Recently, I made a review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me for the British podcast Live from the Roadhouse. A transcript can be be found below, and the podcast itself can be located here.
(For nyligt anmeldte jeg Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) til podcasten Live from the Roadhouse, som bestyres af den britiske Twin Peaks-fan og filmkritiker Frank Cronogue. Min anmeldelse kan læses nedenfor og høres her).
Twin Peaks Through a Distorted Mirror: A Re-evaluation of Fire Walk with Me
Twin Peaks has been hailed as one of the most groundbreaking television shows of all time, and some critics argued, back in 1990, that it would even change television history, as we know it. When the prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, came out, however, the critics were much less positive, and the film, which was written by David Lynch and Robert Engels and directed by David Lynch, was bood when it premiered at Cannes in May 1992 (something, by the way, that also happened to Antonioni’s L’avventura back in 1960). Leonard Maltin described it as “prototypically weird, but also strangely indifferent,” Michael Wilmington called it “horror kitsch,” and Janet Masslin of The New York Times argued that “Mr. Lynch’s taste for brain-dead grotesque ha[d] last its novelty.” In Scandinavia, where Twin Peaks has a huge fanbase, the film was also largely dismissed, and the Danish film critic Ebbe Iversen called it a “travesty.” Still, nobody was quite as vehement and relentless as Vincent Canby who went as far as to say that Fire Walk with Me looked like “the worst movie ever made.”
With Twin Peaks returning in 2017, though, it seems only fair to give a reevaluation and a reappraisal of that prequel which was so heavily underappreciated and maligned back in the 1990s. Fire Walk with Me, I will argue, is much more than a strange addendum to Twin Peaks, and the reasons why so many disliked the film back in the early 90s – the non-linearity and the absurdity of the story, the expressive violence and the sheer morbidity of the action – might, in fact, be some of the greatest qualities in the film. Indeed, Fire Walk with Me is different from Twin Peaks – the mother show from which it was born – but perhaps this is the most significant quality of the prequel: Twin Peaks, as a story across different media, is about shadows, reflections, doubles and opposites. And Fire Walk with Me is just that: Twin Peaks as seen through a dark and distorted mirror.
The difference between Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me is already indicated in the first scene, which opens on a television set, tuned to a dead channel. Slowly zooming backwards, the camera reveals a television set in the middle of a room, but before we get a chance to figure out where we are, the television set is destroyed by a blunt object, as if to indicate that this is not the cozy television show that some viewers had grown accustomed to and hoped to revisit. If Twin Peaks was the mother of Fire Walk with Me – the so-called parent text – then Fire Walk with Me was a teenager refusing to follow in its parents’ footsteps.
Dealing with the last seven days of Laura Palmer, Fire Walk with Me is centered on Laura and her tragic descent into Hades, not on a quirky small town and a thrilling whodunit. It might even make sense to see the film as an antithetical counterpart to Twin Peaks, more so than a classic companion piece. The non-diegetic music is, once again, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, yet the opening theme is much darker than then opening theme of the series.
Normally a prequel is a chronological story of what went before, giving the viewers an important causal link. Fire Walk with Me, however, is neither chronological nor causal, and when Laura suddenly sees Annie Blackburn in her bed – in what appears to be a dream – it certainly looks like a strange and surreal disruption of the story’s chronology. Fire Walk with Me is not a classical prequel, nor is it just and addendum to Twin Peaks. It is another layer to the multilayered and multimedial story of Twin Peaks.
Another scene which is interesting in this context is the scene where Laura goes to meet Harold. Harold’s living room looks strikingly different than it did in the series, and while this could be seen as continuity error, it might also be intentional. Harold’s living room is the same, yet in this film it is seen through a distorted mirror, as if the film, itself, were a mirror version of the television series.
Twin Peaks plays with this idea of mirror versions from the very onset. The very first shot is of Josie watching her reflection in the mirror, and in the ending of the second season we see Jimmy Scott in The Black Lodge, a black man, performing a song that uses some of the same musical cues as the main theme “Falling,” although in a slightly different and distorted way. The white, female singer, Julee Cruise, who performed the main theme, had now given way to a black man performing a strange son which is based on a variation upon the main theme.¹
The most important scenes in Fire Walk with Me are the ones in The Pink Room and in the traffic jam. In both of these scenes, the dialogue is drowned out by diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and many people, including film critics, thought that it was a mistake. However, David Lynch, himself, is the sound designer on Fire Walk with Me, and the fact that it is almost impossible to hear Jacques when he is talking about Laura’s father or The One-Armed Man who is screaming “It’s him, it’s your father,” is hardly coincidental. In fact, it seems to mirror Laura’s inability to deal with the reality of what is going on, her attempt to drown out or not to see and hear the signals around her.
Similar readings have been presented to me by Al Strobel and the sound editor Douglas Murray, and Murray has talked about the ending sequence of Fire Walk with Me which was changed due to advice from the chief of Cannes. Gilles Jacobs wanted a more ethereal and less expressionistic ending to the story, and using Riccardo Muti’s music, the ending became much more ambiguous and easier to stomach than in the original version, while retaining some clear-cut elements of horror. The pilot episode of Twin Peaks paraphrases Laura by Otto Preminger, pointing to the melodramatic and noir-like qualities of the show, but the ending of the film, Fire Walk with Me, paraphrases Dario Argento’s movie Suspiria, pointing to the shift from film noir to horror.
Fire Walk with Me was heavily criticized back in the early 90s, and 90 minutes were cut from the original film, partly to please the chief of Cannes Film Festival: Gilles Jacobs. Critics called it a travesty or even the worst movie ever made, but Fire Walk with Me is, in fact, a great film. It is the dark and twisted other half of Twin Peaks, a horrifying and inverted mirror version of the story we had all come to know and love in 1990.
Note 1: Thanks to Gustav Harald Nystrup Riber for opening my ears to this interesting point. Angelo Badalamenti, however, claims that this musical ‘doubling’ is mere coincidental. “It was not intentional at all,” as he says. “However, if there was mysterious, subliminal thing going on, well that’s cool.”