Oppressive Americana in Splendor in the Grass and Fire Walk With Me

Oppressive Americana in Splendor in the Grass and Fire Walk With Me

Summer is in the air but there’s something sinister too, particularly for young girls with big dreams in suburban America. As Splendor in the Grass and Fire Walk With Me approach pivotal anniversaries this year, Carmen Paddock wrestles with the threatening traditions that doomed teenagers in Elia Kazan and David Lynch’s films.

Growing up in small-town, white America, I learned quickly that the Americana touted as exemplary – specifically by those from its same Protestant colonial tradition – is one of isolation. In a country and society built by some of the Christian world’s most zealous, the fear of neighbourly judgement cultivates a facade of righteousness and a rank mistrust of others. On this straight and narrow path, between houses of wood and brick and perfectly placed trees, this mistrust can extend to one’s own sense of self. For girls raised on a diet of denial, even ill-treatment, sugar-coated so that they believe it is care, the echoes and gnawing guilts of constant second-guessing and self-flagellation are hard to throw off. Hope does not thrive there. 

Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me both skillfully capture this oppressive Americana, as their heroines spiral towards self-immolation. Both films celebrate anniversaries this year (Splendor turns 60, Fire Walk With Me 30), each displaying the dark underbelly of a society many are, and were, nostalgic for. The same struggle for autonomy of body, mind, and soul plays out in cycles of abuse against backdrops of small-town niceties and closeted terrors.

The sufferings of Deanie Loomis and Laura Palmer are vastly different on the surface: Deanie breaks down after months of pressure from her mother to stay a nice girl (chaste, sexless, marriagable), landing in a mental institution and emerging a shadow of her ebuillent self; Laura’s sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her father possessed by the demon BOB ends in death, but she refuses to give the Black Lodge her soul. Deanie is threatened by the perceptions of those around her; Laura betrayed by misperceptions of her perfect life. But the abuse of both young women is cloaked in perverted parental bonds, which thrive in a peculiarly American moral and cultural obsession with teenage years. Despite different eras and circumstances, familial cycles of violence thrive behind picket fences and perfect homes, the slow crush of judgement snuffing out any chance of self-determination. 

That the two teenagers model Americana is a deft touch – both are high school beauties, football captains’ girlfriends, and single daughters of nuclear households. Deanie is cheeky, funny, and wise enough to trust her own heart even as she is overcome by affection for Bud, her high school sweetheart and all-star athlete. Such trust and affection, however, is no match for the relentless insinuations and privacy invasions of her mother, barging into Deanie’s bathroom (twice!) and bedroom (countless times) in search of reassurance her daughter has not been ‘spoiled’. It is only natural that Deanie cracks. If she lives and breathes hope for the film’s opening act, Laura is on the path to doom from the off – palling around with best friend Donna and cajoling her boyfriends before doing cocaine in the school bathroom. Laura is the homecoming queen who tutors children, delivers Meals on Wheels, and dates the star quarterback (and drug-dealing boor) Bobby Briggs. Her double life is sustained by risky sexual behaviour and a drug addiction. Her photo – blonde, smiling, wearing a tiara – adorns the Palmer residence mantlepiece as she sneaks out every night to the Roadhouse: prostitution at a bar is preferable to the incestuous assault promised at home.

Kazan and Lynch build two American towns – small, neighbourly, picturesquely walkable, surrounded by waterfalls and forests – that barely hide the rot at their core. Both films emphasise the deceptive claustrophobia of suburban American architecture and its effect on trapped, stunted youth. Unvarying white wood-panelled houses hide Deanie’s mother turning the corner coming home, giving the besotted teenager moments to fix her hair into irreproachability; drooping hedges idyllically frame Laura’s neighbourhood walk to school before turning into gnarled and monstrous hiding places for herself and her pursuers (her pimp, her johns, and her own father) just outside her own white wooden home. Family dinners around oversized, bourgeois dining tables form focal points of terror instead of bonding. As Deanie keeps one eye on the door in her living room, Laura’s becomes the locus through which she is watched by a demon-possessed father and apathetic mother. This architecture, with rooms of ostentatious domesticity and separation, isolates Deanie and Laura while allowing others’ obsessions of constant surveillance over them. 

In 1991 – 30 years after Splendor in the Grass cemented the young stardom of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty and the year before Fire Walk With Me elicited boos at Cannes – Daniel Meijers’ essay ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Feminism’ was published in issue 21 of Ethnologia Europaea. While published through a European sociological lens and not without its blind spots and generalisations, he finds words that rings devastatingly true: 

For the Protestant woman [...] Religion lost its meaning, but the ideas about self-development did not disappear so easily. In spite of secularization [sic], she remained the embodiment of morality. This moral hyper-sensitivity as a burden of the past, deeply internalised through ideas of transcendance [sic]... 

American secular Protestantism defines these young women’s lives by its ubiquity; Bud and Deanie steal moments after church (what else is there to do on a long Sunday?) and a painted angel seems to abandon Laura on the night of her murder, only to reemerge a heavenly being to help the dead girl find peace in the afterlife. While neither Kazan nor Lynch bring up religion explicitly, these moments show the ingrained homogeneity of Americana, the intrinsic drive for unimpeachable perfection even when its connection to faith, or lack thereof, is gone. All that remains is a hollow pressure that destroys the young women whose protection it perverts. Deanie, of course, finds no transcendence as she is bludgeoned towards ‘morality’; Laura’s transcendence cannot be defined in such simple terms (and across three series of Twin Peaks, Lynch pokes at the righteous and worthy to expose the sicknesses that led to several girls’ murders).  

Kazan and Lynch thrive in melodrama, Kazan of the school of the American Method that fetishised authenticity, Lynch of his quasi-1950s pulp iconography – the bobby socks, swing skirts, and red lipstick – and peculiar exaggeration rooted in truth. There would be less honesty in more measured, ‘naturalistic’ responses to this fundamental isolation, and Natalie Wood’s and Sheryl Lee’s performances abandon the decorum expected of young ladies in favour of a primal howl of pain masked by caustic defiance. When they must face their grief – Deanie through a Wordsworth poem at school, Laura in her own reflection as she enters the Roadhouse – both break down in tears.

In perhaps the most devastating parallel, the twisted parental relationships prove products of generational trauma. Mrs Loomis states her belief that women endure, not enjoy, sex barely five minutes into Splendor; later, she implores Deanie to believe she was doing her best. Deanie’s absolving ‘I love you, Mother’ is half forgiveness, half resignation. While not addressed in Fire Walk With Me, Leland Palmer reveals in Twin Peaks that he knew BOB as a child, hinting that this supernatural entity began his cycle of abuse with him. While Twin Peaks works hard to clear Leland’s name, placing blame for Laura’s murder on the Black Lodge, Lynch blurs the lines unsettlingly; Laura was 12 when BOB began raping her, yet she never surrendered her soul. Leland’s fallibility and culpability throws a new light on his position as community stalwart. In the picture-perfect family living the picture-perfect American dream, deviance must be cast out – or hidden away. When hidden, the unchecked cycle continues. 

There is a level of victimhood that Deanie and Laura fit – in whiteness, comfortable affluence, youth, and beauty. As they model American perfection, a case can be made that they invite sympathy and believability that others may be denied by virtue of class, race, and social standing. They subvert this model only as they show the damage of adhering to a diseased, precarious Americana – something fermented in the judgement of Deanie’s Kansas and the silence of Laura’s Washington. But their similarities do not diminish the honesty of their stories; through them, the prominence and omnipresence of this all-American oppression and repression becomes inescapable. They have done everything right – by work and luck and birth – yet abuse remains all-pervasive. As Deanie wails that her pride is gone and Laura actively works to hurt her best friends Donna and James, they push themselves into solitude and darkness, creating the hell they think they deserve. Who will believe it was not their fault when they had the world and it turned against them? If the nice girls and homecoming queens cannot survive in the rotten heart of Americana, who is safe?  

Throughout my youth in small-town, white America with reminders not to walk alone past dusk, I actively worked towards self-destruction throughout high school, starving and self-sabotaging burgeoning relationships. I see my Pennsylvania – with its cracked sidewalks, colonial facades, and overachieving, beautiful, brilliant teenage girls – in a fictional long-gone Kansas and Washington. Deanie and Laura are sisters across time, as they invert their idealised worlds through their grief, rage, and sacrifice. A decade away from my darkest teenage times, I hold them fiercely close. I wonder what they would have been like in different homes, different times, with different parents than those possessed by demons real or metaphorical. I hope these stories find our sisters peace. 

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