The Descendants: Death and the tales told by idiots

The Descendants: Death and the tales told by idiots

The Descendants is a well crafted movie about the drama of a small family as they learn to live with the impending death of the wife and mother who suffered a head trauma in a boating accident and is taken off life support. The husband, Matt King, played by George Clooney,  must learn to deal with the disclosure of his wife’s infidelity and his two daughters (ages 10 and 16) must now bond with a father who has been detached and only concerned with his work.

Here is Morgenstern from the WSJ: “Mr. Clooney is a star at the peak of his powers (though he never flaunts them), playing the sort of person we’re seldom privileged to meet—a whole man, which is to say a flawed and foolish man who is basically good, and who gets a precious shot at being better.”CBS News reports that many now think this movie will win the Oscar (see here) The New York times also speaks highly of the movie (see  here).  CBS reports that Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “If there’s something fundamentally wrong with ‘The Descendants,’ I can’t find it. What I see ranks high on the list of the year’s best films.” I agree that it is well paced, well directed, and emotionally satisfying. But perhaps the thing wrong with it may be found in another accolade, this one from the LA Times, that it straddles comedy and tragedy. Well perhaps it is neither, because there is no deep affirmation of the human condition (unless eating ice cream while watching TV counts) and there is no tragedy because there is no real evil in this world. 

The most important conversations in this drama are silly, jumbled, or silenced. When the father confronts the man who had an affair with his wife, he takes consolation from the fact that he did not really love her (it was an affair of appetite). When the ten year old is informed about her mother’s condition, the director shows a scene of the girl sitting with a counselor, and her father standing behind, and we hear nothing, not a word,  of what they say. I suppose this is very symbolic of the post modern, post Christian world — it does not matter what you say about death because there is nothing to be said about it. An after life is unthinkable; this life provides various means of coping, choose one or two. Marcus Aurelius provides a fitting epigraph for the movie: your doctrines should be few and fundamental, “sufficient to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.” This is a fine description of the catharsis offered by the movie — to be free of pain and resentment, all around. 

Marcus is remarkably relevant to the affect of this film: “And what is it you will resent? Human wickedness? Recall the conclusion that rational creatures are born for each other’s sake, that toleration is a part of justice, that wrong doing is not deliberate. Consider the number of people who spent their lives in enmity, suspicion, hatred, war and were then laid out for burial or reduced to ashes. Stop, then.” (Meditations 3.4.2)

The father is reduced to getting advice from a sweet but simple minded pot head, Sid, his daughter’s boyfriend. The boy is wise because he knows how really laughable is all adult discourse in this world without meaning —  self-centered, appetite driven, rationalization. He justifies himself to the adult — he can cook, play guitar, and roll a joint — food, music, pot — he has it all. What do adults have to offer him, anyway? 

So Matt King and his older daughter do yell and express their anger at the comatose woman, wife and mother, because she has disappointed them. (At one point King calls his comatose wife a “corpse.” Marcus Aurelius often referred to living bodies as corpses.) But the daughter is reconciled to the fact that she is her mother after all; the husband accepts that he failed to take an interest in in his wife and now she is no longer present for him. But this is mere “emoting,” and known to be such — their speech is not a narrative, a seed for potential dialogue,  or the beginning of an attempt to understand a life, of spouse, mother, human being.  At the end of the film, the wife of the man who carried on the affair visits the hospital room and rambles on about forgiveness, but George Clooney must interrupt her interminable babbling. Emote for a few minutes, whatever words may flow, and get over it. There is no rationale for forgiveness in this world. Stuff happens and we move on. There is no narrative of a life singly, or together.

In the penultimate scene the father and two daughters sprinkle and then dump her ashes into the ocean water along the beautiful coast of Hawaii.

The movie brings to our attention the grief of loss, the wounded character of most relationships, and the human yearning for love and community.  George Clooney in this role is the man for our time; he is the consummate adult. Very composed, very human, willing to share his feelings. But he knows the truth expressed by Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach. The world (especially the Hawaii of the privileged) “seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams” and yet it “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” There is nothing to be said. He settles in with his two daughters with a bowl of ice cream and they watch the March of the Penguins on the TV. Here at last a narrative may be found: the march of penguins to ancestral breeding grounds to hatch and protect the chicks.

Cui bono? What to teach the young ones? What is the legacy? 

Perhaps it is Matt King’s stoic apatheia. He is after all king of himself; he triumphs over appetite, anger, grief. The sub plot about a land trust simply plays up this triumph. As the sole executor of the trust he chooses not to sell the vast holding on Kauai — he defies the appetites and greed of his family and fellows. He is a descendant of King Kamehameha. He is Matt King;  he is a modern day emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Stoic supreme.

He is also, we are told, a descendant of a missionary. But the missionary line is presumably swallowed up by greed (his business ancestor). That is the one sole reference to religion in the movie. There is no more reference to God, religion, ministers; no shots of churches or graveyards with crosses; no personal religious items; no one prays. No conversations. There are Hawaiian songs and long loving pans of sea and landscape. It celebrates pantheism and human (moral) puniness. 

So Peter Travers’s judgment is sound – there is nothing wrong with this movie; given our post-modern, post-Christian the Descendants gives aesthetic expression to the prospects for a moderate and humane existence in a world without God. The Clooney character plays out perfectly his part in a Graceless world. 

Saith Marcus Aurelius at the end of the Meditations: “Mortal man . . . what matter if that life is five or fifty years. . . . It is like the comic actor dismissed from the stage. ‘But I have not played my five acts but only three.’ ‘True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.’ Go then in peace.”

It is random. And it helps to be rich.

So the philosophy of Richard Rorty also suggests itself as the basis for this movie: “Now the things of this world are, for some lucky people, so welcome that they do not have to look beyond nature to the supernatural and beyond life to an afterlife, but only beyond the human past to the human future.” 

Is it not remarkable that a movie about death can fail to even mention an after-life or God?


1 Comment
  1. Not withstanding the complexity of the emotional gravitas and the
    tremendous performance of the crew, this movie is I think also an allegory.

    Three hints:

    1 The wife is "Liberty" aka America. Note her flaming red hair spiky
    similar to the statue.
    2 Father-in-law is the early "Pioneer" that explored the land and fathered America.
    3 Mother-in-law is "History" (she has dementia). She does not remember her daughter but does remember the queen.

    Also, the movie as a whole is an allegory of the state in which America
    finds itself in.

    Bit of philosophy too.
    Your Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations.

    One of the children of America, flipping the bird, disrespecting
    authority, living in child like simplicity reminds me of Diogenes the
    Cynic, the other a Sceptic and it is she who moves the plot forward. See:

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