Conor Williams on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
David Lynch has never been one to make claims about his work’s objectivity. He’s always firmly insisted that his work speaks for itself. However, this does not necessarily mean he is insistent about what his work is saying. His career-long refusal to divulge meaning in his work is integral to his creative philosophy, and yet at times it’s been misunderstood by critics and fans. “The film is the thing,” Lynch stated in a conversation for BAFTA in 2007. “When things are concrete, [there are] very few variations in interpretation. But the more abstract a thing gets, the more varied the interpretations.” This BAFTA conversation is now often memed due to an exchange in reference to Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead. “Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film,” he professes, holding his lips in a taut smile. He’s setting up a joke. The man interviewing him stutters for a second. “Elaborate on that,” he requests. Lynch practically cuts him off to deliver the punchline, chuckling, “No, I won’t.” This reluctance to bestow objectivity is not out of some arrogant belief that nobody could truly understand the meanings behind his art, nor is Lynch creating nonsense for nonsense’s sake. Rather, it seems imperative to him that his work produce a multiplicity of meanings within his audience.
Meaning is partly created in Lynch’s films through a series of distinct repetitions and hallmarks. To name just a few: stilted line deliveries, a hollow evocation of Americana, a recurring motif of dual identities, and the discomforting occupation of a tone that teeters between horror and black humor. Electricity, time, signage, disembodied anatomy, cigarettes, popular songs of the 1950s, dreams, numbers—the filmmaker has placed these motifs within his work for the significance they hold for him. David Foster Wallace observed that Lynch’s films “seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director's psyche, expressions presented with little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e., presented with something like a child's ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness,” remarking, “It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you feel about one of David Lynch's movies and what you feel about David Lynch.”
In addition to casting himself in Twin Peaks, Lynch also inserts himself into his work by literally handcrafting some of the things seen in his worlds. The most notorious example of this is the cryptid-like Eraserhead baby, a mewling creature the filmmaker allegedly Frankensteined together from a skinned rabbit corpse, but he’s also sculpted such inoffensive objects as the “lollipop chairs” seen in his Netflix-produced tongue-in-cheek mystery What Did Jack Do? (2017), in which Lynch again appears on-screen, this time as a detective interrogating a monkey.
Lynch doesn’t have to sculpt the objects himself for them to take on significance. His films are decorated with countless totemic props. In Mulholland Dr, a blue key unlocks a curious blue box––and perhaps another dimension. In Blue Velvet, a young boy stumbles across a severed ear crawling with bugs, leading him to investigate its origin and stumble into a perilous conspiracy. In Twin Peaks, the Log Lady cradles her namesake, claiming it communicates profound wisdom, while Special Agent Dale Cooper and his colleagues uncover secrets about the murdered Laura Palmer’s past through the pages of her diary––perhaps the quintessential totem of a teenage girl. And in just the first few hours of Twin Peaks: The Return, the 18-part continuation of his early ’90s cult hit and one of the most significant works of 21st-century cinema, Lynch introduces two compelling objects. The first is a bit of prop comedy: shovels, meticulously painted gold by firebrand broadcast personality Dr. Amp, the former psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby, who sells them to his listeners as a way to “shovel their way out of the shit!” The second is a large glass box in a Manhattan skyscraper apartment, from which emerges a murderous demon, who slices the box’s caretaker and his girlfriend to bits.
The Ceiling Fan
In 1992, David Lynch released Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a prequel to his original series. The film, a harrowing account of the final days of Laura Palmer, was reviled upon its initial release, but has since been critically reevaluated, and has proven to be an integral text to better understanding and appreciating The Return. Even some moments from the vast amount of deleted scenes hold clues and pearls of clarity. It’s perhaps the most pertinent film of David Lynch’s wherein objects take on a compelling and occasionally supernatural significance. Most memorable and haunting in my mind is the ceiling fan that hangs above the main staircase of the Palmer house. This deceptively ordinary fixture conjures true evil and subtly describes the tortured physics at work within the world of Twin Peaks.
Midway through the film, Laura is writing in her diary when she discovers some pages have been torn out. Shocked, she visits her agoraphobic friend Harold, to whom she delivers food as part of a Meals on Wheels program. She tells him that she knows BOB—the long-haired man who is the show’s spiritual embodiment of evil—is real, and that Harold must hide her diary. Laura runs home again. We see her leaning against the wall, wearing an intoxicated gaze toward the ceiling fan. BOB speaks to her, saying, “I want to taste through your mouth.”
In the parking lot of the Double R Diner, Laura is visited by Mrs. Tremond, another patron of the Meals on Wheels program. Tremond, accompanied by her nephew Pierre, beckons Laura over to her. “This would look nice on your wall,” Tremond suggests, holding up a framed painting. The painting is deeply eerie in its simplicity, depicting the corner of a room outfitted with wooden floorboards and fading floral wallpaper. A door has been partly opened. It leads to what looks like a similar room. “The man behind the mask is looking for the book with the pages torn out,” Pierre whispers. The man he is referring to is her father Leland—or rather, BOB, hidden behind the mask of her father’s form. He is looking for her diary. “He is under the fan now,” Pierre says.
This fan recurs throughout the film and becomes a representation of both circular unending time and Laura’s trauma. It should be noted that the ceiling fan is almost always shown rotating. This ensures a constant circulation of darkness and pain throughout the household, with evil permanently permeating the stuffy air. A rotating fan also creates the illusion of a circle. Within the narrative of Twin Peaks, time does not function on a linear level. It often moves in a circular motion—a desperate, cosmic feedback loop. Tremond’s painting and the fan work together within the already tensely traumatic space of Laura’s home to conjure a terrifying and potent feeling of cursedness.
Once Laura arrives at home after her meeting with Tremond and Pierre, she looks hesitantly up at the fan, rushing past it up the stairs to her room. There, she discovers BOB, who lunges after her with violent lust. Laura screams and runs out onto the front lawn, sprawled out before shrubbery with her new painting laid in the grass. Just then, she watches in disbelief as Leland exits the house. It is at this moment, choking on her sobs in the bright suburban daylight, that Laura realizes the demonic presence who has violated her at night is somehow also her father. Later that night, after a family dinner, she gazes at another painting hung above her desk, in which cherubs sit together at a table. In a trembling whisper, she asks the angels, “Is it true?” She then retrieves Mrs. Tremond’s painting, hanging it on her bedroom wall as the woman suggested.
As Laura sleeps, we enter the painted room. The open wooden doorway reveals nearby red curtains. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote of the presence of curtains in Lynch’s work: “Curtains both conceal and reveal (and, not accidentally, one of the things that they conceal and reveal is the cinema screen itself). They do not only mark a threshold; they constitute one: an egress to the outside… Dreams are not only spaces of solipsistic interiority: they are also a terrain in which the ‘red curtains’ to the outside can open up.” Mrs. Tremond stands beside them, beckoning not toward the curtains but to another open doorway. In this room stands Pierre, shrouded in shadow. He snaps and a light comes on. Within her dream, Laura gets up and opens her bedroom door. We see her empty staircase, the ceiling fan’s string hanging limp from above. Laura turns back to her room and sees herself in the same position within the painting’s doorway. She wakes up and takes the painting off the wall.
Lodged within the deleted scenes of Fire Walk with Me is one of the most haunting sequences Lynch has ever filmed, one which also reconfirms the centrality of the fan. Laura makes her way up the stairs, stopping when she hears the voice of BOB. “Do you see what we can do?” he growls. The camera closes in on the ceiling fan. This scene seems to be a variation on the one that finds Laura staring at the fan, practically drugged by BOB’s power. Here, however, Lynch cuts to a close-up on Laura, rhythmically oversaturated by the strobing yellow light of the fan. Her blank expression remains, her eyes wide open and her pupils subtly dilating, but her mouth gradually gives way. Her teeth clench together. Ever so slowly, her bottom lip sinks toward her chin and her upper lip grows thinner. An empty smile fixes itself to her face, giving her a deeply demonic appearance. The scene is so striking, it’s a surprise it was left on the cutting room floor. It hints at a weakness in Laura. BOB manages to possess her, even if for a moment. He has commanded even the banal aspects of her home, weaponizing what should be a place of refuge from the pressures in her life.
In the instantly iconic eighth hour of The Return, it is suggested that BOB was created on July 16th, 1945, in the aftermath of the detonation of the first atomic bomb in White Sands, New Mexico, as we spot him floating in an orb within the ricocheting haze of manmade obliteration. Lynch slowly pushes his viewers into the depths of the mushroom cloud, a space of heat and destruction where colors and shapes rock the screen unrelentingly. As this sequence ends, the camera floats over a purple sea to a gothic, luminous building perched upon the jagged rocks of an island. Inside, a tall figure who is eventually revealed to be “The Fireman,” and a woman named Senorita Dido walk into a large theater where they watch the same previous five minutes of The Return the viewers just did. The two of them spot BOB floating in the atomic storm, pausing the film to take in his mischievous grin. At this moment, The Fireman begins to float slowly toward the ceiling, levitating horizontally in front of the cinema screen. He exhales a gold substance from his mouth, out of which an orb floats down to Dido. She catches the orb in her hands with awe, bringing it closer to her face. Encased within its glowing, honey hue, we can make out the faint visage of Laura Palmer.
The image we see of Laura within the orb is the same one that made her face (really, Sheryl Lee’s face) iconic across the globe in the days of Twin Peaks’ initial run: a portrait of a young girl with a blankly pretty smile, Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen. This image is returned to countlessly in the original series—it is housed within a glass trophy case in Laura’s high school and framed on a table in the Palmer house. As the end credits would roll on an episode, this image would often sit in the background, Laura’s face haunting the viewer while her memorable theme, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, would play loudly and suddenly. In a way, her framed image is the ultimate object of Twin Peaks and perhaps Lynch’s filmography.
In one of the few moments when Badalamenti’s original score is used in The Return, Laura’s former boyfriend—now Twin Peaks deputy—Bobby Briggs walks into the sheriff’s department conference room to find her portrait sitting on the table among boxes of evidence. Her theme swells, as does Briggs, overcome with emotion. “Laura Palmer…” he blurts, caught off guard by his tears. “Man,” he says with a sniff. “Brings back some memories.” This image of Laura, forever frozen in time as a beauty queen beloved by all, serves as a physical stand-in for her memory. With time, the trials and trauma of Laura’s personal experiences are cropped from the frame, and she is flattened into an object of pride and glamour. Gruesomely objectified in her lifetime, she is objectified after death in her memorialization.
Lynch has at times been perceived as a misogynist, given that his female characters, in keeping with the traditions of horror and noir, are frequently abused, raped, hysterical, their nude bodies displayed frequently across his films. His favorite object—beyond canvases, beyond trees, beyond the coffee and cigarettes never far from his lips—is women. The sequence in the Fireman’s place reveals, however, that Laura Palmer is literally an object, manufactured, seemingly as an oppositional response to the creation of BOB. While BOB represents, as Agent Albert Rosenfeld supposed, “the evil that men do,” Laura was put into the world as a source of light. Her goodness stands in contrast to the heroic posturing of Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI, whose hubris gravely fails him when he traverses time and space in an attempt to save whom he deems to be a damsel in distress. In attempting to create a timeline in which Laura Palmer was never murdered, he ends up summoning a dark force possibly greater than that of BOB—a force called “Judy.”
In The Return’s final hour, Cooper drives a long, dark distance with a woman who he believes to be Laura Palmer, intent on bringing her home safely to her family. However, when they arrive at the house, they are greeted not by Laura’s mother Sarah—but by a middle-aged woman named Alice Tremond. Stepping back onto the street, a stunned Cooper wonders aloud, “What year is this?” Just then, Sarah Palmer’s voice calls out from beyond with such force it causes the house to quake. The lights inside flicker. Sarah cries out Laura’s name in a slow, low roar. The woman Cooper has brought with him screams in horror and anguish. The air, the time, certainty itself—everything has been inverted by an unknown evil, caught in that traumatic loop.
Cooper’s final odyssey mirrors Scottie’s similarly patriarchally crazed mission in Hitchcock’s Vertigo: both men transform a doomed blonde to change her fate, only to fail and induce consequences far more dire, damned by a mysterious Judy. Slavoj Žižek writes in his book Living in the End Times, “Of course one cannot change the past reality/actuality, but what one can change is the virtual dimension of the past— when something radically New emerges, this New retroactively creates its own possibility, its own causes/conditions.” Referencing Vertigo directly, he continues: “What Scottie first experiences in Vertigo is the loss of Madeleine, his fatal love; when he recreates Madeleine in Judy…the very loss is lost, we get a ‘negation of negation.’ His discovery changes the past…” The same can be said of Cooper and Laura.
“Who killed Laura Palmer?” As evidenced by the show’s narrative, as well as behind-the-scenes accounts of its production, this iconic question, the mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks, was one that David Lynch was unsurprisingly not too keen on answering. The mystery, like film, is the thing. Ultimately, David Lynch killed Laura Palmer. He placed her, pale and wrapped in plastic, at the edge of a gray, rainy shore. The senselessness of this grisly sight would be enough for any other crime procedural to make its point, moving on each week to another dead girl. The entire modus operandi of Twin Peaks, as well as much of Lynch’s work, however, is to stare hard into senselessness until something appears. Something, as Cooper put it, “both wonderful and strange.” In a truly scary moment in The Return, Lynch’s Gordon Cole answers a knock at his hotel room door and finds Laura’s oversized apparition wailing on the other side. It’s a remarkable scene, not simply because it’s surprisingly the only interaction between Cole and Laura within Twin Peaks, but because it feels like some sort of personal acknowledgment by Lynch of his creation’s psychic weight.
To contend with the emotional and metaphysical ramifications of one girl’s murder, David Lynch created a haunted house and a haunted family. The Palmers are all stuck in destructive loops. For Laura, it’s a vicious cycle of vice and objectification. For Leland, it’s inflicting pain, and for Sarah, it’s her hysterical grief. In one of The Return’s most compelling sequences, Sarah Palmer, now a gray-haired, dour alcoholic, sits in front of her TV drinking and watching a boxing match. The footage of the match is caught in a short loop, skipping like a record. Men bludgeon each other on a ghostly bluish screen. A harsh alarm of sorts honks rhythmically. The television repeats itself, just as the ceiling fan always circulates. The Palmer household is an interminable cyclone of pain. When Cooper attempts to overcome this horror, he ruptures this temporal trap, but he has foolishly meddled with dark forces. We cannot always understand or unmake the evil this world holds. There are no satisfactory explanations. Lynch’s films, like dreams, are unanswerable questions—and we are left to wonder while everything spins.