This year marks the 30th anniversary of “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch’s game-changing series that expanded the possibilities of network television.
Portraying a small lumber town forever changed by prom queen Laura Palmer’s murder, the show was genre-free, shocking and always risk-taking. It brought an abstract, wildly stylish approach to nighttime serials, which had never been presented in an uncompromised, often surrealistic manner from one of America’s greatest auteur filmmakers.
When it arrived in 1990, there had never been anything like it.
Today, it’s impossible to consider the resurgence of cinema-caliber TV (think “24,” “Lost,” “Prison Break,” “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”) without paying proper respect to how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost broke through.
In the midst of “ALF,” “L.A. Law” and “Roseanne,” all good shows but boxed in by TV’s limitations, “Twin Peaks” was always daring. The show made a “Peyton Place”-like scenario weirder and scarier than previously possible, bridging the world of film and television.
Now, it’s commonplace to see film and TV artists toggling back and forth between those worlds. When Lynch, an avant-garde but popular filmmaker, left his fingerprints on the cold glass of our TV screens it left a battle cry for an artistic awakening.
While no “Twin Peaks” wannabee ever came close to capturing its power, the shows that left their mark in its wake exuded a similar fearlessness in storytelling and that was personal and impactful. Lynch, along with Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry (as well as contemporary, though far more conventional, TV artists like Steve Bochco and Michael Mann) saw more potential in TV than feel-good air-time filler.
Now, with three decades behind it, an always-growing fan base and the opportunity to discover anew or re-visit the series while in isolation, a valid question arises.
Should the 1992 movie prequel, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” be the first installment one visits, and then followed by the 1990 pilot?
The short answer: No, absolutely not. Here’s why.
Although “Fire Walk With Me” is set before the series, it has narrative passageways to dreams and alternate dimensions that play out later on, specifically in the triumphant 2018 Showtime mini-series, “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
The movie is mostly devoid of the sly humor and tenderness present in the series. Key figures are absent as well.
“Fire Walk with Me” represents an untold part of the story and is a key piece to the puzzle. Still, seeing it after viewing seasons one and two provides valuable context and perspective on the world and figures Lynch and Frost created. The ideal viewing order is seasons one and two, followed by the movie, then the mini-series.
If the movie is the bridge, and an especially challenging, unnerving one at that, it’s still an artistic milestone for the franchise and Lynch.
It opens with the haze of a television with “snowy” reception, Lynch’s declaration that this isn’t the same thing that we’re getting on our sets at home. The director’s cheeky commentary on expectations continues with a knowingly goofy opener. Two feds, Special Agents Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland), have been sent to investigate a murder in Twin Peaks (not Laura Palmer’s).
IMAGINE IF Chet Desmond was not mentioned at all in Twin Peaks season 3 but at some point Chris Isaak had played us out at the roadhouse. Sharp suit, no introduction. We would have absolutely lost our minds. pic.twitter.com/Uk32GYYwJP
— Rosie (@NotNowRosie) October 10, 2019
They meet their boss, Gordon Cole (Lynch), who leads them to an airplane runway, where they encounter a woman who does an interpretive dance for them. Not just any woman, mind you. She’s wearing a flaming red wig that matches her dress, which is adorned with a blue flower.
Gordon insists they pay close attention to her movement, which is later broken down into nuggets of helpful advice, like “Lil was walking in place…meaning there’s gonna be a lot of legwork.”
The airstrip bit plays like Lynch’s mockery of those who interpret his art. The scene right after is just as crucial to setting the stage for what comes next: at the police station, a cackling secretary and a smug cop, who whisper barbs at Isaak’s expense, are angrily silenced. It comes across as Lynch’s assuring that what we’re about to see is not an in-joke.
Rather, everything matters.
Thirty-four minutes in, we get a “One Year Later” title card, a familiar road sing and the iconic Angelo Badalamenti score – it’s suddenly the “Twin Peaks” movie we expected.
We see an alive, vibrant Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, filling in for Lara Flynn Boyle) walking to school; before Badalamenti’s beautiful theme concludes, Laura does a spoonful of coke in a bathroom stall.
Turns out, this isn’t the “Twin Peaks” we remember or even thought we were prepared for.
As Laura’s tortured final days plays out, we witness sad events in which only a chosen few (namely Donna and James) manage to escape from the gravity of her downfall.
Like most of Lynch’s recent films (save for the atypical but still personal “The Straight Story”), this begins in a lucid fashion before tumbling down the treacherous rabbit hole. Although “Fire Walk With Me” can be bizarre on the surface, the core of it, portraying Palmer’s horrible spiral and abuse, is riveting.
As hard as much of this is to take, specially the unrelentingly bleak third act, Lynch and Lee demonstrate compassion for how they shape Palmer.
It’s important to remember that Lynch is an artist-turned-filmmaker and not the other way around. His movies aren’t like anyone else’s (except for maybe Dali or Bunuel) and a mental adjustment should be made before one absorbs his works. We’re not watching the normal filmmaking process but an innovator who is constantly adding his cinematic brush strokes.
In Lynch’s world, angels and demons are present, federal agents have mystical powers of observation, there are worlds within worlds and Palmer is the sacrificial lamb who is slaughtered by the mounting evil hidden beneath this all-American town.
There is a raw, unguarded honesty in Lee’s performance. Palmer’s loss is innocence is countered by her attempt to gain control and empowerment through self-destructive behavior. As the Log Lady notes, “when this fire starts, it is very hard to put out” (both a warning as much an assessment for Palmer).
Ray Wise is also incredible, with his intense scenes with Lee a true actor’s showcase for the both of them. For similar reasons, Wise is every bit as scary in this as Terry O’Quinn was in “The Stepfather,” in which both figures struggle to evoke the illusion of normalcy.
The art direction during the Isaak-led portion is hypnotic, with so many great touches. There are many astonishing scenes here, such as the moment where Donna lounges with Laura in her living room, pondering their fates; they face the ceiling, noting that they are “falling through space.”
The dialog here is gorgeous and the look is positively film noir. The Palmer home is beautifully furnished but Lynch makes it appear haunted.
While “Fire Walk with Me” fills in gaps for fans (such as showing who Laura gives her diary to), it also piles on confusing bits.
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Lynch’s ongoing experiment with form, as “Fire Walk With Me” was made from patches of a longer, more coherent work. This is evident from “The Missing Pieces,” a 90-minute short film, pieced together from deleted footage, that appears in a prior box set and is now a centerpiece to the film’s Criterion edition.
This assemblage is rewarding for fans both enjoyable to view on its own and good enough that it should have been cut back into the film. An obvious reason why so much of this is absent from the theatrical cut is that the excess footage (like an amusing fist fight early on) would have belated the story finally settling on the town of Twin Peaks as the prime focus.
Whereas the theatrical release has scenes that explode with a pastiche of overlapping images, The Missing Pieces bulks up puzzling characters and gives them greater purpose.
A major asset to the deleted scene cut is the restoration of David Bowie’s participation, playing a time traveling agent, as it now makes greater sense and has more time to develop in arresting fashion in the deleted scenes. Some elements, like Jurgen Prochnow’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, are still baffling. The abstract Red Room scenes, carried by Michael Anderson’s spellbinding turn as The Arm, feel obtrusive and unsettling.
As aggressively mean as Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway,” this concludes with a harrowing, extensive depiction of Laura’s doomed outcome. It is the most horrifying sequence Lynch has ever staged, though the horror and tragedy of the sequence is necessary.
This isn’t exploitation but a reflection on a life horribly misused and unfairly taken. The moment that always leaves me shaken – after Laura is raped (mostly implied), she’s left on the floor, tied up. She rolls around, inebriated, begging for someone to untie her. It’s so painfully sad to witness.
Obviously, this isn’t for the squeamish, as the lightness of the first half (which is the most like a “Twin Peaks” episode) has all but vanished by the full-dark, uncompromising finish. We see the scenes we didn’t want to see, that the series alluded to. For completists, this is, indeed, a missing piece though its more an artist exploring the textures of his portrait than the proper extension of the television series that most expected.
The film’s abrasive, confrontational weirdness (in which surreal moments are bombarded with highly interpretive bouts of layered surrealism) invites a dismissive response. At the film’s famous Cannes premiere, in which the audience all but unanimously turned on the film, Quentin Tarantino amusingly recalled that “it seemed Lynch had finally crawled up his own ass.”
He’s not entirely wrong.
This is among Lynch’s most self-indulgent and punishing works. Had it been fetishistic about the murder of Palmer it would be unwatchable, but Lynch mourns for her death and the film expects us to as well.
Today, “Fire Walk with Me” is recognized as a key work about a teen girl’s doomed journey of self-discovery. Palmer is self-destructive but she’s a daily survivor of a secret horror that she fights against, until she no longer can.
Repeat viewings allow the eye to decipher and potentially embrace Lynch’s vision, in which the layers of Dante’s Inferno is presented as warped Americana. Also complex is the use of sound, in which noises familiar and alien float through the frame.
“Twin Peaks” is a whole is a landmark for long-form storytelling utilizing different means of narrative presentations. As a TV series, it changed the game and never looked back. As a film, the experience is different and even more shattering.
“Fire Walk with Me” is a work of Lynchian extremes. Indifference is not an option.