Friday, January 12, 2007


In light of his absence on the Directors Guild of America’s short list of the finest directorial achievements in American film for 2006 (all the better, as one friend suggested to me today, to pave the way for Martin Scorsese’s long-sought-after Oscar win in February), here are links to two items regarding Clint Eastwood and his exceptional achievement with Letters from Iwo Jima and its powerful companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers.

Both come courtesy of the watchful eye of David Hudson and Green Cine Daily. First, there’s Jeff Shannon’s insightful conversation with Eastwood, which begins with a consideration of how the two films work together:

“With Flags of Our Fathers arriving on DVD February 6th, the highly acclaimed Letters from Iwo Jima is the second half of an anti-war double-feature that explores the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima - and all war - from the opposing perspectives of its combatants. Both films resonate with each other to form a thematically rich, emotionally complex study of the meaning of heroism, the insanity of war, the shared experience of common soldiers on both sides of battle, and the power of images and propaganda to manipulate our emotions for better and worse… Taken together, they are films for the ages, sharing a symbiotic relationship that will endure long after we've forgotten the box-office figures that should've been higher, and served only to illustrate the fickle nature of mainstream filmgoers who mostly stayed away from two of the best films of 2006.”

And here’s Eastwood on his approach and influences:

“Ken Watanabe and I were both being interviewed recently, and when Ken was asked how the film would be different if a Japanese director had made it, and he said it would be much more over the top, and he preferred the way we did it. I just approached the story the way I saw the film in my head. I've always admired Kurosawa, but I don't think I tried to emulate him in any way. Kurosawa liked John Ford a lot, but maybe didn't emulate him in any direct way. I think we're all inadvertently influenced by things that we've seen and enjoyed all our lives, but I don't think it's intentional. I just do what feels right to me at the time. But you can't spend a lifetime watching pictures by Ford or Kurosawa without saying "Gee, that was nicely done," and subconsciously you might think "If I'm ever shooting scene like that I might want to approach it the same way." But that could apply to hundreds of directors whose work I've admired.”

Secondly, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes his four-star review of Letters from Iwo Jima in the Chicago Reader. Some moments from Rosenbaum:

Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, one of the finest directors alive, looks at the World War II battle of his recent Flags of Our Fathers from a Japanese perspective. Letters From Iwo Jima opened in Japan around the same time its counterpart opened here, evidence of the nobility of his intention to address the people of both countries, not just us.

One reason I wasn't sure what to think of Letters the first time I saw it was that I didn't know how it would be received in Japan. I wondered if it would seem accurate to most viewers there. I've since learned that the response has been very favorable and that it's been near the top of the box-office charts since it opened.

A Japanese film critic and friend, Shigehiko Hasumi… assured me the film is true to a 'certain Japanese reality.' He added that he found the portraits of the pro-American Japanese officers in the film a bit 'romantic,' comparing them to John Ford's depictions of Confederate officers in such films as The Horse Soldiers.”

Letters from Iwo Jima opens in wider, though still somewhat limited release, today.

UPDATE 1/15/07 2:50 p.m.: While I think very highly of Jonathan Rosenbaum as a critic, and I was certainly glad that he liked Letters from Iwo Jima, I left his comments to stand on their own. I wondered if anyone might find it a little odd that Rosenbaum wasn't sure what to think of Letters because he didn't know what the Japanese would think of it. Well, apparently Jim Emerson thought Rosenbaum's observation was a little odd, all right, and he has responded, not in the comments section below, but on his own site, Scanners, in a post entitled "Gasp! Choke! As Film Criticism Lay Dying...". Jim's had one great post after another on Scanners since the beginning of the year (not that he didn't during all of 2006, but you know what I mean-- check out all of his contributions to last week "Contrarian Week" celebration), and this one is no exception. One of the disappointing things about Rosenbaum's review is that it is alarmingly light on his own observations about the film, and he does not subject it to the usual rigorous thinking regular readers ought to be used to coming from him. But, Jim says,

"Rosenbaum does allow himself a few opinions of his own:

'In essence, Eastwood is saying that the similarities between American and Japanese soldiers in 1944 are more important than the differences. This is a surprisingly liberal position for him to take, and in
Letters it has the effect of turning the mainly unseen Americans into villains.'

Does Rosenbaum not see the difference between 'villains' and 'extras'? This patronizing sentiment (mighty white of ol' Clint to make a movie about the Japs, huh?) reminds me of Sting's sanctimonious 'Let's hope the Russians love their children, too.' Yeah. Isn't it ironic?

And look at those two sentences again. Is Rosenbaum seriously suggesting that an attempt to show similarities between American and Japanese soldiers is tantamount to painting Americans as 'villains' -- which is a 'surprisingly liberal' position to take (even though that's transparently Rosenbaum's position/assumption, not Eastwood's)? I've long admired Rosenbaum's writing, but this characterization of 'liberalism' sounds more like something Sean Hannity would say."

And it's a strange thing to think that Rosenbaum would hold this view after the scene in which the wounded American soldier's letter from home is read to him by the Japanese officer. This idea of the movie characterizing the Americans as "villains" is particularly wrongheaded. As Jim makes clear when he writes,

"It's not so important in combat that the enemy be viewed as 'the villain,' just that he be viewed as 'The Other.' How do you get soldiers of any nationality to kill other people they don't even know? By objectifying and dehumanizing the "faceless" enemy; by treating The Other as a horde rather than as a group of individuals; by training soldiers to believe they are fighting for a higher cause: Country, God, the Emperor (or, in the case of the Japanese in WW II, all three combined into one)."

It is obvious here that Eastwood is not asking us to flip sides in Letters and see American soldiers as one-dimensional bad guys. Instead, what makes the scene moving is the understanding of the Japanese soldiers who hear the letter read aloud-- not of the specifics of what the letter is trying to relate, but rather its mundane quality, it's sense of being a missive delivered from a world that represents a lost reality for this American soldier, a lost reality that, given a different set of specifics, is their loss as well. And also because of the hope expressed by that soldier's mother in the letter, that he will "do what is right because it is right." Clearly this means something different not only to the Japanese and the Americans, but also to every individual on both sides of the battle. Eastwood's triumph, and screenwriter Iris Yamashita's, is that we as viewers can understand that clearly without sentimentalizing either side in their effort to "do what is right."

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