When I bought Greg Olson's Beautiful Dark last October, Chapter 8 was what I was most looking forward to. This is the chapter where Olson discusses the one David Lynch film I have truly studied in-depth: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I was tempted, back then, to read the chapter first, before I read any other part of the book. But my sense of duty to Olson's work compelled me to wait, to read the book in order. So now here I am, half-way through the book with the most fascinating chapter Olson has written yet.
Olson begins the book with a concluding look at the critical reaction to Wild At Heart. (It is here that Olson defends the film against complaints of excessiveness. I won't get into a lengthy rebuttal to Olson, other than to say that I think Wild At Heart is excessive and that much of the criticism leveled at the film is quite justified.)
Olson then looks closely at the second season of Twin Peaks with a focus on Lynch's contributions to the series. Olson's summaries and analyses are all very good but there is nothing terribly surprising about his account of the second season. The rise and fall of Twin Peaks is well known even to casual fans. The show lost its way in the second season and there all sorts of reasons why: Lynch was not as involved in production; Kyle MacLachlan objected to the proposed Cooper/Audrey romance; ABC pre-empted the show too often. What was new, were some candid observations from Mark Frost who, as Olson notes, takes much of the responsibility for the show's loss of direction: "I regret my decision to not be there [during the latter part of the show's second season]. And that's where we dropped the ball." (p. 364)
Olson provides a brief examination of Twin Peaks' stunning final episode, describing how Lynch returned to the series and was "determined to give Twin Peaks a final jolt of magic and poetry" (p. 360.). This part of the chapter is crucial and much-appreciated. Too often the final episode of Twin Peaks is overlooked by critics who forget there is a gem deep in the wastelands of the second season. The final episode is one of series' major achievements and, by itself, is arguably one of Lynch's great short-films. Luckily, Olson is well aware of the power of the final episode and devotes a number of pages of description and analysis.
Olson then moves on to his examination of Fire Walk With Me. It is here, at the heart of the chapter--and the heart of the book--that Olson supplies a valuable contribution to the study of FWWM. Olson had access to location shooting for FWWM in Washington State in 1991. As a result, he had the unique experience of watching Lynch and the actors (such as Sheryl Lee, Dana Ashbrook, Kyle MacLachlan and Ray Wise) shoot some of the film's critical scenes. Olson observed the process Lynch uses with actors to rehearse lines, to develop a scene, and to find that perfect "Lynchian" moment that makes it to the screen. Olson's reporting from the location of FWWM is new, exciting and informative.
Personally, I relish any new writing about FWWM. This is why I so appreciated Olson's first-person account of his days and nights on location with the production. But this may also be why I was somewhat disappointed by Olson's analysis of the film. While he does provide abundant detail about the plot and themes of FWWM, Olson ultimately falls back to the most common interpretation of the movie: that Laura Palmer chooses death to stop BOB from tormenting her: "Her primal need is to save herself from BOB, and to do so she must die" (p. 390). Olson briefly considers--and just as quickly dismisses--the idea that Laura may be doing more than merely saving herself, that she might be trying to defeat Bob: "Laura [is] in a position that . . . echoes the position of ancient Tibetan Buddhist nuns who . . . personally engaged and grappled with devouring demons in order to keep the world safe from harm. However, Laura is not a sacrificial lamb with a martyr complex." (p. 390) Well, of course not, but isn't Laura something more than a teenager who has been abused? Isn't BOB more than a mere figment of her imagination? Isn't their conflict far more complex than it appears?
There is a lot going on in FWWM and in order to make sense of the Owl Cave ring and the angels and the Red Room and the garmonbozia, one has to look past the surface story of Laura Palmer to see a bigger story at play. At some point Laura Palmer did just that--she saw something happening that was larger than herself. And while she may not have become a "sacrificial lamb" who martyred herself, she became more than a mere victim of BOB--she became his opponent. This (to me) is why she takes the ring. She denies him the kind of power he has gained through his alliance with Arm (the Little Man from Another Place). This also helps explain the presence of the angels and Laura's misunderstanding (until the end) of her own goodness as a force against evil.
Few critics (even those who are pre-disposed to Lynch) give much thought to Fire Walk With Me. Many dismiss it as a weak epilog to a failed TV series. But FWWM is a rich and powerful film that requires a lot of critical thinking to decode, a lot of serious study to access its secrets. The difficulty of FWWM prompted Lynch-critic Michel Chion to write about the film: "[It] operates on an impenetrable, unreadable surface . . . . It is seamless; there is no way in." (Michel Chion, David Lynch, (BFI Publishing, 1995), p. 157)
But FWWM is not impenetrable. Daunting, perhaps, and, like the final episode of Twin Peaks, easy to dismiss--but not impenetrable. Olson has proven to be a perceptive and adept Lynch critic (he may be one of the best Lynch analysts out there) but he seems to glide over FWWM without the deep consideration he has given to Lynch's other works. Surprisingly, he has chosen to make FWWM one part of one chapter in a book about David Lynch. But maybe the film needed a little more discussion, a little more time devoted to it. Perhaps it would have been more fitting to give Fire Walk With Me a chapter of its own.
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