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MOVIE REVIEW : Lynch Takes Another ‘Walk’ on the Wild Side

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As with Mark Twain’s premature mortality, the reports of David Lynch’s artistic demise have been greatly exaggerated. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (throughout San Diego County), released without press screenings to protect Lynch from the critics who once doted on him, is not the disaster this strategy suggests.

“Eraserhead” or “Blue Velvet” it’s not, but this movie swims in their stream. It’s another mixture of subversive dreaminess, winking kitsch and offbeat wit, a nightmare in soft, jazzy smears and weird shades of dread.

*

A “prequel” to Lynch and Mark Frost’s amusingly twisted 1990-91 TV series, “Fire Walk” covers the events that preceded it, and in one way the film lives up to its bad press. It’s the most outwardly sleazy of all Lynch’s movies, the rawest and raunchiest, the least circumspect. Full of striptease and scandal, violence, orgy and feverish nightmare, the movie is a kind of mass opening of the sewers that always lay beneath Twin Peaks’ placid streets.

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Like the hero of his own “Blue Velvet,” Lynch often comes across as a boyish voyeur peeking into dark, dangerous places, and in “Fire Walk” he’s gazing, once again, into an American abyss. Up on top: Northwestern sunshine, pretty girls, apple-cheeked normality. Below: bad dreams, rot and hellfire.

It’s as if, instead of peeking through another mysterious keyhole, Lynch decided to dynamite the door off. He even begins with a blast, a shot of a TV screen exploding to bits--which is probably a joke about the frustrations of working in American television, trying to sneak in the perverse jokes, the goofy mystical musings.

“Fire Walk” shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, complete unto itself. It’s the real last act of the “Twin Peaks” saga, which like most detective stories loops back and ends near its own beginning. In the series, we began by discovering the plastic-wrapped body of blond teen angel homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Then, in teasing increments, we peeled open the horror around her, with coffee-and-doughnut-loving Zen FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) as our jolly guide.

This movie starts with another, previous murder and more daffy FBI agents (Chris Isaak, Keifer Sutherland, David Bowie). But Lee, not MacLachlan, is the star, and the real subject is Laura Palmer’s last week of life: a descent into madness, which also involves her TV playmates Dana Ashbrook and James Marshall.

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We get, in one giddy gulp, Laura’s demonic home life with Dad Ray Wise and Mom Grace Zabriskie, witness her murder, even dive into her nightmares. When we see one of her dreams--with the same eerie red anteroom and boogeying, backward-talking dwarf (Michael Anderson) who haunted Cooper--it’s clear she and Cooper are psychic twins, inside each other’s heads and hells.

Lynch himself appears early in “Fire Walk,” as hearing-impaired FBI agent Gordon Cole, and he plays his part almost like an actor in an Ed Wood Jr. movie: so emptily stiff, emphatic and out-to-lunch, he keeps cracking you up. That knowing badness and oddness is a key to “Twin Peaks.” It was a soap opera about soap operas, about all their lurid stratagems, absurdities and secret undercurrents--and the crazy, dark things they revealed about the American psyche.

That’s why there doesn’t seem much defining morality here, why the movie sometimes looks like a pornographic wallow in Laura’s degradation--because the “morality” in soap operas, and many movies, is obviously phony, an empty pretext. Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels don’t avoid this emptiness. They turn it into another rapt, double-edged joke.

When movie artists with idiosyncratic sensibilities inject themselves into the mainstream, there are two dangers. The mainstream may swallow them up or spit them out. Lately, it’s the critics who have been spitting. And perhaps, by “Wild at Heart,” Lynch lost some admirers because they felt that, instead of the genius movie rebel they originally took him for, he was just a cultural-political conservative with kinky tastes.

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Couldn’t he be both? And, in a way, isn’t that duality what’s funny and terrifying--and even arousing--about his films? By itself, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” isn’t a superior movie. But it does cap off a pop-cultural landmark, with all the bad taste and high style required. At its best, it’s a dream within a dream, a nightmare in endlessly reflecting pop mirrors, a screen full of TV-movie sex and horror kitsch blowing up right in our faces.

‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’

Sheryl Lee: Laura Palmer

Ray Wise: Leland Palmer

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Kyle MacLachlan: Agent Dale Cooper

Moira Kelly: Donna Hayward

A New Line Cinema/Francis Bouygues presentation of a CIBY Pictures production. Director David Lynch. Executive producers Lynch, Mark Frost. Screenplay by Robert Engels, Lynch. Cinematographer Ron Garcia. Editor Mary Sweeney. Production design/costumes Patricia Norris. Music Angelo Badalamenti. With Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Dana Ashbrook, Grace Zabriskie, James Marshall. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language, sensuality, violence, drug use).

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