Saturday, December 26, 2009

David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

The genesis of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) seemed both anti-climatic and enigmatic. The most simple plot synopsis would say the film is a chronicle of the final days of the life of Laura Palmer (leading up to the events of the pilot episode of the first season of the massively-popular Twin Peaks television show). No inherent mystery in that synopsis (her killer would be discovered during the show's run). Lynch would reveal several clues, however, within Fire Walk With Me about the mysterious "Black Lodge" and its denizens. Many professional critics (amongst whom it was not favorably received) saw Fire Walk With Me as at least an opportunity for Lynch to include imagery of sex and violence (and kink) that he was unable at the time to show on the small screen. (While this argument is not wholly persuasive, it is not without merit.) At its heart, the essence of Fire Walk With Me lies in this exchange between Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Albert (Miguel Ferrer):

Albert: Will the next victim be a man or a woman?
Cooper: A woman.
Albert: All right. What color hair will she have?
Cooper: Blond.
Albert: Tell me some other things about her.
Cooper: She's in high school. She is sexually active. She's using drugs. She's crying out for help.
Albert: Damn, Cooper, that really narrows it down. You're talking about half the high school girls in America!

Albert's final line in this exchange is quintessential Albert, and the chuckle it receives detracts from Cooper's final line in this exchange. Sheryl Lee gives a phenomenal performance as Laura Palmer which is strongly buttressed by an equally powerful performance by Ray Wise as Leland Palmer in the focal relationship of Fire Walk With Me. When I initially saw the film during its theatrical run, I was near the age of Laura Palmer. Seeing it today, Fire Walk With Me still has resonance beyond the quirks, characters, clues, etc.: it's an intimate and sensitive portrayal of (real) characters dealing with addiction, abuse, and love in the foreground of an absurdist background.When Lee's Laura makes her first appearance in Fire Walk With Me (about thirty to thirty-five minutes into the film), Lynch presents her typical school day. (Interestingly, Lynch mirrors almost all the same events on her final day in a radically different fashion.) At the conclusion of her first day, however, Lynch presents two scenes back to back which would read on paper as totally innocuous. The first is Laura's would-be dinner with her mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), and with her father, Wise's Leland. Leland chides his daughter ridiculously about not washing her hands before coming to the dinner table and probes her possibly inappropriately about her half-heart pendant around her neck. "Is it from a lover?" he asks. The performances and the low-key treatment by Lynch carry the darker tension within the scene. Lee perfectly becomes immediately terrified by her father's touching and piercing questions. Ineffectual Sarah shrieks and squirms uncomfortably while Leland, quite sinister, hovers over his daughter. Within minutes, the viewer is well aware of what goes on in this house after night falls, even without having to see Lee's Laura moved to complete tears while washing her hands. Lynch wisely follows this scene with the three at bedtime. Sarah is still ineffectual, and Wise's character gives a pivotal change with just the expressions on his face. Seen rocking on the bed, his expression goes from demonic glee to pitiful regret. He immediately goes to his daughter's bedroom to tell her very tenderly that he loves her. Not only do these domestic scenes hint at the darker goings on (from the other place), but they are also the very depiction of dysfunction with their strong emotions, violent mood changes, and conflicting behavior.Perhaps the most representative scene of Laura's descent into her addiction and also the the film's most visually intoxicating scene is the "Welcome to Canada" nightclub scene, where Donna (Moira Kelly) follows Laura during an evening's escapades and Laura reunites with Ronette (Phoebe Augustine) with whom she's invited for a fateful rendezvous. Words perhaps cannot adequately describe the experience of this sequence within a theatre setting; since I first witnessed it during its original run, I have never forgotten it with its strong red colors, flashing lights, pulsating and haunting score, muffled voices with subtitled, surreal dialogue, and the strangest character interactions. Completely intense. A viewing experience that can never be replicated outside of a theatre. Perhaps many of the professional critics walked away from their screenings with this memorable sequence in mind: although Lynch goes to great lengths to show the consequences and emotions of his characters' actions, he certainly does love to depict their self-destructive and kinky behavior. Likewise, this sequence is powerfully sensual, like watching Lee's Laura give a slow dance to her suitor, who slowly disrobes her on the dance floor or when she beckons her suitor with a finger wave to pleasure her under the table. Like a strong addiction, the nightclub sequence is completely alluring and simultaneously extremely dark (and dangerous). The treatment of this scene was a real artistic risk for Lynch, as it could (and did for some) overshadow the subtle and more intimate scenes of the film.Finally, Fire Walk With Me has few scenes with Laura and her true love, James (James Marshall), and these scenes are another tightrope walk for Lynch. He's able to balance sweet sentimentalism and genuine emotions between the two characters, as their dialogue goes from flighty ("gobble, gobble") to intensely and directly real. The opening thirty minutes of the film, an investigation of the Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) murder by Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) are a lot of fun. (Harry Dean Stanton, Lynch, and David Bowie appear in over-the-top, standout roles.) These opening minutes give lots of clues to the mysterious happenings at the "Black Lodge" and are important to the Twin Peaks mythology, but I much prefer the Laura Palmer chronicle. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a phenomenal (and perhaps underrated) film from David Lynch both rich in its subtle, emotional content and richly wild in its visuals.


Geof said...

An excellent review Hans! As I fan of the show, I never really appreciated this film until I got a little older and immediately after finishing Bravo's rotation run back in '96. I think my earlier disdain for this film stemmed from the fact that I was looking for a continuation/ending to the series finale, which was a HUGE cliffhanger.

Hans A. said...

Thnx, Geof for the kind words and taking the time to read and share your comment. I haven't seen the series for years but I think the film is approachable and can be enjoyed on its own.

Aaron said...

I applaud you for reviewing this one. I have tried on a few different occasions to sit down and watch David Lynch movies with the intention of reviewing them for my blog, but they're so fucking difficult. Even one of his more accessible movies like Wild At Heart is hard to do justice, especially with the way that I write. Great review though, man. I actually watched this one right around the time you posted this, too. Weird.

Hans A. said...

Thnx Aaron for the kind words. I'm finding my latest review hard to write as well. All I really did with this review was focus on the one aspect and ignored quite a bit. I'm happy with it, because it's what affected me while watching it. I try to change up my style with my approaches. Always appreciate it when you visit and comment. Your Argento reviews are a lot of fun!

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. Your check is in the mail. And that is large and in charge.