Criterion's 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' Is a Semiotic Feast
Sheryl Lee's iconic performance as Laura Palmer evokes epic sorrow and haunting tragedy.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Criterion Edition is a must-have for fans of David Lynch and Twin Peaks. The devil is in the details, quite literally, when it comes to the art packaging presentation. Fans of the show's mythology will recognize and savor every visual morsel even before inserting the single disc. The inner cover displays the singular doorway featured in the painting given to Laura by Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont (Francis Bay). Upon unfolding the inside casing, the backdrop offers a low-res matte finish of the Black Lodge supernaturals that occupy themselves above the liminal gas station. An accompanying booklet is marked on the cover by a burning blue rose, the harbinger of mystery itself, a MacGuffin to the nature of inquiry. The backside of the booklet features the white marble statue slowly singing within the notorious red room. Within the pages, Criterion reprints the Chris Rodley's interview from his book, Lynch on Lynch. The disc itself is marked by the owl ring symbol, a circular object that fits through the finger of its holder. Indeed, the disc represents a transportation vessel, the likes of which will leave viewers shaken.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – A Fractured Film or Inverted Fairy Tale?
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me ignites slowly, jazzily, with an effigy to its own televisual cancellation. The blue-grey out of focus image of a seedy motel TV set slowly burns, its tragic glow the backlighting to the pre-film credits. The jazz score harkens back to the noir films and new wave minimalism that impacts Lynch's cinematic style and iconography. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me marks the beginning of Lynch's career-defining obsession with fragmented narrative, a technique that fractures just as audiences settle into its mystic mood. Like the beloved Twin Peaks TV series, compromised from the get go with studio interference and regulatory broadcast standards, the opening act features a now cult-classic performance by folk rock singer Chris Isaak. Isaak plays FBI agent Chet Desmond, retrofitted moody noir precursor (and production replacement) for Kyle MacLachlan's sunny side up Dale Cooper.
The 4K digital transfer lightens up several scenes entirely. For example, in an early sequence Desmond lands in Oregon and then drives up to the Deer Meadow Sheriff's Station. The 4K restoration is decidedly brighter than a previous version of the film I screened. Case in point, in light of Twin Peaks: The Return, much of the mysterious first act feels retroactively humorous, rather than dirty, twisted, and darkly ominous. Scenes glide almost too cleanly, having lost the transfer mud that gives pre-Criterion screenings more of a snuff film reel feel. The upgraded resolution impacts the emotional experience of the film, which cuts slightly against Lynch's wrenching film sound audio manipulations.
Hap's Diner remains an unexplored corner of the Twin Peaks universe. There are serious suggestions that all diners are haunted by one toxic manifestation or another—past, present, future, or alternate dimensions considered. Much of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me feels so experimental for a cinema feature filmed as a liminal product between indie family drama and surrealist horror. I would suggest that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me remains one of the most emotionally devastating tales of American Gothic horror, a surrealist neo-noir that refuses to let up on audiences until the final rapturous curtain call.
The visage of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is beautifully restored in this version. It's heartbreaking to think that her career may have sidetracked if not derailed to a certain extent, at least on a mainstream level, due to alienation caused by her full commitment to the tragic embodiment of Laura within this performance. Lee/Laura's devastating descent is a game-changer, so bleak one can barely stomach it. Lynch finds it essential to put the audience through her emotional journey, which wades into an abyss she (arguably) will not return from. Combined with Lynch's patented slow pacing—especially rounding corners with the camera representing first person perspective—it's understandable how turned off critics and audiences were in 1992. As a cinema feature, there's no way in which the film makes sense to view as a singular experience outside of its larger TV canon.
In light of Showtime's 18-hour experience with Twin Peaks: The Return, when re-watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me it loses some of its haunted qualities but now morphs into becomming a semiotic roadmap for the visual cues and mythological pseudo-rules (ahem, dream logic) that shape co-creator Mark Frost's 'twin' novels (The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier) as well as the long-gestating third season. Everything in focus on the visual pan across Teresa Banks' (Pamela Gidley) claustrophobic trailer teases mythic raw materials, newfound discoveries, and mystical harbingers: the green owl ring, the electrical socket, the telephone pole outside swarmed by conduits of e-lec-tri-ci-ty.
My interpretation is that even the old woman covering her left eye is an early variation of the ashy woodsmen, a supernatural spectre that easily could dissolve offscreen if Desmond and Sam Stanley (a fidgety Kiefer Sutherland) watched her any longer.
Laura's "Gobble gobble" line read to always doting James (James Marshall) is as savage as the dialogue gets. As a breadcrumb, however, turkey of course pairs with corn each Thanksgiving, and the Twin Peaks supernaturals hovering above the gas station feed off creamed corn. Creamed corn typically represents a Midwestern and Native American dietary tradition (not to mention a raw material source for body polluting corn starch), but within the Twin Peaks cosmology, this yellow bile substance holds deer mineral value for the Black Lodge beings: "Garmonbozia"—a visual embodiment of the consumption of fear and sorrow.
Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) aside (the name itself a clear distinction to audiences), the artistic tension of the director's career clearly hangs in the balance with this film. There are bright spots like his idyllic nostalgia for small town Americana and the heroic idealism of the FBI. But he's also torn, setting the viewer up with lighter fare in the daylight, only to tear those safe space boundaries to shrieking shreds at night. And once Laura receives an awakening concerning Bob's identity mid-film, even the daytime hours become ravaged by the profane.
It remains impossibly tense to watch Laura skip school to come home, sneak a cigarette, and write in her journal. Goosebumps tremble over me with each subsequent screening at the sheer horror that lay in wait. Each scene in her bedroom is subsequently damaging, which increases the value of post-Twin Peaks: The Return fan theories that the Palmer home itself functions as a Black Lodge conduit. I feel like I'm about to have a heart attack every time Laura slow opens the door to her room.
As mentioned, Lynch masters the slow panning shot that invites the unconscious to anticipate the uncanny. The subsequent creation is sublime horror, and the affect works regardless of repeat viewings. Part of his successful horror technique comes from jagged jump cuts or smash cuts that ignore plausibility in favor of emotional surprise.
Laura dreams about the painting of the doorway given to her by Mrs. Tremond. The painting's artistic suggestion may or may not exist as an actual gateway or conduit into the Red Room Lodge through Laura's dreams. Laura, a de facto Alice, wanders through the looking glass one night. She experiences a back door into the Red Room where Cooper, the Arm (Michael J. Anderson), and even Annie (Heather Graham) reveal themselves. It is here that Cooper first warns Laura not to take the ring, a kind of Chekhov's gun to the mythological fate of most characters that encounter it.
Further Descent (North)
The Canadian bar scene (no, not "the Roadhouse," aka Bang! Bang! Bar) is a personally rough patch in the film. Watching Sheryl Lee sloppy kiss actor after actor submerges the moral desolation beget upon Laura's physical and psychological existence. She's reeling, numb, and sympathy for the character cannot help but crossover for the actress as well. The tawdry escalations include making out with the rotund and grotesque Jacques as well as grinding against a depraved ensemble against a strobe-lit backdrop. In light of recent Hollywood revelations and misogynist horror stories, one cannot help but imagine how stressful if not outright awful the possible set experiences may have been for Lee especially (then in her early 20s) if not also Moira Kelly, who plays best friend Donna Hayward.
Another motif of the Lynch canon is the use of repetition and reworking similar scenes and setups. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me performs repetitious ritual in ways that recall the seriality found in television and the soap opera in particular, as well as the horrors to be located when human trauma forms from within the home. Composer Angelo Badalamenti's mournful Twin Peaks score returns in ideal scenes and sequences, just in time to emotionally cripple audiences while foreshadowing tragic (in)conclusion.
The film ultimately serves as one long revisitation to Lynch's personal real-world childhood memory of a lone naked woman, battered and bruised, that approached his family cul-de-sac late one night. For Lynch, he never received the "whole story" of that encounter and remains clear this mystery haunts the entirety of his oeuvre. However, a painful articulation in light of the recent floodgate of toxic masculinity tales articulating female harassment and assault raises contemporary questions, a fair critique, about whether Lynch's singular life experience justifies his repetitious onscreen exploitation of female actresses, muses, and artists in the name of auteuristic demand.
Supplemental Materials: A 'For-mi-ca' Table Full for Twin Peaks Fans to Devour
Whatever suffering Lee herself or audiences may experience through Laura's fictional downward spiral, Criterion's extra materials may provide a silver lining of emotional relief. The extras feature a necessary 2017 interview with Lee, where her recollections provide partial extra-textual relief to the heavy burden that is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Lee's presence, long since freed from the weight of her role, appears almost angelic. Her natural beauty resonates in the well-lit and low-key interview setting, a refreshing change of pace compared to traditionally overproduced interviews. Lee recalls, "I have no sense of time" during her preparatory and experiential journey as Laura. She reflects that "fans have a better grasp" of continuity whereas Lee visits that process as a shared life. As someone that takes Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me far too seriously, it's difficult to know if these comments bring relief at last or aid ongoing tension with and against the text. It's shame that perhaps this film was too dark, too abstract to garner the appreciation of film circles in the early '90s, because Lee resonates onscreen in one of the most emotional performances of the last half-century.
Ornamental Occult Presentation: An Inward Descent
As mentioned earlier, Criterion's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me packaging alone is nearly worth the price. The gorgeous layout is a semiotic feast—from the broken heart half-locket engulfed in golden flame over Laura's portrait to the otherwise red curtain paneling the complete exterior. Like the red room itself, the box suggests a conduit that the holder must pass through in order to retrieve the text. It's one-part seductive, and upon closer inspection, one-part soul crushing.
Inward Threshold II - Within the velvety red exterior folder, the interior ups the McGuffin ante. A second pocket casing situates a printing of the eerie-framed picture passed down to Laura by the ghostly grandmother/grandson, Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont. The painted red door, slightly open, surrounded by aging flowery wallpaper, haunts the imagination. Representing a signature sequence of the film, the second layer of package presentation invites the consumer deeper into the tragic-cosmic abyss.
Inward Threshold III - True to its suggested promise, the inner layer unfolds to reveal the most surreal moment of the film in a full panel spread of the room above the gas station complete with supernatural specters. Onlookers will identify with the iconography instantly. The right side of the panel fold hosts the Bluray disk. The disk cover art features the primal owl symbol, a ubiquitous image first embroidered in the season two owl cave, now re-appropriated onto the mythic green ring that plays a central yet unclear role throughout Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Inward Threshold IV - Audience-fans of Twin Peaks: The Return revival season will have additional speculation as to the symbol's triple-loaded representation. With the owl ring signifier situated atop the Bluray disc, it's noteworthy that the disk hole functions like a ring that must be adorned on the finger of the user in order to jettison the ephemera from its casing. Thus, the user becomes "marked" in the process of inserting or returning the owl ring disc, a truly prophetic fan experience steeped in visual allure and physical ritual.
Inward Threshold V - Also within the inner sleeve rests a companion booklet. The booklet's exterior is dressed in similarly simulated burgundy red curtains. The notorious chevron black and white floor print is centered at the bottom, with a blue rose—also on fire like the Laura Palmer cover (except on the left side instead of the right)—hovering like an angel. The backside of the booklet features a mirror of the front except the flaming blue rose is replaced with the white marble statue known to rest within the red room.
Inside, the production design goes one step further to emulate the transformative tragic cycle. The first two pages form yet another full spread panel, this time the angelic portrait also hung in Laura's room, featuring three children picnicking as an angel leans in to feed the middle one. As in the film, users should be able to predict what the back pages of the booklet depict.
The booklet innards contain mostly an extended selection from Chris Rodley's often-cited 1997 book Lynch on Lynch. The excerpt is decidedly worth revisiting, especially in light of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me's contemporary reappraisal as a cinematic masterpiece following its initial dim reviews and sour box office performance. Finally, information on Lynch's sound mixing process during the film's restoration will resonate with fans that connected key dots between the sound editing used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me versus similar audio cameos throughout Twin Peaks: The Return.
The Missing Pieces: Love Letter to Fans, Prognostication for Twin Peaks: The Return , or Sinister Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Tulpa
The Missing Pieces is like the cult resurrection of some alternate history (sound familiar?). Comprising extended or alternate takes with outright deleted scenes, The Missing Pieces expands upon the mythology-building work undertaken by Lynch and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me co-writer Robert Engels. To strengthen this experience, Lynch provides fresh or previously unused sound editing. Organized with proper sound mixing arranged by the director himself, The Missing Pieces becomes essential viewing for anyone drawn into Twin Peaks' surreal mythology.
Given that the Criterion edition also includes 2014's The Missing Pieces as supplemental viewing, the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Blu-ray represents an essential acquisition for Twin Peaks fans, Lynch enthusiasts, and cinephiles. For liminal readers betwixt and between seasons, familiarity with Twin Peaks canon, or those simply driven by curiosity, The Missing Pieces functions as a collection of deleted scenes and extended takes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; a collective so robust that there arrangement is feature length at 90-minutes.
Most of the scenes perform check-ins on the Twin Peaks residents familiar to viewers of the show. However, a large number of these characters were altogether removed from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in an effort to keep the narrative largely focused on Laura's story. One sequence features Desmond throwing down with the corrupt Deer Meadow Sheriff. The scene is tonally ridiculous, as is a flashback visit to Diane's office by Dale Cooper. There's also a whimsical and also lighter toned scene between Stanley (Sutherland) and Dale. The scene dances toward farcical sci-fi, which is brought back in Gordon Cole scenes South Dakota hotel suite scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return.
As a reviewer guilty of loving bloated director's cuts of all sorts, this is one instance where Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me retains if not heightens its emotional potency by jettisoning the often lighter if not outright comical cameos from the Twin Peaks community. There's a strong argument to this original authorial intent, the original cut suddenly makes a great deal of sense (although the additional scenes featuring David Bowie's Phillip Jeffries would have deepened the surrealist mythology).
Ultimately, The Missing Pieces works as a separate yet tethered entity to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a reflected other or echo to the darker original. A Dougie tulpa, if you will.