Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

                 Take Me Home, Country Roads
                                       Review by Ken Burke
A unique combination of gritty realism and the fantastic in this simple, allegory-like tale of forgotten, defiant people on society's margins, enduring a Noah-worthy flood.
            When I first began to hear about Beasts of the Southern Wild it conjured up associations with other stories that resonate with what director Behn Zeitlin and co-writers Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar are exploring in their tale of an isolated Louisiana community beset by a natural disaster as told through the eyes and imagination of a very young child, wise beyond her years due to her daily struggles for survival in this land beyond the levee.  The first thing I thought of was Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, another story of an outcast collective with this one set in the Florida Everglades beset by the powerful 1928 Okeechobee hurricane where protagonist Janie Crawford, granddaughter of a slave, and her husband, Tea Cake, endure the damaging weather but not the storm of aftermath events that lead to his death and her eventual acquittal for murder (adapted as a TV movie in 2005 by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, directed by Darnell Martin, starring Halle Berry, a version of Hurston’s story as maligned in its time for overemphasis on erotic romanticism as the novel was in its day, even by many Harlem Renaissance writers and critics, as too laden with backwoods sensuality and dialect—although now it is praised for the honesty of those very qualities and is lauded as a great work of American literature).  There’s none of the magical aspects in this book as you’ll find in Zeitlin’s film, but there’s clearly the parallel of being embedded in a rural Southern community that has only passing interest in the outside world.
            Another pre-screening association to Beasts of the Southern Wild for me is Julie Dash’s mesmerizing 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, in which the extended Peazant family living in their Gullah heritage on the islands off the Georgia/South Carolina coast tears apart at the turn of the 20th century, as many of them decide that it’s time to leave the security of their Ibo Landing home and migrate north into mainstream U.S. civilization, although the aged matriarch and a few others remain behind to preserve their West African heritage, mixed with decades of the stain of slavery (just as those of the family who process native indigo dye for sale to the outside world live with permanent purple stain on their hands) whether they are somewhat recently-freed from bondage or are descended from escaped refugees, living in the sand and salt-water marshes of these ignored islands, spinning myths about ancestors who rejected their imposed fate by walking across the ocean back to their African homeland.  Not only do the Peazants live in a world separated from the mainland and the larger culture that they are peripheral to, just as do the citizens of the outlying district known as The Bathtub in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but their narrative is presented with the same mysterious, magical happenings as we find with Beasts’ young protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her rendering of an apocalypse where lumbering monsters are on the march to bring about our final destruction.  Both of these films are also narrated by a child, although Hushpuppy is the centerpiece of her own story while the yet-Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren) in Daughters of the Dust is speaking to us from an ambiguous place between past, present, and future and is known only as a ghostly presence to a few in the poetic narrative that she presents of her large soon-to-be cluster of relations.
            Other associations with Beasts of the Southern Wild would certainly be the horned critters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (book first published in 1963; Spike Jonze film adaptation released in 2009), with its version of a child’s imagination informing a journey from a stable but unsettled home into a mystical land of wonder and terror, and the recent film Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011), where tormented Curtis (Michael Shannon—robbed in my opinion of a Best Actor Oscar nomination because his nuanced performance could easily have replaced George Clooney for The Descendants [Alexander Payne] or Brad Pitt for Moneyball [Bennett Miller]) has premonitions of an oncoming natural disaster that leads everyone around him (including those of us watching Curtis on screen) to fear for his sanity, until the unsettling conclusion where a storm of unmitigated proportions looms off the Atlantic coast offering a calamity possibly not as absolute as in Lars von Trier’s 2011 Earth-ending Melancholia (see my review in the December 12, 2011 posting if you like) but certainly a life-changer, as is the hurricane that devastates Hushpuppy’s Bathtub home in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It may not have been Zeitlin‘s intention to craft a lyrical realism study of economically-challenged folks living and dying on the edge of imminent disaster with so many clear connections to similar expressions across many years of American culture, but that’s how I was primed to perceive this film even before I got into the theatre.  Once there I was as equally mesmerized by his rendition of these magical, tragic, and life-affirming events as I had been previously by their various predecessors as I journeyed again through familiar territory—not just from the literary and filmic antecedents noted above but also from the locale of a community teetering on what easily becomes an island at best or a lagoon in more disastrous times when the tides rise during tropical storms.
            Like the residents of The Bathtub, I also grew up on the Gulf Coast, on the large island of Galveston, TX (a place ironically featured in a novel I’m now reading, Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones [2011], with my childhood church, Sacred Heart, as the location for the murder of a priest, which, of course, has nothing to do with any of my own precious childhood thoughts), where I was on the safe side of a levee (the 20 ft. seawall) that largely protects the city from the onslaught of hurricane-churned waves after the great disaster of 1900 washed virtually everything away and prompted a barrier against the watery forces of nature, but that still doesn’t stop a hurricane’s high winds nor the backwash from the bay nor tornadoes that come screaming from the skies, as with Carla in 1962 or the even worse Ike in 2008.  I lived several times through the onslaught of rampaging forces such as the ones that pound The Bathtub in Beasts of the Southern Wild, allowing me to fully understand the peril felt by Hushpuppy and her neighbors as well as appreciate the resilience of the survivors after the storm has passed.  (Another parallel for me was the presence of an oil refinery on the “civilized” side of Hushpuppy’s levee, just as I could feel a bit more kinship to being in The Bathtub when looking [or smelling] across Galveston Bay that separated me from the Texas City mainland where a number of refineries sent their noxious odors toward us every time the wind took a wrong turn; unlike Hushpuppy or her community I was neither female, black, nor dirt-poor so I can see how they’d see me as living behind the isolating levee, but when I think back on the Galveston-Texas City dichotomy I can also get a bit of a sense of The Bathtub’s isolation, especially when our hurricanes roared through, preventing last-minute evacuation by bridge or ferry and where many of our residents were fierce “B.O.I.”’s [Born on the Island] just as willingly entrenched in their homes as were Hushpuppy’s extended family and as proud of their uniqueness as were her neighbors who would rather drown than leave.)
            Hushpuppy herself is an embodiment of resilience, as even at her tender age she must deal with a departed mother that she can’t find when her father’s illness escalates, a father who has her best interests at heart but can’t properly care for her in his weakened physical state, an environment where poverty would be a step up from The Bathtub’s current socioeconomic condition, and an ongoing vision of impending doom that minimizes the harsh-enough realities of all that is immediately challenging in her life.  That Wallis is able to convey all this through natural abilities rather than any formal acting training is remarkable for a person of any age, let alone a pre-grammar-school girl left to her own devices for much of the film as both the hurricane (not specified as Katrina, despite the New Orleans proximity of the setting but clearly indicative of that horrible chapter in Louisiana history) and the wild beast aurochs of either her imagination or our prophesized end come closer to terminating all human life in The Bathtub (and elsewhere?).  Yet, she remains true to her central philosophy that “The whole world depends on everythin’ fittin’ together just right,” which drives her on to forge that fit, especially in getting help—magic more so than medicine—when her father desperately needs it (as with Chicago [Rob Marshall, 2002] where you can either view the depicted environment as a place where song and dance are just as natural in a jail cell and a courtroom as on a stage or that most of the musical numbers are mental enhancements of mundane reality by Roxie Hart [Renée Zellweger], it’s intentionally unclear in Beasts of the Southern Wild whether the apocalyptic implications are fantastically literal or simply alive in Hushpuppy’s mind and made seemingly literal on screen so that we can do a mass Vulcan mind-meld with her).  She even seems to be working off the guilt of bringing on his demise as we see in one scene where in her anger at him (as a response to his anger at her for burning down part of their dilapidated trailer home) she gives him a shove that seems to kill him (as if her emotions become physical manifestations, like with Tita [Lumi Cavazos] in another lyrical realism classic, the sensuous Like Water for Chocolate [Alfonso Arau, 1992]).  However, nothing is necessarily as it may look in this film, so Dad isn’t dead but does inconsistently appear at times in a hospital gown, indicating his growing illness which Hushpuppy tries to cure through an unproductive quest to locate her long-gone mother.  This seems to all be connected to shots of icebergs melting (not anyone’s fantasy; I just read this morning about a chunk of a Greenland glacier the size of San Francisco, about 49 square miles, falling away into the ocean because of warmer temperatures near the Arctic Circle than other places on the globe [!]) and the huge musk-ox/warthog-like beasts lumbering closer to Louisiana, even as the winds and clouds also gather for their own assault.
            Hushpuppy’s seemingly not the only one who interacts with a magical world in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Her mother is described by her father as being so hot that she could make water boil simply by walking near the pot (obviously an option as a sexual metaphor, but in this film you shouldn’t assume anything is merely metaphorical), while Daddy—or as adults know him, Wink (Dwight Henry, another impactful amateur, which is making this film sound more like aspects of the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief [Vittorio de Sica, 1948] all the time, although you won’t find much magic in that one unless you believe that Antonio stumbling onto the thief just after he sees the seer was really the result of her “prophecy” rather than just an unanticipated, lucky coincidence in a crowded city)—always asserts that “I’ve got it under control,” so much so that he teaches his daughter how to catch fish barehanded (with just one hand so you can knock them unconscious with the other) and seems to have a personal relationship with the oncoming storm, therefore he fires a gun at it in order to protect Hushpuppy and the community.  (Again, in literal terms he’s likely just having delusions in his state of ill-health when he’s literally shooting at the wind, but if his tiny daughter can seemingly turn back the giant beasts when they finally arrive simply with an attitude of “I’m on a quest right now so I don’t have time to be trampled by you!” which results in them turning away from her, who’s to say that a well-placed gunshot couldn’t mortally wound a hurricane?)  The only salvation after the flood hits, however, is at the floating nightclub/brothel called (appropriately enough) Elysian Fields, where the survivors get some sustenance before blowing a hole in the levee so that the flood waters drain out of (again, appropriately) The Bathtub to restore drenched “dry” land to the residents.  That’s not enough for the rescue team from beyond the levee, though, who swoop in and force all of them to relocate to an unappreciated shelter (here we seemingly are in metaphor territory, regarding the catastrophic post-Katrina debacle at the Superdome) until Wink leads a rebellion back through the receding overflow into The Bathtub once again, his final act of social defiance before reality overcomes any interpretation of fantasy and he dies, leaving his assertive daughter to find her own fate in this hard-scrabble community.    

            Beasts of the Southern Wild is unlike most films you’ll ever see (except for a few that I’ve cited above, also from the lyrical realism branch of cinematic storytelling), is not always easy to follow with its combination of low-budget handheld camera shots and sense of real-time editing, and confusing in its blend of gritty reality and disturbing fantasy (not to mention what seems to be some non-linear chronology at times), but if you’re willing to immerse yourself in something completely different from the usual movie-going venture I think you’ll be rewarded for your curiosity.  Certainly this film runs the same risk that Their Eyes Were Watching God and Daughters of the Dust did in terms of reinforcing what some see as stereotypical squalor of the poor, especially poor Southern blacks (without even the possible protective cover of being made by African-Americans, as are these previously-cited works), but the poor do exist with as much individual complexity as any of those of us behind the levee, no matter how they’ve previously been depicted.  (They also exist in all social manifestations, as shown by the racially-integrated residents of The Bathtub; when your circumstances require you to cook cat food for your dinner by firing up your stove with a blowtorch—Hushpuppy’s culinary expertise so far—such a minor difference as skin color makes no difference to the locals; furthermore, if you want a successful cinematic balance about the destitution and determination of so-called “poor white trash” you can always check out Winter’s Bone [Debra Granik, 2010] with a stunning performance by pre-Hunger Games [Gary Ross] Jennifer Lawrence).  Beasts of the Southern Wild is just as magical a total experience as are Hushpuppy’s visions of the prehistoric aurochs; you just have to let yourself flow with the rising waters of the story elements, take refuge when you need it in the relief that you shouldn’t even try to explain everything that you encounter, and then recede back into the “real” world with a better understanding of why even a stubborn B.O.I. (not me; I was born in Austin, TX, the hippie capital of the Southwest, although the folks in Taos, NM might disagree, or maybe they’d prefer to be called the “spiritual capital,” those snotty soul-suckers) or someone like that deserves our time and attention just as much as the (sometimes refined but not always inclined to define their decline) refinery managers who dwell in more traditional “safety" behind the levee.  To wrap this up, I’ll note that Beasts of the Southern Wild won the prestigious Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes and the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so whatever difficulties it may present it’s been well-received on the festival circuit, however “levee-ish” that may be within the bigger cultural picture.
         Now, in the benignly bizarre spirit of Beasts of the Southern Wild I’ll take an unexplained diversion to address anyone who may be thinking, “Damn!  What’s with this guy?  He gushes about how wonderful this film is, then he only gives it 4 stars, just like all the others he supposedly liked so much.  What’s it take to satisfy this jerk?”  In response I’ll offer you this analogy for my rating system:  I’m usually lucky enough to avoid 1 star films because of being warned away by other ratings that forewarn me of Texas City-style stink; 2 stars usually go to those that for some reason I saw hope for but it didn’t work out for some reason; 3 stars are the ones I’m glad to have seen, rented, or streamed because they were well worth spending time with; 4 stars are normally as high as I go, representing films with a notable degree of quality that I might even buy a DVD of to enjoy again; 5 stars for me are the superb achievements of the cinema, classic to contemporary, the ones that I’d move the 4-stars off my shelves for if I needed more space for adding a 5-star film to my collection of magic moments that I’d gladly watch on a regular basis.  So, as my old WWE heroes that called themselves DX (Degeneration-X, Triple H and Shawn Michaels) would say, “If you’re not down with that (and based on my just-completed annual spaghetti-wine-trilogy ritual with my astoundingly wonderful wife, Nina), then I’ve got (for clarity of my system, 5 stars and) 2 words for ya”:
(At least for Parts I and II; when you get to III you may need a little extra wine whenever Sofia's on screen ["No, Dad!"], but otherwise it's an offer you can't refuse.)         

            With the diversion done, we'll return to our regularly-scheduled programming.  If you’d like to pole your pirogue down the bayou in search of some jambalaya (sing along with Hank Williams at and further exploration of Best of the Southern Wild here are some suggested links:  (a featurette on the making of the film)

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