Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Yesterday I watched one of my favorite films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It's a film that was critically drubbed when it was first released, largely because it's totally dependent on knowledge of the series to understand it. I would argue that Fire Walk With Me is the film with the smallest target audience ever released, you have to have seen every episode of the series to really understand it, and considering the erratic scheduling of the second season, it's unlikely that a lot of people had seen it all when the film was released.

So, when I watched the film this time, it was quite different than watching it after seeing the series. The film works best as a coda to the series, simultaneously a beginning and ending, and it really helps to be in the Twin Peaks mindset. Going into the film having not seen the series in a while, I didn't find it as emotionally affecting as I did on the other viewings.

But because I wasn't so emotionally caught up in the events, I was able to step back and examine the filmmaking more, and really observe how unique a narrative this film has.

Back to the genesis of this film. I'm a huge fan of television because of the storytelling possibilities it offers. To be able to unfold a story over many hours affords the possibility for greater narrative depth than film can offer. You can go further in developing characters and creating huge storylines. However, most TV shows don't take this opportunity and instead struggle to maintain a status quo, or just choose to ignore the past. David Lynch is not someone generally renowned for his narrative clarity, but with Fire Walk With Me he draws on the events of the series to create a fully layered backstory (techinically forwardstory) for the film. We know the world and the characters, so the joy in Fire Walk With Me is to finally find out what it was that killed Laura. There's no question about how it's going to end, we're basically watching this girl freefall until she burns up, because the angels have gone away.

The mere fact that this film exists still astonishes me. It's so insider, and features one of, if not the strangest narrative structures in any mainstream movie. First, there's no attempt to catch up people who haven't seen the series, there's no background on the mechanics of the world, such as what this red room is, the significance of the one armed man or why Cooper is in the Red Room despite previously being seen in the FBI Office. Lynch assumes that you've seen the series and know it by heart, and I love that. It's much better to cater to fans than to try to make the film accessible to new viewers, and end up annoying long time fans in the process. It's not just general concepts that the film draws on, characters who appeared in only a few episodes, like the Chalfonts, become major figures in the film, and the entire mythology of the red room requires multiple viewings to figure out. I'm still not sure exactly what was going on there, but it's ultimately up to each viewer to find something that works for them.

So putting aside the fact that the film requires prior knowledge of 29 episodes from the TV series, there's the fact that the film's narrative structure is really odd. The first time I saw the film, I felt the opening episode with Chet Desmond was a waste of time, but looking at it now, it's one of my favorite things in the film. In the opening shot, Lynch destroys a television, symbolically communicating to the audience that this is a different entity from the series, and we're going to play by different rules. Then, we go into the Chester Desmond sequence, which is very odd, but quite enjoyable. You can view it as a parody of the series, instead of a welcoming community, Desmond finds himself in a bizarro Twin Peaks, where getting things done is a huge struggle. This sequence best captures the tone of the series, with its offbeat humor and odd behavior. I love Harry Dean Stanton's characters, including the classic line "That trailer's more popular than uncle's day at a whorehouse."

And then Desmond disappears and never returns, not in the series or in the film. It's a lingering loose end, one that's perhaps best explained by the dream theory, which stipulates that the entire sequence in Deer Meadow and the Philadelphia scenes are actually Cooper's dream. If you watch the scenes, there are a ton of references to dreaming and needing to wake up. I think those scenes being a dream definitely works within the context of the film, and certainly make it a more cohesive entity. The question that arises is, did Lynch intend for them to be a dream? If I had to guess, I'd say no, but the film's out of his hands now, and takes on meanings of its own, regardless of what he intended.

The Philadelphia scene is my favorite thing that Lynch has ever done. It's arguably the most bizarre five minutes in any film ever, with all manner of crazy stuff going on, right from the sudden David Bowie appearance on. I love the way the static cuts into the frame and the Bowie voiceover goes over everything. And then the images are just crazy, the formica table bit, this sequence shows you how film can create incredibly bizarre environments, Lynch is firing on all cylinders there.

I think the crucial thing to keep in mind when watching Fire Walk With Me, particularly if you're not immersed in the world of the series, is that it's not designed to piece together exactly. There's no key to understanding FWWM that will put everything in perspective, as there is for Mulholand Dr. There are elements that are in the film solely for their visual value, and then there's other elements that you have to bring your own meaning to. Viewing this film from a critical perspective, it's easy to fault Lynch for having random strange things occur, but if these elements have value in and of themselves, maybe they don't need to contribute to the narrative. For example, the scene where Leland leaves Teresa and the boy in the mask jumps around in the parking lot as he's leaving. You could say why is the boy there? Why does he disappear? Or you could view it as an example of an incredible visual that gives a sense of foreboding to the scene, regardless of the narrative specifics.

This isn't to say that the elements in the film don't piece together. All the business with the red room makes sense within the context of the series, and certainly works on an emotional level. Though, I'm still wondering what the deal was Judy, who's mentioned by the monkey and Bowie, that's something we may never know.

The reason I'd consider this Lynch's best film is because it's the only film that sucessfully merges the emotionally relevant, character based storytelling of Blue Velvet with the surrealism of Eraserhead. In Mulholland Dr., there are a lot of surreal moments, but the narrative itself is all explainable in real world terms, in FWWM, the action seems to take place in a world where the supernatural is possible and there's not the strict division between reality and the mental realm that you find in MD or Lost Highway. That's not to say these films aren't surreal, or great, it's just that they're based around a central conceit that screws with reality, while FWWM presents a world that seems real, but in fact has a lot of crazy stuff going on beneath the surface.FWWM picks up on the dream inspired drifting consciousness of Henry in Eraserhead, characters appear and disappear and Laura herself wanders through multiple worlds. I love the way he plays with time, having characters from the end of the series appear here at the beginning, most notably Annie, but also Dale in the lodge.

But at the same time, this is the film where Lynch best merges the surrealism and narrative experimentation with strong emotional content. Laura's story is incredibly tragic and disturbing, both in the real world and in the black lodge. Lynch pulls this off again in Mulholland Dr., but not quite as well. There's nothing as intense as the scene at the end where Leland kills Laura, and the angel saves Ronette. MD is a cooler movie, and by cool, I mean there's a slight distance from all the action, only in Club Silencio do we really feel what Diane/Betty feels. Here, we're always there with Laura.

One of the most emotional sequences is also extremely real world, and that's Laura's night of prostitution with Donna. The scene where she hears 'Questions in a World of Blue' and starts to cry is startling and then the 'Pink Room' sequence is some of Lynch's best filmmaking, the driving music and Laura's unhinged demeanor creating a hell on earth. The final shot, where the camera pans over the bottles and cigarettes is great too.

This merging of emotional and surreal storytelling reaches its height in the last scene. After the great garmonbozia sequences, we jump forward 25 years. In the interim, the original red room scene occurs, and Laura tells Dale who killed her. I would say that this time was a penance, resisting Bob is not enough, she must also help bring him to justice, and doing this requires waiting 25 years before she can tell Dale who killed her. Then, we see Cooper with her, and the wonderful image of her rapturous laughter as she finally sees the angel and ascends to the white lodge. Purely symbolic storytelling, and what a close for the film.

What I love so much about this scene is the way it simultaneously provides closure for the series after an earlier scene provides the perfect segue to the pilot. Laura is there with Cooper, and in this moment, the film and series are connected. She looks up and finds her goodness vindicated, and at last, Laura Palmer can rest in peace.

When I first saw this film, I was disappointed that we didn't get to see many of the Twin Peaks residents, or find out what happens after the series, but in retrospect, the series ends perfectly and so does this film. The film brings everything full circle and manages to work as both a perfect closing to the series and perfect beginning to venture into it again. Lynch has crafted a film that can be analyzed until the end of time, because there's no 'trick' as in Mulholland Dr. There's no need to explain everything, because the big picture is right there, but picking apart the details requires a lot of study, and once season two comes out on DVD, I'm going to rewatch the series and do some of that study.

I don't mean to crack on MD, it's no Sixth Sense style twist ending, but I just find what Lynch does in FWWM so compelling and unique, basically any other film compares poorly to it. Mulholland Dr. does have a ton to analyze and is an awesome movie.

But back to FWWM. I hate it that the film is so poorly thought of. Lynch was so popular in the early 90s, that by the time FWWM came out, it was time for a fall and this convoluted, inaccessible movie provided the perfect excuse for media skewering. After this film, Lynch became more interested in playing around with narrative and presenting subjective views of reality, in two incredible films, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. But those films are a step back towards conventional narrative after the experimentation of FWWM. There's nothing wrong with that, but with FWWM, the established world of Twin Peaks, gave him a base from which to create a truly experimental, surreal and emotional film that is thankfullly finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. This is an extension of the series, but that doesn't mean that it can't be Lynch's richest, most challenging work as well. It does what film is meant to do, and that's use visuals and sound to elicit an emotional reaction.


H. Stewart said...

I agree; for all of Lynch's impenetrable strangeness, he's a very viscerally affecting filmmaker, if you stop trying to figure out every detail's "meaning" and just allow them to work your subconscious.

That's not to say there isn't a rich symbolism to appreciate, either, just that his films aren't the purely intellectual exercises they are sometimes made out to be, FWWM being a good case in point.

Patrick said...

Totally, FWWM is so successful for me because beneath all the strangeness, there's this very strong emotional core. You can just get lost in Laura's struggle, and don't need to worry about the meaning of everything. I think critics sometimes get hung up on the fact that his films don't hold to traditonal narrative structures and get lost trying to "solve the mystery" rather than just enjoying the ride.

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Parker said...

Well I think really that the entire Twin Peaks oeuvre should be viewed as a whole...and as such it's one of the most incredible artistic achievements ever put to film, imho.

Really...it's only fitting that FWWM flew in the face of the conventionalities of accessibility by the masses and traditional narrative...because the TP series defied those very same conventionalities when it was originally aired.

Lynch is all about the journey, not the destination...and TP/FWWM is an amazing journey.

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Excellent I didn't know it but, Fire Walk with Me was greeted at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival with booing from the audience and met with negative reviews in the United States. The film fared poorly in the United States at the box office, partially because it was released almost a year after the television series was canceled, and all this is something important to know about this movie. 23jj

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Nicole said...

I loved this movie specifically because it was irrational in regards to cinema storytelling. You used the right word, "trick", for Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Not that they are easy to decode. But in FWWM it's not about decoding at all. Watching the film it was like being in touch with my subconscious through the imagery.(Remember when you were a kid and you liked things, without having to explain them ? :) Without having the images explained, it makes perfect sense for them to appear in the context of the movie. And those "inexplicable" sequences had a more photographic quality, disrupting the cinematic. Like disrupting language with imagery. This was really something new to me. And definitely inspiring. Great article, good review !

angela said...

hi there,i just watched fwwm again 10 years after i first viewed it and i cried so hard at the end,i started watching it with twin peaks in mind but it holds it own as one of the most emotional films i have seen,its just so sad and all the surrealism only works to heighten the sorrow and damage laura is feeling...i cant even think where to begin at describing how much this made an impact on me this time round,one of the most amazing pieces of film making ever....

Joel Bocko said...

Ten years later I say...

The film does seem to work for many viewers who haven't seen the show (often better than for viewers who have) because what we see as mythology that the series "decodes" they see as wild Lynchian dream imagery that doesn't need decoding (something you yourself note in the post). In that sense, Bob and the one-armed man need no more explanation than, say, the Mystery Man. They work on an intuitive level

And the interesting thing is...I think this is largely how Lynch felt about it even though he had just come off the show. Increasingly it seems to me that it was Mark Frost who wanted to explain Bob and Mike as specific "inhabiting spirits" and it was certainly Frost who created the whole Lodge lore (largely borrowed from Theosophy). In some ways, Lynch is following through on Frost's concepts in FWWM in others he's going back to the sort of mythology he probably would have preferred on the show: in which the Red Room is an inexplicable place and we ourselves aren't really sure what all these spiritual/physical visions mean, we just feel them.

Another thing - you note that Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway seem to be grounded in an easier-to-understand psychological ; the dream is imposed upon the reality rather than vice-versa. I always took them that way too but after really digging into Fire Walk With Me (and reading Martha Nochimson's take on the Vedic and quantum influences in Lynch's work) I'm starting to wonder. Perhaps these later works are also meant to exist in a physics-bending world, in which these spiritual forces are just as real as the psychological phenomena they correspond to. And only in FWWM do we notice it because we have the supernatural context of the series in mind? Just a thought.

Nice site (hope you return to it at some point). Came for End of Evangelion, stayed for Fire Walk With Me.

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