Monday, March 20, 2017

Under the Sycamore Trees: End of Twin Peaks (1991) and Fire Walk With Me (1992)

As I mentioned previously, as a TV series, Twin Peaks managed to limp along for most of the second half of the second season.  You could feel the writers realizing they'd taken a bad turn and trying to right the ship in the final few episodes, but the good continues to be outweighed by the bad.

The drippy plotline of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, and Robyn (Teen Witch) Lively doing her best with a dog of a plotline for her wildly inconsistent character, Lara Flynn Boyle being reduced to a background character, Audrey and Billy Zane going full in flagrante in a private jet right in front of Pete...  and the tired plotline of Lucy choosing the father of her kid - something so worn out even the show winked at how nobody cared anymore by the time she made a decision...

Lost in all this was Harry and his plotline with Josie.  And from what I can find online, Michael Ontkean who played Sheriff Harry Truman walked away from the show fairly bitter about the whole experience.  And I can hardly blame him.

That said - the final episode of the show, directed by David Lynch with writing by Mark Frost, Robert Engels and Harley Peyton, returns the show to form.  Doing such a good job and creating some of the most memorable moments of the entire series that it's easy to forget the meandering path we took to get there.

In pursuit of the mustache-twirling Windom Earle who has abducted Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), Cooper enters The Black Lodge and some of the oddest minutes ever put into a primetime network drama unfold.

Here's the start of the sequence, just for fun:

There's a logic to everything in and about the Black and White Lodges, and I don't mind that Lynch and Co. want us to work for it.  Spelling it out with some Rosetta Stone would just ruin it (and shows do that from time to time) - and it also doesn't seem to fall into the trap of "we're throwing crap against the wall with no real plan" (see: The X-Files or Lost).

There's no way Twin Peaks could have held up for 10 seasons, not in the way shows worked straight up through 2001 or so, but because it was cut down when it was, we saw a glimpse of what was, and maybe that glimpse was always going to be just the right amount.  We even saw how off the mark the show would have grown given time and losing the guiding hand of the show's original visionaries.

Still a product of late-80's/ early-90's thinking, the show winds up on a cliffhanger.  We had a bomb explode in a bank containing two major characters and a third supporting character - an old trope for writing characters off a show when their contracts expired and they'd be renegotiating between seasons.  Norma, Ed and Nadine's (and Mike's) path to bliss is cut short by an errant sandbag falling on Nadine's head and seemingly restoring her to her usual, terrible self.  And as Donna's parentage comes into question, she may or may not be sticking around - same with Ben Horne who seems to be her biological father, or even her father, who may have accidentally killed Ben Horne (again, season cliffhanger!  We don't know!).

The steadfast nature of Sheriff Harry Truman is put front and center as he waits for Cooper to emerge from The Black Lodge.  It's an interesting character bit, and I expect that it played a bit quiet for most people watching - but that's a man at the end of his rope.  It's a terrific choice and reminds you why Truman was ever a major character.

Of course the biggest cliffhanger - aside from knowing whether or not Sherilyn Fenn was returning to the show or not - was that the "Bad Dale" had emerged from the Black Lodge - ie: Cooper was now inhabited by Bob.

That was a hell of a place to leave a devoted fanbase.

It's astounding how, in a single episode, the show comes back from the awkwardness of what came a single episode before (ugh, the Miss Twin Peaks contest), which clearly not all of the actors bothered to even participate in.  Good luck finding Sherilyn Fenn in the dance numbers and hats off to Lara Flynn Boyle for participating.

But returning to the spirit of the show, of what Frost and Lynch set out to do, it's terribly frustrating to see how off the mark the show became so quickly, and while you can't bring The Black Lodge into every episode and retain the potency of the idea, you still want to point at the finale and say "this!  Was this so hard?"

With that down, for the first time since probably 1995, we watched the 1992 theatrical release and prequel - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Because I was not a good judge of things in 1992, I took my then-ladyfriend, who had never seen Twin Peaks, to watch this movie with me, which - in retrospect, placed her fully within her rights for the shouting that occurred afterwards (not as angry as after Naked Lunch, but still pretty pissed).

The movie works as a prequel, structured as a tryptic leading up to the death of Laura Palmer.  A year prior to Laura's death, we look in on FBI Special Agent Chet Desmond looking into the death of Teresa Banks - a death referred to extensively in the first season of Twin Peaks and which informed the FBI's investigation of the death of Laura Palmer.  Then an interlude with Dale Cooper, Albert Rosenfeld and Gordon Cole.  And then the majority of the movie following the final days of Laura Palmer.

Unfettered by TV standards and cut loose by a hard R-rating, the grimy world our homecoming queen had fallen into gets a look you weren't going to see on CBS.  Certainly there are arguments one can have that "yeah, yeah, we get it - we didn't need to see it."  Which is a take I get, but I also am a little squicked out by America's fascination with CSI shows with cops calmly looking over dead hookers with a multitude of stab wounds while the speak in quippy monotones.

By the time we catch up with Laura Palmer, we already know her days are numbered.  She's well past her tenure at One Eyed Jack's and is now hooking out of the roadhouse.  Certainly not all of the cast returns.  We get James Marshall back as James Hurley, Dana Ashbrook as Bobby (including a scene filling in a blank from the first few episodes). Leo and Shelley likewise take their places in familiar roles.  Donna (recast to Moira Kelly, who gives a more doe-like naivete to the character) is trying to figure out what is going wrong with her best friend.  But no Sheriff Truman or anyone from the department.  No Hornes.

In many ways, the movie plays out like a modern horror movie.  Laura is tortured by her knowledge of Bob and the path she's gone down - whether he's corrupted her or whether she's to blame for her own decisions.  Really, Sheryl Lee as Laura, Grace Zabriskie as as Sarah Palmer and Ray Wise as Leland are coming unravelled as the movie progresses - and it's some truly freaky psychological horror.

Fire Walk With Me is a concentrated dose of some of the more interesting stuff in Twin Peaks - but maybe too much for the tastes of even many Twin Peaks fans.  It can be a hard watch, especially as you already know where all of this is headed and you've heard many details about Laura's secret life over the first 18 episodes or so.  If the point was to explain what the hell was going on that Lynch and Co. didn't get to wrap up - it sorta kinda works.

Hell, we even get living special effect David Bowie for a scene (I still remember cackling like a maniac when he showed up in the movie the first time I saw it).

The film is rife with Black Lodge imagery, practical FX and in-camera FX (this was an era just prior to CGI, and that's not really Lynch's bag, anyway).  As always with Lynch, in other hands the choices would read as ludicrous or ham-handed at best.  But somehow Lynch manages to make it work - from little people in leisure suits to pancake make-up and the rolling of eyes.  Or even the glimpses into the gathered "family" of the Black Lodge.

I couldn't begin to tell you why or how some people's careers explode into superstardom and why some folks disappear and others remain working actors but aren't given chances to show their ability.  But Sheryl Lee's mercurial Laura Palmer is really something to see.   It's hard to say that she literally spends most scenes entirely on her own - but she does do a fair number by herself.  But she is completely shut off from every other character in the movie, and her responses make sense only in the context of the audience's awareness of her situation.  And I utterly buy every moment she has on screen.

I haven't done enough reading to know if this was to be the first of several Twin Peaks feature film installments - but it was certainly the last.  Mulholland Drive was a sort of spiritual follow up, and Sherilyn Fenn has stated it was originally supposed to be a spin-off for Audrey, which actually makes some sense if you've seen the movie.  But to try to connect Lynch's work as if it's a Marvel Cinematic Universe is... well, not everything works that way, Millennials, no matter how many fan theories you put on tumblr.

We will see some all new Twin Peaks this May.  One assumes it's continuous from this series and this film.  It has, after all, been 25 years.

How Lynch will incorporate all of this, I won't even try to guess.  But as Lynch and Frost are seemingly running this entire operation without interference, I'm on board.

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