The Cedar Double
These films have just about nothing in common. One is a drama made years ago, the other is comedy made last year; one has a very self-important tone, the other totally without pretension; one is about a search for a moral purpose, the latter is about the ubiquity of moral purpose. I’m going to have a hard time making this stick, except for the word Cedar in the title of both films. Ouch.
As luck would have it, they’re the two films I watched back to back. Still, they’re both American movies that are not set in major urban areas. There must be something that could be held up for a comparative analysis.
Cedars And Godliness
I know it seems like a joke and coincidence that I’m attempting to write a movie double of two films connected only by the word cedar in both titles. Cedar of course is on the flag of Lebanon and there are such things as Cedar of God. King Solomon’s temple used cedars. The mentions of cedars in Bible seem to indicate that God liked this tree a lot, amongst his creation of trees. According to some, it may even have been the tree used for the cross. Thus unsurprsingly, there is a lot of God-talk in the middle America of ‘Cedar Rapids’.
The Cedars in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is more psychological. The forest of cedars forms a kind of terrain where desire plays out, but at the same time the title indicates a condition of winter and a frozen landscape. The cedars in the film seem to envelope the living space and surround the people living in the small fishing town. The trees are like sign posts of the unconscious as the characters move through them towards a different consciousness. Thus, the cedar tree reference in both films conjure metaphorical link to something spiritual. That is not to say I believe in the spiritual or that even the characters in the film believe in the spiritual, but that there is a certain irony in the reference to the cedars in both films.
Small Town Blues
Both of these films are set in country towns. Part of the narrative involves the fact that people in small communities know each other all too well. The assumptions implicit in ‘Cedar Rapids’ is that there is a certain style of business that thrives in small communities and these are at once strengths as well as delimiting factors for the denizens of these spaces. Similarly, ‘Snow Falling on Cedars revolves around Ethan Hawke’s character Ishmael’s travails as a small town newspaper man. The smallness of a community brings a different resonance to the relative importance of things. In both films, the influence of community brings about important plot points.
Tim, played by Ed Helms in ‘Cedar Rapids’ calls upon his one to one relationship with his clients in order to undo a wrong. Ethan Hawke’s Ishmael has a one on one relationship with the authority figures in the town which enables him to persuade them of important circumstantial evidence. The people in turn support a moral cause in both films. What’s interesting about ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is that even if the town can barely conceal its racial prejudice, it can still find moral certainty enough to do the right thing. In ‘Cedar Rapids’, the opening voice over pretty much tells us the main character believes in small towns exactly because a small community can be counted on to watch out for one another, and this informs the moral character of the town.
Yet, there is something not too right about these townships. In both contexts the main characters are chafing against the invisible limitations placed upon them for being in these small towns. This small town blues essentially allows the irony to breathe in both films.
Sexuality As Future Tense, Past Tense
We all look forward to our first sexual encounter. Some more than others, and provided it’s not like some molesting by a Catholic priest or a dirty uncle Ernie, the moment has its own poetry. it’s in that spirit that ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ spends a lot of time on the remeniscences of Ethan Hawke’s Ishmael. The big question for Ishmael is why Hatsue cannot overcome her background and love him. It’s a plaintive plea for love which turns into a retributive rejection by Ishmael, but in some ways this is a weird film. It is almost as if the narrative wants to have it explained explicitly why intercultural relationships are unlikely to work out in the the context of a largely prejudicial American society. The plot is built on Ishmael’s awkward inability to see himself in the context of the society he comes from and inhabits.
Tim Lippe in ‘Cedar Rapids’ is also awkwardly unaware of his surroundings and wider public opinion, both about him as an insurance salesman, but also as a human being. There is an equal degree of lack of self-awareness in Lippe that lands him in quandaries that are actually not that profound if one had perspective. With both characters, sexuality triggers much of the reassessment, which is an interesting twist. Just as ‘Snow Falling on Cedar’ proceeds with the anticipation of sex, ‘Cedar Rapids’ proceeds on the memory of sex, and the memory is oddly grotesque, for Tim is in a relationship with the woman who was his primary school teacher. For Tim, his retarded emotional life exactly mirrors the oddness of his relationship with his former primary school teacher.
Unlike a Bond movie where sex never transforms anything in the story line or within the Bond persona, the anxiety about one’s sense of self is explicitly wound up with sex in both films, and that in of itself is an interesting match.
Race Politics In Loop
It seems like a minor plot point, but when Tim meets Ronnie Wilkes as played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., he stops dead in his tracks, in fear because Ronnie is a black man. He gets over the initial abjection pretty quickly, but the fact that Ronnie is black becomes a plot point in the rescue sequence later on. ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is a film about a community not dealing very well with the presence of Japanese migrants. Amazingly enough, both films have more than one anxious moment to do with race.
Kazuo, who is on trial in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is always presented as ‘the other’, from start to finish. Ishmael attempts to cross the cultural chasm between his White American identity and Hatsue’s Japanese American identity, but fails mostly due to World War II. It’s not entirely clear in the film whether the failure is because of the gap that is too wide, or it is because given the war, it had no chance whatsoever. The films expends a great deal of energy on showing Ishamel’s yearning for Hatsue but it is in no way clear as to its position about if Kazuo were to date a white American woman. One imagines that there is still too big a taboo.
After all, if a white American male is still freaked out at the site of black man in a film made in 2011, then what chance is there for the taboo being broken in Hollywood really?
Existentialism As ‘Doing’
When you think about, characters in movies – good or bad – at some point have to be existentialists in as much as they should be defined by their actions much more than their thoughts or words or abstractions. This is because the audience can only understand the character through what the character does and says; not what the audience thinks the character is thinking. given that is the condition of the narrative, in most films we await the main character to do something. It could be anything – kill the President, build a barn, solve a case, bury the treasure.
That being said, we wait a long time in both films to see just what these main characters are going to do; and as it turns out that both Tim and Ishmael do the right thing. Still, in both films, it’s a mighty struggle to actually highlight what exactly the right thing is meant to be. ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ spends a good deal of time showing why Ishmael might feel put out enough that he doesn’t simply come forward with the evidence. He even comes close to destroying the evidence. Tim in ‘Cedar Rapids’ is clueless as to what exactly the problem is, until he is informed that his predecessor bribed his way into winning the coveted prize. For a moment it seems he must swallow his pride and give into the tyranny of corruption, but then he comes back to blow the lid on it. Both films work very hard at getting to the point – the belabored style is oddly something that they share. Odder still, the two films end up with a weakly argued existentialist position.