TV Timewarp: TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME
Welcome back to the final installment of our Twin Peaks TV Timewarp, in which we've spent Wednesdays revisiting each episode of Mark Frost's and David Lynch's soap opera fever dream, which aired on ABC from 1990-91.
You can follow along the entire series here. Below, we delve into the dubious mysteries of Twin Peaks' prequel film Fire Walk With Me.
Ugh. Ughhh! Before this viewing, I remembered very little from Fire Walk With Me, and now I know why. Not a goddamn thing happens in this movie. I actively hated it. It made me yearn for the absolute worst episode of Twin Peaks. At least in Twin Peaks, at its very worst, there’s an ever-present tone there that I appreciate. A wry, sprightly goofiness that allows me to float past even the worst dialogue, most nonsensical sub-plots and least convincing characterizations.
Fire Walk With Me is bereft of humor, of any discernible tone other than “Hey! We’re creepy!”. It’s weird and random for weird and random’s sake, and that, I cannot tolerate. This movie is in the service of nothing. Nothing is revealed, nothing is illuminated, nothing is expounded, nothing is improved.
Fire Walk With Me WASTES DAVID BOWIE. And for that, I will never forgive it. (In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all.)
It opens with the investigation into Teresa Banks’ death by Detective Chris Isaak and Detective Keifer Sutherland, working under Gordon Cole, who uses this orange-wigged spaz named Lil as code. Her sour face means means they’re going to have trouble with the local authorities. Her two blinking eyes means two of the local law enforcement agents are going to be a problem. Her hand in her pocket means they’re hiding something, her hand in a fist means they’ll be belligerent. Her walking in place means there will be a lot of legwork involved. Her wig means they’re heading into a dangerous situation. Her blue flower means...blue flower.
So all of this code means essentially the exact same thing: don’t trust the local authorities, and this case is going to be a bitch.
I actually liked this part a little, because at first I was enraged by Lil, by how stupid and weird that scene was for seemingly no reason, before Detective Chris Isaak explained to Detective Keifer Sutherland and the audience what her behavior indicated. It was a clever little cypher. This happened in the first five minutes of the movie. The remaining TWO HOURS AND NINE MINUTES were all downhill.
Before Fire Walk With Me traveled to Twin Peaks, as they followed the Teresa Banks’ investigation (including one throwaway scene with a really tired looking Kyle Maclachlan as Coop. He clearly did not want to return to this character), I thought the problem was that it didn’t take place in Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks the show without Twin Peaks the town is just insufferable, I thought.
But no. It’s equally insufferable once they begin following the high school travails of one Miss Laura Palmer, played with admirable effort by a not quite up to snuff Sheryl Lee, who here looks less like a high school student than she ever has before. One boon to Fire Walk With Me is that Moira Kelly replaced Laura Flynn Boyle as Donna, because Boyle (and Sherilynn Fenn’s Audrey) were wise enough to blow this shitshow. I like Moira Kelly’s Donna much better.
Everyone in this movie mumbles, you know? They just mumble and stumble around. Fire Walk With Me fucking drags, and you can just tell it dragged for all of the performers, too. NOBODY is feeling this movie. Not Lynch, not the cast, nobody. To indicate camaraderie between Laura, Donna, James, Mike and Bobby, the movie actually includes a several minute “interactions” montage. “They’re friends! You can tell, because here they are being friends, silently, set to music!”
Actually, take that back. Set dresser Frank Silva is still having the time of his life playing BOB in that spiffy Canadian tuxedo of his. That guy was feeling it.
A couple of things happened: we saw more of Little Lynch And Old Lady, who appeared to have some sort of psychic connection with Laura before she died. We see more of the Black Lodge. We do get to watch Laura make-out-fake-out with Harold Fucking Smith, so that part was okay. If anyone deserves blue balls, it’s that motherfucker.
And there was one truly effective part of Fire Walk With Me: Ray Wise as Leland Palmer. His scenes with Laura are harrowing since we know what’s coming. We see how unhappy and dysfunctional the Palmers were from the very beginning, whereas the pilot of Twin Peaks could lead the audience to believe this was a happy family that suffered a random tragedy. It’s a tiny, too-brief glimpse of the John Cheever-esque tones of early Twin Peaks, the part I loved best that reminds us that we know nothing of what goes on behind the closed doors of even the most picturesque suburban family.
But honestly, that’s a tiny drop in the 134-minute bucket of Fire Walk With Me, this dreary self-parody of a Lynch film that I truly believe nobody, nobody, wanted to make.
Something is really, really off with this film. But unlike you, Meredith, I think I ultimately enjoyed it. Right of the top, I’m super in love with the Chris Isaak prologue. I’ve only seen FWWM a few times, but this twenty minute stretch I’ve rewatched over and over again. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it’s funny, weird and filled with likable performances. If you don’t laugh at the fist squeezing, sour faced human case file, I just don’t know what to tell you. Exasperated Harry Dean Stanton? I don’t need context or meaning to enjoy this.
And that goes for the weird Phillip Jeffries scene as well. The scene leads to a billion frustrating questions (There’s a Black Lodge above a convenient store? Did Jeffries hang out with Good Dale in the Black Lodge and if so what did they freaking talk about? Who is Judy? Why didn’t any of this come up on the show? Why is David Bowie the one FBI agent who gets to dress like he’s on Miami Vice?) but I sort of don’t care about any of that. It’s creepy and evocative enough to exist outside of sense, which, I suppose, is the one and only way to approach the Lynch-controlled aspects of Twin Peaks, the only aspects that have a chance of not sucking.
Once we get into the Laura Palmer story, Fire Walk with Me shares the same problems all prequels face. Namely: Who Gives a Shit? We already know what’s going to happen. What do we gain from watching it dramatized?
Well, we learn some stuff. BOB apparently wanted to take over Laura’s body or something. Inhabitants of the White Lodge help her along the way (I think?). Like you pointed out Meredith, the Palmer family was always pretty fucked up. Leland Palmer may not be in charge of himself when he’s BOB, but it looks like he was a bad guy regardless, though I’m not sure how this all shakes out. The film makes it look like Leland, not BOB, kills Teresa Banks for blackmailing him, but she still gets a letter under her fingernail.
It’s a really sad and punishing film, confronting the reality of rape and incest in a way that the show could not. Sheryl Lee gives a very difficult to judge performance, laying somewhere between otherworldly trauma and cheap overacting, shifting with dependence on each individual viewer’s taste, I assume. Personally, she won me over. I always complain to my wife about how every movie she watches is just a bunch of people screaming and crying in lieu of real drama. That’s exactly what Laura Palmer does, but at least when she screams and cries there’s a weird demonic darkness to it, like she’s about to go into a seizure. After a while, however, Laura’s constant misery begins to drain me, so when she dies, it’s almost a relief. This movie is over two hours long, after all.
I don’t know who this movie was made for. It’s far too unkind for first time viewers to enjoy, and yet it offers Twin Peaks fanatics an almost comedic dearth of fan service. For many Twin Peaks fans, this was an opportunity to return to a cast they loved. But if there’s no narrative reason to see a Twin Peaks citizen, then we simply do not see them. Norma gets one line. Shelly gets two, I think. But they’re lucky to have shown up at all. I have a lot of respect for Lynch’s draconian focus on Laura Palmer, but he should not have been surprised by how many people this movie pissed off.
I like how I seemed to have enjoyed this movie the most out of the three of us, since I seem to have been the most down on the show. See, I DO like just about all of Lynch’s features (Inland Empire is the exception, and Dune if you can even count that one), and I tried to watch this one back in 2000 having only seen two out of sequence episodes of the show, thinking “It’s a prequel! If anything I should watch it first, right?” only to to be baffled from the first seconds and only getting more confused from there. It’s easy to see why the film tanked: Lynch makes absolutely no effort to reintroduce anyone to the town of Twin Peaks, to the extent that even fans may have been confused. Remember, no Netflix Instant or DVD boxed sets back in 1992 - unless they had taped every episode and rewatched it that week, it had been what, over a year since it was last on? Yeah, good luck remembering who Jacques was.
But armed with my newfound context and occasional enjoyment of the show, I found myself kind of digging this, if only in a “well it’s better than most of Season 2” way. It’s riddled with problems - Bowie’s incoherent inclusion, a lengthy prologue that never really jives with the rest of the film, James is in it - but it also had a lot of what I liked about the show to begin with. It was creepy and “off”, but also had a story at its center. My biggest issue with Season 2 is that it was too unfocused, with lots of subplots and “let’s give this actor something to do” type writing, but no actual center. So even though we know a) our main character ends up dead and b) who killed her, there’s still something to latch on to here, with the little “answers” sprinkled throughout as a bonus of sorts. I didn’t even know Heather Graham was in it, so to have her show up and give some sort of explanation for what happened in the series finale was a nice surprise.
Also, having disliked most of S2, I wasn’t too concerned with how little the supporting cast was used. Yeah, it’s a bummer that Shelly only has two lines and that my beloved Lucy doesn’t appear at all, but when you consider the plot, how much would they have had to do anyway? I doubt Lucy was too invested in Laura’s rampant sex life or drug use, so if she had been there (or Ed, or Truman, or the Hornes), it would just be a scene or two like everyone else. If nothing else, the movie admirably focuses on a more personal and human story, which the show never quite managed to do because it was too busy having Joan Chen dress up as a man or Michael Parks speak with a terrible French accent.
In fact, I think the movie would have been better without any of the random cast at all. Shelly, Norma (or “that lady in that one wide shot”, as a newcomer would be forced to describe her), Albert and certainly Harold’s parts could have been excised. Coop’s presence is a bit more useful, but MacLachlan’s clear boredom (or confusion) with the role does it no favors, and his bits could have been handed off to anyone. If online information is to be believed, he was supposed to be doing the scenes that Isaak was in, but didn’t want to commit to that much of the shooting schedule, forcing a quick, confusion causing rewrite and a go-nowhere scene with Coop investigating Desmond’s disappearance just to tie them together. Hell, Isaak could have just taken all of Cooper’s part instead and given his character a real ending in the movie, rather than just randomly disappear and add another unsolved mystery to a franchise that already had too many of them.
Still, I found myself entertained more often than not. And as Evan said - it’s sad. As much as I dislike James, one of the film’s best scenes is when they’re on his bike and she falls off, just a complete mess, torn between trying to protect him from what she seemingly knows is about to happen and trying to let him help (it’s also a great use of James’ perpetually confused sadface look). It’s heartbreaking, actually, and I think Sheryl Lee, while yes, too old to be playing a 17 year old, does a fine job in this and some other key scenes, which more than make up for her less than stellar moments.
But it’s weird - how are we writing our reactions to the entire film when that bar scene (“Chug a lug, Donna”) must still be on, since it lasts for infinity?
Oh lord, that bar scene. With the pulsing music and the subtitles. Ages long. Centuries. Epochs.
It’s really interesting that I like Fire Walk With Me least of the three of us, when I’m clearly the (relatively) biggest fan of the show. And that’s probably why - I’m tied to the characters, to the tone, and I resent Fire Walk With Me for lacking them. You gentlemen don’t particularly care for the characters or the tone, so you’re free to appreciate the prequel film for what it is: free-falling insanity.
I agree with you, Evan, that it makes no sense that this film even exists because it’s made for no one. Newbies would be baffled, fans of the show receive little to no satisfaction. I want to admire Sheryl Lee’s performance as you two did, and I certainly admire her effort, but she almost never stuck the landing for me. Except in the scenes with Ray Wise - those worked for me. I wish there had been more scenes focusing on the bleak reality of the pre-murder Palmer family - that’s the kind of prequel that adds something, that adds up TO something. I guess it’s too easy and straightforward for David Lynch, but holding Leland Palmer culpable outside of BOB’s influence is powerful storytelling, and something the show never had the balls to do.
I seriously, legitimately despised the opening half hour, Evan. I marvel that you watch it independent of the rest of the film sometimes. One day over beers, after our battle scars have faded and we can stand to talk about this mighty endeavor once more, I would like to discuss this with you.
Oh, Fire Walk With Me did do something I didn’t expect, something frequent TV Timewarp commenter la.donna.pietra will appreciate: it made me feel sympathetic toward Bobby. That poor kid didn’t stand a chance with Laura Palmer.
Yeah, I like how being an actual film with a real narrative recontextualizes Bobby and James and even Jacques and Leo. It kind of reveals the extent of the television show’s hidden, shallow depths. You see how young Bobby and James are compared to the life Laura has been leading. Meanwhile, you see real menace behind Jacques and Leo, whereas on the show, they both seemed like cartoon villains to me. Harold’s still a dumbass though.
The one thing I’ll never be able to figure out is what kind of David Lynch film this is. The whole enterprise feels anomalous to me, even more so than something like Dune, which has Lynch’s youth to help explain its existence (I fucking love Dune, by the way). Watching Twin Peaks, even before Season Two got really bad, I never got the impression Lynch cared that much. I know he did, but I rarely felt it. That he would spend a whole feature back in Peaks really surprises me. I even read he wanted it to be a trilogy, somehow.
As a David Lynch film, FWWM is such an odd duck, existing right in the middle of two phases. It adheres to a narrative much more than his later films, but goes into unexplained abstraction quite a bit too. Unlike with Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, I don’t think the clues here add up, which I suppose is Twin Peaks-appropriate. At all turns the property is less fun than frustrating. I’ll never understand what’s up with the formica table stuff, or all the shots of telephone wires, or in which Black Lodge room the little guy keeps all his kidnapped FBI agents.
But I like it, just as I like most David Lynch stuff. Ultimately, I’d rather watch this again than any Twin Peaks episodes, save maybe for the pilot. It’s a good one for us to go out on.
Yeah, I’m glad I can end this on a high note,.. even if I’d rather re-watch the Prison Break prequel-to-the-series-finale movie “The Final Break” (that’s for that one guy from last week's comments).
I also like the opening a lot, because it almost seems like a Twin Peaks reboot of a sort, and possibly what Lynch/Frost (did the latter have anything to do with this movie?) should have done for each season, not unlike American Horror Story. I like the weird stuff that’s going on, like shaking down a bus full of teenagers, and Harry Dean Stanton’s character is just awesome (his line of “God DAMN these people are confusing!” is probably my favorite thing about anything related to Peaks ever). Desmond would be Coop, obviously, and Keifer’s guy I guess could fill in for Truman, Harry’s character would have been the Pete role, etc. Cole would still be Cole, I guess.
And that’s a good point, Evan - it’s sort of a transition between '80s Lynch (coherent!) and post-Twin Peaks Lynch, where I need Film Crit Hulk to explain to me what the hell I just saw. He took a quick trip back to normalcy with The Straight Story, but otherwise this was the last time I was able to more or less explain a movie by the end, with the weirder stuff left to the details (many of which were just throwaway explanations for stuff on the TV show). And yeah, the scenes with Bobby almost make me want to watch the first season again with the new context - it’s a true prequel in that way. If George Lucas made this movie, Bobby would be like “Laura, if you died, I’d probably end up with Shelly and fucking with Leo’s head while he was paralyzed!” before winking at the camera. Oh and Coop would bemoan his inability to find a DAMN good cup of coffee lately, and we’d probably see someone installing the door at the vault for good measure. A good prequel should give you new context for revisiting what you already had, not throw out a bunch of reverse engineered foreshadowing. However, I think it should also at least mostly work to a newcomer, so in that respect Lynch “failed," but it’s not like he was trying to do that anyway.
Good or bad, at least we got this column out of it. Even at its worst, I could always count on Meredith to find those gems within the episodes, and Evan would effortlessly toss out a well placed insult at the expense of Harold or Dick, and it would all be worthwhile. And now I can finally get all of the jokes in Deadly Premonition, which is the greatest gift of all.
Now let’s do Heather Graham’s other show, Emily’s Reasons Why Not!
Thank you for joining with us on this long, weird path. We'll be back with a new TV Timewarp in the new year, hopefully a show whose quality stays the course until the very end. In the meantime, we'd like to leave you with this gift as a token of our appreciation: