We saw the movie "Nebraska" a couple of weeks ago and I've been meaning to blog something about it. Let me try to seize this moment to put down a couple of thoughts.
My overwhelming sense is that this is a deeply Confucian film. It is all about a son trying to do the right thing by his elderly father. The son's respect, even reverence, for the father's misguided desires is what Confucius seems to have in mind when he said (Analects 4.18):
In serving your mother and father admonish them gently. If they understand, and yet choose not to follow your advice, deepen your reverence without losing faith. And however exhausting this may be, avoid resentment.
That comes pretty close to summing up the film. The father clearly does not understand but the son maintains a kind of reverence, though he might also just be ambivalent about his own life and searching for a momentary escape. In the end (no spoilers!), however, the son definitely avoids resentment. He's a good filial son.
But "Nebraska" connects not just with ancient Chinese philosophy, it also resonates with contemporary Chinese realities. It's hard to be filial, in America and in China today. As the action of the film moves through the economically depressed heartland, from Montana to South Dakota to Nebraska, we are confronted with social and familial decay. People don't have good jobs, they don't have much money or prospects, they remember the good old days, when the farm economy was booming, but they just don't have the kinds of lives they used to have. A sense of decline and loss pervades the scene. The old values and culture are collapsing, and something crasser and shallower is taking hold. In such circumstances, it is difficult for sons to maintan respect and support for their fathers.
And that, too, is a very Chinese story. As I walked out of the theater I thought of the title of an excellent piece by Ian Johnson: "In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone," which reminds us: "Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history." I would argue, and have argued, that the modernizing forces that Johnson is discussing - urbanization, social mobility, economic transformation - create Chinese realities that make it difficult for many people to follow through on Confucian moral obligations. China is not a Confucian society, and neither is the US, though the old Confucian virtues, such as filiality, continue to have meaning in both places. We all know that we should care for our parents the way that the son in the movie does, but most of us are hemmed in by material and social demands that make it impossible.
A Chinese woman in Johnson's piece laments the decline of traditional cultural practices: “It would be a great pity if they are lost just as our country is on the road to prosperity.” She could be in Nebraska.