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When Awards Don't Matter

by Mike Anton

This post was originally written on the optimism afforded us by the Golden Globes, before the black-and-white, mostly silent film that boasted a lagging middle and a cute dog as its bright spot won the Oscar for Best Picture. No matter. The Descendants will remain the "best" film of 2011 for me, just as Good Night and Good Luck holds the honor from 2005 and The Social Network for 2010. So here is my ode to my favorite film of the year. And there's nothing Uggie can do about it.

 

 

 

Films aren't appreciated in vacuums; your life affects your tastes. There is little doubt that my adoration of The Darjeeling Limited came through my love of my two roommates in college, as an only child couldn't exactly piece together the depth of feeling carried out through those curt and punching lines of dialogue between three brothers. No, I had to actually gain some male siblings, live with guys day in and day out, see their emotions ebb and flow based on outside forces and those conjured up in our apartment-as-crockpot on Commonwealth Ave.

Their story of loss, listlessness, and hope came just as the end of college crested over the hill in front of us. Beyond being an excellent film from one of my favorite directors, it spoke to me at a specific time in a specific circumstance, just as albums like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Weezer's Pinkerton before it. They didn't just underscore my feelings. Those albums co-opted them, broke them down, re-packaged them outside of my existence, and eventually helped make me complete myself and move on. That is the true power of art: to make you realize you're not alone.

So what does a story about a rich land owner in Hawaii whose wife is slipping through the cracks of life have to do with me?

I screened The Descendants on the last day of press screenings for the New York Film Festival, the second part of a double-bill featuring critical darling The Artist. This was my first experience of attending a film festival, let alone covering one for a rapidly-growing film site. Indeed, by the time I rolled into the Lincoln Center stadia, I had maybe ten reviews under my belt, suddenly sitting in a room with reviewers from New Yorker and the Times to watch films that will ostensibly be on their year-end Top Ten lists. How did I get here?

After graduating from college in 2008, and spending the remainder of my lease trying to enjoy whatever was left of the college experience instead of, you know, planning for my immediate future, I returned home to my mom, dad, and dog in suburban New Jersey. I returned to stasis. Same house, same bed room, same pink wall, same Fight Club poster on said pink wall to try and make the pink wall look harder than it was which was impossible as it was a pink wall, same parents with their somewhat courteous but obviously loveless marriage, same dog with her bratty demeanor and endearing dog-ness. It was routine, it was boring, it was safe, it was the baseline. It was home.

Soon after I arrived, my parents sat me down for A Talk. They were to divorce after twenty-plus years of marriage, as expected, as they should have, probably years earlier. This was, oddly enough, not much of a surprise. The dog was not present for the meeting, though she was brought up more often than I was. Seems like she should have at least gotten the memo. Weeks later, my father loses his construction job, leaving him without day-to-day work for the first time since...pre-school, really, as he has maintained a job since the day after college (unlike some progeny...). This put him in a perfect state of anomie that would make Durkheim weep with joy. Now he sat around, aimless, watching re-runs of "Las Vegas" on TNT. The discussion of which spouse would leave the house was nullified; now we only wondered who would survive.

Unfortunately, it would not be Whitney, our dog. In her thirteenth year, she had severe liver failure and had to be put down. It was a discussion that was prompted by a bizarre late-night confrontation I had with our pup, wherein she essentially stared me down long enough to get the point across that she was in pain and dying and that she had to go, and I was the only one removed enough to make this realization. She was, after all, my dog, the one I picked out from North Shore Animal Shelter, the all-black mutt puppy with a tiny tip of white on her tail, as if dipped in a can of paint by a minimalist.

Over these four years, my connection with Whitney had decreased; one can't exactly Skype with an animal from the campus union. And, in my absence, the connection my parents had with her had grown exponentially. My mom would use her as a cipher for conversations (apparently Whitney would respond, but I've yet to find any empirical evidence of such events) and my dad would curl up with her as he watched whatever god awful, shit TV program he enjoyed. Through her, a need was filled, especially in that environment. In many ways, that dog was the anchor to our family: everything revolved around her and that let us not realize that things were at a point in our relationships where everything revolved around our dog.

By the time I gathered my parents for A Talk, neither were aware of Whitney's gaunt state, though she had lost nearly fifteen pounds by the time she was brought in to the vet. They thought it curious that she had returned to sleep curled up next to my bed, as she had only when she was a puppy, but nothing more was thought about it, nor the fact that she never really got up from that spot for nearly a week. They were wholly unprepared to deal with the reality at hand. The mind has a great ability to see only what it wants. Here I was, trying to forcibly make them cognizant of what they knew intrinsically and refused to acknowledge. It was messy. It was hard. It was the most I'd ever seen my parents cry. I wondered what exactly they were beginning to mourn.

The next day, on my insistence, we took her to the vet. There was still some lingering hope kicking around the house that she would come back, on some sort of stay of execution, getting anything from a day to a week to a miraculous full recovery that would reverse the effects of time. The previous night, I petted her and said my own goodbyes before turning over in bed and letting my pillowcase soak up my tears. That morning, she walked like a wino at 5 PM on a weekday, bashing into things, sliding left and right pushed by some unforeseen momentum. It turns out that the muscles in her back legs had deteriorated to the point of worthlessness. Now I have a visual example of someone "on their last legs."

We took her to the vet, the same one she'd gone to since her first shots as a puppy. Everyone on staff knew the low-down by looking at our faces (hers included, I'd imagine). There was a five-year-old dog to our left, rambunctious, peppy, with an owner who probably brought her in because she was being fussy about her food or something. I smiled. The rest of the nurses said hello (and, thus, goodbye) to Whitney as we made our way into the room, the same one where we sat as she got her nails clipped, was spayed, was weighed on a giant lifting apparatus that scared the shit (quite literally) out of her. Everyone -- Whitney included -- knew this was the last time we would all enter this room.

What you're never prepared for in these situations is just how immediate death can be. That's a silly thing to say, especially for someone who has played video games with sniper headshot insta-kills and watched movies of extreme and brutal violence where dozens of people were killed in an instant. But it's different when it's right in front of you, when it's so palpable. One second I'm petting my dog, the next I'm petting a carcass. That's how quick of a flip the switch could be. Everything, nothing. Here, gone. Temporary, infinite.

We stewed in that house together for another year and a half. I moved into the basement to try and forge some sort of separation from the lingering separation, but it just hung above me, raining down its awful sadness like a monsoon of depression. My mom used to smoke and coated the house in a yellow tint. Now, the walls were darker, murkier; our flowery wall-paper began to slowly peal. The house had become death; destroyer of good feelings.

Eventually my dad moved out to live with my grandma. It helped us relate; two men still living with their moms. After some time, I too made my way out of the sullen nest, shacking up with my very kind cousin who let me crash with her in New York City. In time, I was able to pick up some odd jobs, including writing for the aforementioned Film Stage, who treated me not as a novice but as a paid professional writer and reviewer. This opportunity should not have come as a surprise to me, but it did. My first review was for Red Riding Hood. So excited was I that not only did I continue to watch films after the screening, but I also didn't hold it against Jordan, the editor, and kept working there.

To cap off my first professional dip into the world of film festivals, I screened The Descendants, but not to review. The film, a wonderful mixture of emotional moments and comedic beats, genres and sensibilities, is a master class on keeping tonality through direction. Alexander Payne had previously worked his tragi-comedy magic in such acclaimed films as Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, all films about people in less-than-advantageous situations trying to muster up the courage to carry on, even though they're going to have to anyway.

The Descendants is no different. This is a family that is broken consecutively: not only is the mother dying, but she also had left an adulterous lover. George Clooney, in a career-best performance, plays an everyman (though one with a shit ton of money) who has to figure out a barrage of emotions while still playing father two his two daughters an trying to keep their psyches in check while balancing a potential land deal that his native Hawaiian family accrued in the mid-19th century as time ticks away towards a new, ultimately tacky, vacation hub.

It's a film about loss, acceptance, and perseverance without the luxury of time. The clock does not pause for you to figure your shit out. People around you will not balance out your feelings first and their wants second, and no one can tell you exactly how to make your way through this endeavor. It is up to you, and you alone, to dictate how you traverse this section of your life, and in what degrees of courage and grace you muster up to make the move from one place to another.

This is a film that is rich in humor, solemnity, absurdism, tragedy, greed, and gut-punching earnestness. In other words, it's a film that's rich in life. Its ups, its downs, and all the bumps in between that enrich our experience on this planet for however long it is that we're able to stave off our inevitable check-out time. And that's the key: the mother, seen at the opening as a vibrant woman, full of life, is essentially a vegetable for the duration of the film. The embodiment of the changes from joys and sorrows, everything and nothing, temporary to infinite.

There is more than a little reflexivity at play as I sat through the ending (minor spoilers ahoy!). The remnants of the family -- the ones that have gone through a loss of trust as well as a loss of life -- sit together and watch television, sharing a blanket. They might not have accepted that this is their new normal, but that does not matter. It has been thrust upon them. They will either roll with it or not.

And so I sit in the audience, essentially staring back at them, as they eat ice cream, enjoying the show. I think about my parents, now in their mid-50s, hopefully with another half of life to figure out. I think about how my professional and adult life has just begun, the embers just catching as the frames flicker on the screen in front of me. And as these filmic objects look at me, I hope the accumulation of my last three years was more entertaining for the onlooker, because it was kind of a dirge for me (though it did sag quite a bit in the middle). Here's to a better third act.

Image courtesy of The Guardian

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Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive. Mike writes movie reviews and interview pieces for The Film Stage as well as screenplays, sketches, and the like. He lives in New York City and though he's an avid beard and flannel enthusiast, he does not consider himself a hipster. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants