I love Fire Walk With Me. Among Twin Peaks fans, I feel like I’m not alone, though I know there’s a contingent of hardcore faithful who lament the movie’s grim tone, lack of answers and overall Moira-Kelly-as-Donna-ness. (Just kidding. I’ve got some thoughts about Donna’s potential role in the new season that I’ll share later.) Among the filmic literati, the movie scored a pretty dismal 61% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But it’s a masterpiece in my eyes. Here’s why: Fire Walk With Me (FWWM) is the first volume in Lynch’s disjointed trilogy of madness: FWWM, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. All three movies put the viewer in the driver’s seat for a mental breakdown — in some cases, a psychotic mental breakdown. (Side note: I don’t mean to drain the magic out of any of these movies by applying my interpretation of them. The literal and the metaphorical can happily coexist, as I’ll discuss shortly.) Lost Highway famously takes a wild left turn midway through its narrative as its protagonist (Bill Pullman) transforms into another person after he’s condemned to death for the murder of his wife. Mulholland Drive undergoes a similarly crazypants transformation halfway through, but it one-ups Lost Highway by turning into a different movie entirely. Gone is Naomi Watts’ cutie-pie Nancy Drew knockoff and her helpless bombshell brunette lover (Laura Harring); in their place manifest a jilted girlfriend and a heartless Hollywood harlot.
That the first half of Mulholland Drive is a dream is considered gospel, received truth by this point, and that’s fine. It doesn’t detract from the experience to know that Watts’ character invented a fanciful reality where all her dreams came true as a way to escape the guilt of her eventual murder-suicide. I’d submit the same interpretation for Lost Highway. If you watch the opening scenes of Pullman and his wife (Patricia Arquette), you’ll see a marriage rumbling around a faultline of jealousy. After he murders her, Pullman escapes into the recesses of his subconscious, most likely shapeshifting into the form of the man who cuckolded him, or whatever his image of that person may be. In both Highway and Mulholland, characters flee the horrors of their lives by plunging into joyous, delirious and fantastical dreamlives. The same goes for Fire Walk With Me, except in poor Laura Palmer’s case, her dreamlife isn’t so happy. It’s a nightmare.
Until she reaches the end. And that brings us back to ghosts. Here are the final moments from Fire Walk With Me:
I’ve seen FWWM at least a half-dozen times over the years. I love it, but it’s one of those movies I have to let metabolize out of my system before I can watch it again; it’s just too heartbreaking. Even watching that last scene makes my heart hurt. One great thing about Lynch’s movies is their durability of interpretation. Yes, you can crack their codes by deciphering their literal narrative, but they can work as pure metaphor, pure imagery, pure tone. They’re movies that tell stories as well ones that make you feel.
FWWM is far more a movie that makes me feel. The last time I watched this last scene, I thought, “My god. She was just a kid.” The angel that beckons Laura to the hereafter is the conjuring of a child, an echo of the painting of an angel from her home. It’s something a little girl would imagine while reciting Now I lay me down to sleep.
It’s well-nigh impossible to decode what exactly is happening in the Black Lodge scenes, but we know a few things: BOB possesses Agent Cooper, who remains trapped in the Black Lodge, presumably for many years.
But what about Laura? What becomes of her?
Here’s my take: I think the final moments of FWWM take place many years after her murder, and that for whatever reason, the Powers That Be decide to admit Laura to the afterlife. Maybe the Black Lodge is a sort of purgatory, though I can’t imagine what a damaged soul like Laura would have to atone for. Coop — or a more youthful apparition of him — escorts her to the gateway to the next world, and for one fleeting instant on this plane, she feels bliss.
She deserved better. Her ghost deserves better, as does the ghost of Twin Peaks.
Over at The New Yorker, critic Ian Crouch wrote a beautiful essay about how the new season of Twin Peaks will necessarily be a lesser version of what it once was:
“When people say they want a third season of “Twin Peaks,” they really mean that they want there to have been a third season, in 1992. (…) But this isn’t about whether the show will be good or bad—that’s far away, and beside the point. Regardless of the qualities of a new “Twin Peaks,” its very existence will be a diminishment.”
He goes on to say:
“But the memories I guard of it aren’t even five years old; they are projections back to an imagined cultural event, when millions of Americans submitted to watching such a strange thing every week.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t think he’s wrong. I don’t. But I also think that this diminished version of Twin Peaks will be a spirit worth raising from the dead, if only so we can usher its soul to a rightful rest. I know I’m getting heady here, but stay with me: One consistent theme in ghost stories is how it sucks to be a ghost. If you’re a ghost, then you’re trapped on earth, usually because some terrestrial entanglement has tethered you here, or because you’re unable to let go of the life you lost.
One of my favorite embodiments of this theme is the movie Field of Dreams. Maybe you already know the story, but just in case: Superfan Ray Kinsella builds a baseball diamond that lures the 1919 Chicago White Sox — aka the “Black” Sox for their role in a gambling scheme that marred that year’s World Series — out of the afterlife. The players are grateful, of course, but like all ghosts, their existence is diminished. They can’t move beyond the baseball diamond, which suggests that their afterlife can’t accommodate any earthly pleasures — not even a simple game of pepper.
Nowhere else in this soaring movie is this theme better captured than in the words of Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) when asked if he’s a ghost:
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“It’s OK,” he says in a gentle voice that hints at the sadness of his station. But despite the truth of the players’ lesser existence, Field of Dreams maintains that their return is a good thing, because it allows the universe to right a very old wrong. In the context of the movie, two wrongs are righted — the White Sox get to play again, and Ray gets to meet his dad.
I contend that David Lynch and Mark Frost are building their own baseball diamond in the Pacific northwest where they’ll conjure the long-dead spirit of Twin Peaks, all of it done in an effort to right a very old wrong done to their show. The beings they’ll lure from the hereafter will likely be graying and older versions of who we knew, but we’ll recognize ‘em all the same — and we’ll all be delighted to see each other. Lynch and Frost aren’t cranking out a cheap sequel. By all accounts, they’re rebuilding the world of Twin Peaks with care and love, and they’re doing it in such a way that’ll be well worthy of a revisit.
Over at Grantland, critic Andy Greenwald touched on this idea in a lovely essay:
“There’s simply no way to pick up things exactly where they left off, and that’s a very good thing. After two and a half decades, what people are longing for is a certain vibe, a certain style. (…) From this distance, fevered expectation has mellowed into a pleasant bemusement. We didn’t will this reunion into existence. It dropped into our laps. Let’s savor that. (…) The nine new episodes don’t need to accomplish anything in particular. They don’t need to please everyone or make a retroactive case for greatness.”
I resoundingly agree. Just as Ray Kinsella built a baseball diamond to give the Black Sox a second chance, and just as Dale Cooper gave Laura Palmer a moment’s joy before she passed into the beyond, so too will Lynch and Frost reach beyond the black scrim of death to revive their old story about a twisted little town that sits on a rift between this world and another place.
Odds and Ends
• I wonder if we’ll get a new opening sequence for the show? I’m honestly of two minds about it. On one hand, the original opening is a classic and needs no improvement, but at the same time, we live in an era of memorable opening sequences on basic cable — Game of Thrones and True Detective spring to mind. I wonder what a newfangled opening for Twin Peaks would look like?
• I promised I’d talk about Donna. I’m delighted to see that there’s already some online feuding about who should play the role — originator Lara Flynn Boyle or Moira Kelly, who subbed in for Boyle in FWWM. Greenwald suggested in his essay that both performers should play Donna:
“But only if Kelly’s softer Donna has been banished to the Black Lodge and Boyle’s slow-simmering Donna has been restored to her rightful supremacy.”
I’m with him. Using both actresses in some way seems too irresistible, too delicious a choice to avoid. Greenwald suggested a split between the Donnas based on their personalities. Certainly the more diminutive Kelly made for a softer Donna — fitting for FWWM, which highlighted Laura’s lioness-like supremacy over all her friends. It made sense that Donna would, from Laura’s subjective POV, seem smaller and softer than the relatively strapping Boyle.
So for me, that’s where I’d mark the split: Boyle is Donna in her default setting, while Kelly would play Laura’s perspective on Donna.