by Joseph Powers
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me….Six simple words right??? Wrong! These six words represent something very far from simple. These words combined just happen to make up the title of one of the most divisive films of the last fifty years. Spawned as the sixth feature length motion picture by infamous surrealist auteur David Lynch, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me has divided and confounded critics and viewers alike since the moment it’s ominous and jazzy opening credits rolled onto the screen on May 16th, 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival. In mere minutes, viewers would begin to boo, jeer, and walk out of the theater altogether, bringing with them an air of emotions rarely seen in viewers towards any film in recent memory.
SCORN, BEFUDDLEMENT, ANGER, SADNESS, HATE, LOVE, CONFUSION, AMAZEMENT, TERROR, BEWILDERMENT, DISAPPOINTMENT, PITY, JOY, ELATION. These are just some of the known reactions Fire Walk With Me has caused over the years. I’m sure by now, most of the knowledgeable fans have heard the quotes from other directors and critics (Yes I’m talking about you Quentin Tarantino, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby to name a few) voicing their dislike, absolute contempt, and uncalled for comments against David Lynch and his creative abilities (or lack thereof).
In spite of the initial hostile and negative reaction towards the film however, there has been a growing critical re-evaluation and appreciation of it recently. Some critics and film-goers are now going as far as calling Fire Walk With Me a masterpiece, David Lynch’s “magnum opus”. However, most of these articles, critics, or bloggers hardly ever really touch on exactly WHY Fire Walk With Me is Lynch’s masterpiece. Well, that is all about to change right now. I understand fully after having seen the new “Missing Pieces” deleted scenes of Fire Walk With Me, combined with years of reflection and repeated viewings, why it IS in fact David Lynch’s “magnum opus” as well as why to this day fans of the series Twin Peaks still do not like the film. As a great FBI man once said “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
After a noticeable absence from the series Twin Peaks, David Lynch returns to the set and personally improvises what would become the last ever episode of Twin Peaks. The resulting episode (which aired June 10, 1991) ends up being the strangest and most mind-blowing hour in prime-time television history. It also ends on a hugely controversial cliffhanger. In hopes of persuading ABC to give a green light for a third season, and also to reel in viewers for that hoped for season, David Lynch puts the lives of characters Ben Horne, Pete Martel, and Audrey Horne in jeopardy. But most famously, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost decided to put arguably one of the most famous TV characters of all time in peril. Special Agent Dale Cooper appears to be trapped in the Red Room/Black Lodge, and his evil doppelganger possessed by the murderous spirit entity known as BOB now is living among the townsfolk of Twin Peaks in his place. Viewers who have remained steadfast through all the declining ratings and timeslot changes by ABC are flabbergasted and want closure! However, ABC decides a few days later not to renew Twin Peaks for a third season. It appeared as though Twin Peaks was dead with no chance of solving the mysteries and cliffhangers of beloved characters. Fast forward a month later, David Lynch leaks word out that he has decided to make a Twin Peaks feature length motion picture with French company CIBY-2000 financing what would be the first film of a three-picture deal. Fans are ecstatic and people around the world are excited and anxious to find out what happened to their favorite characters, especially the fate of Special Agent Dale Cooper……and this is where our story begins…
Privately, David Lynch had been having friction and creative differences with co-creator Mark Frost and other writers such as Harley Peyton during the second season of the show. So he decides he is going to tackle the film without their help. David gives Frost a producer’s credit (by law of being co-creators of Lynch/Frost Productions). Also Frost voiced that he was not really interested in a prequel. From the get-go there are problems for the upcoming Twin Peaks motion picture. The first major setback happens on July 11, 1991. Ken Scherer, CEO of Lynch/Frost productions, announced that the film was not going to be made because series star Kyle MacLachlan did not want to reprise his role of Special Agent Dale Cooper for fear of being type-casted. David Lynch and Bob Engels then rewrite the parts that involve Agent Cooper and replace him with the character of Special Agent Chet Desmond, and the project was back on schedule. With the help of his casting directors, David Lynch casts music star Chris Isaak as the new Special Agent. He also hires a very A-list Keifer Sutherland as the forensics agent sidekick Sam Stanley (who was briefly alluded to in the pilot episode by Agent Cooper). But just when it appeared things were about to be back on track, another setback occurred. Characters Audrey Horne, Ben Horne, Donna Hayward are were featured heavily in the film’s script. But Sherilyn Fenn, Richard Beymer, and Lara Flynn Boyle (who play those characters respectively) all declined to appear in the film. Most of them cite their displeasure with the dip in quality during the second season of the show as the reason. So David Lynch is thrown a big curve ball, especially in the case of Donna Hayward because she is a big presence in the script. So David decided to find a new Donna, and casts young Moira Kelly who was just about to break out in the acclaimed movie Chaplin. Problem seems to be solved right? Well, as we have already seen, things are never what they seem in the world of Twin Peaks. Kyle MacLachlan reaches out to his friend David Lynch and announces that he would actually like to be in the film after all, but just not in a huge part like originally was planned. Lynch then has to re-write the script again and somehow balance the fact that there is now a Special Agent Chester Desmond AND a Special Agent Dale Cooper in the same movie.
So, David Lynch worked his unbelievable magic and creativity and managed (with the help of Bob Engels) to somehow integrate both the characters of Agent Desmond and Agent Cooper into the same story. Filming began soon after. The production of Fire Walk With Me was one of the fastest in recent memory for a major budget feature. David Lynch shot the film in the same parts of Washington in which he filmed the classic pilot episode of the series. Mostly parts of Snoqualmie and North Bend were once again used along with some other small parts of that upper northwest area of the state. Filming began September 5, 1991 in Snoqualmie, and lasted until October of the same year, with four weeks dedicated to locations in Washington, and another four weeks of interiors and additional locations in Los Angeles, California. This is a sticking point for many who believe that the film is “flawed”. There are many on the fences that fault Lynch’s fast shooting schedule towards the “flawed” outcome of the end result, and there are others who feel it actually adds to its hectic and fast paced aesthetic. However, he started filming at a different time of year than the pilot was filmed. Twin Peaks the series was filmed in March of 1989, and it displayed many characteristics of that time of year such as cold, frost, and a darker gloomy atmosphere. In Fire Walk With Me, it can clearly be seen that it is fall. The trees, leaves, and general brightness of the daytime shots add to this obvious contrast. Some say it was a deliberate decision by Lynch to symbolize duality, which he often employs in his work.
Many of the scenes were filmed very quickly. Kyle MacLachlan only worked on the movie for a few days and so did David Bowie who played FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries. Besides the previously mentioned actors, most of the cast from the series were shot in various scenes for the film. However, by the time Lynch finished filming he had over four hours of footage. As is the norm, Fire Walk With Me would not be granted a theatrical release at such a long running time and hope to have any success at the box office. So David Lynch and editor (long-time partner and future wife) Mary Sweeney went about trying to make this conglomerate of footage a cohesive motion picture. The task at hand was very difficult. David had to not only try to keep some continuity with the show, he also had to figure out how to answer the hangover cliffhangers from the series finale, and at the same time introduce new characters and story-lines for the upcoming two films (per the contract he signed with CIBY-2000). But, something happened which changed all of what was originally planned. David Lynch had originally wanted to film this movie because he was in love with the character of Laura Palmer. It’s what made him want to return to that world in the first place after becoming bored by having to reveal her killer. He wanted to see Laura alive, and see the road which would lead to this innocent child’s eventual destruction. So halfway through filming he realized that this could not just be a rehash of the series on the big screen in the vein of a Star Trek film. This was the story of a young girl who had no chance at sanity or normalcy in life since the age of twelve. A young girl who’s innocence was taken away from her in childhood by the very person who was supposed to love and protect her the most. A young girl whose only way out was drugs, sexual pleasure, and ultimately her own death. THIS is what Fire Walk With Me became, the story of Laura Palmer, the most intriguing and complex dead girl in the history of TV. This meant David Lynch had to edit and cut almost all the scenes that included many characters from the show, because once he shifted the focus on Laura and her domestic nightmare of incest and abuse, the other scenes just did not allow the story to flow properly. These scenes became the “Missing Pieces” which were sought after by fans for over 20 years and finally just released in the Twin Peaks Entire Mystery Blu-ray set.
This leads us to the whole question of why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s “magnum opus”, or masterpiece. Well, in order to travel that road, we have to look at what came before Fire Walk With Me, and what came after. Most artists in every field have what’s called a turning point, or peak in their creative abilities. David Lynch’s career as a director began with short films, most importantly The Grandmother. He then went on to make his feature length debut Eraserhead with the help of family and friends. His next feature was the acclaimed Elephant Man. He scored an epic box office failure with the science fiction classic Dune, and then a surprise comeback hit with the critically acclaimed Blue Velvet. However, it was really the surprise cult phenomenon hit series Twin Peaks which made David Lynch a household name and landed him on the cover of Time Magazine. A year before Fire Walk With Me, his film Wild At Heart starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern won the Palme d’Or (highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival), even though many feel that it might not have been fully deserved. This put a big bull’s eye on the back of Mr. Lynch from critics, fellow directors, and fans. Just when it seemed David Lynch could do no wrong, it all started to crumble. Season two of Twin Peaks was an uneven debacle which led to its cancellation. Wild At Heart was not a big success critically after its win at Cannes (however it managed a decent $28 million haul at the box office for a moderately budgeted “art film”). Even Lynch’s own daughter Jennifer Lynch felt the Lynch backlash when her debut feature Boxing Helena was mauled critically and at the box office. Even Lynch’s personal life was beginning to unravel. He was going through a separation and heartbreak from Isabella Rossellini. It seemed that Lynch was at a cross roads both career wise and personally.
Lynch decided to fall back on something and someone he loved, the world of Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer. This is what drove him to make Fire Walk With Me and what helped pick him up out of his funk. He flung himself into the project wholeheartedly at a break neck pace. Lynch took elements he used in his previous films, added them to what he used in Twin Peaks, and then added new touches which would become the elements used in his later and more recent works down the line. In his pre-Fire Walk With Me features, usually there was the premise of a character seeking knowledge or spiritual Enlightenment. This is true with The Boy in The Grandmother, Henry Spencer in Eraserhead, Paul Atreides in Dune, Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, and to a small extent Sailor in Wild At Heart. Lynch once again uses this technique in Fire Walk With Me. But, he did something different this time. For the first time he used a female in the lead role of the seeker. This would become a staple of his future movies, most notably Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Lynch would also use another technique, which would also become an integral part of every one of his films to the present day. Fire Walk With Me is split into self-contained segments, the first being the Deer Meadow segment, the second the Philadelphia FBI office segment, and the third being the story of the last seven days of Laura Palmer. Lynch fuses these segments together with the backdrop of an extra-dimensional realm known as the Red Room/Black & White Lodges. The shift in seemingly opposing segments midway through the film is something he would do again in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire.
At the time, David Lynch said Fire Walk With Me was his most experimental project to date. Perhaps we finally realize that he was talking about the upcoming shift in the way he would make his films. This shift or change would involve having two or three separate/ opposing segments, as well as putting a female in the seeker character (with the exception of Fred Madison in Lost Highway). Lynch took the things he did best in his previous work such as lighting, surrealism, long drawn out camera shots, vibrant colors and patterns, cinematography, quirky mundane dialogue, and a character in search of cosmic enlightenment and combined them with all these new elements. David also improvised many things which were not even in the script such as Laura’s angel, and the whole concept of the owl ring and its “victims”. Some people have even speculated that the ring elements were added in only in post-production with inserts and tricky editing! If I was to compare this “peak” of David Lynch’s creative abilities or the “turning point” in his career to another, it would be The Beatles and their Rubber Soul album. The Beatles took all the elements that made them great in their younger albums and combined them with a new sound, new studio technique, and a maturity not seen before in their material.
David Lynch rolled the dice and took a chance with a new vision he felt strongly about. He combined many different elements which were cutting edge at the time in cinema. He put them over the backdrop of one of the most beloved TV series of the last thirty years. As well all know David Lynch received commercial and critical backlash for his vision and love of Laura Palmer and her world. But, how does Fire Walk With Me stack up to not only the other films of Lynch’s career, but the films it went up against at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. Can anyone really say they remember the Robert Altman movie The Player or that it was better than Fire Walk With Me?! Can you truly say that Altman and Tim Robbins deserved the Best Director and Best Actor awards at Cannes over David Lynch and Sheryl Lee?! Time has definitely been kinder to Fire Walk With Me than The Player over the years, to the point where people are outraged that Lynch and Lee didn’t get an Oscar nod or awards at Cannes. And what about the film that won the The Palme d’Or that year?! That prize went to Den goda viljan (The Best Intentions) by Bille August and Ingmar Bergman. That film was just a cut down theatrical version of a Swedish TV mini-series. Also, the jury president at Cannes that year was Gérard Depardieu! The award was basically voted on by our imaginary friend BOGUS and our hapless father in My Father The Hero! Can anyone honestly say that they remember any other film that debuted at Cannes that year other than Basic Instinct and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?!! The answer is obviously NO….
This brings us to the ultimate point and reason why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (and the series Twin Peaks as well) was dealt a death knell. It is a story about INCEST! The series Twin Peaks left a certain sense of ambiguity on the topic of whether or not Leland Palmer knew what he was doing in molesting and murdering his daughter. However, the film and Lynch in particular pretty much hammers home the point that Leland Palmer pretty much was solely responsible for his actions. The film also expands upon the very briefly referenced to point that Leland was probably also a victim of abuse from when he was a young boy, and hence continued the pattern of abuse which is very common. Lynch mostly does this with symbolism and does not directly reference the topic (as is per usual with David Lynch). So here in the next few paragraphs, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me will be dissected in its symbolism and why it not only is a masterpiece, but also how it allows Twin Peaks to come to a full “perfect circle”.
David Lynch has a very different way of telling stories as we all know. He is an artist first and foremost rather than a director. That is what he started as and still pretty much considers himself one to this day. He is heavily influenced by the works of Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper. Most importantly he is obsessed with the idea of the subconscious of the mind and cosmic possibilities of higher and/or different states of consciousness. This is EXTREMELY important in regards to almost ALL of Lynch’s films since the earliest days. This probably has to do with his learning of Transcendental Meditation which coincides with his film career since the first days of it. What does this have to do with Twin Peaks? Well, pretty much everything. From the dreams of Cooper, to the Red Room/Black & White Lodge sequences, to the clairvoyance of people like Sarah Palmer and the Log Lady, Twin Peaks is about this other state of the subconscious or different possible states of reality etc. Much like the scenes in Eraserhead featuring the Lady In the Radiator or the Club Silencio scenes in Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks walks the thin divide between two or more states of reality or consciousness.
However, unlike the films in which David Lynch had complete and final say over everything, Twin Peaks (the series) had many different writers and even a co-creator in Mark Frost who were also putting their own points across on the screen. These other writers have a much different perspective on story telling than David Lynch does. Mark Frost’s writing, dialogue, and character creation did work well with Lynch in the pilot episode and first season. But, by the time the second season came it was obvious that Lynch and Frost had totally different views of where to take the show. Mark Frost preferred a heroic quest Cooper adventure saga emphasizing masculine dominance. Most of the female characters who were integral in Lynch’s vision became written out or side-notes that were no longer relevant to the overall story. Lynch has a long history with the opposite of this approach. He tends to feature his female characters as the heroines who must go through hardships in order to reach the end enlightenment. Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, and obviously Sheryl Lee have all played this role in his films. The female characters are generally the ones who help the male hero gain higher knowledge or access in Lynch’s work. This is seen with Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper, or Sandy (Laura Dern)/Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) and Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan again) in Blue Velvet. This way of unique storytelling went by the wayside in the second season in large part due to Lynch’s non-involvement and other writers/Frost creating opposing story-lines.
When ABC pressured David Lynch to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer in the middle of season two, he grew bored with the show for a while. He was also having friction with Mark Frost over the direction the show had gone. By the time Lynch came to rescue the show in the final episodes, he pretty much considered it almost un-salvageable. He blatantly “tossed out” Mark Frost’s script for the final episode of the series and tried his best to bring the show back to his original vision, the exploration of the subconscious and other states of reality or being. Hence, the whole episode pretty much took place in the Red Room/Lodges. It was too late for the show, it was cancelled anyways. But, Lynch was still so adamant about how his creation had been compromised that he went ahead and made Fire Walk With Me and was supposed to make two sequels as well. Obviously this did not happen because of the backlash from critics and fans that Fire Walk With Me was met with. What a shame, because Fire Walk With Me is the masterpiece of Lynch’s career, when in conjunction with certain elements of the show that were most definitely Lynch’s work. The film helped the show come full circle according to Lynch’s vision. The circle or snake in many religions like Hinduism is huge for Lynch. The time in the Red Room and our reality is non-linear and cyclical. In the film (and Missing Pieces) Agent Dale Cooper is already in the Red Room comforting Laura Palmer before her angel comes to guide her to the next life or consciousness. However, the events of the show have not even taken place yet, most importantly Cooper being trapped inside the Red Room in the series finale.
While the Red Room/Lodges/BOB/Mike/Man From Another Place might be real physical or spiritual places or entities, David Lynch certainly shows in the film that they are most importantly symbolic of actual things as well….BOB is Leland’s guilt over being molested himself as a kid in Pearl Lakes by someone named Robertson or Bob. Unfortunately the guilt and molestation led to him also abusing his own daughter sexually which is very common in this world. The little boy with the mask (the Tremond boy with the grandmother) is Leland’s lost innocence trapped in the Lodge. The grandmother Tremond is the comforting figure to this young boy like in Lynch’s short The Grandmother. Behind the mask you also see a monkey/ape. This is showing the carnal nature behind sexual abuse/rape/murder which we do actually share with our primate cousins! It happens and it’s awful, but yet it is common in our world and has always been! The mask represents the facade that people/families/societies put over such things to help cope with the awful reality and truth of it being present in their lives and world.
The whole Mike persona is a man who also probably used to be one of these people who committed rapes/molestation/and murders but had the desire or courage to stop his chain from continuing (unlike Leland). He cut off his arm and the evil remains in the Lodge as the Man From Another Place. He refers to himself as “The Arm”. Garmonbozia is pain and suffering. Mike asks for his garmonbozia so that he can finally have the guilt washed away in the Lodge with the arm, which is why Little Mike touches him where the arm used to be during this scene of Fire Walk With Me. This is also why he gives the owl ring from the Formica table to Laura. This absolves him finally not only of his own guilt, but also to help Laura break her chain of pain and suffering which was brought onto her by Leland/BOB. Also, notice that Phillip Gerard and Mike are both the same person, unlike BOB who is able to change people. This is because Mike stopped his evil deeds and cut off the arm. He takes his medication whenever he starts to feel the suffering and guilt of his past deeds in order to not turn into the former Mike again.
I feel sympathy and also conflicted over Leland’s guilt in Laura’s murder. Leland knows BOB wanted to conquer Laura fully, but that she was a lot stronger than he was as a person. He also wants to save her from all that has happened to her and what her life was turning into. That is the “good side” of Leland. On the other hand, Leland kills Laura just the same as he did Teresa Banks, in order to keep his evil secrets undercover, as well as the ability to continue on with them. The scene at the end of Fire Walk With Me shows Laura finally attaining peace when the angel appears to her. The scene is absolutely touching and brings chills and tears to your eyes when you see it in the context that David Lynch intended; as a “perfect circle” of enlightenment.
In conclusion (and my humble opinion), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is the greatest thing David Lynch has ever made, his “magnum opus”. When taken in conjunction with the series pilot, first Red Room dream sequence, the Tremonds appearance, the BOB/Leland episodes in mid-season 2, and the final episode, Fire Walk With Me forms a “perfect circle” both horrifying and beautiful. I have never cried at the end of one movie the way I do with this one. I literally sat in a room with my mother and roommate (who are both fans) and we all cried tears of sadness and joy at the end of the film. Sure the movie is missing some of the quirkiness and characters of the show. But David Lynch was able to bring Twin Peaks back to his original vision before it meandered in the second season by making this film. The cinematography is absolutely amazing, especially the colors. The acting is superb, especially Sheryl Lee, who was snubbed for a rightly deserved Oscar nod! Also, the surrealism is the best of Lynch’s career. This is the ULTIMATE David Lynch film. It’s “Lynchian” beyond compare. Lynch is at the height of his powers and genius here and it shows. That is why it is only just recently that people are taking notice of this film, after they bashed it and overlooked it upon release. Certain classic films such as Citizen Kane had this same problem. Some films are just too ahead of their time to be recognized and need time for people to catch up to their genius and greatness. This is most certainly the case with Fire Walk With Me. David Lynch will ultimately be vindicated as this film starts to get recognized as the amazing piece of cinema it is in the years to come. Its acclaim and recognition have grown with age, hindsight, and repeated viewings. All in all, the Twin Peaks/Fire Walk With Me saga touches the mind, heart, and soul in a way unlike any other film in recent memory, but only if fully comprehended and experienced in the context the creator intended….