Tuesday, February 06, 2007

FILM REVIEW: Letters from Iwo Jima

Director Clint Eastwood
Screenplay Iris Yamashita
Producer Robert Lorenz
Executive Producer Paul Haggis
Director of Photography Tom Stern
Composer Kyle Eastwood
Composer Michael Stevens

As a movie LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is okay but made me long for a Japanese movie NOBI, released here as FIRES ON THE PLAIN by Kon Ichikawa about Japanese soldiers killing and eating each other to the other end of Saipan, where the survivors would be rescued from the Americans and taken to Banzai the emperor another day. I was 22 when I saw FIRES ON THE PLAIN, at Berkeley’s Cinema Guild on Telegraph Avenue and the film scared me death. The Americans were just the enemy, the real killing and all the eating was done by the protagonist’s comrades in arms and art. The only reason why the “good guy” of the movie isn’t eaten is, he has tuberculosis. The disease lights his face like a Christian holier than thou halo. He runs from soldiers trying to feed him “monkey meat” on a island that has no monkeys, to a soldier sitting in the posture of a holy man in his own shit, who offers him a handful of shit to relieve his hunger, to a soldier trying to kill him so he can kill for Japan. He’s killed by natives, Christ-like and the film ends.

I liked movies. I liked the Cinema-Guild. But I couldn’t walk on the same side the street as long as it was showing FIRES ON THE PLAIN. The notes by Pauline Kael, the owner of the theater, that had attracted me to movies at the Cinema-Guild said that Kon Ichikawa had become an itinerant priest. The notes were no help with this movie. Kon Ichikawa didn’t condemn the Americans, or the Japanese but convincingly said all of civilization was fucked and just no good. And I took it personally.

Movies weren’t supposed to do that. I go to movies for entertainment, for escape from the petty concerns that make my life confusing. But FIRES merged the pettiness of my everyday with war as one. There have been other film-makers and other films shown at the Cinema-Guild like Ichikawa’s that had me cross the street to avoid them. Luis Bunuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS for instance. Another condemnation of every good human charitable intention. Those movies did not entertain me. Thank the gods of Hollywood for Clint Eastwood. He knows how to make movies. He knows how to satisfy my desires to see real acting, how to satisfy my need to see a real movie and not rub my face in real life, how to signal he is a cinema artist, not a cinema realist like Kon Ichikawa or a Dadaist (whatever that is) like Luis Bunuel. The main characters of LETTERS are identified by flashbacks, that have no psychological but a lot narrative justification, for instance. We know the soldier is a baker, and we flashback to him and his pregnant wife to see him receive his orders to report to the army. The general flashes back to see himself receive the pearl or ivory handled M-1918 .45 he carries instead of a Japanese pistol, in dress uniform in America from American officers. The story being told is identified as being the general’s and baker’s when the baker reminds the General that he had saved the baker’s life twice now, and the general replies “things always happen in threes.” The third salvation comes when the general takes his white handled American .45, shoots himself (Seppuku American style) and the baker buries him. All neatly packaged, the general’s letters dug up in the presents, flashback to the past, character flashbacks, the Japanese all die with one survivor like Ishmael in Moby Dick, flash to the present. I get it. Makes me feel smart.

If the flashbacks had been placed in chronological order, what happened before the war, happens before the war, instead of artfully interrupting the action would have meant the removal of the artiface of the discovery of the general’s letters by men in white, that opens the film, and director Eastwood obviously wants us to be aware that his art, wants to reassure us his art will save us from the wet his characters suffer and from the intensity of the action.

It’s okay the relief of the flashbacks tell us. We can watch. The scene of the dropout from the military elite carrying the bucket of steaming shit out the cave during a bombardment. We see the steam. We see him recoil from the icky stuff he is carrying. But don’t worry. The hand of Eastwood won’t let boogie man get us, or the shit splash on us. In FIRES ON THE PLAIN there was no reassuring Eastwood to make the holy man with a mouthful of grainy shit bearable, as he assures the tubercular man my attention clings to for sanity, that Buddha is coming for them in a plane. The holy man offers my hope for sanity a handful of shit, while he chews it.

The horror and silliness of the shit on the hands is intellectual in one and visceral in the Japanese film.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is a good movie. A very good movie. Even a very good activist movie, as evidence the smattering of newspaper reviews objecting to the sympathetic portrayals of Japanese. I’d love to argue with them on behalf of LETTERS, but damn! Kon Ichikawa’s condemnation of his –our entire culture, art, civilization won’t leave my mind. The tubercular soldier, the sane, the civilized sees fires on the plain and goes toward the smoke. Like the baker, he does what the Japanese on the island should have done. He throws down his rifle. He raises he hands in the universal gesture of surrender. And he’s shot. The baker on the other hand is subdued, cared for and, whew! Lives.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA could have been an American FIRES ON THE PLAIN. It could have been but it chose to be art. Artistically directed, artistically written, and so well acted. Art.

Frank Chin