Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Tender Boughs of Innocence Burn First: TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME

gotta/enk cohort Patrick Shearer wants all his garmonbozia (pain and sorrow). Write it in your diary.

For my money, cinematic horror is most effective when it takes a metaphor and makes it a tangible part of the world it’s depicting. George Romero’s lost, consumerist zombies returning to wander the malls of America until they rot in Dawn of the Dead. The rage babies of Cronenberg’s The Brood. Or the embodiment of "the evil that men do" known only as BOB, a creature that feeds on pain and sorrow, possessing his victims through years of molestation and incestuous sex in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

David Lynch’s films chart that twilight zone where the real gradually fades into the surreal, using keenly observed human behavior, often pushed to the edge of absurdity, and stringing it all together with the threads of dream logic. Many don’t think of his work as pure horror, but as a teenager -- supposedly the same age as Laura Palmer and her friends -- it sure registered as horror to me, and inspired some of the most chilling night terrors of my life. Anyone who’s gotten too close to their unconscious mind will know that horror is always within reach.

Yet Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was a box office and critical failure when it was released to the public in 1992, even booed by its initial audience at Cannes, and it’s not terribly difficult to see why. The first fifteen minutes of Fire Walk With Me are spent in a sinister analog of the town of Twin Peaks, not the town that viewers came to know and love over the course of 30 episodes. And there aren’t ANY characters (other than Lynch himself as hearing-impaired FBI Regional Chief Gordon Cole) with which the fans had become familiar during that time. For those who saw the film in theaters expecting it to pick up where the finale of the show left off, this made for a deeply confusing start. 

Lynch diligently defies series fans’ expectations, focusing instead on the initial (and central) mystery that started it all in the first place: the final days in the life, and brutal death, of Laura Palmer. Some fans of the show felt Lynch was covering ground already well-trod by the series itself, while doing away with the quirky, soap-operatic tone of the weekly show and replacing it with the high stakes, life-and-death struggle of a promiscuous, drug-addled teenager in an increasingly confusing and dangerous world. Where’s the fun in that? 

Lynch sees Laura Palmer as the epitome of the tragic heroine, a beautiful young girl barely keeping her head above the rising tide, unable to connect with anyone around her, and unable to arrest her momentum. There’s a sense of mounting dread throughout the film because we all know how this story ends -- in her brutal murder at the hands of her incestuous father. And Lynch doesn’t pull his punches. The climax of the story is as bloody and disturbing as any slasher film.  

Perhaps the show’s audience had forgotten, or had never experienced, Frank Booth’s mix of violence and sexual perversity in Blue Velvet. Perhaps they hadn’t bothered to see Wild at Heart when it came out in 1990, while Twin Peaks was still on the air. Or maybe they’d just hoped that someone would be there to temper Lynch’s natural inclinations toward the brutal and the uncanny, as series co-creator Mark Frost had been. Within its two-hour plus running time, Lynch hones in on the main themes of the Twin Peaks story in its purest form -- a town so caught up in its own mysteries that it can’t protect its most beloved and innocent members from what goes on behind closed doors.

When Twin Peaks first aired, I was thirteen years old and still in that zone just across the line in pubescence, living in a body that seemed foreign to me. It was conceivable that I could -- seemingly after a single night’s sleep -- be transformed into something else entirely. I was a small adult, trying to navigate a world I was sure I understood, yet I kept running into circumstances that would change without warning, suddenly seeming alien and occult, and people around me accepted them without question.

To say that I boarded Lynch's train at the exact right time is an understatement. 

But Laura was already gone by the time I first met her on television. She was dead, wrapped in plastic -- no longer a girl, just a mystery. To return to Twin Peaks on the big screen -- to watch in terrified fascination as she came to her brutal end -- was a deeply disturbing experience made all the more effective by a tremendous performance by Sheryl Lee. Lee has committed to moments of abject terror that bring on goosebumps just remembering them. She has the ability to inhabit the full range of the emotional spectrum, and still making you feel that every moment is fraught with meaning and hidden portents, just as any teenager on hormonal overdrive knows it is. Watch the scene between she and Lenny Von Dohlen as Harold Smith, and see the terror in her face after her own minor transformation when she recites the title of the film. Or the look of abject terror in her eyes every time she interacts with her father (the brilliantly creepy Ray Wise). This is a performance in which you think the stakes can’t get any higher, and then they do. The material never would have worked without an actress willing to put herself through emotional hell.  

What captured my imagination, and what found its way into my nightmares, were those sudden immediate transformations and the juxtaposition of interior and exterior. From a young age, I suffered from nightmares in which I knew that my parents -- the only buffer I had between myself and the mysteries of the outside world -- were actually aliens, or pod people, but definitely NOT my parents, and I could never prove it to anyone because the only way I knew it was by their changed behavior.

So the image of Leland and BOB sharing a body (and BOB’s desperate wish to BE Laura Palmer by being inside of her), of the old man in the hotel and the Giant in Cooper’s vision being the same entity, of the deep woods that transform into the red-draped interior of the Red Room, of the strange Man From Another Place who it’s inferred is actually MIKE’s missing arm, all made sense on a deep level AND still terrified me. On-screen we see primal energies manifesting in our everyday world, pre-cursored by the smell of burning oil, of flashes of electricity and light (the image of electrical current even shows up in the zig-zag, white and black pattern that makes up the floor of the Red Room). We see objects that are both one thing and something entirely different at the same time. Lynch’s obsession with duality (the show is called Twin Peaks, for God’s sake) is finally fully illustrated in the form of doppelgangers -- the terrifying, white-eyed, chaotic-evil twins of characters we see in the finale of the series -- that inhabit the Black Lodge. We see the effortless swapping of identities, where people can go to sleep one person and wake up another, and where there’s no outward indication that anything has changed. Except their behavior.

The ending of Fire Walk With Me is rough -- one of the most harrowing, brutal and lonely stretches of film I’ve ever seen. In the end, even Laura’s guardian angel abandons her. 

Log Lady (to Laura Palmer): “When this kind of fire starts it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first and the wind rises and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”

And that's how it feels to us, and to our memories of being a teenager -- not just that our own goodness is in jeopardy, but that ALL goodness is in jeopardy.

There is a concept in Western Ceremonial Magic where, before one can be pronounced a Master of the Temple, the magician must cross the abyss -- the gulf that exists between the phenomenal world of manifestation and its opposite. To make the crossing, he or she must say goodbye to their Guardian Angel -- their higher self, or guide --  and travel alone to the other side. If one fails the challenge, one remains in the abyss, wandering in darkness. If one succeeds, they are rejoined by their guardian on the other side and they continue along the path.

The final sequence of the film is of Laura in the Red Room, looking older than we’ve ever seen her; a grown woman. In my imagination, she’s been caught in the Red Room with Agent Cooper for some time (though time in the Lodges doesn’t work the same as it does outside, as evidenced by the varying states of solidity of Cooper’s cup of coffee.) In Agent Cooper, Laura’s finally found someone that can understand (and genuinely wants to know) her story. Cooper can see it from all angles just as she herself has experienced it, with an open heart but without the lingering social ties of shame and fear. His particular talent as an investigator, a blend of both his powerful mental acuity and his deep, mystical connection to a spiritual path make him the perfect witness to the strange events of her life and its final moment. And with that sharing of her experience, her guardian angel/her luck/her grace returns and frees her from her imprisonment in the Red Room. We get to see her face, bathed in light, as she smiles and laughs with relief and pure joy. 

In Lynch’s Twin Peaks, there is no Final Girl. But that moment of joy seems to free Laura Palmer from loneliness and the grief that came before. There is, if nothing else, a respite from horror. One wonders if that’s simply David Lynch longing to bring her some modicum of relief for all he’s put her through.

Now if we could just find out what happens to Agent Cooper...

No comments:

Post a Comment