Thursday, January 18, 2007

I am the Arm, and I Sound Like This

This is mostly in response to a comment on an earlier entry in which I defended the existence and quality of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - the "prequel" movie that appeared about a year after the series proper was cancelled.

A lot of fans of the Twin Peaks TV show understandably dislike the film. There are good reasons not to like it. It's much darker and lacks a lot of the quirky fun of the show, it doesn't really resolve the series cliffhanger, it features few of the characters we came to know and love from the show (most importantly: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, the de facto star, makes what amounts to a cameo - he isn't an integral part of the story at all), it isn't really about the town so much as the murdered girl, and - I think most of all for a lot of people - it casts a different actress as Donna Hayward.

I admit, all of these things bothered me too. And yes, especially the casting of Moira Kelley as a "different Donna." That really bugged me the first time through.

It took me some time to appreciate Fire Walk With Me - but once I learned to like it, I found that I really liked it.

Commenter Charles - author of the excellent In Twin Peaks photoblog - makes a cogent case against it, though, so I wanted to respond. (I started in the comments section - where this probably really belongs - but found I had too much to say.)

The basic assertion is that FWWM switches focus from a fresh, atmospheric exploration of the mysteries of the haunted woods (which feature prominently in the series) to a banal, familiar story of familial sexual abuse. And that's certainly fair enough - Fire Walk With Me does indeed involve a major shift of focus of precisely this kind. And yes, the story of the haunted woods is fresher and more engaging than the offputting sexual abuse story. Honestly, who wants to watch a story about sexual abuse? It's disquieting in a wholly bad way - not in the thrilling way the TV show was.

All the same, this shift is, in fact, one of the things I liked about the movie - so let me explain.

It's well known that David Lynch drifted away from the TV series as it went ahead to universal fan annoyance. The reasons given at the time were that he was working on outside movie projects, but we now know this wasn't stricly true. Mostly, he just got bored - because the show wasn't taking the direction he wanted. Lynch was clear early on that the show wasn't really about Laura. Unconfirmed (but completely believable) rumors, in fact, have it that he didn't want to reveal Laura's killer at all. Ever. Laura was a MacGuffin - the White Rabbit leading you into Wonderland, a "hook" to get you involved in the real story, which, of course, is the afforementioned fairy-tale town, its quirky inhabitants and their lives, and most of all the looming presence of the nearby haunted woods.

But it didn't turn out that way. ABC forced them to wrap up the Laura Palmer mystery in the second season, and pretty much any fan can tell you that the episodes leading up to that revelation were the worst they filmed. They felt forced and cheesy - what with Albert Rosenfeld, of all people, telling Cooper he had to follow his path! Give me a break. All the mystical "investigation methods" that came off as original and humorous in the first season were thrown at you from all directions just to convince you you were still watching the same show. The final irony, of course, is that once they gave away the big secret (which wasn't really so secret by that point anyway) they lost what remained of their viewers. Lynch, it seems, had been right all along. And why wouldn't he be? If he wrote a show about a town, it stands to reason that forcing it to be about a murder mystery instead would screw things up.

It should have been obvious to everyone that the show was about the town from day one anyway. Go back and watch the pilot: very little time is actually devoted to the particulars of the case. The lion's share of screen time goes to filming everyone's reactions to the news that Laura's been killed. We're being introduced to characters, not suspects, and so I understand Lynch's frustration with how things turned out (though, as usual, he really has no one but himself to blame - he egged everyone on with that final scene about the stolen locket).

Charles is right that "those woods" are crucial to the series - more central than the murder mystery plot for sure. But I'm not so convinced they're crucial to the story from Laura's point of view. And the movie - at least the second, longer half of it - is really the story from Laura's point of view.

This is one of the things that I think is both interesting and masterful about the movie: it's sort of the negative image of the show. In the show, Laura is meant to hover just out of sight. We only see her as a picture, and in the memories and imaginations of the people who knew her. She's not a real person in the show, she's an image - and that's fine because the show isn't really about her.

In Fire Walk With Me there's an element of "you asked for it, now you're gonna get it!" People wanted to know about Laura and her murder, and so now we've been told. Does it make us happy? No - and that's the point - it isn't meant to. The picture everyone idolizes is a real person, as it turns out, and murder isn't just a fun puzzle to be solved.

From Laura's point of view, the haunted woods don't matter too terribly much. She's a victim of them, and that's of more pressing concern to her than the larger metaphysical issues of what they are and what's inside them. It isn't an "inability" on the part of the movie to deal with "those woods" so much as just the fact that it would be inappropriate to do so. They're peripheral to the story that's being told.

Accodingly, there's a shift in sprituality in the movie that I liked. I don't think the movie is any less "spiritual" or "mysterious" than the show - it's just that we've swapped religions. The show is pagan. In the show, it's the land - the location - that's imbued with spiritual power, and the mythos is decidedly Native American. It's been suggested that BOB is the Wendigo, and there's a case to be made there. The movie is Catholic. It's Christian. It's about suffering, confronting evil, embracing love and final salvation. There are mysteries here too, but they're not of the same kind.

Recasting Donna really fits here too. I understand that the reason they did it was because Lara Flynn Boyle couldn't be bothered to come back. But to me that's a happy coincidence. We need a fresh look at Donna to make this movie - for a couple of reasons. First of all, the movie takes place before the series, and Donna is one of the characters for which there are some problems going to back to "page one." Donna as we saw her at the beginning of the series is very different from the Donna we know at the end of season two, and a lot of the more assertive, less innocent aspects of the latter-day Donna seem tied up with the actress who played her somehow. Second, it's important to emphasize, again, that Fire Walk With Me is the story from Laura's point of view. Laura doesn't know Donna as well as she thinks she does - a point the movie makes well, but something we also know from the TV show. Again, if the point is to show the audience Donna as Laura sees her, that task is hugely complicated by using Lara Flynn Boyle - about whose version of Donna we know too much already. Finally, what a lot of people will complain about, but something that I actually liked: this isn't the Donna we know from the show anyway. Several scenes in the movie seem hard to square with the events of the show. Donna in the show doesn't (seem to) know the extent of Laura's depravity - but in the movie she gets a pretty good look. Those scenes worked really well for me in the movie - especially as a show of Donna's devotion to her friend (a love Laura doesn't seem to be able to handle). But again, I'm not sure I could have believed them with Lara Flynn Boyle standing in for the part. Fact is, they are inaccurate. The show and the movie can't both be cannon here. And so casting a new Donna frees Lynch to tell stories that I might not have been as willing to believe in with the old gal.

The point is that the story he wants to tell is important.

The hallmark of TV in the late 80s was that it pushed the "acceptable content" envelope. Case in point - the entire second season of War of the Worlds. The only object was to try as hard as they could to get Robocop callibre violence on the small screen.

Twin Peaks was part of that. I can remember my high school history teacher coming to class fuming the Monday after the episode where Leland kills Maddy. She made her kids stop watching. But of course with Twin Peaks this violence was never gratuitous - and it wasn't just the violence. Everything about the show was cinema quality - the production values, the directing, the acting. The line between TV and silver screen was getting blurred, and Twin Peaks was the vanguard. Many think it was a watershed - that it pushed quality expectations for television series forward by a bound. I'm not inclined to disagree.

Even so, there are some stories you couldn't then and still can't tell properly on TV - and Laura's backstory is one of them. It was never intended to be part of the series, but since it was forced, the best they could do was...well, what they did. And for a show as human as Twin Peaks, it just seemed kind of flat. The murderer was her father, but it's OK folks 'cause he's really an evil spirit that jumps from person to person? Kind of a letdown, no?

I know the full implications of what was going on didn't sink in for me until I saw the movie. I don't think they did for most people. You might get it intellectually, but that's never the same thing as seeing it. Naming Laura's father as the killer is either (a) a clever solution to a whodunit - one most people wouldn't gues or (b) something really, really depraved. Given that it's David Lynch and Twin Peaks we're talking about, obviously it's meant to be option (b).

Well, option (b) is the kind of thing you can't show on ABC.

And so I liked the movie. I liked it because it put a human face on our etheral prom queen victim. We spent so much time looking at her picture, why not see things from her point of view? I liked it because it fixed what to me was the worst mistake of the series (even worse than Major Briggs and the aliens): the casual way they revealed the killer and the easy out for Leland Palmer once his secret is known. I liked it because, though I have no religion now, I was raised Christian and respond better to a Catholic thematic structure than a Native American one. I liked it because the sense of evil was convincing. Offputting to be sure, but that's what made it believable. And yes, I liked it because Donna seemed to be what she was supposed to be. I can't help thinking that they got off track with that character at some point in the show.

Most of all, I liked it because I don't think they could have made a movie about the Black Lodge and the haunted woods. It would have just ended up being Blair Witch (only better, obviously). There aren't any answers as to what the Black Lodge is or what's really going on with Bob and Mike. All they can ever do with this is just keep dangling mysteries and incomprehensible symbolism in front of us. That works when you have a series of indefinite length, the main focus of which is really the ensemble cast. But can you do this with a two-hour movie? A two-hour movie about the haunted woods wouldn't have been very satisfying, I don't think. At best, it would have been a series of obliquely-connected, dream-like images a la Mulholland Drive (a great film!) - which worked for that film but would have seemed like more of the same with Twin Peaks.

What we got - a chance to redo the revelation of the killer with religious themes appropriate to that story rather than the story about the idyllic town and its dark secret - was infinitely better.

When I first saw FWWM, I was angry that they didn't tell us what happened with Dale Cooper being possessed by BOB. That's what I went into the theater expecting. But I realize now how dumb that would have been. The storyline that Cooper's possession by BOB fits into is one that never ends. And now that I'm older, I appreciate just how shocking that final episode really was (all the good guys die), and just how cool it is to leave everyone hanging in that way. Save the pilot, the final episode is my favorite now. What they did instead was much more sensible. They told us the part of the story that they couldn't tell on television and in the process fixed the part of the series that bugged me the most.

Alright, but what about the scene in the traincar, someone will ask? The actual murder scene? Doesn't Leland Palmer hold up torn diary pages and say "I always though you knew it was me?" In other words - Bob is just a figment of Laura's imagination. The pages he tore out, we were told earlier (in the scene in Harold's house), are the ones that deal with BOB. Well, why shouldn't he be?

One of the things that's really interesting about the movie is that it goes out of its way to let you know that weird stuff IS going on. There's Cole's "blue rose" case, the ring, the woman and her grandson, Agent Desmond's disappearance(, David Bowie and his wholly unconvincing southern accent), etc. etc. All this eats up about a half hour of film time. Then we switch to a story that explains BOB - the central mystery of the show - in wholly familiar psychological terms. So what's up? Is BOB real or isn't he?

I think the point is the level of reality on which BOB exists. What seems to fascinate Lynch, what drives his movies, is the stark contrast between good and evil. If the world were evil through to the core, we simply couldn't survive it. It can't be. It's good most of the time. But there is an evil layer there, just beneath the surface - not hard to find, but not necessarily in plain sight either. And the absudity of the extremes is interesting. Dwarves and Giants - a father who adores his daughter but also regularly rapes her. Leland met BOB as a child. You see, it happened to him too.

In the series Cooper refers to BOB as "the killer" early on. Right in plain sight - the mystery was solved early. The audience should have known better than to keep wondering "whodunnit?" BOB did it. We always knew. But who is BOB?

The big strength of Twin Peaks was its ability to take perfectly ordinary things and make them seem bizarre. And of course if you stare at something too long, it does have a way of seeming bizarre. Like repeating the same word several times with different intonations. The (perfectly familiar) sequence of sounds starts to sound absurd very quickly. Evil is in plain sight, but we don't see it head on because it seems like it shouldn't be there.

The scene in the train car really hammers that home. In the TV series, the equivalent is Albert's cheesy line about how "Maybe BOB is just the evil that men do." I groaned. I groaned because it was a flippant dismissal of a really damn good question. Why DO people do bad things? But Albert's not wrong. Evil isn't some abstract force that lives in the woods. It's only evil if it hurts people. All the stuff in the woods - the lodge, the owls, Glastonberry Grove, red drapes - are just things that make us uneasy. Evil is what happened in the train car - and why it happened.

So is BOB real? Yes. And no. Depends on what you mean by real.

I feel like the truth about what happened to Laura is an important part of the story. It compliments the fantasies well. The Black Lodge and Dancing Dwarf and All That Stuff doesn't mean as much - or much of anything, really - without it. (And who really killed Caroline, by the way?)

And so Fire Walk With Me is one of my favorite movies. I really, really like it, I'm glad they made it, and I sincerely hope that someday we get to see the full 4-hour version - or at least the hour of deleted scenes that Lynch wanted to include in the DVD release.

(In the spirit of things, Twin Peaks - UK Version.)

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