Within the span of just a couple of weeks, I saw The Descendants and finished reading Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. The stories told are completely different, with narrative voices and aesthetics that are worlds apart. Where The Descendants grabs at your empathy with Clooney’s desperate and tanned swagger, Beautiful Children throttles your emotions through a reality that is so harsh you think it must be fictional. While The Descendants is reaching out for Oscars with the intimacy of the “important small story” that is getting so much attention these days (and maybe rightly so), Beautiful Children is almost alienating in its ability to cross-section so many “important small stories.” What’s more, the former is set in gorgeous Hawaii, while the latter is set in grimy Las Vegas.
But these settings are exactly what these stories have in common. For a month, I lived and worked in Venice, and, while experiencing no extraordinary tales, I felt the influence these and similar destination/entertainment/vacation locations can have on the “normal” people living there. The Descendants opens with Clooney’s voice-over introducing the concept: Hawaii, when you live there, is just another place. Life goes on around the resorts, the surfing, the ukuleles. And yet, this backdrop is exactly what defines the limitations and directions of people’s lives. The Descendants is unsubtle with this: Clooney’s wife ends up in a jet-skiing accident early on, and the rest of the plot revolves around bids for a resort-building deal. Like the “backstage” of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, every action is dependent on what is happening behind the scenes, and vice versa. In the end, I think The Descendants is only a good movie because it is set in Hawaii. The acting is good, it’s well scripted and all that, but it’s the constant sense of a whole other experience happening simultaneously in the same place (vacation! honeymoon!) – sometimes coming in touch with the story and sometimes receding – that makes the film have this sense of other-but-real-worldliness that I thought was pretty unique.
In Beautiful Children, the role of Vegas as a part of the story is never denied. One of the brilliant closing lines runs like this:
“The world was a pair of successfully removed breast implants and a former stripper working to rebuild her life.”
(A great line on its own, but even better within the context of the book’s characters). The Vegas that tourists are familiar with is the Vagas that is always welcoming you with neon arms and then subtly encouraging you to drive home safely at the end of an expensive weekend. Bock’s vision of life in Vegas is almost exactly as you, the tourist, would imagine it: filled with seedy porn addicts, strippers with ambitions, drug-addled punks, hyperactive kids, and misogynistic nerds. But Bock deftly replaces the stereotypes with complex identities that are sculpted by real places, real situations, and real emotions. A place like Vegas has primal desires at the surface of its economy, and when these desires compete, a beautiful mesh of introspection, repudiation, and intrigue sweat out the city’s pores. Sometimes Bock’s writing is so ruthless it’s hard to handle. But it’s also so spot-on, you have to admit you wouldn’t want to read it from anyone… but him.
While less well-publicized, my experience in Venice reminded me of these two stories. Working there, you could really feel the 3-day crowd coming in and out. Certainly less lascivious than in Vegas, and certainly less relaxed than in Hawaii, the odd-looking tourist families really stood out the third time you ran into them. The city is so small and the main roads so well-used by tourists that you can’t help but get an eerie feel that no one is actually experiencing the city for more than a couple days. You always wonder if it’s the last time you’ll see that kid with the Yankees cap. I think it’s something like 20% of the people in Venice at any given moment actually live there. It doesn’t help, of course, that the city is too beautiful to be maintained: it’s showing the wear and tear of the centuries since any Brits went on a proper Grand Tour and poured out their money. And the modern signage blemishes what could be, just almost, sublime views of history. A kind of melancholy drenches the whole place, even in its ethereal beauty.
On a side note: ZZ Top is so bad.