Snow Falling on Cedars and more
Snow Falling on Cedars
Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, James Rebhorn, Max Von Sydow, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune
(Universal; US theatrical: 22 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
Based on David Guterson’s 1995 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars is richly layered, both thematically and visually. Indeed, the setting, the fictional San Piedro Island in the Pacific Northwest, is almost a character unto itself. Nominated for multiple awards for its cinematography, Snow Falling on Cedars intersperses that wintery titular image with lush verdant forests, strawberry fields, and stony beaches pounded by churning surf. It’s visually stunning, to be sure. But perhaps more stunning looking back on it 10 years later is the almost eerie prescience of its storytelling. Intertwining a love story and murder mystery during and immediately after World War II, Snow Falling on Cedars is a not subtle lesson on racism under the guise of nationalism and national security. In 1999, it seemed a timely warning. In 2009, it seems sadly prophetic.
Set in 1950, local fisherman Karl Heine is found tangled in his fishing nets in a bay, his skull crushed. Soon after, his childhood friend, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), is arrested and charged with the crime. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a reporter covering the trial and the childhood love of the defendant’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh). The second plot involves Ishmael’s memories of his and Hatsue’s failed romance. The link between the past and present stories is more than just the coincidence that Ishmael is reporting on the trial of a former lover’s husband: racism is a driving force behind Kazuo’s trial, just as it was the wedge that divided Hatsue and Ishmael several years earlier.
This racism, however, is disguised as a fierce U.S.-American nationalism, which climaxed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and is still palpable in the San Piedro Island community at the time of the trial. Witness testimony and the prosecutions questions, even the judge’s instructions to the jury, are all ultimately informed by the collective psychological trauma of the Pearl Harbor bombing and the subsequent reduction of all Japanese to enemy status.
The coroner connects Karl Heine’s head wound to the Japanese martial art of Kendo (which he learned about fighting the Japanese in the war) and testifies that he told the police to “look for a Jap.” Prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn), after repeated references to Pearl Harbor, appeals to the jury to “consider [Kazuo’s] face—the truth is self-evident in him.” Kazuo’s defense attorney, Nels Gudmunsson (Max Von Sydow) recognizes this dual appeal to nationalism and racism, pointing out that it works both ways: he notes that Kazuo lied in his original interview with the police because he assumed (correctly, as it turns out) that he could not trust the whites to treat him fairly.
While many, if not all, of the secondary characters in Snow Falling on Cedars are defined as clearly racist (like the coroner) or not (Nels Gudmunsson), Ishmael complicates the issue. He is both a victim of racism (in that he’s rejected by Hatsue because he is white, or more specifically, because he is not Japanese) as well as a perpetrator of it: In the agony of rejection, and in an attempt to regain a wholeness of identity through obliterating hers, Ishmael mutters to himself and reduces Hatsue to a single racist and sexist epithet, “Fucking Jap bitch.” Though it’s obvious as he covers the trial that he still loves and longs for her, the memory of that moment illustrates how quickly and how easily one can fall into the trappings of conditioned racism.
Released within a few years of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Snow Falling on Cedars spoke to mounting U.S. fears of both domestic terrorism and the threat of international terrorist acts within U.S. borders. Of course, in less than two years, those fears would be realized on 9/11. With the resulting fear and surging nationalism, the Patriot Act and domestic detention policies, the Japanese internment camps of World War II seem both far away and so close. Renee Scolaro Mora
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
(Miramax; US theatrical: 25 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
There is a sly ambiguous little comment in a brief almost insignificant scene about half-hour into this film that neatly summarizes the ambiguity of Tom Ripley’s chameleon sexuality and character. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Marge Sherwood, is out grocery shopping and buys some fruit from a rather plain-looking young Italian girl. The young shop girl collects various fruits for her and then asks casually in Italian ‘and figs as you always both want.’
Now the word ‘figia’ in Italian has many layers of meaning; it can also be used as slang for ‘chick’ and a woman’s vagina. Ah, the slippery uncertainties of a foreign language. Is the shop-girl quietly snubbing Marge for failing to see Dickie Greenleaf, (played by Jude Law) Marge’s rich handsome playboy boy friend, unfaithfulness? Or is she merely venting her own frustration in an underhanded manner; after all she is the other woman.
The idea that language is unstable is very much a post-modern conceit as is the notion that the self is fluid and plastic and rejects the old-fashioned idea of a stable character or ego. Anthony Mingella’s screenplay adoption of Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name is founded on this very hip post-modern idea.
Minghella directed The Talented Mr. Ripley right after his huge success with The English Patient in 1996. Minghella’s problem in The English Patient was how to transform the novel’s beautiful poetic and evocative prose and challenging plot by the Canadian poet and writer Michael Ondaatje on to the big screen. In The Talented Mr. Ripley Mingella’s problem was how to transform Highsmith’s sparse tight minimalist prose and pacing into a visual narrative. He succeeds first by giving us a visual feast.
Italy in the late ‘50s is the backdrop and there are some stunning shots of landscapes; curved ancient roads, cobble stones and olive covered hills as well as postcard perfect and beautiful frames of Rome-the ancient Roman Forum at sunset for example and Venice’s majestic baroque masterpiece Chiesa Della Salute is set squarely behind Tom Ripley in the final frames of the movie. He also delineates step by step the creepy transformation of Tom Ripley played by Matt Damon from plain nerdy New York washroom attendant and sometime piano player into a murderous and covetous and sexually ambiguous sociopath.
Ripley is extraordinarily manipulative—you could say it is his ‘talent’—and he sets out to deliberately ingratiate himself on Marge and Dickie. Mr. Greenleaf, Dickie’s father, has sent him to Italy to check up on his son after mistaking Tom Ripley as a Princeton man because he is wearing a Princeton jacket borrowed to wear at a piano recital. In Italy both Marge and Dickie are also busy reinventing themselves. Marge is playing at writing a novel and Dickie has discovered the jazz of the ‘50s. He pursues playing the saxophone and women with almost the same zeal being far from the imposing discipline of his rich ship-magnate father.
They are both young, beautiful, come from rich entrepreneurial families and even though Dickie is a rake and louche, in love. Tom Ripley is the opposite. Socially clumsy and a loner, he arrives in sunny Italy, as one of the characters notes, with one corduroy jacket and few shirts. He is not socially connected to anyone but everyone nevertheless assumes at first he comes from good breeding (the Princeton scam again) and Dickie falls for his contrived taste in jazz. Tom Ripley is an Iago like character. He schemes by drawing people into his confidence and without qualms slips back and forth between pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf—who he murdered in a fit of rage—and Tom Ripley. His motivation at first seems to be a jumble of desires. He covets Dickie’s clothes and jewelry as well as clearly being drawn to him sexually.
After the murder, Ripley plays a cat and mouse game in terms of identity as he eludes the police and Dickie’s girlfriend questions about Dickie’s disappearance and murder. Minghella makes him appear to be a corrupted version of Jay Gatsby.
Then the near the end of the movie it seems Ripley is drawn to the sensitive and ethereal world of renaissance music and 19th century opera. After escaping the clutches of the Italian police and Mr. Greenleaf’s inquiries about his son, Ripley announces to his new lover Peter Smith-Kingsley, ‘that is better to be a fake somebody, than a real nobody’ although at this point Ripley himself at times no longer has any idea who he really is and what he is doing.
Trapped on board a ship to Greece by two people who know him under different alias he must murder again-this time his new lover- to protect his hard won status and identity. Unlike in The Great Gatsby, were we see purity behind the desire for reinvention, Tom Ripley’s desire for reinvention is self-serving. ‘Pure’ love or the nobility of his cause does not motivate him but instead greed, an unbearable desire to be free of the hot push and servitude of being classless in America, and his own unrecognized sexual confusion make Tom Ripley a creepy loathsome character. In short, to borrow a phrase from current recession media language, the talented Mr. Ripley at his core turns out to be a Ponzi character. Carmelo Militano