Posted by: cctracker | January 17, 2012

Descendants in an Ocean of Water-Lilies

Saturday I visited an exhibit featuring a triptych of Monet’s Water-Lilies and then Sunday went to see Alexander Payne’s new movie The Descendants. Both stayed with me and  came to feel like two parts of the same event. As sensory experiences there were striking similarities, but there was also an underlying message for me in both. I had a hard time putting that “message” into words so I thought I’d give it a try here.

Both experiences were “oceanic.” The exhibit and the film enveloped me in sensory impressions: light, color, air–even humidity. Monet’s paintings, keeping with his original request, were framed in beautiful, golden oak wood frames. But I felt vertigo staring at them. It was as if the floor had fallen away and I was being drawn in to the small, intimate pond at Giverny which somehow had no frame, no banks at all.

Though composed on a completely different visual scale, The Descendants felt the same way. The movie fills the screen with gauzy, humid color: shrub walls and flower beds loom in foregrounds while grassy  fields, cloud-laden skies skimming rocky peaks and hazy ocean vistas recede  to an indistinct horizon. The land and the water are characters in the movie, foreshadowing the ending from the earliest frames and exerting such a palpable influence that my skin felt clammy and my nose knew how blossoms would smell in sea air.

But the “message” only came into focus for me when I considered the human characters against these landscapes. Monet, in the exhibit’s grainy black and white film, flourishes a brush on a huge canvas with pond and willows in the background. George Clooney’s character and his wounded rag-tag  family  drive, walk and hike against a background of Hawaiian boulevards, neighborhoods, upscale developments and native landscapes.

Losing myself, as millions have, in the shimmering images of The Water-Lilies, I was nevertheless aware that Monet himself is gone and that many  generations will pass before this work and withdraw, unknown to me and one another while the work itself remains. Acknowledging and affirming that felt like the proper spiritual posture for standing there.

For Clooney’s character the painful acceptance not only of his wife’s death but of his enduring love for her despite her betrayal, is accompanied by the acceptance of a truth he encounters in the sweeping slope of his family’s land and in the silence of  the black and white photos of his ancestors: we do not remain; only what we release and pass along can endure.

I think it was Freud who used the term “oceanic” to critique religion, declaring that it seeks to recreate the infantile illusion of the  enveloping security of the womb. For me, enveloped by the ocean of Monet’s pond and Payne’s Hawaiian canvas of love and loss, I found the same invitation to a generous free and adult interior life that I have encountered at the heart of the world’s great religions: “Come fully into the presence of that which is larger than you, that which transcends you. Honor it with the creativity and generosity of your own immeasurable, yet mortal, life. And then, with love, release it.”

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