Paul Nitze: Where the living is easy and conversation is hard
December 3, 2011
Do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to Aspen Film’s screening of “The Descendants” on New Year’s Day at Harris Concert Hall. It’s not playing at the Isis or downvalley, so this may be your best shot to see it on the big screen. You’ll thank yourself.
George Clooney has gotten some flak for his performance as Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer struggling to keep his family and his legacy together. Clooney’s not the best fit, but he doesn’t do the film any harm. Other actors, especially Shailene Woodley as Clooney’s teenage daughter, carry the movie. Also, Alexander Payne is painting with a more varied palette than in his other work.
Payne’s last movie, “Sideways,” came out in 2004 and was celebrated for its treatment of two middle-aged guys unraveling in wine country. It’s a dark psycho drama, with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church standing in for doomed American white males. They meet and disappoint two women who are on a different planet when it comes to emotional honesty and self-possession.
“The Descendants” features a different, even more luxurious landscape than “Sideways.” Hawaii substitutes for Santa Barbara. Whereas Paso Robles and the Santa Rita Hills were just a backdrop in “Sideways,” Payne uses Hawaii for more than its rolling Pacific breakers. Anchoring the plot is a dispute between Clooney and his cousins over what to do with a huge piece of waterfront land on Kaua’i that has been in the family for generations.
At the same time, Clooney has to deal with enough personal drama for three or four families, which is Payne’s stock in trade. His wife is in a coma and her condition is irreversible. Before she hit her head in a speedboat accident, she was cheating on him. His eldest daughter hates him. And his youngest daughter acts out by sending nasty text messages to her classmates.
So far, so typical. If “The Descendants” goes somewhere deeper, and I think it does, it’s because Payne is able to link personal character to national culture. In the film’s early minutes, he has Clooney tell the audience that just because Hawaii looks like paradise, it doesn’t mean Hawaiians get a pass on human nature. As exotic as it looks, Hawaii is transformed into the American main street circa 2011.
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Formality and decorum are out the window. Everyone wears Hawaiian prints and sandals. Clooney’s daughters compete with each other to say the nastiest things imaginable, always crude, usually four-letter. At one point Clooney finds himself lounging in a hotel bedroom while his youngest daughter surfs the hotel’s adult video selection. Sex and drink abound.
Payne drives this point home by surrounding Clooney with framed portraits of his 19th century ancestors, one of whom married a Hawaiian princess. The oceanfront tract was her birthright and her dowry. How is it, Payne wants to know, that a Yankee could cross the Pacific in the 1800s and make common cause with an island princess, and yet their descendants can’t achieve the same feat in 2011? And how is it that a vulgar and inane culture exposes young girls to pornography, but inhibits our ability to talk to one another about our values?
It’s telling that by the movie’s end, Clooney has only solved one of his two big problems. He has stitched his immediate family back together, but he hasn’t bridged the gap with his extended family over their land.
Clooney is the sole trustee for the estate, but he is representing the economic interests of dozens of cousins. They meet regularly to look over fancy schematics and models, and they trade superficial comments about the bid package from a local developer named Don Holitzer. Clooney, Beau Bridges, and the rest of the ensemble say things like, “You like Holitzer?” and “It’s going to be Holitzer, right?” without uttering a word about what they want for their legacy. When Clooney disappoints them, it’s only natural that they tell him they’ll sue. So much for conversation.
We have become a nation parched for conversation, and Payne knows it. If he films “The Descendants” with a wider lens, it’s because the country has changed in the seven years between 2004 and 2011. It’s not just privileged, middle-aged WASPs who can’t open up and communicate; we knew that from reading Yates and Updike. Now it’s everyone.
As I write this, European politicians are fighting for the survival of the euro and the whole project of European integration. They have gotten themselves into this mess through gross fiscal mismanagement. As they try to climb out of it, they are hoping that their greatest living philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, is right.
Habermas is known for efforts to update the vision of a core group of Enlightenment philosophers, especially Kant. Unlike his postmodernist brethren, Habermas is basically an optimist. He has argued that democratic societies can develop institutions that provide “communicative competence.” Modern, democratic societies can protect human liberty over the long haul because they allow for greater participation and rationality than anything that went before them.
“The Descendants” is a dystopian rejoinder to Habermas. It turns a mirror on a country that has poisoned its discourse in ways that are hard to understand and even harder to fix. If we work at it, Payne seems to say, we can keep our families together and teach our children what matters. But, at least for now, we can’t achieve the same “communicative competence” in our politics. Is it a coincidence that our president grew up in Honolulu?
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