In one issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, it’s revealed that there’s a library in the realm of The Dreaming that contains not just every book ever written, every film ever made etc. but also every book, film etc. ever conceived. You can just imagine that within that library exists the other 8 hours of Stroheim’s Greed and the lost hour of Welles’ The Magnificent Andersons. You can add David Lynch’s Twin Peaks to that collection, in which the third season and everything cut from the film remains locked away. It’s a tremendous shame too, as the show’s first season revolutionized American television, bringing an unheard of cinematic quality to the medium, as well as adding Lynch’s unique brand of surrealism, humor and art-house tendencies.
Although, film directors and cinematic quality finding their way to television, while a novel idea in America in the early ’90s, was more common in Europe and elsewhere. Masterpieces like Kieslowski’s Dekalog, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bergman’s extended cuts of Fanny & Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage all have their origins in television, yet are considered in the same breath as other feature films, even appearing on Top Film Lists such as Empire and Theyshootpictures.com. Twin Peaks deserves a place in that same league. In some respects, the series is David Lynch’s crowning achievement; it’s certainly the fullest expression of his metaphysically-tinged, psychological mythology, and it’s even been put forth that many of the inexplicable entities appearing in his future films (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) can be seen as spirits of Twin Peaks ’ notorious Black Lodge and White Lodge.
But Twin Peaks is also the classic example of a work of art ruined by external interference. Despite its strong initial TV ratings, especially for The Pilot (which, even by itself, is one of Lynch’s finest works), the ratings declined over the course of the first and second season. This led network execs to push Lynch and co-creator/writer Mark Frost to reveal the murderer of Laura Palmer, even though it was that mystery that had driven the entire show, the hype and viewer interest. As Lynch said in a documentary on the DVD bonus disc, revealing her murderer killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Afterwards, the second season’s quality slump became infamous, largely the result of Lynch and Frost abandoning work on the show for other projects, as did its cliffhanger ending, which still resulted in the series suffering the same fate as Hal’s girlfriend from the movie Cliffhanger.
Lynch, understandably unsatisfied with this result, decided to return to the project in the form of a feature film titled Fire Walk With Me. The film’s a prequel that chronicles the final days of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), her relationship with her father, Leland (Ray Wise), best friend, Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly), her boyfriend/drug dealer Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and her secret boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall). It also reveals how FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) came to work on her case after Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) disappeared while investigating the death of another girl, Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley). Laura, suffering for years of being raped by a man/entity named BOB (a terrifying Frank Silva), begins peering into the mystical worlds of the Black and White Lodge, and finds herself forced to confront her inner demons.
If nothing else, the film makes it abundantly clear that the element that drew Lynch to the project so strongly was the character of Laura Palmer. In her he saw the perfect symbolic paradigm of his artistic interests, primarily that of the deepest and darkest recesses of the human mind and its monsters (sometimes real, sometimes metaphoric) lurking under the quiet, ideal surface that others see, possessing them behind the curtain of normality. This light surface/dark depths juxtaposition has been the cornerstone of Lynch’s post-90s cinema, and it extends beyond individuals to how he views Hollywood (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), and even the settings and locations; Twin Peaks itself can be seen as a metaphor for the perfect town with a sinister secret.
Given Lynch’s interest in Laura and how thoroughly Fire Walk With Me digs into her character, the rampant negative criticism that the film received from all circles—it didn’t please Twin Peaks fans, critics, or general audiences—is rather surprising. I believe the reason behind this is how the film inverses the narrative perspective of the series. The outside-in perspective of the series was likely the result of Mark Frost’s writing, as he brought a much more traditionally Western storytelling sense with a great sense of characterization and pacing. His writing helped balance Lynch’s more inside-out, expressionistic, visual-dominated direction. From this Lynch could conjure his atmospheric wizardry from the images without dictating the content. In the series, even something as benign as a low angle shot of stairs ascending to an upper floor with a fan took on a malevolent quality.
One could argue that Frost’s focus on character and story largely dominated the series, making Lynch’s nightmarish interruptions all the more affective in their brevity and infrequency. It created an aesthetic of a place and its people that was inviting and comfortable, but which could sweep the rug out from under you at any minute, venturing into the heart of darkness and bizarre alternate realities. That tension between the known and comfortable and the unknown and uncomfortable, along with the complex relationships and balance of humor, horror and good-ole fashioned drama (or, more appropriately, melodrama, somewhat parodicaly culled from soap opera traditions) is what gave the series its utterly unique aura that no TV series sense has quite been able to match.
In the film, Lynch utterly demolishes this relationship. In its place is a brutal, unpleasant, disquieting and slightly irritating nosedive into the depraved abyss. It reveals that all of the limitations and requirements of TV, from the runtime to the series format, from the censorship to the collaborative nature, may have all been beneficial to the series, Lynch’s vision, and to Lynch himself. Whatever else can be said of Fire Walk With Me it’s undeniably Lynch’s least controlled, least focused, and least certain effort. Part of it’s that the world and mythology of Twin Peaks can’t be contained in a feature, and the truncated nature of the film excises so much of what made Twin Peaks what it was that it’s almost unrecognizable as the same world.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Fire Walk With Me is that Laura Palmer was a much more interesting character when she remained a dead and distant mystery, like a fading dream; the more one tried to grasp her, the more she slipped away. Like Hamlet, she’s immortal as a ghost on a page, as a concept or a memory, but too superficially human when portrayed. Sheryl Lee tries, but she simply lacks the talent to pull off the character to the degree and substantial depth that Naomi Watts did with her character in Mulholland Drive, or Laura Dern did with hers in Inland Empire. The supporting cast is little better. Ray Wise’s Leland is a one-dimensional, cartoonishly villainous shell of the Leland he played on Twin Peaks, while Moira Kelly is a dull and emotionless Donna, lacking the intangible magnetism of Lara Flynn Boyle’s series portrayal. The host of guest-stars, from Kiefer Sutherland to David Bowie, are little more than cardboard stand-ins. The greatest loss is, of course, the rest of the Twin Peaks cast, which are either completely absent, or only around long enough to make their by-and-large absence all the more deeply felt.
Yet the film isn’t quite as bad as most critics or Twin Peaks fans claim; it’s biggest flaw is that its best moments are fractured and infrequent and there’s no sense of coherency. But when those pieces work, they’re riveting in ways only Lynch can be. The drug-filled bar orgy is one of Lynch’s most visually and aurally arresting scenes, with its piercing strobe lights, swathes of blood red lighting, and hallucinatory camera drifting to the pulsing club music. Likewise, Laura’s dream is Lynchean surrealism at its best, as she ventures into the world of her photograph, which turns out to be connected to her own room. Here Lynch achieves his trademark “monsters under the bed and in the closet” feeling using nothing but space, time, movement, and sound. In Lynch, there’s nothing so terrifying as empty rooms, or a camera venturing towards a door, as we’re constantly petrified of what will fill that space, or what’s on the other side of the door.
For better or worse, and for all its surrealistic obscurities, the film does clear up many of the lingering questions regarding Laura’s death. In the series, Leland revealed that, as a child, he was subjected to the actions of a grey-haired man who threw matches at him, asking him if he wanted to play with fire, while Laura said in a diary that she had also been subjected to the torments of Bob from a young age. The film explicitly reveals Leland and Laura’s incestuous relationship and his transformation into Bob. It takes the series full circle, suggesting that Leland was, perhaps, sexually molested himself as a child and was taken over by the “spirit” of Bob, the man responsible. He then takes that out on his own daughter who, not being able to handle the truth that it’s her father, only sees him in the guise of Bob, refusing to recognize them as the same person.
There are two distinct interpretive paths to take. One is that Bob is merely a psychological metaphor. In Leland he stands for the man that (hypothetically) abused him, and in Laura he stands for her mind’s insistence on separating her father from the man who rapes her. In Leland, Bob becomes a near-split personality, while in Laura he becomes a defense mechanism allowing her to cope with the truth. This motif of the mind’s reordering and reimagining of reality has been a motif throughout Lynch’s cinema. The other interpretation is that Bob is a real spirit, one that is allowed to possess a person who has become consumed with fear. The evidence for that is the fact that, throughout the series, others see him in exactly the same form as Laura sees him and as Leland appears. In many respects, it raises the age old debate about whether God, Satan, and demons are, in themselves, real or merely reified entities conjured from the abstracts of our mind.
Ultimately, David Lynch gets it, even when he doesn’t get it right. He gets the feeling of dreams and nightmares, the intuitive sensations of what lies beyond the edges of the dim forests, the feared abysses both internal and external; he gets love, loss, obsession, absurdity, and a perpetually underlying sadness at the death of dreams, innocence, and faith in the good of humanity. Fire Walk With Me isn’t one of his masterpieces. It’s likely his bleakest and most devastatingly ferocious of all his works, but also one of the most strangely beautiful courtesy of cinematographer Ron Garcia. Perhaps the worst that can be said is that it’s overkill, that it exposes and rapes the magic of Twin Peaks ’ mysteries. Maybe it would be best to consider it just another volume in the Twin Peaks series checked out from the Library of the Dreaming, rather than the final volume. One can only hope that someday other volumes will be unshelved. But, then again, maybe that would result in us waking up from the beautifully hypnotic, eternally frightening, eternally mesmerizing dream that Lynch and his Twin Peaks world has put us under.