Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Shark Feeding & The Descendants

The family is on vacation on one of the islands in Hawaii and Scottie, the ten-year old daughter, wants to know if they can go feed the sharks; her seventeen year-old sister Alexandra tells her no, they are there to do something else, but feeding the "sharks" is exactly what they are going to do. Their mother, Elizabeth, is in a coma from a boating accident and her husband Matt (George Clooney) has just found out from his daughter Alexandra that his wife had been cheating and was planning on divorcing him. When Scottie asks if they can go feed the sharks and Alex tells her no, they are on their way to find Brian Speer, the man that Elizabeth has been having an affair with, and to confront him; so yes, they are going to feed the sharks, not only Brian as a symbolic shark, but the sharks within themselves that want to release their anger, sadness and feelings of betrayal.
I wouldn't hesitate to tell you to wait for a film to come out on DVD, however, Alexander Payne's The Descendants is not the soap opera storyline a basic synopsis would have you believe; the pain that Matt, Alexandra and Scottie King endure deserves a big screen, and it's not because it's just a tear-jerker, like Old Yellar or Little Women; it's genuine catharsis. When Matt King decides to make an heroic act of virtue, it deserves the big screen because it is heroic in the light of all the pain he's enduring, his girls' problems and lack of respect for him and the problems of his family's inheritance.
Matt King (George Clooney, Alexandra King 17 years old (Shailene Woodley), and Scottie 10 years old (Amara Miller). They have unexpectedly stopped to view for the last time the 25, 000 acres of untouched Hawaiian land they are selling.
The story is very aware of itself and what it wants to say.
For example, in the trailer posted above, we see Matt King running, he's going over to his and his wife's best friends because he has just found out about his wife's cheating and he wants to know who she was with. It would be easier for him to drive that distance, but the film wants to show us "what's fueling him" and the lengths he's willing to go to find out. It seems there everyone in the film is barefoot, because, as you know, the feet symbolize the will and for the feet to be bare either means they are on Holy Ground (as in the Bible), their will is exposed/open for all to see or they have no will guiding them. At different times in the film, it's the last two options which exist for the characters, and let's us know what is going on within their souls.
Matt has been told by the doctors that Elizabeth won't come out of her coma; because of her will, they have to take her off life support so Matt and Alex are going around to friends and family to tell them what has happened. They are with Elizabeth's parents, Alice "Tutu" Thorson and Elizabeth's father Scott.
One of the best aspects of the film is meeting Elizabeth's mother, Tutu.
It's never explicitly stated what ails Tutu, however, it is some form of dementia, so when her husband tells her that they are going to see Elizabeth in the hospital, Tutu thinks it's Queen Elizabeth they are going to visit; this may seem like demented behavior, yet, actually, it isn't. Elizabeth was supposed to be a queen, she was supposed to be a queen to her husband and her daughters and her parents and instead, she acted like a teenager, doing crazy things and seeking after thrills and having an affair. There is nothing demented about what Tutu thinks of her daughter and what her daughter actually should have become;the only demented thing is what her daughter actually became.
Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) with his wife Julie (Judy Greer) whom you may recognize from The Village as Ivy's sister. It's a really great lesson, that when Matt comes to see Brian and tell him that Elizabeth is dying in case he wants to say good-bye to her, that Brian confesses he didn't love Elizabeth and it was just about sex. Brian begs Matt not to tell his wife (they have two small sons) and not to ruin his life, but Brian didn't hesitate to ruin Matt's and doesn't have the decency to go and say good-bye to Elizabeth, Brian's wife Julie does. Julie comes to the hospital and sees them and brings Elizabeth a bouquet of white flowers; even though Julie is in terrible grieving and pain, she forgives Elizabeth for what she did to her and her family and the flowers (white for faith and purity) symbolize that intent.
When the film opens, we see Elizabeth (the only shot of her not in a coma) water skiing and then it fades to black. We meet Matt King in her hospital room after she has been in a coma for 23 days. Her and Matt hadn't spoken to each other in three days when the accident occurred, and at this point, Matt is ready to work on their relationship and get their intimacy back, go on a trip and learn to love each other again. We discover about Elizabeth that she wasn't just water skiing, she was in a boat race, then we discover that she told the driver to speed up and overtake the other boat so they would win, and that Elizabeth was always thrill seeking. In the boat race, she falls and hits her head and goes into a coma from which she won't awaken. Sadly, this is a clear and accurate mirrored-truth of what she was doing to Brian's wife and falling in love with a man who wasn't in love with her: racing to get Brian away from "her rival" Julie, Elizabeth didn't gain the life she was looking for, she lost the life she had. Another sign of this is the party where Elizabeth meets Brian: a super bowl party (life is a game and a thrill) by a jar of pickles. The pickles, as readers of The Family Graveyard: Poltergeist will recall, symbolize the penis and are frequently used to suggest sexual activity.
When we first meet Alex at her $35, 000/year private school, she's out after hours and she's drunk playing golf with a friend (or trying to). It's symbolically important that she throws the golf club away, into the air, because that shows us that she's not smart enough to know what "tools" she needs to get through the "game of life." Her drug habits and drinking has gotten her into trouble in the past. Matt tells her that whatever she was upset with her mother about, she needs to drop and forget because her mother is dying, and that's when Alex tells her that Elizabeth had been cheating on him and that's what they had fought about. It's the basis of the bond they manage to form that Alex stuck up for her dad and recognized that what her mother was doing was wrong, which forms the basis of Matt's respect for his daughter.
After finding out the name of the man Elizabeth had been seeing, Matt walks back home, but stops at a bridge. This is a job of great directing because we are up and behind Matt, as if we were climbing a tree and watching him from below. He has his back turned to the camera. On a bridge, he has stopped and is crying, the beautiful water running underneath. Not only does this clearly symbolize the "bridge over troubled water," and the path that he has to leave behind, but something more cleansing as well. Readers may remember our discussion in my post on The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow & the Battle For America, that evil can't cross running water because running water is pure and evil can't overcome anything pure; this probably refers to his intentions in tracking down Brian Speer so that Brian can say good-bye to Elizabeth before she dies.
This is one of the few panoramic shots of Hawaii in the film; there are plenty of "storm clouds" and water shots, but few of the beautiful land, which is intentional so that when you see the family's virgin land they are being forced to sell because of laws, it really hits you how beautiful it is so you understand why Matt makes the decision he does.
What does the title, The Descendants, really mean?
Matt King and his many cousins are the descendants of the last royal Hawaiian princess who inherited a tremendous amount of land when she married their great great great grandfather. This 25, 000 acres of virgin land is the last that the family has and Matt is the trustee over the it; because of rule against perpetuities Matt
and his cousins have to sell the land within 7 years; they have decided on a local developer, Don Holitzer, who Matt discovers to be Brian Speer's brother-in-law, and Brian, as a real estate agent, will make a lot of money off the deal. This is definitely something Matt considers in his decision (which, has trustee, he has the final say) but it's a deeper symbolism than that, and Matt and his cousins aren't the only descendants the film is discussing.
Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) whom Matt sees at a Hawaiian bar as he and the girls have stopped for something to eat. Matt talks to Hugh because Brian Speer and his family is staying in a bungalow that Hugh owns and is renting to them. This is symbolically important to let us in on Hugh's character: towards the end of the film, Hugh threatens Matt that he and the other cousins will come after him for his decision not to sell the land. Brian renting the family bungalow from Hugh shows what Hugh is "open to" and what "occupies" him. You might say that this is just a coincidence, but it's not, the film is too smart for that.
When Matt decides he is not going to sell the land, it's not just the land that he's not going to give up on. His wife has died and he is the father of two disturbed and troubled girls, but he's not going to give up on his descendants, either, and the last shot of the film, of the three of them covered up with the blanket that had been on Elizabeth's hospital bed while she was dying, watching March of the Penguins, assures us that they are "wrapped" in their love for their mom (in spite of everything) and that love and the trauma that has been shared between them has bound them together. Matt isn't going to ship the girls off to schools, he's going to be the attentive, loving father that he knows he should have been so his descendants will have a chance in the world.
This is the shark feeding scene when Alex tells Scottie they aren't there to feed sharks. The young man with them is Sid, Alex's friend, and they are walking around trying to find where Brian Speer is staying. Sid would be a character easy to overlook, and Matt is certainly suspicious of him, as Sid doesn't seem very intelligent. Part of this is Matt's fear that Alex might fall in love with him, but later, when Matt realizes that Alex and Sid aren't sleeping together and that Sid is with Alex to genuinely be a friend and help her, that establishes a bond with him, too.
March of the Penguins is a good film for the family to be watching, because it's about the natural law: it's about loss and struggle, about life and death, and about the cycle of life, validating the pain they have been through and uniting them in what their future holds. Matt and Alex have serious struggles ahead of them, but Alex realizes that she has to make better choices, or she will end up like her mom, and she has to make better choices for Scottie so she won't end up a "whoreless mother" like some of the girls in Scottie's school. They are eating ice cream, there on the couch as they watch the show and, since ice cream is based on milk, we can say they are receiving the "nourishment" of mother's milk that Elizabeth was too busy to give them; it's not a perfect world, but they will make it individually and together.
When they had been driving earlier, Alex was in the back seat with Sid, but then she gets in the front seat with her dad, which means she wants to help him understand "where they need to go" and she's going to be more active in their relationship.
As they are flying to another island, Matt makes the comment that his family is like the Hawaiian islands: all a part of the one chain, but forever drifting apart. He considers why all the women in his life want to destroy themselves; but at the end, he has put a stop to that, and you know that Alex and Scottie will go through growing pains, but their dad will be there to help him because he didn't sell out.