The Descendants: Payne Reading Paine

Briefly, regarding the George Clooney/Andrew Payne move The Descendants which takes place on an Hawaiian island.

I found the movie somewhat “after school special” while watching it and immediately afterwards.  But after some time and conversation I think the movie may have had far more to say than I allowed it.

First, the “after school special” part.  Working, absent father forced to become present when his wife has an accident and is left comatose.  He must face the standard movie dilemmas: 1. difficult children, one precocious, one “troubled” and something of a drinker, 2. a failing marriage for reasons our hero (Clooney) was unaware, 3. and finally, he must face a growing sense of himself–confronting his own ennui within the identity he had cultivated over his life.

But, the very milquetoast nature of this standard movie plot forced me to be very critical of what was not “in focus” as it were: the political content or social content of the movie had nothing to do with our hero and his children and their immediate and pressing emotional concerns.  Instead, it seems to me to be about the insignificance of human descent outside of your singular situation.

It struck me that in this movie set on Kauai that we see, primarily, “Anywhere, USA,” and in fact the movie’s main character Matt King says as much–Hawaii is not the paradise we imagine (at least not anymore).  There is, to my recollection only one native shown in the film, and this is in no way a person presented in a noble or martyred light.  In other words, there is no “native” way of being anymore.

Possibly this is to be blamed on trade and landed property.  And this is asserted within the film by the fact that Matt King is a descendant of a marriage between King Kamehameha and some great, great, great relative of his.  Thus, Monarchy devolves to the landed aristocracy and then devolves further to the present state of the Kings as rentier capitalists

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The movie’s primary real conflict, not the one between Matt and his children or his father-in-law or his comatose wife, is that between himself as executor of 25,000 acres of undeveloped land (an accident of hereditary property succession) and the long list of cousins who get a living by owning rental property and developing land for shopping malls and strip housing.  They all, of course, want to profit off of the sale of the land.

The ultimate question is the nature of the ownership of this land and the men who claim it and profit off of it.  There is a kind of irrelevance here as to whether a single man in this line of descent is “good” or “bad” (we must see, by comparison, Matt King as “better” than most in the family).  What right has a single man or men to dispose of land for pecuniary gain?   What right is there to this “right” of ownership at all?

Finally, the movie caused me to consider this from Paine’s Common Sense, “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.”

MANKIND being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance: the distinctions of rich and poor may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the CONSEQUENCE, but seldom or never the MEANS of riches; and tho’ avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.

But there is another and great distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind….

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.

Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say “We choose you for our head,” they could not without manifest injustice to their children say “that your children and your children’s children shall reign over ours forever.” Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool. Most wise men in their private sentiments have ever treated hereditary right with contempt; yet it is one of those evils which when once established is not easily removed: many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest.

It is this passage from Paine that to me is the presiding philosophy behind this movie.

It is extremely subtle and it is a somewhat sneaky presentation in that this very political content is hidden within a very routine family drama.

I think that the movie is finally about a man slowly learning to think of his life in the same way one might think of this movie and think of Paine’s text: as if one were only just now coming out of one’s own comatose way of living to discover the necessity of an active participation by employing a kind of common sense.



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