Laura Palmer & The Good ‘Death’
Not sure I’m going to be able to explain this but…
I can’t tell you how many time I’ve seen Fire Walk With Me. From the time it first came out, through the times I’ve watched it on video, then DVD, then again at the cinema as part of the Twin Peaks UK festival, and finally on Blu-ray; but that final scene, without fail, always gets me. I always go cold and I always tear up.
There is something about that scene that I think -describes is not the right word- perhaps illustrates death better than anything I’ve ever seen.
But let’s get a few things out of the way:
#1 – *Spoilers* of course
#2 – This is not My Grand TheoryTM as to what this or that means, this is not an attempt to decode or explain anything. I almost never read fan theories, particularly of Lynch’s work, as I find the very idea of them self-defeating and reductive. This is nothing more than a description of what that scene in particular makes me feel and think.
“It makes me uncomfortable to talk about meanings and things. It’s better not to know so much about what things mean. Because the meaning, it’s a very personal thing and the meaning for me is different than the meaning for somebody else.” – David Lynch
#3 – When I say in the title Good Death, I refer not to the way in which Laura dies (which is about as far from any definition of ‘good’ as you could imagine) but to her appearance and ‘experience’ after death. I deliberately chose not to use the term ‘afterlife’ as personally I do not believe in such a thing and nor do I believe that such a belief (or even suspension of disbelief) is necessary to ‘get’ Fire Walk With Me. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that, in this context, I mean that the way she dies is violent and dreadful but her ‘death’ is what follows that; her state of being dead.
But let me describe the scene. Following her brutal murder and BOB / Leland’s return to The Black Lodge / Red Room, the close up of the monkey and the slow motion discovery of her body (anyone who hasn’t seen the film now likely thinks I’ve had some kind of stroke) the camera moves slowly across the brown and cream chevron floor towards the red curtains; then we see Laura, seated. Standing beside her, his hand on her shoulder, is Agent Cooper. She’s looking up at him, perhaps sadly, perhaps hopefully; he is smiling down at her. A realisation seems to hit her (perhaps of her death?) and she looks away. There is a flash of light and we see an angel. Laura begins to cry, but also to smile, then to laugh, all the time tears rolling down her cheeks. The camera pulls back and credits roll over a still of her face, framed in blinding light, smiling.
Gets me every time.
For me this illustrates death in such an incredibly original and moving way. We’ve seen the terrible things that have happened to Laura, we’ve followed her throughout her last seven days, and indeed watched the aftermath of her murder before even that. Her reaction to her own death feels so natural and unexpected, her tears, tears of relief, of joy, at the realisation that her suffering and pain is over; her laughter perhaps also of relief, but also at the horrific absurdity of life. Add to that Sheryl Lee’s frankly impossibly emotionally intricate and convincing performance throughout the film and I’m knocked sideways at every single viewing. It’s not of course a happy ending, but it remains, to me at least, a strangely uplifting one.
“At the centre of it an absolutely fantastic performance by Sheryl Lee, a performance of operatic intensity. Frankly, I don’t care who else was nominated for Oscars that year, the fact that she was overlooked because no one liked the movie that she was in, is shameful.” – Mark Kermode
So, Lynch fan likes Lynch film, so what, right? Well fair point but that scene also had a strange resonance for me in a place I absolutely didn’t expect it to appear. Let me explain.
October 2014; I was lucky enough to be appearing in Dickie Beau’s strange and moving production Camera Lucida at The Barbican. As part of the rehearsal process we all went along to a ‘re-birthing’ workshop.
Re-birthing, as I understand it, is a way to A) deal with trauma supposedly created at your birth and B) sometimes to regress you to a former life. Now, full disclosure, I find the first of these ideas somewhat dubious and the second I don’t believe in at all. But I thought, in for a penny, we’re doing this as a cast, so let’s see what happens.
We were told to lie on the floor, the room was darkened. We were then taught a particular rhythmic breathing method which we all then adhered to for the next hour. We closed our eyes.
Over the next hour several strange things happened.
Some experienced odd sensations, others said they felt the pain from physical injuries long since healed, I think one of us fell asleep (no, it wasn’t me). My arms, which started relaxed by my sides, over time contracted, bringing my hands into claws beside my face, which also contorted strangely (more strangely than usual). When the exercise was over, a number of us, myself included, spoke of ‘seeing things’ during the process.
Now. It seems very logical indeed to me that if you breathe in a certain way whilst lying down in a dark room that the oxygen flow to your brain will be altered and thus so will your mental state. Nothing problematic there. There could also be something along the lines of self-hypnosis going on, a kind of trance state; again, no problem. So when I say that I saw things, I speak of something approaching a kind of conscious dreaming.
I saw THREE things.
#1 – The first was my wife’s face. I think probably smiling, she does that rather well.
#2 – The second was the outline of a body, I think male, falling in space, against a starfield.
#3 – The third was Laura Palmer’s face from that final scene, laughing and crying.
Afterwards, describing these things to the others I was struck by just how deeply this scene has been implanted in my subconscious (together with just how contrary my mind has to be to make a ‘birthing’ exercise all about death and the inherent ridiculousness of it).
Postscript, from The Missing Pieces:
DOC HAYWARD: The angels will return. And when you see the one that’s meant to help you, you will weep with joy.