As Beasts of the Southern Wild was starting, the people behind us suddenly broke into a flurry of anxious whispering, as they realized this wasn’t The Dark Knight Rises (I guess the poster on the way in must have been obscured by the big bag of popcorn). They left in a hurry, but the incident was rather useful in provoking a train of thought on the disparity in contemporary American myth-making. The one that gets all the attention and the financial love, of course, is the Batman movie – an enormous corporate investment, knowingly packaged and positioned to provoke an audience frenzy, violently asserting its seriousness by drawing on prevailing insecurities, sure enough of its impregnability that it need acknowledge the opening-night mass murder in Colorado merely by delaying the box office results and canceling a few parties (gestures so cynically flimsy that they seem to me morally much inferior to just doing nothing). If there’s any meaningful engagement in there with modern anxieties and needs, it’s limited to what’s handed down from the manipulative gods at the top of a cold, calculating mountain; audiences can flatter themselves they’re in the presence of a cultural phenomenon, but they might as well kneel down in front of MacDonald’s.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
As a counterpoint, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the most intimate of fantasies. Even as you’re watching it, you can feel the filmmakers crafting and refining it; it deliberately resists the potentially limiting, closed-end perfection of a fully “polished” film. The director Benh Zeitlin is from New York, but has lived in New Orleans for several years, and as a recent article in Film Comment put it, set out to make a film that resembled “a massive community art project.” At the centre of this community he put a 6-year-old girl called Hushpuppy, living with her drunken, disengaged father Wink in a fringe community called “the Bathtub.” A storm rises up, seemingly prompted by the dislodging of the polar ice caps, and the water level rises cataclysmically, causing the residents to be evacuated to a government facility (a “fish tank without water” as she describes it); their desire to reclaim their home intertwines with the advance of several massive hog-like beasts, long-frozen and dormant.
Even that synopsis tells you that the film draws heavily on memories of Hurricane Katrina and the well-documented disruptions and injustices that followed, while consciously busting through the parameters of quasi-documentary, or even normally-grounded fiction. In that same article, Zeitlin said: “The movie is sort of pushing past realism all the time into this hyper-real place or this fantasy place, but because all the pieces are so organically found and every element is built so organically, I think it sort of keeps it in realism in this way that is really important, so that it doesn’t drift away from what people can relate to.” The breathless nature of that statement, with its two sort-ofs, alerts you to the project’s earnestness and potential over-preciousness. But I think Zeitlin’s sense of the work’s internal rhythms and proportions is keen enough that he avoids most potential pitfalls.
Makes me feel cohesive
The film is crammed with odd, memorable fragments: the initial depiction of Hushpuppy’s life, imagining her dead mother’s voice emanating from her clothes, which remain strewn around the house, and concocting a terrible-looking meal out of soup and cat food, lighting the stove with a blow torch; her and Wink’s boat, built out of found elements prominently including the back-end of a trailer; a later memory of the mother – as recalled by Wink - as a woman so steaming hot that she could boil water just by walking past it (duly visualized, in the literal way of a young girl’s imagination); an encounter with a sea captain who subsists on chicken biscuits and has kept all the wrappers (“The smell makes me feel cohesive”) and any number of proud, defiant images of the little girl, who in the latter stages acquires a like-minded posse. The connective material between these is sometimes rather murky, and you can feel the relative poverty of means, like trying to cover up cracks in the fabric with mud and smoke. But in this case, it enhances the film’s authenticity as personal testimony; the “imperfections” in the wider imagining reflect the limits of the protagonists’ understanding and capacity for action.
In this vein, Hushpuppy’s voice-over narration perhaps relies too much on bromides about how “the entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” versions of which are repeated more times than I tried counting, and which provide the film’s final note – a proud assertion of one’s inviolable place in the cosmos, whatever the obstacles. Put another way, the film, for all of its oddities, has a distinct overlap with the “triumph of the human spirit” tales that crop up throughout American cinema.
Clichés of cinema
The problem with this aspect of it, perhaps, is that it doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the institutions and forces that make it so tough for the human spirit in the first place. The movie clearly has a political undertone – it presents the levee as a structure that protects the monied interests lying on the other side, and the flip side of the Bathtub community’s internal camaraderie and coherence is that it seems to be free of any external intervention; one would hesitate to characterize the people as beasts running wild, but the title forces it on us as a point of reference, until the catastrophe strikes and the wheels of disaster control start turning (because of course, in the delirious official morality, it’s fine if people live in poverty and deprivation, but a moral affront if they perish in something that looks dramatic on TV). And by the way, although Hushpuppy and her father are black, that’s not true of the entire community: the issue is one of class, environment and opportunity, not simply race.
Writing on Deadspin.com, Tim Grierson said that although he likes the film, it’s a “model of the worst clichés of contemporary art-house cinema” – in his words, it fetishizes “authenticity,” it tries way too hard to be gritty, it treats poverty as something noble, it confuses simple characters for memorable ones, and it touches on real-life events without saying anything about them. Unfortunately, Grierson’s articulation of these points is so poor that it’s hard even to allow a token acknowledgment that one can see what he means. The same website’s review of The Dark Knight Rises gushed: “It is a powerful, riveting action movie, full of dread and weight and pain and looming apocalypse. It is an amazing accomplishment to have created this whole dark, sad universe and turned it into an insanely popular franchise.” Well, maybe that’s amazing, or maybe it just embodies the worst clichés of mainstream perception, how we’re meant to be more interested in someone else’s overblown dark, sad universe than in trying to engage with our own.