Friday, June 23, 2017

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Introduction:

In an interview with director David Lynch he mentioned that 1992 was probably one of his lowest points of his career. The film he spent so much time and effort on completely bombed with critics and audiences. It wasn’t that people didn’t like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. They HATED it. You read some of the reviews from the time and there is some real anger in those words. People took the film very personally. They were angry at the man who forced them to look into a very disturbing and dark place.

Summary:

When a young woman is murdered in the pacific northwest the FBI sends one of their best agents to investigate… but it is not who you think. Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his partner Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) start to investigate the murder but find that it may be tied to some bizarre happenings that the FBI is already aware of. Before Desmond can make obtain a solid lead he vanishes and the case goes cold.

We then jump forward a year to follow Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) through the final days of her life. Laura is a troubled girl, popular at school and friendly to everyone in Twin Peaks. But she is also addicted to cocaine and will often degrades herself sexually. At home she is being raped by a thing she calls BOB (Frank Silva), who has been abusing her since she was twelve. Laura feels her life burning out of control, especially when she makes a horrifying realization about BOB.  We know how the story ends, and we watch as Laura is consumed by darkness leaving only the words Fire Walk with Me behind.

Good Points:
  • Creates a wonderful tone of mystery in the first third and then delves into a dark atmosphere that is filled with dread
  • Two top notch performances by Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise
  • Filled with layers and themes that build on and enhance the television series

Bad Points:
  • Anyone looking for closure to the television series will be disappointed
  • Anyone looking for some of the fun characters from the series will be disappointed
  • This is a deeply tragic and disturbing film – not a fun time here

Overall:

Judged on its own merits this is one of David Lynch’s best films. His focus on Laura Palmer and her final days is a fascinating and yet horrifying journey to take. He infuses the film with a dread and darkness that goes deeper than many other films because he uses his surreal imagery in a way that words alone can’t touch. The film is a masterpiece of using mood and visuals to create those feelings in the viewer. But it strays far from all the light and fun elements of the television series. If you don’t know that going in, the movie may feel unfair or unwanted. That said, it is nightmare journey that you won’t forget, even if you wanted to.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Laura's final days.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a study of contrasts in nearly all its aspects, including the reaction it elicits in viewers. It is a film that demands that you pay attention to all its details and yet will throw you for a complete loop while you try to make sense of them. It starts one mystery and ends a different one. It delves into horror and despair but ends with Laura smiling and laughing with tears in her eyes. It is familiar and alien together. It is pure David Lynch, but it isn’t what we asked for (even while we were complaining about his absence during season two of the television series).

I could go on like this, but you get the idea.

It is a difficult movie to watch and to examine. But I’m going to give it my best shot and forgive me if I end up rambling or twisting upon myself on a lost highway somewhere. That kind of thing happens when you discuss David Lynch.

Foreshadowing the fate of Laura.
Let’s take a look at the first part of the film, the one that may feel the most like Twin Peaks as we understood it from the television series. The film opens with what looks like a brutal attack and then cuts to a body floating in a river wrapped in plastic. We are immediately reminded of the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on the shore of a river near Pete Martell’s (Jack Nance) place. But the titles on the screen tell us that this is Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley).

Those with a keen memory to the first episode of the television’s series will remember that the murder of Teresa Banks was the case that Agent Cooper connected to the murder of Laura Palmer, leading him to believe this may be the start of a serial killing.

Sam is skeptical about his coffee.
But Fire Walk with Me gives us Agent Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley as investigators on the case. Desmond seems to be much like Cooper with a more instinctual approach to investigation. But Stanley seems to be the complete opposite Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) who’s acerbic and cynical approach in the television series was a treat. Instead Stanley often seems confused, obsessed with strange details and even a little slow to catch on to what is happening around him.

David Bowie arrives and it gets weird!
This twist continues with the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks. The town is like a bizarro-world version of Twin Peaks. The Sheriff and his staff are rude, mocking and openly resistant to working with the FBI. Hap’s Diner looks run down and owner is surly compared to the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, which always looks immaculate, and Norma (Peggy Lipton) was always helpful and had a smile for anyone who walked in.

A dirty callback to the little man in the dream.
In fact there is very little beauty in this first portion of the film. Most of what we see of the small town looks run down, filled with junk heaps and dirt. The R.V. Park where we meet the bitter and angry Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton having a good old time in the part) just looks so damn seedy. It is almost as if Lynch is going out of his way to make this look as far from Twin Peaks as possible.

But there is one element that does fit in the first third of the film, the mystery. Lynch follows Desmond and Stanley on their investigation giving us strange clues and pouring on those atmospheric touches that hint at further twisting paths in the depths of this world. Desmond becomes convinced that a ring that Teresa Banks had in a photo is a key clue. His search for the ring leads directly to his disappearance. And that ring plays a key symbolic role in Fire Walk with Me.

"Don't know where. Don't know when."
The first portion concludes with Agent Cooper discussing a dream with his supervisor Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his amusing character form the television series) and partner Rosenfeld. Suddenly a missing agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie in a short cameo) appears and tells a strange tale that we only hear fragments of. Jeffries was investigating something that is tied directly to Banks case (and eventually tied to Laura Palmer’s case as well). Cooper tries to track down Desmond’s last movements and becomes convinced that the killer will strike again.

This first third of the film feels almost like it is coming from another movie or television series focused entirely on the FBI cases surrounding the supernatural events around Twin Peaks. I really like the way it plays out, feeling off kilter enough to be tied to the same world, but also weaving a new mystery and building on a bigger picture. The moods that Lynch captures here are ones of mystery and the uncanny. Watching it now, I kind of wish the move continued along these lines, with Agent Cooper attempting to find out more about these connections and how they play into the mystery of BOB and his unusual pals who live above the convince store.

The lady with the blue rose.
I’ve read that if Fire Walk with Me was a success that Lynch wanted to create more films that followed the FBI cases and delved deeper into these “Blue Rose” cases (what I assume are Agent Coles’ version of the X-files). Sadly the film bombed and Lynch never got a chance to delve into this aspect of the film. But as it stands, it makes for an intriguing 30 minutes of viewing.

But it really is a prelude to the main story: the decay and death of Laura Palmer. That is the black heart of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and something that was also at the heart of the show. It is the portion of the film that remains longest in the memory because of the horror it delves into and the performances by the main characters in this tragic tale.

Can't you just hear the music?
Visually we are back in Twin Peaks proper. All the dust and rust of the first third of the film are replaced by the familiar suburban bliss from the television series. Favorite locales like the high school, the Double R Diner and the street in front of the Palmer home all make appearances. We also glimpse the pressure cooker on the inside of that same home, the foreboding woods outside the town and of course the Red Room where little men dance and speak backwards. It wouldn’t be Twin Peaks without that.

Moira Kelly dopplegangs Donna.
While the familiar strains of Badalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks plays, and reassures us that we are back in a comfort zone, the film refuses to give us any comfort. The first third of the film had some of that absurd humor that Lynch loves so much, but even that was on the subtle side (for Lynch anyway). Once we get to Twin Peaks itself, the humor is gone. Even when the Log Lady makes an appearance, she is solemn, almost acting as a priestesses giving Laura some kind of absolution.

It is difficult to talk about this portion of the film without some major spoilers so I’m warning you now, going forward I’m going to assume you’ve seen the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and know who killed Laura Palmer. Ok, you still here? Let’s go.

Lounging and daydreaming.
Lynch has said in interviews that what drew him to make Fire Walk with Me was the chance to see Laura Palmer alive, instead of just hearing about her from friends and family and finding out about her secrets through the lens of Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman. The first scenes featuring Laura show us at her most vibrant, meeting up with Donna (now played by Moira Kelly adding a strange surreal twist to the film and visually tying to the doppelganger concept of the final episode of season two) and going to school. In fact almost all those scenes at school show us the fa├žade of Laura Palmer and the cracks showing underneath. Lynch doesn’t waste any time delving into the darkness of Laura as she sneaks into the bathroom for a quick snort of coke.

Laura sees the man who is the mask.
Right there the movie lays the cards on the table. The mystery of Laura Palmer was going to be revealed, all of it in unflinching detail. We see her drug addiction, her sexual debasement, her rape by BOB, and under all of it the young girl who is sinking under all the darkness within her. This is Sheryl Lee’s performance becomes crucial. If she didn’t convince us, then the movie falls apart. But Lee goes all in with her performance. It is hard to watch her at times because the pain and fear look so real. She’s said that she loved the final result of her performance, but that making the film was a very difficult experience. It comes across in this powerful performance, and gets right to the heart of what Lynch wants to explore in the film.

Matching her is Ray Wise playing her father Leland Palmer. Wise did a very fine job in the television series as he took the journey from grieving father, to vengeful killer, to shattered man and finally to a broken wreck of a human begging for absolution from Agent Cooper as he dies knowing that he murdered his own daughter.

Ray Wise makes this scene very uncomfortable.
In Fire Walk with Me Wise captures the two sides of Leland Palmer, the protective but loving father and the predatory beast that controls his house with fear and oppression. There is a powerful scene where Leland verbally abuses and intimidates Laura at the dinner table. Wise is disturbing in this sequence, his eyes burning with a mixture of animal lust and aggression as he berates Laura and manhandles her in front of his wife. In a scene that follows we see him in his bedroom with his wife, and that aggression melts away and the realization of what he did and said comes across his face. The horror and anguish is palatable as he goes to Laura and apologizes to her. Wise’s performance is pitch perfect, and just adds to the horror of the situation.

But what is the situation. You can debate it forever, and Lynch never gives a solid answer. Is Leland Palmer a mentally unstable man, who descends into rages that cause him to rape his daughter and drive him to kill? Was this persona of BOB something that Laura constructed subconsciously so she could deal with the abuse going on at home? Or is Leland a victim too, controlled by the malevolent force that is BOB to do these unspeakable acts?

If a little man from another place offers you a ring...
Do. Not. Take. It!
Lynch has said that BOB and many of the characters like him in his other films (the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, the cowboy in Mulholland Drive to name a couple) are “abstractions”. He doesn’t ever clarify what that means exactly, but I feel that they are physical manifestations of emotions and thoughts projected out from the characters. These abstractions seem to feed on and build more of the same emotions. Are they actual characters in themselves? Hard to say. When it comes to Twin Peaks, it does seem like these abstractions have a life of their own and can exist outside of the human characters.

BOB hangs up his mask.
In the series it is implied that BOB has attached himself to Leland for many years, and we see that dark side very clearly in Fire Walk with Me. It is very possible that BOB saw the potential for these acts in a young Leland and has been nurturing them over time. But the horror is that you can’t have one with out the other. Leland is BOB on some level and BOB is a part of Leland. Yes BOB rapes and murders Laura, but so does Leland. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to absolve Leland for his actions and blame it all on BOB.

The other piece of the puzzle that comes across several times in the dialogue is that BOB wants to take Laura as his next host. He’s grown tired or indulging Leland’s dark side and he want to taste that darkness as Laura. What we see of Laura in this film we understand how that darkness manifests within her. If BOB was to take and augment that further… I shudder to think.

Last Log Lady Rites.
Laura fears this above everything else. That fear is what drives her in most of the film. It is why she struggles so violently in her life. She tries to do good deeds, like work on the Meals on Wheels project. She’s a model citizen in Twin Peaks and everyone loves her. But in her mind that mask is slipping and once her defenses break she will become BOB’s new toy.

The real sadness of the film is watching her fall further and further into despair. No matter what she does it only seems to make things worse. She falls further and further into the darkness and this only make BOB hunger for her more. Self destruction seems to be the only way to truly escape from all of this.

No angel can save Laura now.
Fire Walk with Me ends as it must, with Laura being brutally murdered by her father/BOB. She won’t let BOB in, and in his rage he destroys her. Laura is hopeless as she dies, with the visual motif of guardian angels vanishing from her sight implying the finality of her fate. It’s a crushing sequence that Lee and Wise play so well, but as with much of the film, it is difficult to watch such a bitter and dark climax.

Then there is the epilogue in the Red Room, with Laura and Agent Cooper talking. She seems to have reached some kind of acceptance of what happened to her, and at that moment the angel reappears before her, and she laughs and cries at the same time. You can read this ending in so many ways, as a final bleak FUCK YOU to Laura or as a bit of hope that her soul and her life were not wasted. I’m sure if you asked Lynch, he’d be more interested in your interpretation of the ending then telling you anything about it himself.

Blue Laura laughing in the Red Room.
I’ve only focused on the main conflict and relationship in Fire Walk with Me, but there are plenty of other interesting elements to dive into. Hell I could write another ten pages or so about the other abstractions in the film, the interplay between Laura and her peers, the way her mother relates to the events in the film and how Teresa Banks plays into the whole thing. I could go into some of the production problems Lynch faced (including cast members that didn’t want to come back and footage that was shot but never used). I could also go into how those production issues forced Lynch to make some very creative and interesting solutions that impact the film overall. But as interesting as all those rabbit holes are (and their fascinating imagery too) they serve to support the focus on Laura’s final desperate battle.

Your abstractions just arrived.
I think that Fire Walk with Me represents a major turning point in David Lynch’s approach to storytelling. In nearly all his films afterward (with the exception being The Straight Story) Lynch tells his stories out of narrative order, allowing the emotions of the characters to dictate the flow of the film and often manifest as abstractions. We see elements of these in his previous films, but Fire Walk with Me feels like the first complete manifestation of this approach to storytelling, and it may be his most approachable of those types of films. It is certainly the least oblique, which is saying something.

"Fire... walk... with... me... ME!"
But I wouldn’t recommend this film to a Lynch neophyte. While it is a prequel to Twin Peaks to really appreciate the full impact of the film, you need to watch the first two seasons of the show. And obviously even those who have watched the series ended up disliking the film.

I can see why. In many ways it feels like a harsh slap in the face. The movie is aggressive in its approach to the darkness of the soul. It is also aggressive in its use of symbolism and abstractions. It never tells its story simply or in clear terms. It focuses on mood and atmosphere as much as narrative. It can feel insane, pretentious and just plain pointless.

Fire Walk with Me is not a fun movie to watch. It is heartbreaking and painful. As you unwrap its secrets you see more darkness in the core, and yet it is still beguiling. That is the magic of Lynch’s skill in the filmmaking. If you are in tune with how he tells stories, then the film is a journey worth taking again and again. It is fascinating and horrifying all together, just like Laura Palmer.

The angel returns.
In the scope of the Twin Peaks saga it is an essential tale, that adds to the world crafted in the television series. If a fan of the television show can get past the initial slap in the face, they will find plenty to explore. In the scope of Lynch’s films, this may be one of his best all around productions. Personally I enjoy the ride along the Lost Highway a bit more, but I can’t deny that the emotional impact of Fire Walk with Me may be his most effective.


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Laura lost.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Exploring a Scene – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

David Lynch is one of those directors who makes use of just about every film making element to create maximum impact in a scene. I’m going to take a look at a scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, because I don’t think it has been discussed too much, and because I had to remove this part from my already long review of the film.

The scene that interests me is the opening titles for the film. Yeah it is mostly music over a slow pull back camera move. But it shows off many of the elements that make a typical David Lynch scene, including the multiple layers of meaning the simple scene takes on.


The first thing we see is a wash of blue, grey and black motion all across the screen. It isn’t immediately obvious what we are seeing, but as the camera begins its slow pull back we see that we are looking at a television showing a screen full of static. It is an interesting choice that we are seeing blue static, not grey or white static as we expect to see on a blank screen. The color blue has a deep significance for Lynch. A blue rose appears later in the film. Electricity is specifically mentioned and in other Lynch films blue lighting and electricity go hand in hand. I usually interpret this to mean that blue and "abstractions" are tied in his films. We are getting into a case tied to the supernatural or to put it in Lynch terms, the abstractions are taking over. 


Now let’s take a listen to the music. Angelo Badalamenti’s score plays a slow paced saxophone lead piece. We aren’t hearing any familiar music from the TwinPeaks television series. This is a new piece of music that is filled with a melancholy feel. But it is still done in the jazzy style that Badalamenti crafted for the series.


Even something as simple as the lettering in the credits is unfamiliar. Gone is the brown outlined with green from the television series. Instead it is white and tilted slightly. We are not getting what we expected visually or aurally.

Then there is sudden eruption of sound. A woman in distress, a brutal male grunting, and the television is smashed by a blow from an axe and the woman cries out in terror as the screen goes dark. What does it all mean?


The next shot mirrors the iconic opening sequence of the television series, where we see a body floating down a river - a body wrapped in plastic. At this point the viewer may be wondering if we are seeing a sequel, or a prequel. Is that Laura Palmer? No. The subtitle appears to tell us this is Teresa Banks, and this is all foreshadowing to the fate of Laura.


From the entire opening credit sequence, you can read a couple layers beyond simple foreshadowing. Twin Peaks the television series is gone, nothing but static. The axe crashing down gives that a further finality (Twin Peaks the television series is dead). It also implies that this film is going to smash through the barriers of the televisions series and go somewhere else. Where? The screams of horror and the violence we hear are the hints. This movie is going to a dark violent place that the television series could never go. The melancholy music hints at the tragedy that is going to unfold. 

But the next shot tells us this is all familiar and yet not what we expected at all.




All this from a simple opening credits sequence and a single shot.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: She is filled with secrets…

Can't you just hear the music now?
With a new season of Twin Peaks rolling out in 2017, I figured I’d jump in with some nostalgic thoughts about the series. I also realized that for being such a big fan of David Lynch, I’ve written precious little about his work on this site.

I admit, part of it is intimidation. Dissecting the multiple layers of his work is a daunting task. But it is one of the reasons I enjoy watching his films so much. I figure that Twin Peaks is a good place to start. Since this blog focuses mainly on movies, I’m not going to do a full series review. I’d be too tempted to do an episode-by-episode breakdown, and I’m sure there are other sites out there that can provide more insight than I can. I will review Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in the future. So I might as well talk a little bit about my first experience with David Lynch’s groundbreaking show.

The mystery that started it all.
Here is a quick summary for anyone who isn’t familiar with the series. It takes place in a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest called Twin Peaks. The homecoming queen’s body washes up on shore wrapped in plastic. Her death devastates the town. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) arrives to help solve the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). During his stay he meets all kinds of colorful characters who may or may not be involved in the crime. There are also a bunch of side stories unspooling involving various relationships, some other criminal activities and small town shenanigans. The more that Cooper and Sherriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) uncover the more complicated the case becomes. It becomes apparent that some kind of supernatural force is at work in Twin Peaks and that killing will not stop until it is confronted. But finding the nature of this force and the best way to stop it is one mystery that may never be solved.

Helpful townsfolk, good thing. Fish flavored
coffee, bad thing.
I came the party late. While Twin Peaks was all the rage I was trying to survive the jungles of high school. I didn’t watch much television at the time, spending more time hanging out with my friends, working at the video store and doing homework. Sure I heard about the show, and the famous tagline “Who killed Laura Palmer?” But the whole concept just didn’t’ grab me at all. At that point I had seen two David Lynch films: Dune which I enjoyed (and still do) and The Elephant Man which I saw as a little kid an it scared the hell out of me.

I really didn’t get into full David Lynch fandom until college, especially when I saw Lost Highway in theaters and it blew my mind. But I’ll save that for another post. After that experience, I searched the video store for everything Lynch related and watched all of his work I could get my hands on over the course of a year or so.

Father and daughter can't see eye to eye.
So for my first viewing of Twin Peaks was after all the hype died, and after the backlash that savaged Fire Walk with Me was forgotten by most folks. I watched the pilot episode that was the movie version released in Europe. This two-hour “movie” included an ending where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman catch up with Killer Bob (Frank Silva) and he admits to the murder. It is a strange surreal sequence (I will probably repeat that phrase quite a bit when discussing David Lynch films) that does give the movie an ending, but it was something that Lynch never intended as the true ending of the series. When the series was broadcast and rebroadcast, the movie ending was never shown. For many years, the only way you could see it was on that old VHS tape.

"Some day, my log will have something to say
about all this." 
I remember watching the pilot and being fascinated by the unusual characters, the way you get a real sense of place while watching the series, and dark mystery entwining everything. Mystery is a key element in all of Lynch’s work, and in Twin Peaks it is at its most accessible (especially that first season).

There was also a lot of humor in the show, and much of it just a little bit off. These days the humor in Twin Peaks is something that doesn’t seem so strange. Offbeat and absurd humor has permeated the television landscape. But back in the 1990s most television humor was of the sitcom variety, especially when this series first aired.

I watched all of the first season very quickly. When that final cliffhanger hit at the very end, I was dying to know what happened next. Lynch and Frost had managed to put every character into come kind of massive moral quandary or mortal peril. It was the ultimate soap opera season finale.

The trip into the Red Room continues.
There was only one little problem; the video store I worked at didn’t have the second season. I had picked up a book called Lynch on Lynch that covered some of the second season plot lines. It was very bare bones, and in a way that might have been a detriment, because I imaged something quite different from what I finally saw.

But I was able to watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. By this point I had seen Lynch’s work up to that film, so Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway were seared in my mind. Fire Walk with Me felt like a natural extension of those films, so stylistically it didn’t feel like such a vastly different thing. But the plot and extremely dark undercurrent to the film was deeply troubling. It felt like Twin Peaks but viewed threw a very dark lens (which makes sense considering you are following a very troubled woman through her final hours of life).

Agent Cooper's long walk begins.
The movie really disturbed me, more than any other film of Lynch’s. I admired and was a bit put off by the film all at once. I haven’t revisted Fire Walk with Me very often over the years because of those feelings.

I finally got around to seeing season two of Twin Peaks when it was released on DVD many years later. I went back and viewed the whole series over a month or so. I had to watch the pilot on VHS again (the original DVD release of the first season didn’t include the pilot for legal reasons). It was a fun trip diving back into that world, and enjoying so much of the first season again.

It all comes full circle.
What clicks so well about that first season for me is the delicate balance it strikes. Lynch adds that layer of dark mystery to the whole tone of the show and that first season really carries it until the final episode of the season. But the mix of colorful characters and absurd humor works too. Those characters get just enough screen time to make things fun. No one forgets the Log Lady once they’ve seen her. Most of the lighter moments don’t outstay their welcome and feel like they add to the overall atmosphere of place in the series. Then you get the final element of satire around the tropes created and perpetuated by evening soap operas. It is a crazy concoction that shouldn’t work but Frost and Lynch really manage to pull it off. Twin Peaks in its first season is a place you’d like to visit, as long as you stayed away from the woods.

Double R Diner is double cute!
Season two is the very definition of mixed bag. It has some strong episodes at the start and the end of the season, but the middle is a mish mash of tonal incongruities, aimless story arcs and character moments that never come together. Gone from the middle of the season is the dark sense of mystery and it is replaced by strange to be strange. I know a lot of folks accuse Lynch for doing that all the time. But I disagree. The imagery in a David Lynch production always feels like it follows a dream logic of some kind. Especially when you see more of his work, you spot trends in those images and they create a language that makes sense. In season two, we lose that language and stuff just happens because someone thought, “well this is Twin Peaks so any old strangeness will work”.

The humor goes from absurd to just being silly at times. Pulling off absurd humor is tough and requires an ability to see things in a fractured but humorous lens. Instead we get humor that is kind of dumb and falling in along those more traditional sitcom tropes. Also they end up beating a joke to death a few too many times. Season two had a rough production history  with Lynch have very limited involvement. Some of that was bound to impact the final product.

Sadly, Earle is rarely this calm.
Then there is Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). When you first hear hints and whispers about him early in season two, it sounds like the set up for something really interesting. He was Agent Cooper’s old mentor and partner at the FBI, but something snapped within the man and he killed a few people and attempted to take Cooper down too. Cooper describes him as a genius of cold calculating intellect. Pitting him against Coopers more intuitive powers of investigation would have been a real duel of minds.

When Earle shows up it is like the writers forgot all the set up for the character and turned him into an over the top mad man who is anything but cold and calculating. A few episodes he is directed to go over the top with ridiculous disguises and crazy antics. They tone him down a little bit over time, but the set up for this character and the execution couldn’t be further off. I don’t blame Welsh for the issue, he’s a fine actor. I just think the writing and directing of his episodes had a very different idea in mind for the character than the one Lynch hinted at in his episodes. It was a real disappointment to me on the first viewing of Season Two and one of its biggest missed opportunities.

The final episode of Twin Peaks second season has Lynch back in the helm. He takes a similar approach to the one he did for the season one finale. He drives all the key characters to extreme moral quandaries or mortal peril. He places the beloved Agent Cooper deep in the heart of the darkest depths of Twin Peaks and leaves him there. He takes that cliffhanger trope and pushes it hard into Lynchland territory. It is a beautiful thing.

You got a little something there on (in) your head Coop.
Nearly a third of the final episode takes place in the bizarre and disturbing Red Room. Cooper faces himself (literally), the Killer Bob, the small dancing Man from Another Place, Leland Palmer and Laura Palmer. The dead speak (backwards) the heavy red curtains blow in a breeze, and nothing feels safe. It certainly foreshadows the tone of Fire Walk with Me in many ways.

I can see how this episode grabbed some viewers and completely alienated others. It becomes very obvious what Lynch liked about working on Twin Peaks and what other elements didn’t interest him. He liked playing with the television format. He liked telling continuous stories. He liked diving into the dark elements of the characters, but also highlighting the absurdity of their lives. But he didn’t have time for some of the silliness that surrounded some of the plot lines. Especially in that odd and explosive way he handles Audrey and Pete in the bank.

To end a show like that was going to only leave people feeling angry, especially the ones that had hung in there through the middle of the second season when it felt like the wheels were just spinning and we weren’t getting anywhere terribly interesting.

Twin Peaks on DVD! Cooper thinks it is damn fine.
So maybe this third season of Twin Peaks will give some closure to those final mysteries. It will certainly give a chance to revisit this very unique and special place and meet up with some of these infamous characters. But with Lynch going solo in the director’s chair I get the feeling this will be a much darker and surreal journey this time around. David Lynch has transformed quite a bit as a filmmaker since the second season of the series. And Fire Walk with Me is an indication of just where the third season may end up. I’m fine with it, but others may find it all a bit too dark.


In any case, I urge anyone who is interested to at least check out the first season of Twin Peaks if they haven’t seen it before. It is really an entertaining series, especially if you are familiar with those old evening dramas from the 1980s. And the music… damn…

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Movie Musing: The (sur)real appeal of David Lynch

It is like he's trying to tell us something...
A friend of mine once called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me one of the most bloated and pretentious films he’d ever seen. Being a big fan of David Lynch’s work I had to disagree with him. But the thing is, I completely understand why he feels that way.

At the risk of sounding pretentious myself (I know, way too late for that), David Lynch’s films are not for everyone. I think the angry reaction that comes from many viewers toward his films is that they feel stupid for not understanding the film. I don’t think it is David Lynch’s intent to make anyone feel stupid. All the interviews I’ve ever read or seen show a man who is not full of himself, or thinking he is God’s gift to film. He seems like a genuine guy who has a very particular (and peculiar) outlook on life. The thing is, there are two key elements to David Lynch that explain his film making techniques. He distrusts words and he loves mysteries

What are words for?

I don't think Henry is quite sure what it all means either.
David Lynch was a painter before he was a filmmaker. It was out of a desire to make one of his paintings move that he picked up a camera. Lynch comes from a background of visual arts first, and often speaks of his inability to articulate concepts using words. He feels that words often diminish things, especially emotions. To Lynch only a gifted poet or lyricist can do them true justice.

This means that Lynch doesn’t put any particular weight into the actual words his characters are saying. The script is a framework and source for the ideas the film will become. It is not the end product. To paraphrase Lynch, if the script was the end product then you could release that and be done with it.

One of the strangest conversations in sci-fi cinema.
Things start with the script, but Lynch will often allow his actors to improvise, suggest other courses of action or reaction and even take accidents that occur on the set and turn them into key moments in his film. The character of Killer BOB in Twin Peaks only occurred because of a series of accidents during filming. Frank Silva happened to be reflected in a mirror during filming a crucial scene and Lynch used that as the kernel for creating this abstraction of a character.

So if Lynch isn’t concerned about keeping to the script, how is he approaching filmmaking? His background as a painter means that he focuses on visuals first. Lynch has a very particular way of lighting scenes, staging them and using framing and camera movement. He deals in visual contrasts, often with shadows and colors. Most scenes in a Lynch film are set up to have some kind of visual impact, or to hint at a mood.

One hell of a road trip, or a road trip into hell?
Mood is the key word for David Lynch. More important than the words being spoken is the mood the scene creates, the emotions that are running underneath. Lynch uses his actors, set and camera work to create the mood and atmospheres he is going for. He uses pacing and editing to continue to develop those feelings. Lynch’s films can move at a slow pace, but often this is done to create a feeling of unease or tension. There will be strange pauses in conversation, giving the viewer the feeling that something isn’t right.

Something is about to go very wrong.
Another key element of his films is the approach to sound. With Eraserhead (and his student films before) sound is used to create atmospheres and textures in the world of the film. Lynch wants the sounds to evoke feelings and tensions on their own and building on the performances and visuals. Lynch isn’t going for realism – ever. All of his films occur in their own worlds, dreamworlds maybe, that have their own feel. He is working with fiction and is using all the tools in his command to put you into that fiction.

The final key element is the music. Lynch loves music and uses it to great effect in his films. Perhaps his most successful use of score and songs is for the stories set in Twin Peaks. The score by Angelo Badalementi is so unique and specific to that place that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else. Add to that the songs performed by Julee Cruise and it adds to the idea that Twin Peaks is a fleshed out place.

Definitely one hell of a road trip.
One thing I rarely hear commented about when it comes to music in a David Lynch film is his ability to pick just the right song for just the right moment. He is up there with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino in that regard. In Twin Peaks you have Julee Cruise’s ethereal voice. But Blue Velvet takes Roy Orbison’s In Dreams and turns it into nightmare fuel. I love David Bowie’s voice in the darkness singing how he is Deranged during the opening credits to Lost Highway. Even something as odd as taking Roy Orbison’s Crying translating it into Spanish and having Rebekah Del Rio belt it out a cappella fits that key scene in Mulholland Drive so perfectly, I can’t imagine it any other way. Lynch really understands how these songs can act beyond the surface needs of a scene and provide additional layers to the film.

A phone call you don't want to get.
All these things feel effortless when you watch a David Lynch film, and yet they are all carefully managed, as much as the performances from his cast. But because he puts so much care into each of these, and combines them with his focus on visuals he crafts something that we just don’t see too much of in big budget Hollywood films – mood and atmosphere.

Because Lynch doesn’t trust words to deliver what he wants in a scene, he relies heavily on creating and manipulating the mood of scenes. That is why a character can be saying one thing, but the deep rumble just barely audible to us, the way the shadows are oozing into the frame and the way the curtain is moving slightly behind her and those too ruby red lips all point to something else, something hidden and secret.

Mysteries of Love?

You want to see the man behind the mask?
David Lynch was once asked why he used so much black in his paintings. He said that he loves shadows and darkness because you can suggest something without really showing it. It creates a mystery and the person looking at the art will want to solve it.

Most of Lynch films work on the same principle. They all have some kind of mystery at the core and Lynch invites you to step up and dive into the mystery. He suggests many things using all the elements of filmmaking. But he trusts his viewers to absorb and feel the film, and to enjoy the dark mysteries within.

Is that really a mystery you want to uncover?
From Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me forward, Lynch’s films seem to be about simple personal issues. For example you could say that Lost Highway is the exploration of a man whose anger and jealousy drive him to terrible acts and that the film pushes deep into his mind as he tries to sort out how he could have allowed those feelings to destroy everything around him. It is the way Lynch tells that simple story that makes it more interesting, and I’d argue more impactful.

As a viewer you are actively participating in the film. You are taking in those moods created by visuals, sounds and music. You are untangling the mystery. You are participating in the film. Because of that, the film can then strike deeper than a more traditional narrative. Fire Walk with Me deals with such dark and disturbing things and it really hits me each time I watch it. I always wonder at how strong that reaction is, when you look at the surface elements of the film it can seem like a mess. But fused together all those things create a very haunting film.

I like to remember things in my own way…

Agent Cooper and Audrey with some coffee talk.
Of course, the mystery element doesn’t work for everyone. The clues that Lynch leaves in his movies come across like taunts. The performances seem too bizarre to be relatable. The artificial nature of the lighting, the pacing and the music annoy instead of attract. Some people just find the whole exercise as futile at best and frustrating at worst.

I think the logical mind starts demanding that symbolism and narrative have clear structures and goals. Logic is black and white. No room for suggestion.

If you understand that Lynch is going for that then you might be more open to his approach. I see many people say his work doesn’t make any sense. But I disagree. His films follow a path. It may not be recognizable at first, but it is one that you feel not think about. You follow the moods and emotions of the scenes, not the structure of the script. You start to see patterns in his images, in his music, in his scenes. You start to see that strange acting choices Naomi Watts makes in one part of Mulholland Drive make sense with what happens after she opens that blue box near the end of the film.

Trapped in an abstraction? The color blue may be a key.
You also have to understand that Lynch uses characters he calls “abstractions”. These characters are often unique in appearance and speech. The score and sounds cape will change when they are around. These are not actual human characters, but usually some kind of physical manifestation of an emotion or inner conflict. Lynch has been using them since Eraserhead and often they can add a layer of confusion to the narrative because they seem like they walked in from a dream.

Going deeper into the Inland Empire.
I love the surreal touch the “abstractions” add to his films. It is one of the big draws to me in regards to David Lynch’s style. Very few people can execute that uncanny dream style like Lynch does. His films feel like anything is possible, because there is an element of uncertainly to them. It was one of the reasons I was disappointed to the dream worlds created by Nolan in Inception, they were too structured, too clean. Dreams are messy filled with mystery and uncertainty.

So I get why some people don’t like his work. That’s fine. I just get annoyed when they write it off as pretentious and nonsensical. There is meaning in his films, they are trying to make us feel something and understand something, and they are using nontraditional methods to do that, because to Lynch the impact is greater if the message isn’t delivered by words, but by getting you to feel what the characters are feeling. If the approach doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. But don’t slam it because of that.

The Sleeper has Awoken

Dream or abstraction? Maybe both...
One more thing I love about David Lynch’s films is seeing the craft on display. When I see a filmmaker who not only understands all the tools at his disposal, but uses all of them and with such skill I can’t help but be impressed. I also love the mysteries he presents in his films. I want to go down those rabbit holes and dig into the moods and atmospheres as well as his eclectic characters. He captures the feeling of a dream world and dream logic that I have rarely experienced in film. That feeling of the uncanny, the familiar but alien, is something that seems easy to pull off when Lynch does it.

So, yeah, David Lynch is making art films. But I don’t think he’s trying to confuse or aggravate people. He is telling stories in a unique way and one that I find completely absorbing and intriguing. That is why I have a space for him on my shelf right next to other filmmakers I admire like Kurosawa, Spielberg, Kon, Fincher and Miyazaki.

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