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Ken Watanabe (#110 of 2)

Cannes Film Festival 2015 Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees

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Cannes Film Festival 2015: The Sea of Trees
Cannes Film Festival 2015: The Sea of Trees

The first and by no means last example of The Sea of Trees’s egregious literalism transpires even before the film has properly begun, as the title appears before a kitschy aerial shot that just so happens to show, yes, you guessed it, a sea of trees. The sea in question here is Japan’s Aokigahara forest, which, as we later discover, is the first entry you get if you Google “perfect place to die.” This is quite literally what’s led unrealistically hunky professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) to pick the forest as the location for his suicide, which he decides against at the last minute, pills still in hand, thus conveniently paving the way for a barrage of flashbacks that spell out just how he ended up here in nice, big letters.

Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past

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Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past
Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German veteran of World War I—published All Quiet on the Western Front (its literal translation: “Nothing New in the West”), an acclaimed anti-war novel that would go on to sell over two million copies in its first year of publication. It told the story of the war from the perspective of the average German soldier who lived and died fighting it, and it was embraced by American readers eager to empathize with their fellow men (legal and geographic borders notwithstanding). One year later, the up-and-coming director Lewis Milestone adapted the novel into a film for Universal Pictures; it would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The present day brings a companion to this (deservedly) canonized classic. In Letters from Iwo Jima, American cultural icon Clint Eastwood also examines a specific point in American history from the perspective of a former enemy. Consider for a moment the post-9/11 wounds (repeatedly rubbed raw) that continue to foster anti-“other” sentiment both within and without our national borders, and Eastwood’s decision to empathize with the former “Japoteurs” takes on an added dimension of boldness (even if such bravery is more indicative of regressive American attitudes than it is of Clint’s well-worn wisdom).

Despite their distinctly different plots, battles, and explicitly defined themes, both films critically observe the same timeless characteristics of war: the manipulation of information and swaying of national emotions by the government so as to bolster public support; the need to dehumanize one’s enemy in order to encourage battlefield aggression; the long-clichéd (however true) insights regarding our common brotherhood; and the futility that defines the act of two (or more) large groups of people trying to kill each other. Both films are infused with the sense of honor that accompanies one’s service to one’s country, but they also understand, with a weary heart, the waste that goes hand-in-hand with the carnage.