Flashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.
The narrative around Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the 1992 prequel to David Lynch’s game-changing series released after its cancellation, is that everyone hated it—it was booed at Cannes, for one. That’s not how I remember it, though; perhaps I just hung out with teen freaks and weirdos, but as early as 1996 my friends and I were circulating a VHS copy with a cardboard case dogeared from relentless viewings, obsessing over its meanings. We were not alone, and not long after its initial release Fire Walk With Me was reborn a cult classic, and an exemplar of Lynch’s particular eye for cinema that dissolved the boundaries between horror and humor in the peculiar ordinary.
Taking the classic ’50s pulp-novel trope of the good girl gone bad and examining what might make her end up that way, Fire Walk With Me was a post-script paean to Laura Palmer (played by the inimitable Sheryl Lee), and specifically the events leading up to her death. More than just the prom queen and high-school sweetheart, it explores Palmer’s double life in the night—“my time,” as she mysteriously clucks to her best friend Donna—namely, a rapidly accelerating addiction to cocaine and patronage of Canada’s seediest dive-bars where she engaged in sex with the grossest of gross adult men.
But it’s Twin Peaks, and the dirty underbelly of a small town has a purpose: namely, that Palmer’s descent is motivated by the terrifying Bob, a stalker who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, and the mystery behind whether he is real or just a hallucination. The resolution is as gruesome as can be imagined, but it also illuminates another side to the elusive Laura Palmer, one that further complicates the tragic heroine depicted in the series.
I have seen this film, like, 375 times or something, but my coworkers Hazel Cills, Madeleine Davies and Rich Juzwiak had not seen it once. We all sat down for an office screening and then discussed. Spoilers abound!
JULIANNE: I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on VHS circa 1996, before I had ever seen the original series, which aired when I was too young to comprehend it. I remember immediately loving how creepy, weird and seemingly nonsensical it was, and I also think it was one of the first films I ever saw that really drove home the concept of an auteur—the fact that Lynch used sound cues to link certain parts of the plot blew my young mind, and I remember it with the same enthusiasm as when I figured out what allegory was via Lord of the Flies and seventh grade English class. As with all of our Flashback Film Friends series, there is a certain sense of nostalgia that accompanies this film, and I have a more-than generous dose of that; I spent an entire summer in my friend’s basement, a musty carpeted one I can still smell, watching and then rewatching every Lynch film we could get our hands on, only taking breaks to listen to Bikini Kill on vinyl. The ‘90s!
Time has looked kindly upon Fire Walk With Me, and it’s been reinvented as a cult film. That said, I know you guys felt some unease about the plot, something I hadn’t considered in many years, and which made me a little uncomfortable during our most recent viewing, too. What were your initial takes?
MADELEINE: I’ve only ever watched Twin Peaks—inappropriately, probably—as a teeny-tiny kid, and I remember very little of the plot other than Audrey being very, very pretty. As for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, I’ve only ever heard bad things, mostly from my parents, and Audrey isn’t even in it, so I didn’t have high expectations. That said, I liked it? It’s weird and vibrant (the reds! the blues!) and I loved seeing Chris Isaak and David Bowie on screen. It was a rare moment when I would fully comprehend what I was watching, but even still, I was very much along for the ride. Additionally, I love just about any movie with 30-year-olds playing teenagers. It’s ridiculous, campy, and makes some of the more difficult Fire Walk With Me scenes (particularly the violent and sexual scenes) easier to watch. That being said, did we need so much “teen” tit? I don’t know, Julianne. I just don’t know.
HAZEL: I love Twin Peaks and actually recently rewatched it as prep for the forthcoming new season, but had never seen this movie because I also heard it was very bad. I will say that one of the reasons I like Fire Walk With Me is the way it focused so heavily on Laura Palmer’s high school life which we only experience in Twin Peaks through flashbacks and the words of other people. Sheryl Lee is so good as Laura Palmer and I’ve never seen someone cry like her, totally convulsing in a way that is truly terrifying.
That said, I felt like the movie answered every lingering question about Palmer’s death and trauma in a way that I’m not sure I needed. I can’t tell what’s more horrifying (SPOILERS!) the ambiguity of Palmer’s death and the abrupt discovery of sexual abuse at the hands of Leland that we get in the show or the intensely specific and drawn out scenes of abuse that we see in the movie. That scene where Bob crawls into the window and onto Laura in bed? Too much, too much!
JULIANNE: Yeah, that scene is definitely meant to make you squeamish, and I suppose it gets into the territory of whether it was necessary, artistically speaking; it’s incestuous father rape in a rather graphic, long sequence. It’s a horror film, and that was horrific, but as with any of these scenes directed by men I couldn’t help but wonder if a woman would have directed the same way. At the same time, it’s classically Lynch, the blue light flashing on Bob’s face, the over-the-top close-ups on screaming expressions that are as hilarious as they are terrifying. That part in particular feels analogous to one of the most iconic scenes in Wild at Heart, when Diane Ladd flips out and covers her whole face with red lipstick; it’s Lynch’s way of pointing out the humor in the grotesque.
It’s also why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me remains one of my favorite Lynch movies, because it really strikes that balance perfectly. At one point while watching it, Madeleine, you were like “I have no idea what’s going on in this movie,” and that level of bewilderment is also, I think, partly his goal as a director. The whole thing is to question what we think we know—OUR SENSE OF REALITY, IF YOU WILL— while couching it in really familiar emotions like “garmonbozia (pain and sorrow).” Okay, before I revert to sounding too much like a first-year film major, what are your thoughts, Rich?
RICH: I’ve only seen a few episodes of Twin Peaks—it’s just one of those things I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to doing, and so many people already have and love it that I feel like Twin Peaks is doing just fine without my viewership. That said, my ignorance only aided my appreciation of Fire Walk With Me, a deliberately disorienting, classically surrealist experience that I absolutely loved. The intensity, the willingness to not just go over the top, but then to stomp on and smash said top in a fit of exhilaration, reminded me of Zulawski’s Possession. Fire Walk With Me only exists in extremes—its color palate, its sound design (that club scene featuring music so loud it had to be subtitled), its script (“more popular than Uncles’ Day at a whorehouse” is a simile I covet), its deadpan humor (“”They don’t call them ‘lovers’ in high school, Leland”), its violence. In that last realm, Lynch is particularly explicit here—he confronts you with that close-up of Teresa Banks’s removed fingernail several times, as well as the exposed brain of the deputy Bobby shoots toward the end of the film (which Laura, hopped up on coke, focuses on and then erupts into a fit of laughter, hilariously). So while the scenes of Laura’s rape are brutal I didn’t feel they were out of place in a movie that has an entire shed of weapons to bludgeon you with.
I also had a lot of empathy for that character, despite the madness swirling around her that threatens to divert your emotional attention at every turn. That this movie manages to have a distinct emotional core is miraculous. What a picture!
MADELEINE: It’s true that I had no idea what was going on… sort of. A lot of what I suspected (that Bob was just a projection that Laura had created to protect herself) ended up being true, it’s just that a lot of what brought me to those conclusions were nonsensical. I agree with Hazel that there were several scenes that seemed a little too EXTRA, particularly the rape scene, but maybe that’s because all of the other violence felt very over-the-top and comic book-y. The rape on the other hand… it is not outlandish to believe that a teenager would invent an alternative reality to being raped by her father from age 12 on.
I’m glad that Rich brought up the sound design of the club scene because I found it so effective. It made me feel like I was in that heady north-of-the-border roadhouse, just as disoriented as Laura or, more accurately, Donna was.
A question I have: Where did Chris Isaak go? Not in real life because, as ChrisIsaak.com tells me that he’s still touring, but where did his character Special Agent Chester Desmond go? He disappears suddenly and I don’t quite recall that mystery ever being solved, but maybe it was and I just happened to miss it in the Lynchian mind smoothie that is Fire Walk With Me.
HAZEL: So, David Lynch has actually said that Twin Peaks fan should watch Fire Walk With Me as prep for the reboot. We know that Harry Dean Stanton’s character Carl Rodd, who owns the trailer park where Chester Desmond disappeared, will probably be in the show because Carl was in the trailer for the new season. And while Chris Isaak isn’t listed as being part of the new Twin Peaks cast I wonder if maybe his character will come back and the absence of Isaak’s credit was deliberate. That’s me being a true Twin Peaks truther though. Either way, hopefully we’ll at least find out what happened at the creepy trailer park.
And that’s a good point, Rich, about the movie existing in extremes. When I think of Twin Peaks I think about the innocent-at-first-glance feeling of the titular town and characters and the slow, surprising ways Lynch strips away the all-American, cherry pie and bobby socks vibe. Just like Audrey ditching her saddle shoes for bright red pumps in the first episode. This is why still so many shows are described as being “like Twin Peaks,” as the reference has become lazily synonymous with “oh, vintage tiny town is actually creepy!” I don’t care what crazy shit happens on Riverdale or in Stranger Things, in my opinion just because it happens in a small town filled with nosy kids doesn’t mean it’s anything like Twin Peaks.
But my point is, I associate the show with a softer reveal, whereas Rich says the movie “bludgeons” you with its weirdness the same way a lot of Lynch movies do. In that sense it was cool to see what Lynch would do with the Twin Peaks universe without the restrictions of television, which of course meant he wanted to make it 100x more batshit crazy. Also more “teen” tit!
RICH: At heart, I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy, so when a movie opens up and just vomits insanity on me for two hours and 15 minutes, I’m in heaven.
On top of all of this—the sturm, the drang, the road rage—I sensed that Lynch was having a great, great time throughout. Early in the movie, the character the director himself plays (Gordon Cole) introduces Special Agent Chester Desmond (Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) to Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a wincing silent woman marching in place and making strange signals with her hands. “What exactly did that mean?” Stanley asks Desmond after, and Desmond proceeds to break down how every gesture and trait of Lil’s was a clue to their investigation in what is at once a straightforward exploration of the importance of symbology and a parody of the indefatigable interpreting of Lynch’s audience. It’s a multivalent statement on the absurdity and seriousness of the world its characters (and, for that matter, we) live in.
Lynch is notoriously resistant to explaining his work, but on the Fire Walk with Me Blu-ray that’s in the Twin Peaks: The Complete Mystery box set, there are a few promo interviews from cast members, who are either being self-consciously mysterious or are otherwise kind of baffled by this project they’re appearing in. In one, Mädchen Amick (Shelly) recounts an incident on set:
“There was one time I was doing a scene, and all of a sudden, he told me to start tilting my head up toward the ceiling, very slowly and very smooth. And so I said, ‘Okay, David. Okay.’ And he just had me tilt all the way up and just stare up at the ceiling. And I said, ‘David, would someone really do this? I mean, what does this mean?’ And he said, ‘Of course no one would do it. This is the movies.’”
I think that says so much about Lynch’s storytelling zeal, and why a movie like Fire Walk with Me is so thrilling so consistently. Anything is possible! The world of Twin Peaks is Lynch’s oyster.
JULIANNE: THE NEW TWIN PEAKS AIRS ON SHOWTIME SUNDAY, MAY 21!!!! FUK YA!