Thursday, November 08, 2007

heaven and hell and where the angels have gone in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

....brought to you by
strange culture's
Film + Faith blog-a-thon

Meet Laura Palmer. Beloved high school sweetheart in a sleepy Pacific Northwest hamlet. Homecoming queen. Meals-on-Wheels volunteer. Tutor in English. Loyal diary-keeper. Coke addict, part-time hooker at a Canadian brothel, dating two guys, having sex with quite a few others, and being stalked and raped by an evil spirit named Bob. And she's gonna get killed. But this is information we already know, thanks to the television show "Twin Peaks"; a show whose premise surrounded the mystery of Laura's death and airs the dirty laundry of everyone else in her tiny hometown. The image of her dead body, wrapped in plastic, was just the beginning of the show. After the show ran its (prematurely canceled) two season run in 1990, its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), illuminates all the dark corners of Laura's pre-mortem life and serves in a few sneaky scenes as a time-warped sequel to the television program.

After the resolution of the central mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" came to light in the TV series, the show meandered and then regained its footing with a larger goal: tackling the meaning of heaven and hell. This is only intuited in the television series whereas the movie deals with it a bit more substantially.... Laura, who's life looked candy-coated on the outside but seethed with poison on the inside, is caught in a kind of purgatory after her death (revealed to us as "the waiting room" in the series' finale episode), and ultimately there is struggle (and some dimension-bending) to make sure she gets to heaven. Sound too kitschy? This movie is perhaps one of Lynch's darkest films; shot with an intensity of color from burning red (where Laura's seedy life is exposed) to cool and vanquished blues (the extinguisher of the fire, a symbol of hope and an acknowledgment of loss), much is paid attention to the photography of these scenes so that it directly complements the moods of the darkness from which the film is written. What makes this film particularly dark is that its subject matter is rooted in the real (whereas fare like Eraserhead and Lost Highway are not) and with that he's able to connect it to the surreal. Laura's life of drugs and illicit sex (and yes, incest) are all things that are happening somewhere out there in the world right now, and when it seems all hope is lost for Laura (to the point where she must accept her death head-on, the alternative being subsumed by the dark heart of Bob) does this mean she will be left in hell?

The movie picks up at a time when things for Laura aren't looking so great, and she knows it. Sheryl Lee has quite an uphill battle in playing Laura Palmer in life, and all the anguish and hopelessness shows, and this performance anchors the darkness of the movie; we see how she is lost, we feel how she is lost, and we know walking into the film that she's not going to make it out. Laura can feel the end coming but can't articulate it; her life is caught in a feedback loop of misery. When girl-talk with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, played with a noticeably different tambour than how Lara Flynn Boyle did in the series) prompts Laura to reveal how she would imagine falling in space, and answers with complete certainty: "Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, and then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away." This girl is like the un-saved; not even the angels can help her now, and she knows this. When the end is near, the signals are all there.... even the painting above her desk of a friendly angel tending to three young children shifts and changes: the angel disappears before her eyes.

Now, reminding myself that this isn't a movie review, I won't go into lugubrious plot specifics. Suffice it to say, the television series left us with an understanding that Laura was trapped in purgatory (the Red Room, the "waiting room" between the White Lodge and the Black Lodge.... I'll let you connect the dots which symbolizes heaven and which symbolizes hell). Fire Walk With Me shows us how she got there in the first place. The night Laura is murdered, she is with her bad-girl friend Ronette Pulaski; both are kidnapped and tied up and (presumably) raped and when it seems that they're both on death's door, Ronette starts to pray. A scene like this is particularly hard to watch because of the humility and futility behind it.... Ronette appeals to God ("Father") to let her die peacefully (she even goes so far to admit in rock-bottom embarrassment "I'm so dirty"), and Laura watches as Ronette (in essence) is saved: an angel appears to her.
Privy to the TV series, we know full well that Ronette survives the evening. On the contrary, Laura does not pray for help.... she has accepted her fate and is willing to die to end the pain of her life. Bob wants, literally, to be Laura, and Laura chooses death over a life as a vessel for the devil.

I know you're probably thinking that angels-as-saviors isn't the most original theme for a movie, but this is only part of the whole package and ultimately what I was inspired to write about when I first learned of RC-of-stange-culture's "Film + Faith" blog-a-thon. I wish I could articulate the care with which this religious symbology is inserted into the film.... this isn't a "message" movie, and it certainly isn't trying to make some kind of Christian religious statement; it treats angels (don't worry, they don't speak or anything) much as only a conduit to safety. I've always been intrigued in the line drawn in the sand between heaven and hell, and how Lynch chooses to represent this in the Red Room, a place where the denizens of heaven commune with those from hell. Lynch even displays these angels as stereotypes: pale-skinned, beautiful, and peaceful, these women wear white robes and white wings.... he's playing off this stereotype to accent the pitch-black core of the movie's themes. In the television series he hints at this too; supernatural beings who provide a kind of protection are pale and light-colored (like the giant, seen in the Red Room at last in the series' finale, and the white horse that appears to Laura's mother when Bob goes after her daughter).

This is a movie close to me because the whole "Twin Peaks" world is close to me, and it's a movie that will knock the breath out of you with how heavy a story it tells. Where the television show merely revealed this darkness, the film plays it out brushstroke by brushstroke. It offers closure on Laura's life, gives us a glimpse of what life might have been like after "Twin Peaks" with characters we're more familiar with (Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is absolutely necessary to this film, but only inasmuch about what becomes of him at the TV series' end), and reminds us about the town of Twin Peaks in all the ways the movie takes pains to contrast against it.

Because Laura is so aware and conscious of her own demise (and its ultimate necessity), it's only fitting that Lynch rewards her (and rewards the entire "Twin Peaks" saga, in a satisfying and devastating way) as ending the film with her bittersweet ascent to the White Lodge, to heaven. Laura admits to falling into a world where the angels have all gone away, and he shows us this as the angel disappears from the painting in her bedroom.... and at last, through her tumultuous travel, Laura receives her own angel. Why? Because a death unenlightened is not worth suffering.


RC said...

THis is very interesting as i really haven't thrown myself into the world of david lynch or twin peaks, but know and have read a decent amount about it and lynch movies.

i don't sounds like a bizarre world to throw one into.

the concept of the red room is very unique.

thanks for your contribution.

Dale said...

I really would like to spend some time with the series again and the film too which I don't remember as well. I enjoyed your analysis.

is that so wrong? said...

I forgot to mention (this phrase could easily be applied to anything I write about "Twin Peaks", ugh) that the movie Fire Walk With Me is somewhat a stand-alone effort, but really only creates a beautiful bow-tying only when the entire series has been watched (particularly the series finale).... even for those stragglers who gave up about midway through the show.

RC: Thank you for the opportunity in the blog-a-thon! I look forward very much to the next.

Dale: The DVD of the entire series is just a click to Amazon away.

Dale said...

I may have to click to Amazon since I couldn't find it at the video store when I looked last week. Maybe I'll add it to the list of things to surprise myself with this Christmas.

Dale said...

I'm about halfway through the series again and loving it all over again. Bob's just been unmasked so we'll see if it holds me as my memory was that it fell apart a bit after that. The music too, ahhh.

MovieMan0283 said...

I'm not sure if you still received updates this late in the game but I just stumbled across your review while stealing, ahem, borrowing the still you used for my own blog entry. I thought you wrote about the film extremely well.

I just saw it for the first time and was blown away, however I had some major problems with it. You can check out my post here: Read & let me know what you think. Oh, and keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Nice work.
One of the best, most influential movies of my life.
The good Dale is in the Lodge and can't get out.