Laura of a Thousand Faces: Mythic Forms in FIRE WALK WITH ME
(This was written in May 2017, before any episodes of TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN aired; my writing on The Return can be found, for now, at letoilemagazine.com, though I may migrate the content over here. This essay was originally submitted to BWDR as part of their Mythology issue and--perhaps justly--didn't make the cut. Anyway, it's August 28, and FIRE WALK WITH ME turns 25 today, so it's a good time for some housecleaning).
There’s a major scene in Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 1990-1991 television series Twin Peaks where Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis) surprises FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) at his hotel room to delivery classified information. Briggs reveals his involvement with Project Bluebook, the government’s top secret investigation of UFOs, but that his business in the Pacific Northwest has a particular twist, whereas satellites are customarily beamed out to “the heavens above,” Briggs’ post in Twin Peaks has him looking to decode “the earth below.” The scene is an instrumental chapter in Cooper’s investigation of local homecoming queen Laura Palmer’s murder, and his journey towards the surrounding woods’ supernatural Black Lodge, where he will confront—and fall victim to—his shadow self. But it’s also instrumental in tempering the TV phenom’s dwindling audience in 1990, impatient with a prime time soap opera’s unsolved whodunit. The external answer we crave—“Who killed Laura Palmer?”—obscures the more formidable inward labyrinth. Lynch’s 1992 feature prequel, Fire Walk With Me, abandons the stalwart male hero’s journey—caught in a stalemate as Cooper is stuck in the Lodge—for one far more complex. It’s through Laura’s inward journey, coupled with a reappraisal of her abusive father Leland (Ray Wise), that Twin Peaks achieves catharsis, reconciling its outer mysteries with spiritual submission.
Lynch’s earlier film Blue Velvet (1986) never caught traction with Joseph Campbell-enthusiasts the way, for example, Star Wars did. Its ambivalences about small town American ideals—the waving fireman, white picket fences, banal dinner table dialogue—were often interpreted as mockery, set alongside a vicious Freudian parody of domesticity, the infantile baby/daddy (Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth) coming home to abuse and rape mommy (Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens). The love-bringing robin dreamt by girl-next-door Sandy (Laura Dern) is, at the synth-drenched happy ending, a stuffed bird as flagrantly artificial as the smiles and well-wishes encountered at the crosswalk, a sunny countenance covering the carnal screech, “Don’t you fucking look at me! Baby wants to fuck!”
But then, the insect—representing evil—in that robin’s mouth is also artificial. In retrospect, what makes Blue Velvet so seminal is how Lynch effortlessly transmitted mythological forms into immanent surroundings, the film being a collision of Good and Evil, navigating through the most basic—and so most intimate and disturbing—terrain of human experience beginning with the vibrant echoes of the domestic space, or the child’s voyeuristic experience of the parents, identity tumbling through an incoherent maze of imposed personae, in which the waking dreamer confronts an irreconcilably tragic world (“Why are there people like Frank?” being the fundamental question we must ask ourselves, ranging from violent crimes to politics of self-interest). Lynch uses cinema to express a sense of how all phenomenon is a façade of forms—often beautiful, sometimes grotesque—perpetually in transition, underneath which is the undiscovered unifying great Self (called the “Unified Field” by Lynch). Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is the hero who finds himself in a Minotaur maze and uses mastery of the senses—in this case, sound, by fooling Frank Booth’s ears—to slay the beast from where he first beheld hell, the “womb” closet. The film relays Campbell’s sentiment on happy endings: “The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.” Jeffrey and Sandy recognize “it’s a strange world,” and are reconciled to its constructs and theatre. The robin isn’t just a “stuffed bird.” This is one of God’s masks, or perhaps a kind of prayer to be gathered into "the artifice of eternity" as in W.B. Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium," similarly concluding with a mechanical bird wrought by alchemical magic.
Lynch isn’t drawing from any kind of established schema with his characters’ respective journeys; as authentically as the myths do, he’s drawing from dreams. This is what sets the suffering and trauma of his characters—Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Lula (Dern) in Wild at Heart, Diane/Betty (Naomi Watts) in Mulholland Dr., Nikki (Dern) in INLAND EMPIRE, and most definitively Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me—apart from his peers. There’s a raw collision with the whirlwind of external surfaces and personae, analogous to the powerlessness of the dreamer helplessly writhing in the subterranean unconscious. However “weird” his work appears on the surface, Lynch is one of our most accomplished psychological realists.
In 1991 those “weird” surfaces were diminished as a fad (indeed, most Twin Peaks episodes not directed by Lynch often feel like they’re imitating a novelty). The fad having run its course, Fire Walk With Me was booed and reviled on release, including (if not especially) by Twin Peaks fans, who see the quirkier world they were expecting obliterated: the first image is a television being smashed. Significantly removed is the buffer of being pouched in the quirky male sleuth Agent Cooper’s agency. In the 1990-1991 series, Laura Palmer is a corpse “wrapped in plastic,” an enigmatic cipher in flux and subject to interpretation, her suffering abstracted as we journeyed with Cooper and the town’s residents towards the resolution of her murder. True to its title, Fire Walk With Me takes us through an unflinching Inferno of Laura’s incestuous rape, drug addiction, self loathing, and finally her gruesome murder. In Sheryl Lee’s extraordinary performance, Laura becomes a uniquely capacious character. She is still the victim, but she traverses a whole spectrum of archetypes: she is the heroine in danger, the temptress, the goddess, and, most significantly, she supplants the hapless Cooper—who seems to serve as her guiding shade-stricken Virgil at the conclusion—as the Hero. While her corpse is the catalyst for Twin Peaks’ story, her face bursting in healing light is its completion.
We are hurled into disorientation lateral to Laura’s. The forty minute opening act, taking place a year before Laura’s murder, is antipodal to the familiar town of “damn fine coffee and cherry pie.” It follows the investigation of the murder of a “bizarro Laura,” Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), a lonely teenage drifter without a family, her indelicately handled corpse cracking with rigor mortis on forensic investigation. The affable police of Twin Peaks are replaced by the corrupt belligerence of Deer Meadow’s Sheriff Cable (Gary Bullock), and the eccentric enthusiasm of Agent Cooper now discarded for the suave arrogance of Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak). Desmond’s inquiries, along with dopey forensics specialist Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland, himself the opposite of Miguel Ferrer’s razor-witted Albert Rosenfield), lead to dead ends, including the agent’s own disappearance, concluding with absolute incoherence back at the FBI’s Philadelphia offices. The patriarchal guidance of Lynch and Frost’s sublimely talented J. Edgars is in full collapse, and the director himself, David Lynch playing Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, can’t offer us consolation.
But Lynch, who is the first face we see on-screen (the director setting a befuddling tempest of absurdity in motion), is interrogating his own work, and certainly our relationship to it. Both Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer stare into a picture until their corporeal forms take up space in the picture, becoming subject and object before the story disappears into the happenstance of what passes in those pictures: the invasive return of the long-lost Agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie) in Cooper’s surveillance screen, and later Laura into the supernatural environs of the Lodge spirits. The audience brings expectations to a TV-spinoff, only to have that world of appearances subverted. We’re thrown into a crisis, and so like Laura, undergo an underworld journey. A frustrated Cooper, meanwhile, tries to make his image reliably static in an external frame. But Laura’s searching eyes, moving into the picture on her wall, reveals an internal destination.
We cut from the confusion in Philadelphia to a year later in Twin Peaks. Laura goes to school with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly), carries on a secret affair with motorcycle boy James (James Marshall), and fights with her dealer boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook). In the span of a few minutes, Sheryl Lee conveys multitudes. She’s the chummy and loyal confidant, the pathetic addict, the lusty temptress, and then effortlessly moves from angry girlfriend to smiling comeliness. Everyone helplessly submits to her powerful magnetism. Bobby, like us, is reduced to a gleeful puddle of enthusiasm after Laura puts on the mask satisfying her hungry spectator. She’s mastered every terrestrial countenance, moving in circles like the fan near her bedroom—the same fan that serves as a sonic drape, obscuring the nocturnal rapes she’s endured at the hands of her father for the last six years.
Donna asks her, “Do you think if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” “Faster and faster,” Laura answers. “And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. Then you’d burst into fire. Forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.” Laura is divulging her psychological state, moving too fast through personae and lost to the expectations of those around her. Then there is the failure to come to grips with what we already know, but what she cannot face: her father, jealous of her ripening sexuality, is her rapist, and yet also, to make her feel more dislocated, a splintered man who genuinely loves his daughter. It’s an insoluble paradox. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) approaches her at the Road House entrance. “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out,” she says to Laura, “The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.” The Wise Godmother hands down a warning of the consumptive fire, after which Laura, preparing to prostitute herself, fixes upon her reflection, caught in her transient and lustrous form, moving closer so as to hold onto herself.
Her dreams take us into the red-draped Lodge, introducing a green ring given by a dwarf who calls himself The Arm (Michael J. Anderson). The ring is purportedly fearful, first mentioned in Twin Peaks (episode 16) when the One-Armed Man MIKE/Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel) mentions “a golden circle” of “appetite and satisfaction.” In Fire Walk With Me, Agent Desmond spotted the ring on Teresa Banks’ finger in photographs. He himself disappears after finding it set on a mound of dirt. The ring seems to denote destructive power, dooming those that wear it. In Laura’s dream, Cooper warns, “Don’t take the ring.”
But then again, Laura is already caught within the circle. It’s not an object “out there” so much as it’s something that has suffused her life. After Laura meets two johns at the Roadhouse, Lynch cuts to a shining circle before arcing down to dancers and musicians luxuriating in noise and strobe lights. This “Pink Room” is intoxicating, sexually uninhibited, alluring and satisfying not only to the characters it hosts, but to the voyeurs in the audience (Donna, curious and protective, is our double here). It’s a space tellingly akin to the supernatural Black Lodge, where the audience reads obfuscated and inarticulate speech through subtitles, in both cases the words making little sense: “Garbombozia,” “Fell a victim,” “Electricity,” “I am the Arm”/“I am the Great Went,” “I’m as blank as a fart,” “There’s no tomorrow,” “I am the Muffin,” etc. The words are surfaces without reference. The Pink Room is total indulgence in external senses and forms—with special attention paid to the allure of bodies—while those senses are amplified through drugs and electricity, pummeling both Laura and the audience with an overwhelming array of artifice fulfilling the circle of perception, appetite, and satisfaction, lost in a flux that disengages one from everything except that which is right in front of them, pleasing to the eye and to the touch. To live is nothing other than what the senses ingest, and a word is nothing more than script printed on a screen. When Laura sees Donna being sexually taken advantage of, the truth of her compassion bursts through and there are no subtitles.
This circumscription of sense and meaning was established early in Fire Walk With Me with Gordon Cole’s introduction of “Lyl,” the dancing woman deciphered by Desmond and Stanley. All of Lyl’s attributes have a meaning, but note how everything is 1=1: walking in place means legwork; a closed fist means the cops will be belligerent; her tailored dress is code for drugs; she’s Cole’s “mother’s sister’s girl,” the missing “uncle” denoting something about Sheriff Cable’s uncle. Everything is external and awake, evenly lit and in plain sight, a palindrome of meaning. Lynch is playing with the legacy of Twin Peaks itself, where audience wanted to decipher Cooper’s dream to find the answer to Laura Palmer’s mystery. And yes, while “cracking the code solves the crime,” Laura herself remains a cipher, BOB categorized a simplified cliche (“the evil that men do”), and Cooper ends up trapped in the Lodge’s hyperreal wheel, his logic defeated by the unfathomable Shadow that eludes definition. Stuck on arbitrary signs and forms, the most important dynamic of the myth, self-knowledge, is out of reach. Twin Peaks is more than something about who killed Laura Palmer (out there); like Major Briggs’ satellites, it needs to plummet inside the depths of the object that will become a subject.
The mythic hero, according to Campbell, exercises “self-achieved submission,” but not to the body’s appetites or society’s mandates. Lynch’s close-ups highlight the agony in Fire Walk With Me’s two principle subjects, Laura and Leland, differentiating Laura’s ultimate embrace of her fate (and self-negation as she takes the ring to become a sacrifice), and Leland’s surrender to his base impulses. While Twin Peaks let murderous Leland off easy, pinning the blame on BOB’s demonic possession, Fire Walk With Me (working in tandem with Lynch’s finale, where a guise of Leland appears to Cooper in the Lodge and says with a sting of mockery, “I did not kill anybody”) complicates matters, suggesting Leland invited BOB to unlock desires he already had. Leland is a lawyer, and so a figurehead for the patriarchal Word of Law that’s hollow in the shadow of the looming dark woods. Leland carried on an extramarital affair with Teresa Banks, secure in his anonymity (“Who am I?” he asks her in bed. “I don’t know.” “That’s right”), while coveting and using his own daughter as a sexual object. He’s become his own Minotaur, or a reflection of King Minos, sacrificing his household for holdfast power. After he realizes Laura is part of Teresa’s prostitution ring, Leland walks away from a tryst—not only in flight from being “found out,” but also the realization of how his appetites have affected his daughter’s lifestyle. As he absconds, a Lodge spirit—a boy wearing a mask—jumps in circles. His transgressions revealed, Leland does not take the route to appraisal, confronting his shadow, but burrows deeper and faster into the ring of appetite. In contrast, Laura, spiraling deeper into addiction, looks up at the shadows on the wall and demands to know, “Who are you?!”
At last we see BOB rape Laura. The demon slides in through the window like a vampire, seemingly invited by her undulating self-stimulation. The scene is deeply disturbing because the monstrosity of the act is coupled with unhinged eroticism, the audience caught between fear and sexual voyeurism. Terror explodes when BOB is unmasked, the revealed father looking down in close-up at his screaming daughter. The realization is crippling for her, and it’s as if some reactant demonic force stirs within. The rape is echoed in a subsequent scene as Laura gets on top of Bobby, first in a full shot over a couch and then in reverse close-ups, hoping to get some drugs. While comparably benign, this scene with Bobby exudes abuse’s lingering stench, the victim caught in the cycle of self-dissolution, hungry senses craving anything to help forget the awful truth, meanwhile neglecting the well-being of others.
“Let’s get lost together,” Laura dreamily says to James, hours before she will die. She doesn’t want to exist, while James, in a way that greedily echoes Leland’s possessiveness, needs her to exist for him. She’s right in that he doesn’t know her. “Your Laura disappeared,” she says. “It’s just me now.” James and Donna know about the drugs, but not the labyrinth sprung from her father’s abuse. She’s on the cusp of surrendering to pure, enticing form, sensation and satisfaction. Leaving James, she runs into the woods, indulging in an orgiastic party with Ronette Pulaski (Pheobe Augustine), her pimp Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz), and Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe), disintegrating into self-abandon until she’s tied up by Jacques. “Please untie me,” she says. And it’s her bid for release prompting Leland/BOB’s final assault. The Law Giving “Father Savior” Leland—who initiated Laura into this golden circle of drugs and exploitation—attacks Jacques outside. Leo runs away, leaving the girls tied up (for which he will get comeuppance in the future, the show’s finale having him tied up by Windom Earle, Leo’s tremulous jaws holding a line that, if released, will drop venomous spiders on him). From there, Ronette and Laura are dragged to an abandoned railcar.
Electric sound effects ripple into an escalation of signal-to-noise incoherence. Leland/BOB’s interrogation of Laura is intercut with Ronette praying to a spiritual father who will “see” her. There’s a break in the noise. Silence calms the air and hovering above is an Angel, her eyes closed and hands reverently folded. Ronette is saved as one-armed MIKE opens the railcar door, after which he tosses the green ring into a circle created by Leland’s flashlight. Laura takes it, and wearing the ring curiously becomes the catalyst for her murder. In transgressing the logician Cooper’s warning and embracing the ring, she’s transcending the closed circle, embracing her fate and stepping above the holdfast cycle. Her sacrifice, conjoined with the arbitrary symbol of corn, is a harvest for the world of Twin Peaks that we will come to know.
The “afterlife” of this prequel/sequel, clasping future to past and back again, unmasks the plastic woman as the resurrected harvest deity, looking up at the flashing Empyrean stillness of the Angel. Flashing light gives shape to the world stage of forms broadcast in space and time as a television serial, the sacred crop manufactured and “canned” (like the creamed corn) in the dream of which we wear respective masks in stage roles. The blue light shining down on Laura is reminiscent of the scrambled television that began Fire Walk With Me, and she finds spiritual release in recognizing those sundry shapes that surrounded her but could never wholly control her. The tragedy of Laura Palmer’s life and death evaporates beneath a divine comedy revealing life as more than bodies and our attachment to them. “Only the bodies, of which this eternal, imperishable, incomprehensible Self is the indweller, are said to have an end,” the Bhagavad Gita says, a sentiment at the heart of Lynch’s work.
Campbell writes, “It is the business of mythology proper…to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and ‘unreal’: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs.” The hero is set upon this journey, and at the completion returns with enlightenment and rewards for the larger society. Fire Walk With Me is extraordinary because it wants to engage us in its hero’s suffering and progress as the ultimate boon giver, her death nurturing the drama that provides hours of entertainment, refusing to trivialize the significance of her suffering. Hell and the Black Lodge, be it for Dante or David Lynch or the great myths, is not reducible to allegory and simplistic interpretation. Laura Palmer’s self-achieved submission doesn’t enclose her in a box but makes her the fragrance and air that surrounds the universe of Twin Peaks, its cast of characters caught in soap opera cliffhangers released in the delightful and terrifying modality of the visible, as if she were the Vishnu dreaming the world in which the dreamers also dream.
NOTE: The novel idea that Laura Palmer is not necessarily looking at the Angel but watching the show TWIN PEAKS was originally proposed by Hussein Ibish in his blog, further elaborated on by Joel Bocko's rewarding multi-part video essay onFIRE WALK WITH ME.