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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was a disappointing effort by David Lynch. Here’s why it’s vital to the Showtime revival.

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Subscribe to A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks – on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts – to unwrap the mysteries in EW’s after-show every Monday during the Showtime revival.

David Lynch did not go gentle into that good night when ABC sent Twin Peaks to the graveyard of cancelation in 1991. Unable to let go of the dream of his never-ending mystery soap, or needing catharsis before he could, the filmmaker immediately made a prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The whole of this fuzzy, scuzzy, fragmented opus is suffused with the burn of getting dumped by TV. The credit sequence is a metaphor. Ditching the lumber porn shots and sweeping strains of Angelo Badalamenti’s romantic score that opened each episode of the series, Lynch gives us blue-hued static on a TV screen scored to a mournful rendition of the composer’s themes. A shadowy mad man drives an axe into the set. Sparks fly. A woman screams. Someone is clearly mad about something here.

Lynch made Fire Walk With Me without Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost and with the limited involvement of the show’s star Kyle MacLachlan. Neither thought a prequel was a hot idea. The movie is divided into two chunks of unequal size. The first, shorter portion is an ironic, telescoped restatement of Twin Peaks. The second, longer part is an elaborative rehash of an already known backstory. The devilish meaning is in the style, form, and details. Lynch indulges the R-rated grotesque, raunch, and profanity, petulantly doing the naughty things TV would never let him do. The broken narratives, surrogate characters, mirrored locations, and assorted loose ends represent the broken relationship with collaborators, audience, creative world, and artistic enterprise. Fire Walk With Me is an impish, petulant work about experience of thwarted will and betrayal; it’s about anger, and it wants you to attend to it and feel the burn. It’s a fascinating, unpleasant, and heartbreaking ordeal.

The first 30 minutes is a detective story. The crime: homicide, natch. The time: one year before the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The victim: one more dead girl, Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), murdered in the same fashion as Laura, wrapped in plastic and dumped in a current of dark water. The setting: Deer Meadow, Oregon, a hostile desert backwater, the spiritual antithesis of Twin Peaks, Washington. The hero: a replacement-Dale Cooper, Chris Isaak’s Chester Desmond (note the inverted initials). This strand of story is just starting to rock when it suddenly just stops, freezing on an image of Desmond reaching for a clue, a ring with possible occult properties. He then vanishes from the story. The dead-end evokes the TV cliffhanger the movie stubbornly refuses to resolve: Cooper’s abduction by The Black Lodge and his replacement in the real world with his cuckoo shadow self. Lynch repeatedly teases it by having Cooper drift in and out with brief, baffling appearances. Total mystery serial blue balls.

RELATED: Your Speed-Binge Guide to (Almost) Understanding Twin Peaks

From this Psycho-like beginning, a narrative fake-out, Lynch gives us two interlocking portraits of a psychotic break: the downward spiral of Laura Palmer, driven to self-abuse and madness from ritualistic raping by her mad, abusive father, Leland (Ray Wise), whose weakness has made him vulnerable to the manipulations of a demonic incubus known as BOB (Frank Silva). It’s helpful to put this in the context of the times. Serial killers, serial rapists, child abuse, sexual abuse, satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory syndrome – all of these were hot, controversial topics in the culture during the late ’80s and early ’90s (see: the new upcoming Netflix true crime series The Keepers for more insight; it premieres May 19). The horror and crime fiction of the era drew in these ideas and what they represented, namely, the idea of profound evil living right next door to you, maybe under your roof, even within yourself. They also nourished Lynch’s abiding interest in deconstructing and interrogating America’s midcentury myth of itself, a project he began in earnest with Blue Velvet, the DNA for which spawned Twin Peaks.

Lynch doesn’t make any of this fun in Fire Walk With Me. It’s made worse by the feeling that he’s exploiting Twin Peaks – to vent his issues, stake his claim of ownership in the series by remaking it purely in his own image, and reclaim his identity as a cinematic artist. Fire Walk With Me is basically Lynch’s version of a break-up album. And, as with any divorce situation, the kids got screwed the most.

Released in August of 1992, Fire Walk With Me polarized Twin Peaks fans. Some accepted the film on Lynch’s terms as a Lynchian thing, some were infuriated by his refusal to please them. But I don’t now if anybody “liked” it. I’m not sure it wants to be liked. Complicating these considerations was the fact that Lynch was doing Twin Peaks solo, sans key bandmates. Was this legit, authentic Twin Peaks or the author’s own fanfic? Regardless, few even saw it. Critics hated it, poisoning interest. The film grossed less than $5 million and flickered out of theaters. And the Twin Peaks phenomenon was as dead as a Josie-faced doorknob. However, the prequel has since gained a larger pool of supporters. Die-hards dig dissecting the new intrigues and the film’s curious structure. (Is the whole Deer Meadow section just Cooper’s dream? Maybe the shared dream of Cooper and Laura?) More critics have warmed to it, their reappraisal spurred by Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another response to TV heartbreak.

 

Still, for years, Fire Walk With Me has stood as an unlovable postscript to Twin Peaks and a monument of the show’s passing into pop nostalgia. To watch it was to press on an old wound hoping to be reminded of pleasures or find some new meaning, but only feeling pain. But this is all about to change. Maybe.

In case you haven’t heard, Twin Peaks is returning this weekend, with new episodes written by Lynch and Frost and directed entirely by Lynch. Earlier this year while promoting the show, the director was asked about Fire Walk With Me, and he suggested that people watch it to prep. Of course he’d say that. At the time, I thought Lynch was just messing with us, trying to hustle some attention and appreciation for a misfit creation. But we have reason to believe he was being sincere. Frost himself has accepted Fire Walk With Me as canon. His book The Secret History of Twin Peaks internalizes the new characters, locations and expressions of mythology introduced in Lynch’s movie. And we know from teasers that the new show will revisit Deer Meadow and the Fat Trout Trailer Park, a key locale in the Black Lodge mystery that’s managed by the haggard and haunted Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton).

Taking Lynch at his word, Darren Franich and I submit to the homework of re-watching Fire Walk With Me for the latest episode of EW’s A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks. We walk you through the plot(s), re-evaluate our perspectives, and speculate how the prequel might be relevant to the new show. (Question: Should the film be watched prior to the series as a literal prequel? Listen to the episode below to hear our takes.)

For me, Fire Walk With Me remains unfulfilling entertainment because it is, by nature, a joyless thing about joylessness. The emphasis on Laura – the ambition to track her disintegration beat by degrading beat – is an invitation to bleakness. Is this a bad thing? In his enduring, oft-cited essay about Lynch, the late David Foster Wallace defended the director’s project. He saw something honorable in giving seething breath, agony, and protest to Laura, whom we only knew as a device – a narrative McGuffin, an embodiment of mystery – and who was largely defined by what she meant to others. Good girl, bad girl, girlfriend, best friend, angel, rebel, femme fatale, slut. Giving her a story in which she flailed to wriggle free from being someone else’s possession (not to mention demonically possessed) “was actually the most morally ambitious thing a Lynch movie has ever tried to do,” wrote Wallace.

I like the sound of his point, but I don’t feel it watching Fire Walk With Me. Coming to it today, the victim feminism, embellished with Manichean dualism (good represented by angels, evil by demons) that he may or may not be critiquing, remains a queasy, debatable thing. Laura’s transmigration into The Black Lodge as a means to defy and escape Dad/BOB’s corrupting consumption – aided by the donning of a ring that might have occult properties – is impenetrably complex. Is this a heroic choice? A suicide? Something is gained, but something lost – but what? The small hope I see in the weirdly ecstatic final moments – a womanly Laura, laughing with sudden joy – is that of a person who has found liberation from the narratives of men and worldliness that would objectify and demean her into something vulgar, and has found a space where she might be able to define herself. And she has Agent Cooper to keep her company, so… yay?

RELATED: 9 Exclusive First Look Photos of the Twin Peaks Revival

Lee and MacLachlan will be in the new Twin Peaks (their faces are everywhere in Showtime’s marketing), so we might wonder if there’s more to be said about The Black Lodge and what is possible for Laura and Cooper. Fire Walk With Me does set this up. Amid the murk, the story reinforces a major mythological idea that the TV show began to develop in its late stages: that the larger world of Twin Peaks is powered by a historical, institutional, recurring pattern of evil, the ritualistic murder of women, and possibly more than that, the baiting and trapping of those who would try to right that wrong. Can Laura and Cooper help break this sick cycle of exploitation and injustice?

My theorizing might be inappropriate, but I do so to make this point: knowing more Twin Peaks is imminent and does improve the experience of Fire Walk With Me. For starters, it negates the very thing fans hated the most about it back in the day – Lynch’s refusal to resolve mysteries and cliffhangers – and provokes wonder for what’s next instead of despair over no more. I see now an attempt by Lynch to re-mystify aspects of Twin Peaks too literal or specific, like the Leland-BOB duality or the Black Lodge mythology. Knowingness also inspires grace to engage baffling bits of business that might mean something to the new series. When I first saw the movie in 1992, I resented the time spent in Deer Meadow, Oregon. Now, I’m fascinated by this substitute Twin Peaks, a desert-of-the-real Bizarro-land where the coffee is stale and cold, not damn good and hot, and the diner serves absolutely no specials. Located south of Twin Peaks, Deer Meadow is a purgatorial underworld sucked dry of kindness and leached of mystique. It’s one more way Lynch uses the movie to express his mood, articulate a perspective on culture, and comment on Twin Peaks itself. (We know the new series will be set in multiple locales; the lesson of Deer Meadow in Fire Walk With Me teaches us we should consider analyzing them as metaphors and compare/contrast them to Twin Peaks.) And you’ll surely find greater delight – and bittersweet poignancy – in the intriguing lunacy of the late David Bowie as a teleporting, time distorting FBI agent, ranting about a woman named Judy and raving about a summit meeting of Black Lodge entities that includes… Jürgen Prochnow as a knee-slapping lumberjack?! Yes. Yes, it does.

 

Perhaps the most important thing gained from watching Fire Walk With Me is that it orients you to Lynch’s M.O., especially the strategies he’s employed most since Twin Peaks. Now, to be clear, we have no idea what kind of storytelling to expect from the new series. It could be akin to the mock soap opera of the original show or the rigorous, episodic linearity of The Straight Story. Who knows? Best be prepared for anything. I wish Fire Walk With Me was a better expression of Lynchian non-linearism; Mulholland Drive flatters his style more. (In fairness to the director, Fire Walk With Me is, according to legend, a work of painful market compromise. The original cut was reportedly over five hours long. A few years ago, Lynch released over 60 minutes worth of deleted scenes, including more beats with Bowie and MacLachlan, and my gut tells me we should treat them as canon.)

Fire Walk With Me reminds us that Lynch wants you to feel your way through his movies, because man, are they wild with feels. A paradox of his style: the image-making alternates between detachment and sensuality, the language is either perfunctory or heightened, but whether he’s being ironic or intense, he’s sincere to the max about it. One electric scene where all this comes together – and almost short-circuits because of it – is the “I’m just a turkey in the corn”/”gobble gobble” moment when Laura comes to James (James Marshall), her sweet, secret boyfriend, wearing only a towel, confesses her inner chaos, and seduces him, taking his innocence to reconnect with her own, for just a moment. Marshall simmers with conflict and Lee vibrates with tumult, like the subjects in the expressionist paintings of a major Lynch influence, Oskar Kokoschka; the scene is “The Tempest” in Archie-land. (So Riverdale, but on pay cable.) It’s hot, silly, and uncomfortable, and we might like it more if the story was stronger. The point here is that Lynch crafts scenes that are emotional roller coasters and he wants you to give yourself over to the ride, provided he’s earned your trust.

Fire Walk With Me also instructs us that Lynch’s mysteries are experiential, not puzzles to be solved. But he doesn’t mind if you try; he wants you to interpret his signs, symbols, and construction. As critic Jim Emerson explains, Fire Walk With Me is a film that speaks in code to tell us that Lynch himself is a director who speaks in code. This is the meaning of one of the film’s most peculiar scenes. Gordon Cole – the hard-of-hearing, loud-talking FBI boss played by Lynch – briefs agents Desmond and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) on the Teresa Banks case by… bringing out Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a woman in a red dress with a red wig wearing a blue rose, who performs a wacky dance with a sour look on her face. We later learn from Agent Desmond that her appearances and gestures are a secret language, invented by Cole, to describe sensitive “Blue Rose” cases. Emerson notes that in the original shooting script, Desmond and Stanley have the following exchange:

STANLEY: Why couldn’t he have just told you all these things?
DESMOND: He talks loud. And he loves his code.
STANLEY: I see. He does love his code.

 

These wink-wink lines clearly sound like Lynch trying to explain himself. It’s probably why he cut them. Still, even without them, you know – you feel – that Fire Walk With Me is intrinsically self-aware. It’s Lynch doing Twin Peaks and commenting on Twin Peaks. The first living person you see in the movie is Lynch himself. What’s he doing? Why, directing, of course. “GET ME AGENT CHESTER DESMOND OUT IN FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA!” Cole yells at his secretary, who’s standing just a foot from him. He watches her leave his office, cruising the camera as she leaves frame. Cole’s eyes stop here, and Lynch holds the beat so that he’s looking at us looking at him. We are in his line of vision; it’s one more way Lynch declares his authorship of the film.

The maneuver also upholds a franchise value. Twin Peaks has always been meta. Remember Invitation To Love, the kinky fictional daytime soap beloved by the characters of this twisted prime time soap? We remember Agent Cooper’s dark doppelganger exiting The Black Lodge by breaking the fourth wall with repeated looks to the camera, smirking devilishly, and then ends the series by head-butting a mirror, seeing the abysmal mug of BOB staring back, and cackling with satanic glee. Almost a full decade before the dawn of the anti-hero serial with The Sopranos, Twin Peaks presaged the coming of a dark age of TV nihilism by staining its agent of the good and turning him into a free-floating agent of irony, mischief, and cynicism. “Agent Cooper” didn’t go anywhere. He’s everywhere.

 

The new Twin Peaks will now finish the story that Fire Walk With Me never did, thus exonerating it from the sin of never trying. Returned to medium of origin, the franchise might also tell us a meta-story about today’s TV. Like camera-aware Dark Cooper, Twin Peaks is slyly sentient meta-fiction; it is pop culture made from pop culture that shows us the seedy soul of pop culture yet knows that it is complicit and unclean. It has always known that it participates in the “recurring pattern of evil” stuff from a few paragraphs back by being one more piece of murdered girl mystery pulp, and it knows this still. You think about the credit sequence of Twin Peaks, those machine porn shots of lumber mill saw blades grinding and sparking. You think about Laura and Teresa Banks, wrapped in plastic, placed in water and sent down river, the way fallen logs are transported to their next destination; they’re log ladies. You think of those billboards for Showtime’s revenant revival, with a spectral Laura and a ghostly Cooper super-imposed on a fog-bound forest. The ads play to our yearning for Twin Peaks and they poke at our insatiable appetite for pulp fiction, prestige or otherwise. They also wink at the show’s well-documented influence. Will the new show reflect on that legacy and reflect back the good and bad of it in some abstracted, coded fashion? Or will it simply be content to delight in it like knee-slapping lumberjacks? If Fire Walk With Me was about nostalgia for Twin Peaks circa 1992, it’ll be interesting to see what Lynch and Frost have to say about that nostalgia now, in a pop culture forested and foggy with so much of it. It is happening again. TIMBER!