Thanks to Mark Goodacre for drawing attention to the “‘Faith in Christ’ or ‘The Faith of Christ’? pistis christou in Paul,” from Lutheran Theological Review 12 (2000): 20-43, by Steven L. Chambers. Was it only half a year ago I was pounding away on this subject (“Get Thee Behind Me, Subjective Genitive!”, “Pistis Christou in the Apostolic Fathers”)?
You might miss it being so entertained, but Shogun serves a didactic purpose: to educate us about honor-shame cultures through the lens of medieval Japan. The problem comes with Clavell’s repeated contrasts between “Japanese” and “Christians” (the appropriate contrast is between Japanese and Europeans), since Christianity is the product of an honor-shame world, the ancient Mediterranean, originally upholding values which find curious parallels in samurai-dominated Japan.
I chose the themes of suicide, duty (“love”), homoeroticism, and treachery, because I believe they hit the western reader of Shogun most strongly as “alien” in the context of the narrative. Samurai were ever-ready to die for the sake of honor, and kill themselves at the whim of a superior; they didn’t experience love, at least not primarily as affection, rather a strong sense of duty and attachment; they had very accepting attitudes about sex, both hetero and homo; and they often matched loyalty with as much duplicity and treachery, making dangerous allies.
We saw how these values worked in the ancient Mediterranean. Martyrdom was highly esteemed, influenced in various degrees by the pagan noble death theme; and assisted suicide was an acceptable practice in the Greco-Roman world. Love was primarily about duty. Homosexuality was normal and widespread, though there were taboos against it in Israelite tradition for reasons pertaining to idolatry. And as in all collectivist cultures, duplicity, hypocrisy, and treachery were simply expected, since truth had more to do with appearance than reality, and an individual’s publicly defined self had to match what others expected instead of what he or she really wanted.
That the bible became co-opted by cultures in which the above values are foreign intrusions is one of history’s greatest ironies. Western laws come down mighty hard against suicide — even in Sweden, where assisted suicide isn’t proscribed, assisters have been charged with manslaughter. Martyrdom tends to be associated with fanaticism. Many of us are frightened of death, and we have a remarkably diluted experience of it. The bodies of our relatives are taken straight off to mortuaries and then to the cemetery or crematorium, unlike the “primitive” custom of keeping deceased bodies at home for a few days prior to burial; on the other hand, we are bombarded with images of death on TV/video-screen, whereby death becomes trivialized. Love is a romantic ideal, and again, the way it’s portrayed on TV and film accentuates our affectionate inclinations. It’s true that we’ve become more tolerant of homosexuality, but between consenting adults, and out of commendable crusades against bigotry. The mentor-warrior model has faded from the human scene. And finally, while Americans and Europeans can boast as many hypocrites and backbiters to be found anywhere, our role models at least teach us that treachery and duplicity are wrong and should be transcended whenever possible. I’m certainly not faulting western attitudes here, only underscoring how they clash, either explicitly or implicitly, with the biblical principles used to justify them.
Shogun remains one of the most engaging novels of all time, and almost two decades after first reading it, I still say it’s the best which brings to life an honor-shame culture. Clavell gets inside the minds of his characters to the extent that we begin adopting their views despite ourselves, just as John Blackthorne did.
This film has a very bad reputation. Indeed, there are fans who consider it to be the nadir of David Lynch’s career, although frankly I’d rather watch it than Wild at Heart or Dune, or even Inland Empire. In fact, in my opinion, Fire Walk With Me is nowhere near as bad as many claim, but this is sort of damning with faint praise. The fact remains that it’s not a masterpiece.
The premise of Fire Walk With Me — that Laura Palmer was a self-destructive teen thanks to being repeatedly raped since the age of twelve — is basically sound, but then once you start piggy-backing off the success of your own work you’re probably in safe territory. Unfortunately, Fire Walk With Me doesn’t play anything safe, even by Lynch’s standards, sledgehammering us with obtuse symbols and bizarrely uninspired visions, as if to atone for the competence and discipline displayed in the TV series. Frustratingly, the whole idea of Laura Palmer’s backstory has great promise; the revelations about her incest have solid potential, but are diluted by extraneous surrealism and a preliminary FBI investigation of a murder which took place a year ago in another town. Ironically, this 30-minute prologue is more reminiscent of the TV show than Laura’s story is, yet it’s by far the most tedious and inconsequential part of the film; the drama is dull; the two FBI agents (unlike Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper) laughably forgettable.
As for the more familiar characters — Bobby Briggs, James Hurley, and Leo & Shelley Johnson — they are introduced and disappear before we know it, for no other reason than to play preordained roles. The only individual fleshed out appropriately is Laura’s best friend Donna (the only returning character played by a different actor, as it turns out), aside, of course, from her monstrous father, played superbly by Ray Wise. Agent Cooper himself actually appears in the atrocious prologue; he shouldn’t have been in this prequel at all. The woeful cast barely supports a murky enterprise that feels stitched together by different editors working at cross-purposes.
Given all this criticism, why do I think that Fire Walk With Me is much better than its reputation? A few reasons. Most importantly, it is Lynch’s darkest and most emotionally hurting film (more so than even Blue Velvet), containing scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester (seen as diabolical through the perspective of a traumatized daughter), is never answered (the TV series makes pretty clear it’s the former), though the reality is suffocating on either option. I was frankly more disturbed by Leland/”Bob” than by villains in some of the most hard-hitting horror films. The ending nonetheless provides an authentically uplifting payoff, where after a repugnant life on earth — and her thoroughly degrading final hours — Laura gets her angel in heaven. It brought tears to my eyes. Lynch had the right idea in making this film a character piece, in contrast to the TV series’ focus on the dynamics of an entire town. It’s an intensely personal film, and a switch in tone that I can readily applaud in the context of a Twin Peaks prequel.
Second, the sound design is pretty impressive. A haunting score is served up as expected, and of course there is the ethereal Julie Cruise (obligatory in Lynch productions around this time). But my favorite bit plays at the Bang Bang Bar, when Laura and Donna are going wild with a couple of guys ten years their senior on the dance floor. Lynch opts for subtitles at this point to provide a rare realism, as we hear the girls’ shouting conversation over the deafening music exactly as they do — barely at all.
The final reason that Fire Walk With Me isn’t as bad as some claim is Sheryl Lee’s performance. For someone originally cast as “the dead girl” on the TV program involving little to no screen time, Lee turned out to be ferociously talented in playing a complex victim of child abuse, haunted and terrified one moment, ragingly self-destructive the next, yet capable of tender mercies, especially when protecting her best friend who tries following her into prostitution. Lee deserved a hell of a lot better than having to see this film booed at the Cannes festival. For all its serious problems, Fire Walk With Me isn’t a dud; I’m drawn back to it repeatedly. I just wish that Lynch had had the mojo to smooth it out into what could have been a gem.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.
UPDATE: 5 stars is my revised judgment after revisiting. This film is a masterpiece when watched as a standalone, completely apart from the context of the TV series, which I didn’t do at first. See my rankings of David Lynch films.