May 14, 2014
At the center of all literature, theatre, cinema, and much of the graphic arts, can be found one or more intractable, complex, unmanageable “wicked” problems for which the characters in the play or the novel are neither ready nor prepared. Their problems often appear suddenly, with little warning, overturning, even destroying, the stable, comfortable, and predictable structures of life that the protagonists have come to depend upon for their happiness and well-being: family, marriage, career, reputation, financial security, health, safety, and so on. Tragedy does this tragically; comedy does it with a few laughs. But tragically or humorously, the known world is overturned, and they are faced with unknown, and in some cases, unimagined challenges.
In this new, strange, and often hostile world, the central characters in the novel or movie must act. And in the words of Wendell Berry that I quoted in an earlier post, they must “act in ignorance.”
As we watch or read, we follow the characters from a distance as they respond to the challenges given to them by the author: the choices they make, and why they make them; their mistakes and missteps and what they do in order to regain their footing; their early, feeble attempts to make things right, and how they learn from them.
In addition to being entertained, we are offered an opportunity to learn vicariously. They struggle, and by watching, we learn about struggling. We see them descend down into the abyss, and we watch them make efforts to get out. Without descending into the abyss ourselves, we gain understanding of the pain and suffering that is involved. As we watch them struggle to redeem themselves and their loved ones, we can gain an advantage. Perhaps most importantly, we see in dramatic terms what we already know but often forget: actions have consequences. If we are lucky, we are reminded of this without having to suffer the heartbreak and loss that accompany unwise and destructive choices.
The Descendants is an award winning movie from 2011, directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney. I have selected it as the first of occasional entries to this website in order to review and discuss movies, novels and plays that illuminate a profound human experience: finding oneself caught up in the middle of a wicked problem, and then struggling to make the best of it. The Descendants is an unusually rich and powerful experience for moviegoers as they accompany the actors down into the depths of wicked problems, and then travel back with them as they struggle to put their lives back together.
(Reader alert: This is a film about a dysfunctional family passing through life-changing crisis. It is an intense and in some ways an unsettling movie. It chronicles the travails of a father and his two daughters struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife and their mother. While at times painful to watch, at the end there is an affirmation of hope and love. It is rated R for language typically used by many teenagers, including the F-word.)
Matt King (George Clooney) is a middle-aged successful lawyer in Hawaii. He is the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of pristine land on the coast of Kauai, land that he and his cousins inherited from their ancestors. The property is extremely valuable; and, since it is one of the last undeveloped tracts of land on the Islands, it also has great cultural importance for the native people of Hawaii. At the beginning of the film, King, representing his cousins, is in the middle of negotiations to sell the property to a developer. Suddenly, with no warning, he receives word that his wife, Elizabeth has suffered a serious boating accident which, as he learns later, leaves her in a comatose state from which she will never recover. Matt and Elizabeth are parents of two daughters, Scottie, 10, and Alexandra, 17, who is away at boarding school. King must now put aside his business interests and pay attention to his family, providing support to his children whom he hardly knows.
Wicked Problems in The Descendants
King, as sole trustee, must make the decision to either sell the 25,000 acres to the developer or find a way to preserve it. Selling is what most of the family wants to do – his cousins need the money – and the arrangements are almost complete. On the other hand, preserving it, something that most people in Hawaii are hoping for, is, for legal and family reasons, extremely complicated.
- Matt and Elizabeth have drifted apart. Matt has found refuge in his work while Elizabeth has become deeply involved with extreme sports. After the accident, Matt realizes that his marriage to Elizabeth is important to him and he would like to begin again, but now it is too late.
- Elizabeth has a living will which instructs her doctors that in the case of a comatose state with no hope for recovery, her life must not be prolonged. Matt is left with the decision as to when and how to end her life by removing her from life support.
- When Matt tells his Alexandra that her mother will not recover, she tells him that the tensions between her and her mother during the past months arose when she learned that her mother was having an affair and wanted to divorce Matt.
- Matt now has full responsibility for the children and he has no idea how to go about being a father to them. ”The last time I had responsibility for Scottie,” he says, “she was three. Now she is eleven, and I have no idea what to do with her. I’m the back-up parent, the understudy.”
- Matt faces the ordeal of telling his daughters that their mother will never recover and must be removed from the ventilator. He struggles with how and when he should tell them.
- As the daughters try to come to terms with the knowledge that their mother is going to die, they begin to act out their feelings by disobeying, swearing, drinking, being abusive to friends, and so on. Matt is at a loss to know how to discipline them, let alone help them deal with their feelings.
- After Elizabeth’s death, Matt is uncertain how to go about recreating a sense of family.
Extended Family and Friends:
- Matt’s decision about the sale of the property causes great consternation and anger among his cousins. They threaten to sue, which leaves Matt to decide how to manage this threat.
- Elizabeth’s parents blame Matt for every problem: her accident, the unruly behavior of the children, and their deteriorating marriage. ”She was a good and faithful wife,” Elizabeth’s father says, “She deserved better.” Matt wants to tell him the truth about Elizabeth’s betrayal but senses that it will just cause more resentment.
- Matt and Elizabeth’s best friends had known about Elizabeth’s affair. When Matt learns that they had known, he is furious and breaks off the friendship at the very moment that he needs their love and support.
- Neither of the children had a chance to say good-bye to their mother, not did they have a way to deal with their feelings. For Scottie, the youngest, who had been largely ignored by her parents as they went their separate ways, her feelings are confusing and unsettling, causing her to lash out at her friends.
- Alexandra, burdened with the knowledge of her mother’s affair, is left with a combination of rage, betrayal and sadness, feelings that can never be acknowledged nor resolved.
- Matt is left with feelings of remorse and regret that he was not a better husband and father.
- He is also full of rage toward Elizabeth for her betrayal. Since he learned about her affair after the accident, he had no opportunity to confront her with his feelings.
- He is at a loss how to be a father to his children at the very moment that they need him more that ever before.
- At one time, he had decided to sell the property. Facing up to the many crises that surrounded Elizabeth’s accident, he begins to have second thoughts. He wrestles with uncertainty and doubt.
These are all wicked problems. As we watch the movie, we have an opportunity to experience them through the lives of Matt King, his children, and his friends and family. For each of the problems – unique, complicated, messy – there is no “correct” solution or answer. No one is wise enough to tell Matt what he should do. There is only a “best way” forward for each wicked problem, one that Matt and the others must discover for themselves. Acting in ignorance, they can only do the best that they can. The movie ends with an hopeful expression of reconciliation and love. Yet it is clear that the challenge of the three of them “becoming a family” is not over, and will continue for rest of their lives.
(Request: For future posts, please send me the names of films, plays and books that have helped you learn about, and perhaps navigate your way through, “wicked problems.”)