opening forty minutes of the film have so little to do with the TV show that it seems as if Lynch is doing everything in his power to push the audience out of the theater. Mystery is piled upon mystery, until we flash forward one year later to (finally!) spend some time with America’s sweetheart, Laura Palmer.

The rest of the movie chronicles Laura’s last few days on earth, a fun-filled orgy of drugs, prostitution, and incest. There are few revelations for anyone who was already steeped in the series lore, but it’s somewhat satisfying to be able to spend some time with the wayward prom queen we’ve come to know only through others. There are a handful of amazing sequences—the scene where Donna joins Laura at the Roadhouse is particularly memorable—and plenty of disturbing encounters with the horrible monsters who populate the woods around TP. Lynch uses the expanded freedom of film to venture deep into the depravity that the show only hinted at—a move that certainly alienated a large chunk of the audience who were expecting some wacky new adventures with their old friends at the Sawmill.

There were two things that struck me about the film this time around. First: in its own, perverse, nightmarish way, the story of Laura Palmer more accurately captures the terrors of adolescence than most movies that are actually about the terrors of adolescence. Laura is almost always alone or with one other person; even in the bar scenes, the crowds are sparse, and Laura primarily hangs out with her tiny group of degenerates. We’re told in the series that Laura Palmer was a popular beauty queen, but the only scenes that take place in school might as well be happening in the middle of the woods. Whether Lynch intended this to show the loneliness of being a teenager or not, the effect is one of great isolation.

Second: that Lynch has absolutely no interest in the conventions of storytelling. There’s no exposition. The first quarter of the movie is only tangentially related to the rest of the film. Characters from the series (and new characters) pop in for a few lines and then disappear for the rest of the film. While I always expect Lynch’s movies to be full of riddles and non-sequiturs, this one feels unique in its lack of context. I have read almost nothing about the making of the film, but I get the sense that he was somewhat handcuffed by the lack of participation from some of the actors and he ended up having to craft a new film from whatever he could coble together.

The nice thing about the “Twin Peaks” experience is that it’s limited—two seasons of TV, a movie, and a book. As an addendum to the TV series, Fire Walk with Me is essential viewing, and there’s no reason why you should avoid it if you’re a fan of the series. If you go into it without having seen the show, you’re probably going to be totally lost. But, I guess if you don’t like feeling lost, then you probably have no business going to a David Lynch film in the first place.

Mike:

Well, Jeffrey, you’ve staved off murder for now, though I may still decide to use our previous clash over Rock ‘n’ Roll High School  (or our more recent comment war over The Sex Pistols) as motive. Be warned.

As for the film at hand, I’m quite delighted by your appreciation of such a controversial one, because to reiterate, I’m a big fan. I can usually be found holed up in my hidey-hole with a red curtain draped over my head watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or the series that spawned it. I love “Twin Peaks”, though I still feel like a slightly phony fan, because unlike our esteemed guest commentator, I didn’t start watching the series until reruns aired on Bravo several years after its first run on ABC. My no-longer secret shame: I’m not an original Peaks Freak.

My initial experience in Twin Peaks was even more flawed than that. The very first bit of the show I ever saw was at a friend’s house, where his parents were watching pivotal episode 14. I walked in the room just as Leland/BOB was murdering Maddy Ferguson. So the first moment of the series I ever saw was the revelation of Laura Palmer’s killer. We didn’t have spoiler alerts back then.

I took my next trip to “Twin Peaks” a few years later when Fire Walk With Me first aired on cable TV. Although I hadn’t watched the show (aside from that one revelatory murder scene), I was really intrigued by the film both because of its TV ad, with its eerie yet inviting autumnal atmosphere and mood music, and because it had gotten such frothing, hate-crazed reviews. The critics loathed—loathed—this goddamn movie. Any movie that would inspire someone to (famously) write “It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be” must be worth watching. Like a bus crash.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have cable. So I did what so many horny kids determined to watch the Playboy Channel in the antenna era did before me: I tuned my little T.V. to HBO and fiddled with the knobs and rabbit ears until getting a snowy, black and white, barely discernible picture. Clearly, I was a “Twin Peaks” fanatic in the making if I was willing to go to such extremes to see this movie. Paying for HBO, however, was a length I wasn’t willing to go to.

Obviously, this is not the ideal way to watch a film that draws so much of its magic from its dreamy, gold-hued visuals, but that grainy viewing of Fire Walk With Me was enough to get me hooked into the show when I stumbled across it on Bravo a year or so later. Again, my experience continued to be troubled (I missed the pilot, the first episode, and pivotal episode 14), but I kept returning to the series, developing an obsession that led me to hunt down any old books or articles I could find on the it, subscribing to the ultimate “Peaks” fanzine Wrapped in Plastic, and in a career highlight that still has not been surpassed, writing an article that appeared in that ‘zine’s final issue.

I’ve also seen Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me many, many times (in color, without any horizontal-hold problems), and love it with the love that comes with the forgiveness of an obsessive fan. But when you’ve watched anything as often as I’ve watched this film, and you have a naturally critical eye as I believe I do, you start to notice flaws. The first thing that bothered me about Fire Walk With Me is a pretty minor thing. The monkey. Amidst all the imagery Lynch employs in his surreal yet apparently authentic portrait of incest (Sheryl Lee has said that she has been approached—and thanked— by incest survivors who testify to the film’s authenticity), the director inserts a couple shots of a monkey. The first one is fleeting enough that it isn’t too distracting. The second one comes late in the film, after we’ve consumed two hours of harrowing violence and psychological torment. The capper Lynch chose to put on all this upsetting stuff is a close-up of a monkey’s face as it says “Judy”. The shot is a bizarre callback to David Bowie’s cameo in which he emphatically says he has no intention of discussing Judy. We don’t know who Judy is, or why Bowie doesn’t want to talk about her, but apparently, the monkey does. The monkey wants to talk about Judy. It’s, well, kind of silly. Lynch is amazing at taking goofy ideas and making them unbearably scary, like his transformation of a diner with the ridiculous name Winkie’s into a location of traumatic horror in Mulholland Dr. (silly as that name is, it does have some scary precedent in one of Lynch'’s favorite films: The Wizard of Oz). But the monkey in Fire Walk With Me just doesn’t work. It’s a silly idea that looks silly in a moment of the film that should maintain all the dread leading up to it.
Trust me: when this monkey starts talking, it's not nearly as creepy as it looks in this picture.

The reason I’m fixating on this monkey moment is because, while it momentarily derails the movie, it is also evidence of one of the things I love so much about David Lynch: he is willing to try anything. He is a completely fearless filmmaker and a man enthralled by his ideas. We must accept this failed non-sequitur because it comes from the same instinct that conjures all the non-sequiturs and nutty ideas that work incredibly well: Lil’s dancing message, which could have just as easily been conveyed with dialogue; the hunched woman who appears in Teresa Banks’s trailer, shoving the scene into sudden, unexplained dread; Jacques Renault and Laura’s goofy yet cryptically disquieting conversation about being blank farts and muffins.

In this way, Fire Walk With Me is more significant as a mood piece than a plot piece, though in its own weird way, it does resolve some dangling issues from the series’ elliptical finale (I discussed this in a previous post on Psychobabble). As Jeffrey correctly guesses, the film’s apparent “riddles and non-sequiturs” are partial results of Lynch being “somewhat handcuffed by the lack of participation from some of the actors.” Because Kyle MacLachlan only gave the director a limited number of shooting days, any initial plan to continue the final episode of the series directly, which hinged on Agent Cooper’s possession by demonic BOB, had to be scrapped. Lynch also shot way more footage than he ended up using in the film, which means certain references that would have been explained in these cut scenes (such as Laura’s declaration of “I am the muffin”) are left unexplained. Sloppy editing? Maybe. But you can’t argue with the results. Monkeys, muffins, and all, Fire Walk With Me remains an incredibly powerful, disturbing, haunting, and beautiful film for those who allow themselves to be open to the open-ended.


Jeffrey:

This love fest makes me feel a little uneasy, as if you’re fattening me up for the slaughter. But I just have to say, if you ever chance to meet David Lynch, I think your story about watching Fire Walk with Me through a jerry-rigged HBO connection would probably make him weep tears of joy.

One other thought that came up during this viewing: how many other male filmmakers can claim female protagonists as well-rounded as Mr. Lynch? From “Twin Peaks” to Mulholland Drive to Inland Empire, he never fails to deliver female characters who are just as complex, and often more so, than their male counterparts. Yet another thing for which Lynch—who I consider to be among our greatest living artists—does not get the credit he deserves.

Mike:

That’s true, but as is evident in your carefully chosen list of examples, it took him a while to get there. In fact, he’s often been criticized as misogynistic. I’m certainly not saying I agree with that assessment, but his early films do present fairly two-dimensional female archetypes. In Eraserhead, there are the hen-pecking wife and mother-in-law. The Lady in the Radiator and the trampy neighbor are basically virgin/whore archetypes. So are Sandy and Dorothy in Blue Velvet, though to a lesser degree, and I believe Lynch cares about those two particular characters. I’m glad he didn't have Dorothy kill herself, which was one of his early ideas for the film. He allows her a happy ending.

Wild at Heart was his first film in which he really afforded his female lead a great deal of complexity, and of course, Laura in Fire Walk With Me is like six different characters rolled into one. Sheryl Lee is just brilliant in the role. And unlike Dorothy, Laura kind of turns the tables on her abuser, although allowing herself to be killed isn’t exactly the feminist’s ideal way of ending abuse. Rene in Lost Highway certainly isn’t very complex, but that’s kind of appropriate since she’s a male character’s fantasy creation. And it is interesting that even in his fantasy, she won’t let Fred control her.

By Mulholland Dr., Lynch fully ironed out whatever lingering issues he had with female characters, and INLAND EMPIRE is a downright love letter to actresses and a very sympathetic exploration of all the bullshit they have to deal with in Hollywood, where women are so often relegated to playing housewives and hookers. It’s his first overtly feminist picture. I’d love to see what he does next. INLAND EMPIRE really feels like a career capper, though, and he apparently hasn’t come up with any new ideas for a feature since then. I really hope it isn’t his final film.

Jeffrey:

The idea of misogyny in Blue Velvet is interesting to me because I feel like that movie is all about the archetypes ... the virgin/whore dynamic is at the heart of the story. I don't have a problem with that as long as you're actually examining it within the context of the film. It's when films unconsciously employ those types of female characters (a la The Hangover) that it feels misogynistic. I mean, I know you're not saying he's a misogynist, it's just interesting to me that he'd faced that accusation before. I was not aware.

Mike:

The charges of misogyny are common enough that he felt he needed to address them in his “self-help” book Catching the Big Fish. His line has always basically been that Dorothy is Dorothy and Laura is Laura, and neither of them are supposed to represent women in total. Based on that, I think he did use those archetypes unconsciously in Blue Velvet. Lynch is not a political filmmaker by any stretch. When I say that INLAND EMPIRE is a feminist film, I’m not suggesting he consciously set out to make a feminist film, but it certainly strikes me as one nonetheless. And although he leans on stereotypes in Blue Velvet, and there's a lot of violence against women in the film, it doesn’t strike me as a misogynist film personally, because he really seems to sympathize with Dorothy's plight. And Lynch never eroticizes Frank’s violence against her; in fact, he seems to do everything he can to make Frank’s abuse absolutely grotesque. Interestingly, he does eroticize Dorothy's abuse of Jeffrey Beaumont, and vice versa. And when Jeffrey (again, the character Jeffrey Beaumont; not you, Jeffrey) commits violence against Dorothy, he does so at her command, and he feels violated by it. He has nightmares about it. I suppose these characters are a bit more complex than I initially suggested.

That being said, I can see why women might have trouble with this film. Perhaps we can get some other perspectives in the comments section below. Take it away, Psychobabblers...

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