Last Sunday I sat in a packed theater in the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, about to watch Laura Palmer die. She was wearing lingerie under her jacket and looked--understandably--like hell: she’d just learned that the creature stalking her was her own father, driven by a demon and slavering for her soul. This is the last night she will ever have, and part of her seems to know it. It’s why she hops on the back of her boyfriend James’s motorcycle, and lets him take her for a ride.
When James appeared, the audience tittered.
They pull off on the side of the road. Laura insults him a little, pushes him around, almost as though she’s sorry for it, but he’s so sweet, and so dim, and so certain that he loves her, when last night she was raped in her own bed. James is living in a different world, the kind of place where he can ask her to run away with him, and for a few minutes, Laura wants to be there with him. It flies apart, of course; she sees something over his shoulder and panics. The thing that intends to kill her will kill James without a thought, and he has no idea. “You don’t know anything about me,” she says, as if she’s only just realized it. She flips him off, and glares at him until he takes his hands off of her, which sent another ripple of giggles through my theater.
Halfway home, she leaps off his bike at a stoplight, staggering in her heels, refusing to let him help. If we know the show (and an audience at a midnight showing of Fire Walk With Me certainly does) we remember that this is the last time she’s seen alive. She’s frantic and sobbing, and begs James that she loves him as she kisses him in what practically amounts to a deathbed confession.
It’s a strong, desperate end to the scene, and you could barely hear it over the audience’s laughter. Then Laura ran off into the woods, and the laughter only got louder. Not impolite snickers, either; this was sustained hilarity from a movie-literate audience, people were absolutely losing their minds.
The mood lasted until Leland Palmer dragged his bleeding daughter off a dingy mattress in her underwear. That’ll kill a joke.
One of the most remarkable things about Twin Peaks is how unearthly it is. Characters have strange insights, or fixate on curtain rods, or suddenly talk as though they exist in a reality just to the left of our own. Director David Lynch is of course a great believer in the power of dreams, and the ways they can recontextualize the secrets of the waking world. He’s not above using humor to disrupt audience expectations, but his jokes are often ones that go on too long, or repeat themselves too many times. Funny? Yes. Disconcerting? God, yes. He taps that surrealism to displace his viewers and draw their attention to the things he finds significant, which in turn urge our eyes into darker corners. Look, his movies say. Then, again: look harder. And don’t look away.
Lynch’s work isn’t to everyone’s taste, and his creative instincts are far from mainstream. They were even less so twenty-five years ago when Twin Peaks hit small screens. The show quickly gained a reputation for its mystery and its frightening, often bizarre supernatural notes. However, as often happens with detective stories that become genre touchstones, the attraction of the mystery--now solved--faded with time, caving in the pop cultural memory of Twin Peaks until all that was left was its strangeness.
I was born the year Twin Peaks came out. I was a toddler when Fire Walk With Me debuted at Cannes. Many of the people looking forward to the series’ Showtime revival later this year will be about the same age. Twin Peaks found millennials through endless homages and parodies: starlets styled with plaid and saddle shoes in fashion spreads, or Homer Simpson watching a dancing horse on television. It’s damn fine coffee, and there’s a fish in the percolator and one day my log will have something to say about this. It’s quirky and offbeat, something 20-somethings in bars without signs like, something your parents remember. It’s not Laura Palmer staring panicked and nauseated at her father as he terrorizes her at the dinner table.
Unless it is, and always has been.
Things are never what they seem in Lynch’s work. Our worlds are more horrifying than we ever imagined. But by the same token, sometimes they’re more beautiful, and impossibly rare. He wants to draw out the secret lives of his characters, and gently chastise us for assuming we knew them before being illuminated by visions. Audrey Horne is a bratty troublemaker...who hides how her father’s disinterest hurts as older men try to take advantage of her. James Hurley is a dopey, broody teenager...who is a member of the Bookhouse Boys, defending Twin Peaks from the unknown forces that lurk in the woods. And Laura Palmer is a classic good girl gone bad, unable to modulate her emotions in a way that won’t make a jaded audience giggle...who’s held on tight to her own soul when confronted by brutality and evil.
They’re human beings: good and bad, frightened and funny, flawed and fragile and worth loving, but Twin Peaks’ place in the pop culture canon has calcified its weirdness and turned the heart of the series into means to an end. If you want the cult classic, it seems, you have watch the story of abuse, waiting for the moments when it’s safe to laugh. How emotionally engaged are you supposed to be with an exercise in offbeat, nightmarish surrealism? At the core, it’s a problem of expectation. The series is sold as something strange, whether it’s being explained by a friend or summarized in a '90s retrospective. And it is. It’s one of the strangest things you’ll ever watch. But just like Twin Peaks plays with the cliches of soap operas to tell a far more nuanced narrative, it also immerses itself in the bizarre to create a dreamlike world of darkness and light, with both forces warped around the struggle for a lonely teenager’s life.
Laura Palmer was just a teenager, that’s what makes the laughter sting. Fictional, sure, but even a fictional seventeen-year-old wrapped in plastic is still dead. Pop culture sees the story in which she was murdered as more whimsy than mystery; that doesn’t change the narrative fact of her torture, or her humanity and bravery in the face of it. Fire Walk With Me doesn’t need to be your favorite movie, or even a movie that you like. But let’s all have a heart for Laura as she runs into the night. She’s been through enough.