This is Cinematic Water
The opening image of Gus Van Sant’s new film, Promised Land (2012) consists of the distorted hands of Steve Butler (Matt Damon): the camera recording them is submerged in a bathroom sink basin as he washes. I begin with this image because of all things, a film with land in the title is about water. Not just the wet stuff, but that referred to in David Foster Wallace’s rightfully legendary 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, “This is Water.”
Wallace begins the speech with a story about a fish who asks, “How’s the water?” to which another other fish replies, “What the hell is water?” Wallace spends the entire rest of his speech unpacking the allegorical implications of his story, refusing the simple meaning of the older, wiser fish mentoring the younger one. Instead, he argues that lives in late capitalism are devoted to ever increasingly frustrating work and leisure time, in response to which we must fight to attain consciousness, an awareness of our de-centered place in the world around us. He concludes with one of the most breathtaking descriptions of the value of education: “[It] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water’.”
That’s the kind of water into which Gus Van Sant has his character, an unctuous salesman for a multinational natural gas company, dip his hands. Promised Land is based on a story by Dave Eggers, another wunderkind of contemporary American fiction. I will save for another time the complex relationship between Eggers the memoirist, famous for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and Wallace the postmodern novelist, whose Infinite Jest (1996) carries almost the full weight of Wallace’s reputation, something akin to the centrality of A Confederacy of Dunces for understanding John Kennedy Toole’s position in American letters. Indeed, I think Eggers and Wallace share a great deal in common, perhaps in my present context best described by Eggers’ short story collection, How the Water Feels to the Fishes (2007), published virtually simultaneously to the delivery of Wallace’s graduation speech.
What an attention to allegorical water in Promised Land allows is a dismissal of its primary artistic goals, which are heartfelt, but because of their unabashed activism, somewhat banal. Like other liberal Hollywood do-gooder movies—I thought a lot about Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), about the corporate denial of the abject harmfulness of tobacco—Promised Land delivers an emotionally engaging portrait of how diabolical corporations put profit above the well-being of people. Steve Butler and his colleage, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) come to a small Mid-western town with the intention of buying the mining rights to the farmers’ land so that they may drill for natural gas, through an apocalyptically destructive process known as fracking. (The fact that the word directly invokes the dystopian Battlestar Galactica’s word for “fucking,” serving as karmic delight to a media scholar such as myself). The company knows full well that the salinating effects of the mining kill the land and its livelihood, but via legal slight of hand, and diablical public relations work, are able to continue acquiring new land in new parts of the country. It was happening in the Pacific Northwest when I lived in Montana, and it’s happening in Southern Illinois five years later as I live and write here today.
What I found so compelling about Promised Land, and I do believe it is a terrific film, is that its portrait of Steve Butler’s transformation reminded me so much of the dynamics of Wallace’s “This is Water.” Throughout almost the entirety of the film, Butler remains convinced that he’s doing the farmers a great favor in giving them lots of money to sign away their rights to the land. Having watched his grandfather’s farm in Iowa go bankrupt, he believes the correct thing to do is face reality, that the small farming way of life imagined by Thomas Jefferson as he conceived of the country is now what Steve derisively calls, “mythological bullshit.”
The process through which Butler becomes self-aware about the destructiveness of his position is a visual and narratological delight to behold. Van Sant signifies the transformation directly, by returning to the exact submerged camera position as Butler once again washes his hands, this time in the school’s bathroom before speaking in front of the townspeople. Purportedly he’s there to make sure they vote in favor of fracking, but his transformation results in him delivering a speech that Henry Fonda would have given in the classical Hollywood period, indeed similar to the one he did give in The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), about the dignity of the American who lives and dies with the land.
Henry Fonda is in fact crucial for understanding the politics of Promised Land, whose ending works almost exactly like that of 12 Angry Men (1957). As Peter Biskind explains it, in the Sidney Lumet film, the corporate liberal played by Fonda convinces all of his fellow jurors save one that a Puerto Rican kid is not guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The one dissenter played in the film by Lee J. Cobb changes his vote at the last minute to not guilty because he becomes self-aware that his anger at the accused is merely melodramatically displaced rage at his own son for abandoning him. This is virtually the identical process that Steve Butler undergoes in Promised Land: once he shears himself of his anger at what happened to his father’s farm, he opens his mind to the position of a number of characters in the film who were his former antagonists. Promised Land is a fantasy film in which the centrist consensus politics of the 1950s, long since murdered off by the collapse of the Cold War economy and the rise of neo-conservatism, are available to us in 2012. This is best expressed by the film’s belief in science, Biskind’s prime marker of a liberal 1950s film: the high school science teacher who opposes fracking in Promised Land is played by quintessential Hollywood liberal, Hal Holbrook having played anti-capitalist troublemaker Mark Twain for almost half a century
However, the film’s most important schoolteacher is Alice, Steve’s love interest, who came back to the town when her father died, unable to sell her family’s multigenerational farm. Significantly, the conversation between Alice and Steve about her future takes place in front of the farm’s massive pond. As they look out over the water, Alice explains that the garden she keeps, instead of growing crops, is pedagogical: she uses it to teach the children what it means to take care of something. Alice’s hydroponic lesson to Steve is the central purpose of his apology speech at the high school gym at the end of the film. He tells a story of his grandfather making him paint the family barn every year, a task that he came to loathe as a child. When Steve finishes telling the story, he explains that his grandfather “was trying to teach me what it meant to take care of something.”
In between the two ceremonial washing of his hands, Steve experiences any number of water-borne encounters that forward in his transformation. The film’s MacGuffin concerns a photograph of dead cows due to fracking that convinces the townspeople in the middle of the film to oppose the company’s plans. Steve believes he has the smoking gun to invalidate the photograph: it turns out not to be taken in Nebraska, but instead in Louisiana. In the background of the photograph is a lighthouse, placing the farm far away from America’s heartland, and apparently too close to the ocean for the Mid-westerners’ identification.
As another example of the importance of water to the film, after suffering various defeats by Athena, a supposed environmental organization, Steve comes up with the idea of having his company sponsor a town fair, “to show them what it feels like to have money.” However, after pulling together a terrific event, it is completely rained out by a terrible storm, drowning the fairgrounds, and thus thwarting Steve’s public relations victory.
Not inconsequentially, water is the central process through which fracking itself pollutes the land. Salinated water is used to drill for the natural gas, resulting in huge swaths of former farmland no longer arable. After coming to realize that the photograph of dead cows, whether in Nebraska or Louisiana still represents the death of communities, Steve delivers his honest assessment of fracking, gets fired from the company, and ends the film at Alice’s door, presumably to lead a life reconnected with his childhood, with community, with the American Dream. Van Sant, Eggers, and Wallace become fellow travelers: Steve Butler ends the film understanding that “this is water” refers not just to the wet stuff, but indeed that which lies at the center of the American soul.
– Walter Metz