The relationship between “Twin Peaks” and “Fire Walk with Me”

An Ibishblog reader asks me, “Perhaps you would consider following up on your rather remarkable discourse on Hamlet with a defense of your (dubious) preference for David Lynch’s feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me over the television series Twin Peaks?” I’m delighted to.

As this reader is aware, I hold the films of David Lynch in very high esteem. I’m not sure there’s another living artist in any medium whose work produces such a profound effect on me. Obviously, this puts me in a fairly small minority as most people find most Lynch films impenetrable, boring, nasty, unpleasant or simply bizarre. There is no doubt his work is extremely challenging, and it’s also extremely dark and therefore on both scores certainly not for everybody. A great many people, probably most, don’t want to be deeply challenged by the movies. They want to be entertained for an hour and a half or so, laugh and cry, and not have to think too much about it. That’s completely reasonable, and there is a vast industry that caters to this taste. Moreover, the subset of people who take film seriously as an art form also by no means unanimously approves of Lynch’s work generally. Especially his later films have many well-informed and brilliant detractors who see them as self-indulgent, vapid and tiresomely banal.

Obviously, I passionately disagree. I’m extremely impressed with a number of qualities Lynch has brought to his later work: technical mastery; outstanding attention to detail, especially sound; an exceptionally refined and in some cases even revolutionary approach to narrative techniques; and above all a profound depth of humanity. I’m not only sympathetic to Film Comment’s recent selection of Mulholland Dr. as the best film of the past decade, I suspect it’s the best, at least American, film in several decades.

Lynch’s films are so emotionally demanding I think because they reflect the work of an artist who truly embraces his own emotions and those of his characters. If his films operate in a strange way, this is because life itself is extremely strange. We create straightforward narratives in order to cope with our realities, but those are of course largely fictional and entirely arbitrary, except insofar as they serve a specific purpose in helping us accomplish our goals. But it seems to me that Lynch’s alienated and nonlinear narratives centered around totally unstable identities and shifting personae, strange as they seem at first, come much closer to the way we actually experience our lives than standard, linear, naturalistic narratives do. What’s more, his films are about shattering, tragic events which are always going to be even more alienating and destabilizing than normal life is.

In his later films, what Lynch tends to do is take an extremely simple but deeply tragic narrative and build around it a vast network of representations, associations, narrations, iterations and interconnections. The process of reading a Lynch film involves pulling that web of signification apart, and seeing both the core narrative and the complex representational superstructure working together to create a wild proliferation of meaning. It’s frequently the case with late Lynch that a film takes on a different character and yields itself to a different set of deconstructions and reconstructions with almost every viewing. For those of us who like it, it’s incredibly thrilling. For a lot of other people it would be boring, tiresome and exhausting.

I would argue that, if for nothing else, Lynch deserves an enormous amount of credit for creating what I think amounts to an original style and even genre: American film surrealism. Except for his work, surrealism in the cinema has been almost entirely a European affair, defined by a number of extraordinary artists, most notably the great Don Luis Buñuel. However, European surrealism more or less peaked with the final, extraordinary films of the early and mid-70s that capped off Buñuel’s remarkable career such as Belle du jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (which may have the most complicated narrative I’ve ever seen in any film), and That Obscure Object of Desire. It seems to me that in recent decades not only has Lynch shifted the epicenter of Surrealism in cinema from Europe to the United States, he’s created a new and highly original version of it.

The reader asks specifically about the relationship between Lynch’s 1990-91 television series, Twin Peaks, and the much-maligned 1992 film “prequel,” Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Twin Peaks (which I will use exclusively to refer to the TV series) was justly celebrated at the time as a major achievement. It riveted the attention of a great deal of the United States around the question “who killed Laura Palmer?” More importantly, it was probably the first broadcast TV series to bring full-blown cinematic techniques to the small screen, and it’s still frequently cited as the most accomplished television program yet made. There is no question that it had an enormous impact on both television and popular culture generally.

As the program entered its second season, Lynch came under heavy pressure from the network and his co-author Mark Frost to reveal the secret of Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch argued that there was no obligation to the audience to resolve the question, and that it should remain a mystery until the end of the series if not beyond. Unfortunately, fairly early into the second season, the network won out, as they do, and it was revealed that Laura had been murdered by her own father (though ostensibly possessed by a malevolent demon-spirit called Bob) following years of sexual abuse at home. Predictably enough, Lynch was right. The revelation removed the central theme around which the story had been constructed, and the series veered wildly off track. It was not renewed. The collapse of Twin Peaks also occurred because Lynch plainly lost interest in it after his idea of a completely open-ended series fell by the wayside. However, he did return to direct an extraordinary two-hour final episode.

Shortly after the end of the TV show, Lynch began working on a film, ostensibly a prequel to Twin Peaks, which would tell the story of the last week of Laura Palmer’s life. Fire Walk with Me premiered at Cannes, but was roundly criticized by both critics and audiences, and considered both a financial and artistic failure. So what the reader is asking is why I am much more enthusiastic about a film most people consider badly if not fatally flawed, than I am about a television series that is generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, ever shown on a broadcast network. The main reason for my somewhat, but increasingly less, heretical position is that I think most critics and audiences have completely misunderstood the relationship between the film and the series, and therefore totally misread both what Lynch was doing in Fire Walk with Me and what he was able to accomplish.

Although Lynch was meticulously faithful to the mythos constructed in the TV series when he made the film, introducing impressively few contradictory facts and not altering the chronology in any meaningful sense, the differences between the two are simply enormous. Most strikingly, the film is almost entirely bereft of the humor of the TV series, which typically had the look and feel of a dark, menacing parody. This hand was played openly in many ways, not least by the recurring TV soap opera, “Invitation to Love,” to which the Twin Peaks residents are deeply addicted. Their own parodic behavior, which sends up TV dramas generally, is frequently mirrored in the program by the parody of a parody that is “Invitation to Love.”

Twin Peaks has plenty of bathos, fake sentimentality, and disturbing imagery, but it rarely if ever achieves pathos, emotional power and genuine horror. Fire Walk with Me, by contrast, does achieve pathos, packs a considerable emotional wallop, and is chock-a-block with genuine horror. It’s almost as if having been forced to abandon the Laura Palmer storyline by revealing the killer, Lynch not only lost interest in the rest of season two and, indeed, the entire program, but also felt that Laura as a character and her deep story had not received their due from the television program. Behind the parody, satire, mystery, red herrings, dead ends and relentless playfulness of Twin Peaks still lay a story of the self-destruction, torture, murder and mental and emotional collapse of a young woman, and it needed telling in a manner that communicated the depth of its tragedy.

Fire Walk with Me is better seen as an antithesis, a repudiation and a corrective to Twin Peaks, rather than as a prequel or the extension of the brand into an inappropriate medium, which are the two ways it was generally received upon release. There is almost no doubt that Lynch was left angry, dissatisfied and disappointed by the way Twin Peaks played itself out on the small screen, and was turning to his more familiar medium of the big screen to address the problem.

The film announces its intention in this regard at its very outset — the opening credits run across an indistinct blur that is extremely hard to identify until the final credit caption, Lynch himself as director, at which point the camera lurches back revealing that what we have been looking at is television “snow,” and the second we realize that we’ve been looking at a TV (too closely, almost inside the set), a baseball bat smashes the set to pieces (we subsequently discover that this is the murder of Teresa Banks we first heard about in the Twin Peaks pilot). I think this gesture of opening Fire Walk with Me by ritually smashing a TV set to pieces pretty much sums up its attitude towards the medium and, to some extent at least, Twin Peaks as a program, or at least what was done to it by the industry. It’s partly Lynch venting, of course, but it’s also the clearest possible signal to the audience that this is not television and it’s not a world that’s going to be friendly to television either.

The film has two distinct parts: Chester Desmond’s investigation into Teresa Banks’ murder and his subsequent disappearance, followed by the last week in the life of Laura Palmer narrated almost entirely from her own point of view. The first part of the film, which is much shorter, plays many important roles, among which is the systematic repudiation of the very essence of Twin Peaks which is the charm, wholesomeness and rustic appeal of the town and its residents. Deer Meadow, the nearby town in which Teresa is killed, is the antithesis of the town of Twin Peaks as depicted in the TV show: the local police are crooked and utterly callous as well as hostile to the FBI, people generally are unfriendly and unhelpful, neither the people nor the town itself are attractive or pleasant, the coffee and pie are apparently nothing to write home about at best, etc. Indeed, the only real humor in Fire Walk with Me is in this opening sequence of scenes in Deer Meadow, and mostly centers around the very crude contrasts between our Twin Peaks-driven expectations and the grim realities of Deer Meadow. We are being systematically told, and indeed forced, to abandon any sentimental attachment we had to these small-town folk as a residue of the TV show.

When we suddenly shift from Deer Meadow to Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer, we ought, by now, to have gotten the point that the characters and locations may look the same (all the actors except Lara Flynn Boyle reprised their original parts), but this Twin Peaks is fundamentally different from the one we have known and loved. And so it proves. At least from Laura’s point of view, and in light of her experiences, Twin Peaks starts to look increasingly more like Deer Meadow than the charming small town with all its eccentricities and dark secrets in the television series. While Twin Peaks has multiple perspectives, the dominant one for much of the series was that of Agent Cooper, with his childlike wonder and passionate love affair with the town and its residents (he talks about buying land, and more or less moves there). The gigantic transformation Lynch has effected in Fire Walk with Me involves a shift in tone, atmosphere, perspective and, I would argue, genre as well.

It’s almost as if he is saying to the audience, “well, we had a great time with the TV show and everything, but you need to remember that fundamentally this was a very simple and tragic story about a girl who was systematically abused and then tortured and murdered by her own father. It may have gotten lost in all the fun and games in Twin Peaks, but I need to bring you all back to that starkly and harshly.” In other words, when the story of Laura Palmer lost its function as the central narrative around which the TV show, with all of its intricate subplots, was built, there was a danger that the stark tragedy at the center of Twin Peaks had not been adequately represented. The injustice Lynch apparently felt at the treatment of his program at the hands of the network I think dovetailed with his own sense of having participated in a kind of injustice to the character Laura Palmer and the core narrative of her murder, and to the audience that may have received far too sugar-coated a version of this simple but profound tragedy. I see the film as an effort to correct this failure, and I think it works brilliantly at that level.

This film was badly received and I think is still largely misunderstood because its relationship with the television series isn’t adequately appreciated. It’s a matter of opinion and taste, but I find the film infinitely more engaging than the television series, albeit very dark, difficult and emotionally challenging. Moreover, Fire Walk with Me, unlike Twin Peaks, is a central, I might even argue the central, work bridging early and later Lynch films. Whereas Twin Peaks has much more in common with the “charming small town with dark secrets” style of Blue Velvet, Fire Walk with Me is much closer in style, substance and technique to his later masterpieces Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. For one thing, the fierce feminism of Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire finds, I think, its first expression in the way Laura Palmer’s story is told largely from her own perspective in Fire Walk with Me. No doubt Lynch was stung by widespread accusations of misogyny following the release of Blue Velvet, but beginning with Fire Walk with Me his attention has tended to focus more on understanding and representing the “woman in trouble” from a sympathetic, indeed championing, perspective.

Even more significantly, the nonlinear, fundamentally unstable narratives and characters typical of later Lynch I think are also introduced in Fire Walk with Me, at least in the way he has played them out in the three films cited above. One could argue that these elements actually are introduced in the red room scenes in Twin Peaks, including the extraordinary sequence in the Lynch-directed final episode. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Insofar as they represent manifestations of the Other Place — what for most of the 20th century we would have called the unconscious — there is clearly a connection. But I think the technique here is fundamentally different and the connection far more slight.

Probably the most telling sequence in Fire Walk with Me in setting up the concerns and narrative techniques of the later films is the brilliant, fascinating and bizarre scene in Gordon’s office at the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia, in which Cooper and Jeffries are represented very differently on the closed-circuit television network than they are in the direct action of the scene itself. I’m not going to try to unpack this dense, difficult scene here, suffice it to say that it introduces themes that will dominate Lynch’s later work: amnesia and aphasia; psychogenic fugue; radical alienation between different registers of perception; narrative nonlinearity and instability; and, above all, a privileging of representations of representations of other media (closed-circuit TV, broadcast TV, video, other films, digital video, 78 RPM records, camera obscura, etc.).

What I’m arguing, but not fully explicating because that would take a great deal of time, is that later Lynch is more interesting and important, although less popular, than early Lynch, and that while Twin Peaks is essentially representative of the style, techniques and concerns of early Lynch, Fire Walk with Me is the pivotal point in his career in which he shifts into a new project that is much more complex, difficult and rich. What Fire Walk with Me set in motion was still playing itself out in his last film, the self-indulgent, extravagant, maddeningly difficult and obscure, but breathtakingly brilliant and extremely exciting Inland Empire.

In these later tragedies, there is always redemption, especially for women. Perhaps one can question whether or not there is any redemption for Fred Madison in Lost Highway, but there plainly is for Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms/Rita (trust me, that’s another explanation that would take quite a bit of time) in Mulholland Dr., and especially for Nikki Grace in Inland Empire. The prototype for these uplifting sequences at the end of harrowing tragedies for heroines in later Lynch films is certainly the final sequence of Fire Walk with Me. After she is murdered by her father, her body wrapped in plastic and sent floating down the river, setting up the legendary opening sequence of Twin Peaks (“she’s dead — wrapped in plastic!”), Laura or some form of her appears sitting in a black evening gown in the Other Place (the Black Lodge/red room, or whatever it is). She is very elegantly made up and with a benevolent looking Agent Cooper standing behind her in a protective, reassuring pose. She seems dazed and confused, until startled by some flashing lights that are accompanied by the outstretched hand of what appears to be an angel (this resonates with the conversation she had earlier with Donna, and the ominous disappearance of a protecting angel overseeing a small group of children in a painting on her bedroom wall). The angel hovers above her, and she seems awed and fascinated, and increasingly engaged by the flashing lights that seem to emanate strangely from this hovering creature.

But is she really looking at a light-emanating angel? We look down on Laura from a slightly raised and slightly oblique angle as she rocks slowly back and forth, alternately laughing and weeping, with her mood steadily improving. Her eyes seemed transfixed on something ahead and slightly to the side of her, and the strangely flashing lights reflected in her face and in the background. The angel hovers in front of large red curtains typical of the red room, which immediately suggest theatricality.

I think most obvious reading of this scene is that what she’s looking at is not exactly an angel but in fact or also a television (there is a dynamic engagement in her affect that can’t really be responding to this static angel-figure) and what she’s watching is Twin Peaks, crying at her own tragedy and the grief of her friends and family, laughing at the absurdities and the eccentricities of her friends and neighbors, and probably validated by the impact that her murder had on her community. There isn’t just joy in her reactions, but great amusement and some raucous laughter. Whatever it is, it’s certainly the cream of the jest. I think it’s pretty clear that Fire Walk with Me ends where it began, with television. The closing credits scroll over a frozen close-up of Laura’s blissful face, as if the incoherent television snow of the opening credits is now filled up with her presence. The redemption here may not only be for Laura Palmer, but also for the Twin Peaks television series, and even for television itself.

Obviously Fire Walk with Me is an extremely dense and difficult film that, as I have argued, has been woefully misunderstood even by some extremely talented critics. It has to be read in the context of, and contrapuntally to, Twin Peaks, but the trap almost everyone fell into because the TV show was so good and so beloved was to completely miss Lynch’s really unsparing critique of his own work. So, as so often proves the case, I think conventional wisdom has it completely wrong: Twin Peaks is a great TV show, but it has significant limitations and defects, and is ultimately constrained by both its medium and its genre, whereas Fire Walk with Me is among the most painful, unpleasant and harrowing films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the best. Of course, to fully explain my appreciation for it would require a lengthy and detailed reading totally inappropriate for a blog posting. For those who are interested, it’s probably something I’m going to do one of these days. But for now at least I’ve done my best to answer the question the reader posed, and hopefully give people some reasons to either watch this film for the first time (although it’s certainly not for the squeamish), or reconsider it if they have failed to appreciate what it has to offer.