Tuesday, 9 June 2009

David Lynch Directs

You change as you get older. That's a fact from which you can't escape, however hard you try. You get wrinkles 'round your eyes, and chins beneath your chin. Your pecs turn to moobs and your knees creak when you stand up too quickly. But the changes that happen to your body are as nothing compared to the changes in your mind, in your heart, in your soul.

You get old. You get boring. You know more and are, therefore, no longer as surprised. The world scares you less, but it thrills you less, too. You start eating healthy breakfasts at a decent hour of the morning, after a bracing walk, instead of coming round in strange rooms after a wild night, stumbling out the door, and dragging yourself half into consciousness by throwing a gallon of bad coffee down your throat. You forget what it's like to kneel on the floor of your room, going out of your mind, sobbing, awestruck at the pain and wonder of the world.

And then occassionally you see or hear something that brings it all back. A stimulus that breaks down all your defenses and changes you, like a sleeper agent hearing the activation code, back into the strange, mad-eyed, beautifully damaged creature you once were, even if only for a moment.

For me, that thing is Fire Walk With Me , David Lynch's prequel/sequel to the Twin Peaks TV series. I first saw it in 1997, and it burned itself into my brain like a thermonuclear branding iron. A lot of people couldn't stand this film: it got booed at Cannes, and there are even some fans of the TV show who don't like it (on the other hand, it's Mark Kermode's favourite Lynch film so swivel, bitches). But at the time there was, for me, some deep resonance, an objective correlative between the mood of this film and my own state of mind during those formative years.

Fire Walk with Me is a fairy tale not for adults, or for children, but for adolescents, trapped in that terrifying void between the two. When you're that age, you see, with 20/20 vision, the horror of the world. You see that to be a child is to be weak, to be defenceless, to be prey to exploitation by anyone older than you - and so you strive to be stronger, to be harder, to be more like one of the grown-ups - but you also see with absolute clarity that the vast majority of the adult world is corrupt in ways you can barely begin to comprehend. So you try - like Laura Palmer, the film's heroine and emotional centre, played to frightening perfection by Sheryl Lee in one of the screen's greatest portrayals of madness - to hold onto the innocence of your youth, all the while knowing that your struggle to do so is doomed.

Fire Walk with Me is David Lynch's teen horror movie, and, by sticking close to the rules of the teen horror canon, Lynch exposes that canon's inherent misogyny and hatefulness. All the girls in the film who die are 'guilty' of the 'crime' of being sexually active outside of conventional attachments - of being, in that brutish, woman-hating word so beloved of a certain kind of close-minded male, 'sluts' - but this isn't because they're evil, sinful strumpets. It's because the adult world has damaged them beyond any hope of ever being 'good' in the conventional sense of the word. And the psycho-killer responsible for their murders isn't some hockey-masked Nietzschean proxy for the director, but someone altogether weaker, altogether more pathetic, and terrifyingly close to home.

Lee's performance as Laura Palmer is stellar, but my favourite performance in the film is that of Moira Kelly as Laura's best friend, Donna. I say 'best friend', but it becomes clear in the course of the film that what Donna wants is something more than that, though what exactly isn't clear. It's too simplistic to say that Donna is in love with Laura, but even more simplistic to say her feelings for Laura are a mere infatuation. Maybe it's even the case that she wants to be Laura. If this sounds familiar, it should: an awul lot of teenage relationships are this kind of admixture of love, infatuation and role-modelling. But for whatever reason, Donna wants desperately to be closer to Laura, and in one of the most morally and emotionally charged scenes in the film, she crosses a line in her desperation to get there.

Donna follows Laura to a bar where Laura regularly picks up men who pay to have sex with her. As Laura sits down with two such men, Donna goes over to their table, downs a slug of whiskey, and makes it clear that, however much Laura tries to dissuade her, she wants to be part of the package. There follows a long, hallucinatory scene during which, under the influence of drugs and booze, Laura and Donna both find themselves having sex with these men, until Laura, in a moment of clarity, realises the degree to which Donna's innocence is at hazard and drags her from the bar. The next day, safe at Donna's house, Laura tells Donna that she loves her too, but that she doesn't want Donna to be like her.

It's a noble choice, a brave one, and a self-sacrificing one, and in another film, with a different director, it might be enough to ensure that Laura was redeemed in a conventional sense and got a well-deserved happy ending. But this isn't a different film. Lynch knows that sometimes the good, self-sacrificing act isn't rewarded. Sometimes children are abused by the adult world and the adults go unpunished. Sometimes hookers die alone, violently, in the dark, in the most horrible of places, even if they do have hearts of gold.

This is what is so great about Fire Walk with Me, and Lynch's ouevre in general: his films are so horrific because they're grounded in realism. The scene with the cowboy in Mulholland Drive is frightening because we've all, at one time or another, been on the end of intimidating conversations like that. Frank Booth in Blue Velvet is terrifying because we know, deep down, that despite all the Hollywood bullshit, he's what real gangsters are like: violent, perverted thugs willing to do anything to get revenge on people for even the most minor slights. And the supposedly 'surreal' stuff in Lynch frightens us because we've all lived through moments in which the weird breaks through violently into our supposedly ordered lives.

David Lynch isn't a great director because he's culty and creepy and self-consciously weird. He's a great director because he's a realist. And that's why a film like Fire Walk with Me hit me like a punch in the gut when I was 19 years old, and can still leave me reeling now, a whole twelve years later.

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