Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.8: David Lynch's Twin Peaks- Fire Walk with Me

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 22 (D+)

Imagine being a Twin Peaks fan, or even a David Lynch fan in general. Lynch’s unique show Twin Peaks was canceled just as it started to get good again at the end of season 2, Now, a year after the series’ end, Lynch has decided to continue the story of Twin Peaks…only instead of doing a sequel to wrap up some of the series’ biggest mysteries, Lynch decided to do a prequel about the last days of Laura Palmer…which we already knew about. Then again, it’s not what the film’s about, it’s how it’s about it. With that in mind, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me shouldn’t be criticized for being a story we already knew. It should be criticized for being a pointless, dull wallow in human misery coupled with self-indulgence that Quentin Tarantino aptly described as a sign that “David Lynch had disappeared…up his own ass…”.

NOTE: You should probably watch and read about season 1 and season 2 before this, as there is no way to avoid spoilers.

After a lengthy prologue detailing the investigation of the murder of Theresa Banks, the disappearance of FBI Agent Chester Diamond (Chris Isaak), and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s strange encounter with missing agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie), the film follows the final days of troubled homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Laura isn’t the girl-next-door she seems to be, but a drug-addicted young woman whose drug abuse and sexual exploits are a warped therapy for her torment at the hands of Bob (Frank Silva), described as a “friend of her father”. Laura eventually realizes that Bob is a spirit controlling her father, Leland (Ray Wise).

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me makes Laura the center of attention rather than the town of Twin Peaks itself. On one hand, this makes sense: you only have so much time in a film, and you have to tell a streamlined story. The fact that a number of cast members either chose not to return (Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey, Richard Beymer as Ben, Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna) or requested smaller parts (MacLachlan) makes it a practical concern as well. The problem is that the town now seems underpopulated- few of the best characters on the show come back, and those who do have reduced roles (a number of scenes involving other major characters were cut for time concerns). It doesn’t help that likable girl-next-door Donna still needed to be in the film, and the capable Boyle was replaced by a blank slate like Moira Kelly. Donna was once one of the most relatable characters on the show; in the film, she mostly looks confused by her surroundings.

Perhaps Lynch could have expanded the stories of the town had he excised the prologue. It isn’t that Isaak, Bowie, and Kiefer Sutherland don’t do a good job with the material- they’re all just fine, and Harry Dean Stanton’s appearance as a cranky trailer park owner is a welcome diversion as well. But the investigation into the Theresa Banks murder isn’t really an intriguing thread, and it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know or wanted to know. It’s all a bit arbitrary, filled with Lynch adding in weirdness for weirdness’ sake (a dancing girl named Lil giving Chester Desmond clues, a schoolbus seemingly filled with prostitutes, flashes of the weird kid from season 2 wearing a weird mask).

By the time Lynch returns to Twin Peaks, though, it’s hard not to wish for a feature-length film about Lil giving unnecessarily obscure clues to Desmond. Part of the strength of Twin Peaks was the fact that it gave Lynch restrictions to work inside, which usually make him both more judicious and more creative (see: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr.). Without those restrictions, he gets a bit unhinged and self-indulgent, as he did with the weaker bits of Wild at Heart. There’s a lot of that here: without TV ratings to reign him in, Lynch goes over-the-top in the more violent scenes to the point of full-on grotesquerie. The relationship between Laura and James goes from the sweet-natured relationship implied in the series to something that wouldn’t seem out of place in a softcore porno. The debauchery hinted at so effectively in the series? Let’s rub our noses in it.

But where Wild at Heart at least had a loose road movie structure, Fire Walk With Me is mostly just a shapeless, unpleasant slog. It’s one scene after another of Laura being abused, Laura debasing herself, and Laura wanting to die. Sheryl Lee is fiercely committed to the role, but she’s asked far too much. Laura was a jumping off point for a story, not the story itself. Lynch deals with emotion best when he filters it through genres (noir, thriller, biopic) or abstract creations (Eraserhead). Given the chance to present a broken human being in all of her non-glory, he mostly makes Laura’s final days overwrought and exploitative. It doesn’t help that Lynch peppers it with some of his least restrained surrealist tendencies, like making creamed corn a symbol called “garmonbozia” that stands for human pain and suffering. That sounds like an exaggerated parody of Lynch’s work (take something normal and add in weird, nonsensical meaning). It’s all too real.

The film isn’t a complete turd- Angelo Badalamenti provides some strong new music, there’s a handful of effective emotional scenes (Leland bursting into tears after mistreating Laura, Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby realizing Laura uses him to get drugs), and there’s one spectacular set-piece halfway though the film as Laura, Donna, and Ronette Pulaski go to a hellish party that makes great use of Lynch’s gifts for dark atmosphere and unsettling strobe effects. Laura’s death, meanwhile, fits into Lynch’s frequent portrayals of death as a sweet escape. But mostly, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a lousy end to a great story, and the worst film of Lynch’s career. Lynch had hoped to do a couple of sequels had the film been a success. What I’m saying is that he didn’t think this one through.

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