Pulling Back the Kama’aina Curtain in “The Descendants”

November 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Surveying the Family Legacy in "The Descendants"/Courtesy Fox Searchlight

I was one of those who charged off to see “The Descendants” during its opening weekend. The movie portrays a wealthy lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney) who finds out that his wife, in a coma following a boat racing accident, will  a) not recover, and b) was having an extramarital affair and planning to divorce him. Although I generally dislike family dramas about medical emergencies, moreso if they involve comatose patients, I was interested the movie’s subplot, which concerns the looming sale of land held in a family trust.

The tract in question is a spread on Kaua’i, an island I regard as my second home, and this feature alone would have driven me to “The Descendants.” But I was also interested in the fact that the movie was about a kama’aina (lit. “child of the land,” a term for Hawai’ians of all ethnic backgrounds except pure-blooded Hawai’ian) family descended from haole missionaries and merchants, as well as a Hawai’ian princess. [The author of the book on which the movie is based, Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a member of the Wilcox family of Kauai, whose ancestors include missionaries, plantation owners and a native Hawai’ian whose name she carries. Disclosure: Although I don’t know Hemmings or her family, I did research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm, the Wilcox plantation.]

An obvious model for the King family is the Bishops, who trace their lineage to the haole banker Charles Bishop and his wife Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last descendant of King Kamehameha I. In 1884, Bernice Pauahi Bishop placed the bulk of her estate–vast landholdings throughout Hawai’i–in trust to establish two schools, one for boys and one for girls, called the Kamehameha Schools. The Bishop Trust was originally land-rich and cash-poor, but its fortunes changed radically after Hawai’i achieved statehood in 1959. Land values soared, making the Bishop Trust not only the largest private landholder in Hawaii but the richest charity in the United States, with an endowment larger than Harvard’s and Yale’s combined.

Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, take great pains to present a realistic portrayal of Matt King’s dilemma in selling the Kaua’i tract for development. As trustee, he must choose the best possible deal for the trust’s heirs, some of whom are in financial need, yet he must also consider his ancestors, whose legacy is spiritual as well as material. King acknowledges that his family did nothing to earn the land, which came to them as a royal dowry through their Hawai’ian ancestor, and in the end defers the sale.

Without this well-conceived and intensely Hawai’ian dilemma, “The Descendants” would be a Lifetime movie, albeit a very well-acted and picturesque one whose locations are both believable and, for the most part, off the beaten track. Other films set in Hawaii tell the stories of visitors, who logically inhabit tourist locations such as Waikiki. For “The Descendants,” Payne and his location scouts do a peerless job of showing how an old kama’aina family like the Kings would live. They have a lovely old house in Nu’uanu, a lush valley on the windward side of the island. Nearby is the Oahu Country Club, the island’s oldest, whose members are glimpsed playing golf. Elizabeth King lies in a coma at Queen’s Medical Center, a straight shot along the Pali Highway from Nu’uanu, and probably the closest hospital to the scene of her boating accident. Matt King takes his younger daughter to lunch at the Outrigger Canoe Club, another exclusive private club, in Diamond Head.  When the family decamps for Kauai, they stay at the Princeville Resort on the North Shore, with excursions to nearby Kilauea and Hanalei Bay. The family’s land appears to be located in Kilauea, though I don’t know this for sure. But all the locations make sense, not only sociologically but geographically, a practically unheard-of feat in feature films.

After countless films about Hawaii’s tourists, it’s nice to see one about people who not only live in Hawaii but call it their ancestral home. Though heavy on bedside scenes in the ICU, “The Descendants” does a good job of portraying the Kings’ milieu, which in itself is reason to go.  

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Hollywood Sign Tourism: Joys of the Low Season

November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Monday, I took a first-time visitor to Los Angeles from Hollywood to the Pacific, via Sunset Blvd. We wound up at a restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Beach, which was empty of people. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “Well, it’s winter,” I said. “But it feels like summer,” he said. No matter: despite its relatively balmy climate, Los Angeles does have a low season, and this is it. 

That’s why November thru February is my favorite time of year. It’s not just that there are fewer tourists; there are fewer Angelenos, as hordes leave for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Some manage to stay away during the weeks between the holidays, while others clear out from mid-December until after Sundance.) For those of us who stay behind, there’s less traffic, more parking and more quiet. And in Hollywoodland, tourism that intermittently reaches manageable levels.

These photos were taken in the western part of Beachwood Canyon around 4pm yesterday. The recently cleared picture-posing area, which in summer held crowds of a hundred or more, was empty.

Across the road, the Lake Hollywood lookout had fewer than a dozen tourists.

On the blind curves of Mulholland Highway, there were no illegally stopped cars, only a couple of walkers and a dog. If not for the ubiquitous trash cans (the same ones that took out my passenger’s side mirror last spring as I dodged an oncoming car), my view of the Hollywood Sign would have been perfect.

Jim Thompson’s Life After Death

November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson (b. 1906) was an architect, Army officer, OSS operative, art collector and entrepreneur. In the years after World War II, he transformed homemade Thai silk into a thriving industry, in the process lifting some ten thousand impoverished weavers out of poverty and into comparative wealth. Jim Thompson’s silks, whose dyes and weaves he devised, soon found their way into Buckingham Palace and onto Broadway, via the costumes for “The King and I. Along the way, Thompson became famous, as did the Thai-style house he built to showcase his superb collection of Southeast Asian art. Then, on Easter Sunday of 1967, Jim Thompson vanished in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the mystery of his disappearance eclipsed the story of his life.

Jim Thompson was also the subject of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” (2001), and the reason I became a documentary filmmaker. In the expatriate communities of Asia where I grew up, Thompson was not merely famous; he was a household name. My father had met him, as had many of my parents’ friends, and the Thai Silk Company store in Bangkok was a primary destination for every westerner who visited Thailand in the 1950s and 60s. Because he was not merely a person but a brand, Jim Thompson’s disappearance struck our world like a bomb. The event was so odd and disturbing that my mother instructed me to “go to the library and find out what happened to him.” I was eight years old at the time, and eight months away from my first visit to Thailand.

I never found out what happened to Jim Thompson, though over the years I developed various theories about that Sunday in the Highlands. More importantly, I  became interested in his life, particularly his accomplishments in the silk industry, Southeast Asian art and traditional Thai architecture. Each of these feats would have been notable in itself; the fact that a non-Thai-speaking foreigner had left his mark on all three after the age of 40 impressed me enormously. As the years went by, I often thought about Jim Thompson’s life and hoped someone would make a serious film about it. When no one did, I learned the basics of filmmaking, tracked down his biographer, secured the permission of Thai Silk Company to film at its factory and main store, and flew to Thailand.

The result was not only the biographical documentary but a second film about Thompson’s Thai house, now a museum showcasing his art collection. (There would have been a third Thai documentary, about silk weaving, but no one cared.) “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” went to festivals, won a prize, got on TV and came out on DVD. Then came what I call The Jim Thompson Business: years of correspondence from conspiracy theorists, distant Thompson relatives, and a guy who wanted me to fly to Kuala Lumpur so that he could tell me what his dead father saw in the Highlands that Easter Sunday. (I didn’t go). There were inquiries from movie producers seeking the (perennially unavailable) rights to Thompson’s biography for a feature film, and inquiries from movie producers wanting to make a film based on a fictional character who resembled Jim Thompson. And a series of emails from a writer named Josh Kurlantzik, who was working on a book about Americans in Thailand after WWII, including Jim. Would I care to be interviewed? Of course I would; I also let him borrow footage of my interviews, newsreels and various other materials from “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”

Four years later, the resulting book has reached publication, only it’s called, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. (Why Kurlantzik danced around his subject is a mystery, since he had every right to write about Thompson, but he did the same with my interviewees in Thailand.) Although I haven’t read the book, I have read the new Foreign Policy article by Kurlantzik, which sheds light on Thompson’s political activities in Thailand and Laos during the Vietnam War. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Kurlantzik was able to obtain Thompson’s CIA file which, though heavily redacted, quashes the idea that he was a politically uninvolved businessman. As I learned from my own research, Thompson remained deeply committed to anti-colonialism and national self-determination in Southeast Asia, and scoffed at the prevailing Domino Theory. These beliefs put him on a collision course with various governments, including his own, and no doubt sealed his fate.

In making “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I wanted to shift the focus of public interest from Thompson’s unsolved disappearance to his remarkable life. Then I tried to walk away from The Jim Thompson Business, only to learn that, as with the CIA, one can never really leave. Earlier this year, I optioned my documentary for a feature film. The script is in progress; if it gets made, I’ll let you know.

Note: DVDs of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” can be ordered from www.hopeandersonproductions.com

“Don’t Look Now:” Du Maurier’s Story, Roeg’s Film, and Venice, Then and Now

November 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland at their fateful lunch in "Don't Look Now"

I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” when I was in my early teens, but I already knew the story. I had heard it blow-by-blow from my sister, who had seen the film without me and come home terrified. In the years since, I’ve watched “Don’t Look Now” a number of times, both for its depiction of Venice and the performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who pull off that rarest of acting feats: a realistic portrayal of a married couple.  (The fact that Sutherland and Christie were a real-life couple at the time is no guarantee of naturalism, as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Eyes Wide Shut” make clear.)   

As much as I loved the film, until recently I had never read the short story on which it was based. Its author is the great Daphne Du Maurier, from whose pen sprang the stories of two other notable films: “Rebecca,” and “The Birds.” Last month, on the eve of my first visit to Venice, I finally read “Don’t Look Now,” and was fascinated by the differences between it and the screenplay. Since my return from Venice, I’ve also watched the film again, this time through new eyes.

In Du Maurier’s story, an English couple arrive in Venice on an extended vacation following the death, from meningitis, of their young daughter, Christine. Venice was the location of their honeymoon ten years earlier; now, in the wake of a devastating loss, John and Laura have returned to revive their marriage and move forward. While touring the nearby island of Torcello, they encounter elderly twin sisters, one blind, who stare at them across a restaurant. “Don’t look now,” John tells Laura in the story’s opening line, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” Shortly thereafter, in the ladies’ room, Laura is told by the blind sister, a psychic, that she has seen Christine sitting between her and John, and that the girl is happy.

Those who know the film will note that Roeg and his screenwriters, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, made a number of changes to the story. It’s unfortunate that the remark that gives the story and film their title is left out of the script, along with the conversation that follows, in which John and Laura speculate on the two women’s origins and motives. It’s also too bad that in the film the women are only sisters, not twins, and that their meeting with John and Laura takes place in Venice proper, rather than on the less traveled, and therefore more fateful, Torcello. But other changes, symbolic and visual, work to sharpen the story.

The film opens with an extended sequence that cuts back and forth between John and Laura in their English country house and their son and daughter as they play outside. As Laura reads and John, an art historian, examines slides of the church in Venice whose restoration he will oversee, the boy bicycles on a huge lawn while the girl, incongruously dressed in a hooded red raincoat on a sunny day, plays by a stream with her red-and-white ball and talking action figure. Many cuts later, John–propelled outdoors by a premonition even before his son calls to him–pulls his drowned daughter from the stream.

The theme of water dominates the rest of the film. It is raining heavily when John and Laura depart on their trip to Venice, a city that is literally drowning. The Chiesa di San Nicola, which John will try to restore, is severely water damaged, so much so that its mosaic murals have been eroded. It is late fall when John and Laura arrive in Venice. The city is sparsely peopled, waterlogged and decrepit, a maze of dark alleys, murky canals and peeling paint. The film’s palette is mostly grey, while the characters dress in earth tones, or black and white. Into this drab, watery world, Roeg injects a shot of color, in the form of a mysterious creature in a red hooded coat.

The color red is so crucial to the film that it functions almost as a character, but in Du Maurier’s story, it appears only once–as the color of Laura’s coat, not Christine’s. It is the scarlet of Laura’s coat that catches John’s eye as he rides along the Grand Canal and sees his wife, who has just flown to England, standing with the two sisters on a passing vaporetto. In the story, Christine’s clothing, as described by the blind woman, is the blue-and-white party dress she wore on her last birthday. By exchanging the blue dress for a red hooded raincoat, Roeg, Scott and Bryant link Christine to the mysterious red-cloaked figure, and to blood.

Another notable difference between the story and the film is John and Laura’s lovemaking, which marks the first time the couple has had sex since the death of their daughter. Du Maurier writes the scene briefly, and from John’s point of view:

‘Now,’ he thought afterwards, ‘now at last is the moment to make love,’ and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint. 

In contrast, the film features an extended and famous sex scene, widely perceived to be authentic, which Roeg (who began as an editor) intercut with the scene that follows, in which John and Laura dress to go to dinner. Though Roeg has said his motive in combining the two scenes was to get the explicit content past the censors, the sequence brilliantly foreshadows the film’s denoument, in which John sees Laura and the sisters on the vaporetto. Like the dressing scene, the vaporetto scene belongs to the immediate future, which John–unable to accept his own prescience–foresees but cannot comprehend.

The Vaporetto Scene from "Don't Look Now"

Then there’s Venice itself, a crucial part of both the story and film. In a recent, illuminating piece on “Don’t Look Now,” Peter Bradshaw writes about Du Maurier’s attachment to the city, which provided her both with inspiration and an escape from her life as a long-married wife and mother:

For Daphne du Maurier, “Venetian” was her private word for lesbian, and she herself had a lifelong struggle to come to terms with her own homosexuality, never far from the surface. Furthermore, “going to Venice” was her private code for having a lesbian sexual adventure. Crucially, Du Maurier herself, long before this story was written, went to Venice to get over the death of someone dear to her – her lover Gertrude Lawrence – and it may have been on this visit (although she made a number of literal visits to Venice) that she herself mistook a dwarf for a child. Denial and fear and excitement are transformed, in this story, into a tale of supernatural longing and horror.  

Because my idea of Venice was heavily influenced by “Don’t Look Now,” I was thrilled to finally visit–and surprised to find not only sunny weather but a city transformed by decades of renovation. Though still sinking, Venice appeared far more freshly painted, rebuilt and prosperous than I had expected, with exponentially more traffic–both boat and tourist. Its many canals and bridges were vaguely familiar, but otherwise Venice was nothing like the crumbling, mysterious city of the film. For a place whose demise has been predicted for centuries, it seemed vibrant and renewed–a stark contrast to the Venice of “Don’t Look Now.”

Along the Grand Canal, 10/15/11/Hope Anderson Productions


“Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier, 1971.

“Don’t Look Now,” dir. Nicolas Roeg, script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant. Paramount Pictures, 1973.

“‘Don’t Look Now’ and Roeg’s Raincoat” by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, January 18, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jan/18/dont-look-now-red-coat



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