Predictably, I’m a big TWIN PEAKS fan, and have seen the entirety of the series and FIRE WALK WITH ME several times over, although I was a relative late-comer to the series. (I’m old enough that, when I was first watching them, it was via renting them through two-episode VHS tapes from the Hollywood Video two blocks away from my first Chicago apartment.)
The prior times I’ve seen the film, I’ve found it to be profoundly unpleasant, cruel and mostly unnecessary from a story perspective, but did believe it to be an artistic, auteur marvel. (There will be no specific spoilers in this piece regarding the series or the film, apart from Laura Palmer’s death and the fact that she was heavily traumatized so, if you haven’t seen any of it, don’t worry.)
If you haven’t seen it, FIRE WALK WITH ME scrutinizes the intense week prior to Laura Palmer’s death, the launchpad for the TV series. It doesn’t include much more than that — if you’ve seen the initial season and half of the second — there’s little you don’t already know, but director David Lynch leans into a hard-R rating intensity that is tonally brutal and bleak when compared to the original show.
When I saw it in early September 2021 — the fourth or maybe fifth time I’d seen it, but the first time I saw a projected 35mm print of it and, wow oh wow, the colors and contrast really popped and to be slightly overwhelming — I finally found it to be necessary. It’s still profoundly unpleasant — even more than I remember — but I realized it’s Lynch feeling like he did Laura wrong with the TV show, his show which reinvigorated the ‘Dead Girl’ genre. (See Alice Bolin’s essay regarding TWIN PEAKS here and Bolin’s subsequent, insightful book on the subject, DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION.)
As Bolin notes regarding Twin Peaks and the ‘Dead Girl’ genre in general: “[the] Dead Girl is not a ‘character’ in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.” While the show itself actively tried to demystify and complicate the idyllic memory that the residents of Twin Peaks had of Laura Palmer, it never quite succeeded in that regard, thanks to some languid plotting and how most of the details of her life prior to her murder were kept from the general townspeoples’ eyes. FIRE WALK WITH ME corrects that.
With FIRE WALK WITH ME, we live with Laura Palmer for the entirety of the film, and we are seated front-and-center to see the amount of abuse and trauma she’s had to endure, to witness her terrible and numbing coping mechanisms, and to well-up at her wilted attempts to reach out to those close to her. While Lynch unrelentingly puts Laura through the wringer, it’s to finally give Laura a voice, a scream, for her to be more than just a dead girl, to be more than a prop that sets off a number of soapy narrative devices. It’s the character profile she deserved, while also being an examination of how men take and take, and how folks often avert their eyes to exploitation and abuse.
I’ll confess that, due to watching a fully sold-out screening of FIRE WALK WITH ME while fretting about contracting a case of breakthrough COVID-19, I wondered why the hell I was attending a screening of a film that’s so focused on trauma and abuse, followed up by a Q&A with Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer herself. The film made me feel dirty enough that the prospect of a post-film Q&A with the actor who clearly had to endure and inhabit an extraordinarily difficult performance felt cruel. However, one of the first things Lee asked of the audience was:
“How many of you out there just saw this for the first time?”
From my estimate, ~15% of the audience raised their hands, and I knew one of the people seated behind me definitely had never seen it, because 1) they said so and 2) declared that it was way darker than they expected and 3) did not want to leave because 4) they spent a lot on their tickets and 5) wanted to hear what Lee had to say, despite the dude clearly wanting to further their initial date by getting a bite to eat afterwards and 6) who asks someone out to FIRE WALK WITH ME as an initial date?!
Lee then said: “I wish I could give you all a hug!” and I realized she knew what she was getting into, and is well-versed with managing it. A lot of the Q&A circled back to simply being an actor and rolling with Lynch and his scripts. In other words: you show up and you do the work and trust the director and live with what’s on the screen.
Lastly, this screening reminded me that I picked up a copy of Courtenay Stallings’s LAURA’S GHOST: WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT TWIN PEAKS from media writer Matt Zoller Seitz’s bookstore and while I have yet to read it — it’s top in my queue — given Seitz’s quality taste, I feel secure in recommending it.