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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

The challenging prequel to TV’s Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Directed by David Lynch

Presented by Gunky’s Basement at the Charles Theatre Dec. 4

Who killed Laura Palmer? Twenty-two years after Twin Peaks—co-creators Mark Frost and David Lynch’s inspired riff on the prime-time soap opera—debuted on ABC, the question is as dated as wondering who shot J.R. Since then, the series has nurtured a cult fandom, thanks to its mordant humor and oddball story line: The murdered body of the homecoming queen shows up, wrapped in plastic, in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and the investigative methods of the federal agent assigned to the case tend more toward vision quest dreams than scrutiny of forensic evidence. Its two seasons and 30 episodes lasted little over a year, but to its fans, it was weekly installments of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura’s wedding for people who felt popular culture was bankrupt.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch’s 1992 cinematic prequel, was rejected by critics and fans alike. Its tone was pitch black, its humor almost nonexistent, and the sinister undertow that lurked beneath the series’ surface was shoved down the throat. Back in August, writer and self-avowed Peaksian Alex Pappademas delivered a fantastic set of fan’s notes celebrating-qua-defending this slept-on gem, touching on what makes it emotionally fraught for the die-hard and difficult-going for the uninitiated. He also momentarily alights to why the series and this undersung movie still exert such a strong emotional pull: Peaks and Fire aren’t merely bizarre examinations of American narrative tropes dispatched from Lynch’s surreal mind; they’re domestic American nightmares of female adolescence. And in such context, Fire isn’t merely one of Lynch’s most overlooked masterpieces, but one of the more subversive works of popular art of the 20th century’s tail end.

Yes, that’s a bold claim, but Fire doesn’t just exquisitely complement the series thematically; it recasts the entire experience. And it does that obliquely. Fire begins with the body of a different blonde, one Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), and the thwarted FBI investigation into her murder. A good half hour unfolds before Fire reaches the theme song and opening-credit shot of the series, announcing a return to familiar territory. It’s the small town where high school student and prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee, who has never since had such a plum role) works at a local diner; is girlfriend to local bad boy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook); is perhaps in love with sensitive loner James Hurley (James Marshall); is best friends with good girl Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly); has an emotionally intense, clandestine relationship with the shut-in Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen); and has been raped by a figure she calls Bob (Frank Silva) since she was 12 years old. She keeps track of it all in her diary, which makes the whole situation feel like an R-rated version of an after-school special.

It’s this ordinaryness beneath the bizarre that gives Fire and Peaks their staying power. Peaks’ metaphysical Special Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) barely shows up in Fire, but how he does is important. Following up on the Teresa Banks case, he has dreams about who the next victim is going to be: She’s a sexually active, blond high school student who uses drugs. FBI forensics examiner Albert (Miguel Ferrer) exasperatedly says Cooper’s describing half the girls in America—and that’s precisely the point. Laura’s story is unique only because it’s the one being followed. Symbolically, she’s that go-to victim of TV and movie serial-killer tales: the teenage girl.

Who killed Laura Palmer? The Twin Peaks enterprise was never really interested in the who but the why: What pushes a teenage girl to name her rapist with such a common sobriquet? What makes a girl see herself only as a sexual commodity? What happens if the biggest threat in a girl’s life is the person who is supposed to be protecting her? Peaks revealed who killed Laura Palmer halfway through its second season and Fire tells the story of her final days. But the movie is so bleakly powerful—Lynch’s movies are exceptionally put together, but his attention to the details of sound editing, shocking inserts, and striking mise-en-scene have rarely accrued such a cumulative momentum in a single narrative—that it reframes the series as the kinder, gentler version of what happens to the teenage girl, the version of events edited and artfully arranged in order to appeal to a wider audience. Sublimating events in order to make the unfathomable tolerable: that may be a cynical idea of what television is, but it’s a hard one with which to argue.

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