Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
On first viewing Fire Walk with Me (1992), we soon find a motif sending out characteristic Lynch wit and daring, and then our heart sinks. There are two FBI agents, the junior member of the exploratory team bearing a vertigo-inducing resemblance to long-ago child star, Bobby Driscoll, who lent such charm to Walt Disney’s 1950 adventure, Treasure Island. During their brief stint on the screen, their investigation into the murder of a runaway teenaged girl is interrupted by a denizen of the trailer park setting, one eye covered by a poultice of sorts, hunched over a makeshift crutch. He backs off when questioned as to the case, but he has already made his point, as “Black Dog,” delivering the “Black Spot” of pirate recriminatory (resentful) justice to “Billy Bones.” The senior partner is “Chet Desmond,” a spare, self-impressed and combative representative of “Federal” power on behalf of mainstream justice. He soon perishes on poking around a trailer nearby the girl’s last home, his windshield becoming lipstick- inscribed to read, “Let’s Rock.”
In this lift-off there are gambits familiar to the full flood of Lynch films, and touches not familiar but soon understandable as noteworthy. Desmond is brought into the challenge, at woodsy (Deep Meadow) Washington, out of the (less deep) Fargo, North Dakota, crime zone, where he is seen leading a SWAT team against a drug-dealing school bus driver and a few of his Goth (piratically) bedecked clients, on a farm road, with the insufficiently solvent youngsters onboard crying their eyes out. With regard to the crime-tainted Fat Trout Trailer Park, he experiences (like Sailor and Lula, at Fat Tuna) a rural sheriff and his staff inclined to be disrespectful, to titter and leer the same way the good old boys did. But Desmond (in accordance with the jazz-inflected theme music at the credits, his persona would be rife with drug-troubled Chet Baker and Paul Desmond) was a bit of a prima donna and something of a control freak, and he relished kicking ass around that little office, a federal employee privilege that would cost him his life, and would set in relief the career of a feisty high school girl about to test those same troubled waters. From Eraserhead Henry onwards, the films have taken special notice of figures bound to inferences seemingly, but not really, apt for life-enhancing advantages. Desmond and his little buddy, “Sam Stanley,” are veritable avatars of up-to-the-minute information gathering and refining—going so far as finding a tiny “T” on a tiny bit of paper under the nail of the murdered girl’s ring finger. And they do a lot of chewing over the logic device their Director sends them off with, namely, a startlingly uncoordinated “dancer”/relative of his, namely, “Lil,” dressed in hot pink gone amok and wearing a blue rose. Though Holmesian deductions, about her, fall trippingly from Desmond’s tongue, he falls mute about the blue rose, which troubles Stanley. We know, from other films by Lynch, there is a persistent reflection relating to surrealist filmmaker, Jacques Demy’s, precept about an exigency to coordinate the powers of crying (blues) and laughter (rosiness). We also know that the central figure of the film where that logical treasure is lodged is a mediocre dancer named, “Lola.” The biggest surprise, therefore, consists of the Field General, giving the boys a very odd sendoff, being none other than Lynch himself!
With data tracks coming at him through a headset, leading him to be continually shouting out relentlessly upbeat observations and orders—“Give Sam Stanley the glad hand! He cracked the Whitman case!”—Lynch casts himself as missing the boat here, as being as bad an investigator as the Pink Panther. Operating under the corporate imprimatur, “Absurdia,” Lynch would oversee not only remarkably designed and realized feature films addressing complexities of world historical headway, but a stream of adjacent and zany parodies ranging from world religions to cooking shows. (Perhaps going even further was composing hymns to suburban domesticity for Julee Cruise.) Particularly bemusing was his recourse to television (and, later, internet) shows, as if driven to deliver surreal surprises to every corner of the globe. The film at issue here gathers up intimations of a TV series, “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991), in a bid to carry the ball beyond the near free-fall of Wild at Heart. But it has been saddled with much of the marketing strategy of prime-time fixedness, particularly in obeisance to that Zeitgeist only having eyes for the perfect muscle tone and seismic hormones of adolescents. On the other hand, tracking straight through from the rockabilly rebelliousness of Wild at Heart, our current event has been put together with clear awareness that it was no mere coincidence the defiance toward rationalist power inherent in proto-rock and roll would find its most responsive chord in people still going to school. There, too, the business of recreational drugs would find its most devoted adherents, and so a scenario both crudely sensational and reflectively promising was born. Lynch knew he had his hands full with this baby, and perhaps that is why he played the bungler—a sort of unsmiling Jackie Oakie with a W.C. Fields driving-with-no-brakes roll to his ornate delivery—in front of the camera, as if to say something about the guy at the helm. Fire Walk with Me, would, while bound for the consummate rigors of Mulholland Drive’s “Go somewhere with me,” be far less an ecstatic highlight than an aside, “Bear with me, guys, I’m going through a patch of hell here.”
Now although it would be unfairly cruel to describe Sandra Dee as “a patch of hell,” after the cut away from the debacle of Lynch’s “Gordon Cole” and his highly questionable staff of investigators, there comes into view, on a tree-shaded suburban street, Sheryl Lee as “Laura Palmer,” the reigning Homecoming Queen of Twin Peaks High, strolling to school in her lovely blonde mane and boxy displacement, and right from this get-go we see it’s going to be a long shot. She catches up with her best friend, “Donna,’” coming out of her parents’ spacious property, who zaps a couple of classmates, “Bobby” and “Mike,” flirting from a parked car (“Yeah, Mike, You’re the real man!”/ (they) “Mike is the man!” and, after the girls part ways in the school hallway—using Bronx gang hand lingo—Laura goes to the washroom and in a stall snorts some cocaine. Somewhere on the premises, near the girls’ shower room, her friend, “James,” fondles her breasts and they kiss passionately; but she has to straighten him out: “Quit trying to hold me so tight. I’m already long gone…like a turkey in the corn.”/”A turkey is one of the dumbest birds.”(Her eyes welling up with tears.) “Gobble, gobble, gobble.” Cut to: Looking like a pirate (or Bobby Driscoll, doing double duty as a go-between), with his checkered shirt wrapped around his waist like pantaloons, and also resembling Jack Elam’s “Charlie,” a goon/adversary of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, Bobby races up to her, as she leaves with Donna, asking, “Where were you? Who were you with?” She disses him with, “I was standing right behind you. You’re too dumb to turn around. (to Donna) “If he turns around, he gets dizzy!” Taking umbrage at this, he cryptically implies her cocaine supply is in jeopardy, she gives him some phony smiles, and that is all he needs to send him, smiling, truckin’ backwards into the school. “Love you, Baby!”
We get this kind of market-friendly/ maturity-remote static throughout, impelling a probe for a subtext to make sense of it, notwithstanding. Coming from a physical package (“Gidget,” in a perpetually bad mood) presupposing reflective nullity, but burnished by the Hollywood tradition of, in Donna, the homely but noble sidekick, there is a passage where the two girls are seen from above, lying on adjacent plush chairs, airing out their psyches and revealing some heart. After disabusing Donna of the idea that James is far more suitable than Bobby (“Sweet! He’s gorgeous!” And he ensures “true love. Bobby’s a loser. He’s a goon.”/ (Mocking) “James is very sweet… very gorgeous…”), she is prompted by her to say what she thinks about the dynamic allowance of her body falling through space. “It would go faster and faster…” and, after a time of not realizing one’s racing, “it would burst into fire and burn forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you, because they’ve all gone away.”
This is a mighty big mouthful for a little gal, and there is only one serious precedent in all of cinematic history, namely, Robert Bresson’s La Mouchette (Sparrow), from the 1967 film of that title. “Donna,” picking up the thread of Bresson’s Balthazar (a donkey), in the “Don”/”Donnie” axis of Blue Velvet, thereby draws attention to Laura’s (like Mouchette’s) being way too young, being in way over her head, for playing with any real efficacy the impossible hand she’s been dealt. Whereas Mouchette is an impoverished waif, living in a forested area of France near the Swiss border with an abusive father and brothers, and a sweet but dying mother, staging a spirited war against a pious and corrosive neighbourhood, in the course of which being raped by a poacher and committing suicide by rolling herself into a fast-moving stream, Laura is likewise not sanguine about a lumber town whose formative priorities fail to coincide with her perceptions (she being a Palmer in the land of pines; but her grand guignol parents could not be more at home), finds herself placed under incestuous violence from her father, and finds herself playing her one advantage (in addition to financial comfort) absent in Mouchette (her physical attractiveness) to make some headway with a group of local treasure-seekers—a piratical band of dealers in drugs and prostitution, whose home base, “the Bang Bang Bar,” is run by someone, admiringly referred to by Bobby as a “crazy, fuckin’ Canadian,” named “Jacques Renault” (Jacques/James the reine, queen [Demy being bisexual]) and, with its log cabin configurations (the bordello zone of which sends out the greeting, “Welcome to Canada”) reminds one of the stockade on Treasure Island in which Jim Hawkins would find himself dealing with various friends and foes. That forward momentum proves illusory, she succumbs to full dependence on cocaine and prostitution, thinking thereby to checkmate her most pressing pain, Dad/Bob, only to find him catching up with her at a tryst with Jacques, being smashed to a horrific piece of bloody meat by him—just as he dealt with the subject of the investigation misdirected by Gordon of the FBI—wrapped in plastic and floated down the river.
There is a recurrent image, a signature piece, in Fire Walk with Me, which traces straight to Mouchette. On, variously, anticipating with hallucinatory dread and actually being confronted by predations from her father, “Leland,” Laura displays a face frozen with terror, mouth agape as if her jaw had been ripped by an earthquake, eyes bulging, head twisted at a startling angle. That same rictus smashes down on Mouchette’s face, at moments ranging from reaching for compensatory warmth from her assailant’s body to reaching for notes her terrible singing voice cannot manage, in being humiliated in front of derisive classmates by her teacher. On finding her diary with pages cut away, Laura drives over to “Harold’s” book-lined cottage and, disclosing that they have had many heart-to-heart meetings (and that he has encouraged her to write her thoughts down in that diary), she emphasizes that her tormentor, “Bob,” has been “having” her since she was twelve and that he says “he wants to be me or he’ll kill me,” that he drills her with the unappealing command, “Fire walk with me.” As she conveys this latter invitation to acquiesce in rape, her face becomes extremely tense and contorted, and by the last word her skin is corpse-like. Leaving, she tells him she may never be back; unlike him, sipping wine and rereading Proust in such a hell hole as Twin Peaks, is not what she can settle for.
In light of her own desperate, quite hopeless, confinement, there is a narrative recourse (soon to become basic for Lynch’s later work) to recurrent, decadent failure as setting in relief the accomplishment level of thriving on such severity. Laura’s disaster echoes that of “Teresa Banks” whose plastic-wrapped corpse drifting by a river’s banks we saw at the film’s first moments. (Her name also entails the mercenary feature of her work, and the basic equipment bringing it about.) This cyclical format of world history lends itself to depiction as a tangible center of physical struggle, fear and venom, to be flashed out periodically in menacing those figures whose histories we care about. In its 1992 embodiment, it is a “Black Lodge,” presided over by an anxious, prissy, bodily discounted midget, managing a cadre of spooks whose function it is to draw Laura into the allure of an emerald ring, like the one gone missing from Teresa’s corpse, and the last thing Chet Desmond ever touched. One of the emissaries, a sedate witch with a boy in tow whose papier mâché mask features a phallic nose, hands to Laura a gift for her bedroom wall, a painting of a wall with a partially open door (bringing to mind the room causing so much apprehension in Jean Cocteau`s 1930 film, The Blood of a Poet), which would act as a nocturnal conduit for her turmoil. The actor playing the director of that lodge, here calling himself “the [go-getter] arm,” Michael Anderson, reappears in Mulholland Drive as the dominant force behind Hollywood. Lost Highway has its little, reproachful man (“We’ve met before”), and Inland Empire has its obese, sedentary Fence upon whom Nikki hammers with acerbic words, becoming somewhat energized, somewhat pulled down, as into a tar baby. The New Orleans-based Murder Inc., with its “suave” and canny Brit CEO, in Wild at Heart, is an even earlier entry in this mode, but lacking an engine to interrupt frequently the course of the protagonists. The first such mean and ridiculous siren in Lynch’s corpus is Henry’s dream girl in Eraserhead.
With the night at the Bang Bang Bar, the full proportionality of Laura’s enhancement, by depth and elegance of sensibilities gone by, comes to bear. The occasion commences at Laura’s house, where we find her ensheathed at last in adult, form fitting clothes, an all black short skirt and top, black stockings and black shoes with four inch heels. Donna comes by in bobby socks, and, for the first time, Laura is realized as the older Cécile, Lola, and Donna is the younger Cécile (in Lola, they never meet, but their presences and longings do set off sparks in tandem). The earlier, grotesque and giddy instance of Lola, introduced by Gordon, with its implicit tale of cry/laugh would now begin to assert itself as posing for Laura at the eleventh hour an impossible task of composure and historical efficacy. After initial pleasantries—“Where’re you goin’?”/ “Nowhere fast. And you’re not coming.”—she reiterates the refusal to take Donna along, this after her “best friend” had mooted a chemical sendoff which she covered with code words, “Fred and Ginger,” whose trajectory would brush upon the so light and so adult, “Laugh who will,” gracing Lola, however sporadically. (A subsequent night with Bobby—whereby he kills a cocaine delivery man [the formerly tittering Deputy Sheriff of Deer Meadow] and she, practically OD’d, can’t stop cackling with clearly the wrong kind of laughter—turns the screws of a slow torture. She can’t stop claiming, “You killed Mike!” laughing herself to the ground at the thought.) As she reaches the bar’s door, she is agonized over by an almost ludicrously earnest Earth Mother (recalling the “seer” crying out, “Something’s wrong!” [about Rita] in Mulholland Drive), whose language does have a point, but not the do-good point she intends. “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out…Then all goodness is in jeopardy.” Laura’s salty brush-offs fail her here, she almost sleepwalks into the bar where Julee Cruise is back (from Blue Velvet) addressing—not a house full of Lumberton “good kids” but cowboys and lumbermen out for some semblance of the unusual—one and all with another hymn on behalf of trouble-free and troublesome love. This easy out moves Laura/Lola to tears; she has seen things through to the point of obviating such sweet blues (Julee of course is bathed in a blue spotlight), and her struggle takes her to a place so bleak that even the tatters of integrity gracing the song’s crude posturing can sting. But a couple of clients come by her table, put down some greenbacks, and she rhetorically asks them, “So you want to fuck the Homecoming Queen?” One of the guys asks, “You ready to go all the way around the world?” and then Donna shows up with a perfect little Cécile turn of phrase, “Let’s boogie.” (She was, after all, very fond of the expression, “Hot damn!”)
The four of them go to the second of the bar’s rooms, the one having inspired its name. Infra-red light and a rockabilly band laconically pulsing out power chords at paralyzing volumes necessitating subtitles (perhaps also in deference to the putatively foreign territory they’ve entered). Thus the whirling of dance, strip and orgy is punctuated with barely audible screaming over the music, along lines like this: “I’m not Jacques. I’m the Great Went!” (Laura) “I’m the Muffin!” (Jacques—monstrously obese—simulates, with his fingers, shooting himself in the head.) Then he says, “I’m blank as a fart.” (Laura) “Chug-a-lug, Donna!” Laura and a long-lost friend, “Ronette,” from a stint in a place called (with respect to both Black Dog and Balthazar), “One-Eyed Jack’s,” sit side-by-side at a booth, and Laura—anticipating Mr. Eddy with Alice in Lost Highway—gives her client a hand sign and he slides down from the seat across for some oral sex. Laura notices Donna close to penetration and rushes over to her, putting clothes over her and pushing hard to get her out. The girls sit together at Donna’s house the next morning; the latter can’t remember how she got home (there being more than beer in her bottle). Laura says, “Life is full of mysteries, Donna.”
The girls declare their love for each other. Laura’s father comes by for her and imagines they are lesbians. On the drive, they are tailgated by a hysterically angry man with one arm, wearing and brandishing that green ring as though it were the Black Spot and screaming at Leland, “The thread will be torn, Mr. Palmer!” On the way to being torn, Laura sees James one last time, during which she runs by him the hapless request, “Let’s get lost together.” He asks, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” She replies, “That’s right. There’s no place left to go.” He thinks they have “everything” going for them…“Open your eyes, James. You don’t even know me. There are things about me even Donna doesn’t know…Your Laura disappeared. Just it’s me now.”
She and Ronette entertain Jacques and Leo (a couple of Beasts with nothing to offer), they are tied up for some sado-masochism and Leland becomes even worse news, a Beast who could only direct his Beauty to revulsion (as did Bob and Bobby). His slashing and her screaming would, at this point, seem to be devoid of any traces of cogent fire. But the film transpires in such a way that the “thread” enhancing Laura’s persistence in view of the integrity of Mouchette, Balthazar and Lola does not become broken. And so we have a final moment in the field of stifled fire, the Black Lodge, showing a poised Laura with one of Gordon’s well-meaning nonentities (the same actor, Kyle MacLachlan, who played Jeffrey in Blue Velvet)—the “Mike” here has also proved to be impotent—smiling, then crying, then laughing, very much like Cocteau’s Belle, headed for a “happiness” she is too grown up to believe. Laura had generated this much gusto—albeit sporadic and lifted by histories she never knew. Her only sustaining and creatively promising consort was the little Beast, Donna, whose waywardness, like Balthazar’s stint with the circus, could not seriously tarnish a resilient heart. This sprawling, decadent, near-travesty has proved to be a vehicle with hidden strengths and a catapult into more stable, more realized excitements.
The cool-jazz sax solo with blues motifs (awed, stricken and pushing on) at the outset and intermittently after that (making up a Badalamenti tune called, “Falling,” have been installed to help us see beyond the myopia of the lives on display. So too, the Jim Hawkins/Treasure Island motif (somewhat) cuts against the grain of irrevocable distemper. The Jim/Bobby Driscoll figure, with his technically magnified observations skills, pries away one of Teresa’s corpse’s fingernails to retrieve a tiny square of paper with the letter “T” inscribed. Though from Bobby’s jacket we see that that is an athletic letter awarded by Twin Parks High School, it is also, for the scenario in full gear, a reference to the “treasure” she and Laura lost their lives going after. It would seem that the girls come up as good as empty, and destructive, puritanical phonies (“What’s the world coming to?”) like Leland rule. The trailer park operator asserts to Desmond, “I’ve already gone places. I just want to stay where I am.” Where he is, is amply revealed to be a fractious and petty round of sterile self-assertion. His settling for that stagnation constitutes an easily discounted gauging of, over and above her specific torments, Laura’s refusal to settle for sweet and safe James, and, indeed, all of respectable historicity. Perhaps the most difficult and necessary to fathom aspect of Lynch’s art is its being no longer moored to the bathetic goods of normal history. Accordingly, his films reserve a special place for protagonists having broken away only to be assailed by stupendous conflict with hordes having settled for a self-evidence (“where I am”) bereft of cogent illumination. Leland and the forces of justice (including Sam Stanley, cracking the case of “Whitman,” a derisible notion if the Whitman’s first name is “Walt”) come across in their various weirdness (“weird on top”) as safely dismissed. But do we find our way from the strangeness of “Falling” to the far more sober establishment against which it is ranged, prompting Laura’s remark to easy-does-it James, “Just it’s me now”? (In reply to his, “We have everything,” she counters with, “Everything but everything.” The assault-barrage of rapists in Laura’s life, creepily unbelievable in its teen horror flick reflexes, has been placed along a sightline of vicious violation having nothing to do with that genre. [Incestuous skirmishes with Leland—on one occasion marked by her keenly wanting to believe there is at least a shred of love in his apology for a monstrously coercive incident—are one thing; fear-crazed imaginings of bedroom-window invasions by a gat-toothed loser are something else.]) At “Hap’s (for happiness), Irene, the graveyard-shift waitress, puts the FBI boys in their place with, “You want to know the specials? We don’t have any.” The bile behind those dead eyes of hers is far closer to the point of Laura’s discernment (violated diary, history) than the childish melodramas, the Treasure Island mayhem. On entering the VIP room of the Big Bang Bar, Laura hears, from a couple of porn starlets, “Welcome to Canada. Don’t expect a turkey dog here,” and, as such, her earlier “turkey in the corn” bid receives a setback.
Out of the pressure cooker of Lynch’s retooling comes this very slippery object, so easy to fumble. Perhaps its final scene, at the “Lodge,” that volatile foundry of defeatedness, is the most treacherous of all. There the bootless agent of justice, whose car had tailed Leland and Laura, and the midget impresario intone, “I want all my pain and sorrow,” confirming the place as devoted to the mawkish overdrive of the blues. (After that tailgate trauma, Leland had rushed his blue convertible to “Mo’s Motors,” a setting redolent of Nick’s place in Kiss Me Deadly, whose theme song, like that of this movie, “Falling,” sustains the idea of something more rigorously real than blues, prompting the expression, “Rather Have the Blues [than what I’ve got ].”) In accordance with that disclosure, a more mature presence of Laura, appearing there to confirm that “it is very hard to put out” (once and for all) the resolve to integrity, and accompanied, as was Belle, at the finale of the 1946 Beauty and the Beast, by a picturesque bore—here agent Cooper/Jeffrey—laughs (albeit, for the most part, kindly) at the angel apparatus coming with the requiem moment. Then, just as the picture is about to fade, the angel’s robe and hands describe a donkey’s head and ears (Laura, whose laughter has become hearty, perhaps almost joyous braying, replaces the angel, and maintains the breathtaking montage), Balthazar the donkey (from Bresson’s film) maintaining on this occasion of slaughter, that better days lie ahead.
Donna, with some top heavy expression, remarks to Laura, “If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mother smoked, I’d be dead.” Laura’s mother, as played by walking-corpse specialist, Grace Zabriskie, is precisely dead, in the same way the whole town is, the whole world is, and of course Laura knows it. That horror is the real point of her insistence (against all known plausibility), “Bob’s real! He’s getting to know me now. He wants to be [own] me, or he’ll kill me.” She relates to creampuff, Harold, the rapist’s mantra, “Fire walk with me,” and at the same time, corpse-tinged, she emptily puts to him an invitation that Mulholland Drive’s Rita found to make sense apropos of Betty, “Go with me somewhere.” Whereas the protagonists of the “road trilogy” can look to adult associates, however compromised (even Nikki/Laura has, however fleetingly, the other Laura [Harring]), Laura is stuck with school kid Donna (and James, like Jim Hawkins, the honorary “adult”) and a landscape cluttered by the likes of Fred, Pete, Adam, the Cowboy, Nikki’s Cowboy and Devon; and Jeffrey, the kind but clueless dick. So the first, optional, part of the title, namely, “Twin Peaks,” would look, with French and Surrealist war-of-the-worlds flourish, to the two, hardly equal, power presences. The requiem at the end, with her conflicted laughter, would thereby speak to the “detection”-implicated, cracked Liberty Bell (off-putting Philly being Gordon’s redoubt).