Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 6:29 pm 
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Living on crab meat and pondering the universe

Who or what are the Beasts of the Southern Wild? Are they the semi-mythical, magic-realist horned aurochs, prehistoric boar-like creatures released by melting South Pole glaciers described, seen, and faced off by this vivid, puzzling movie's tiny black earth mother protagonist and narrator, Hushpuppy (the remarkable Quvenzhané Wallis)? -- Hushpuppy whose mama "swam away," and erratic, irascible daddy periodically disappears and leaves her to fend for herself, including cooking on a dangerous explosive stove that causes her to set fire to their tree house? Or are the "beasts" the inhabitants of the "Bathtub" where Hushpuppy lives, marginal alcoholic people partying hard in squalor on an endangered little strip of wetland off the Louisiana coast?

Either way, this is an astonishing effort that thrills with its watery earthiness, the memorable face (and constant junior-grade Terrence Malick philosophical voiceovers) of the indomitable little girl and her African American version of Southern Gothic vision. And it startles and disconcerts with its politically incorrect or sheer wrongheaded and primitivistic advocacy of heroic doom. According to the collective view of the Bathtub that Hushpuppy speaks for, going down with the muddy swamped bayou ship is more noble than to escape the storm or, after its devastation has torn apart the order of things, to accept FEMA-style rescue.

These human "beasts" for whom Hushpuppy is the viewer's spokesman stubbornly resist help after a Katrina-like storm raised to apocalyptic proportions by the tiny tot POV, Ben Richardson's shaky but brilliant 16mm camerawork and the overblown sound design further bolstered by surging strings and rhythm bass, which run through the whole epic 91 minutes, laid on thick and heavy like molasses on cornbread.

Eventually after post-apocalyptic partying and a massive crab feast the government rescuers do come in and kidnap the remaining inhabitants of the Bathtub hiding or cowering amid their half sunk or submerged dwellings and take them to an Astrodome-like location where according to Hushpuppy everyone who becomes weak or shows signs of sickness is typically attached to tubes, "plugged into the wall" and made a helpless prisoner. The Bathbub survivors accordingly unplug and smuggle out Hushpuppy's dying father Wink (Dwight Henry, a real-life Seventh Ward bakery owner) and take him back to the uninhabitable mud mess of the Bathtub to die in peace, sending him out eventually to a flaming watery burial. Earth, air, fire, and water: Zeitlin throws the elements powerfully in our face. The illogic of this poetic, repetitive film is in the way its mythic, folkloric, almost oracular tone is undercut by an almost nauseatingly literal documentary approach to the post-storm environment it works with, while still not getting specific about how these people actually live. It's all known to us only as filtered through the poetic, meandering brain of Hushpuppy.

But Hushpuppy, in the person of Quvenzhané, ultimately makes Beasts of the Southern Wild stand tall, as she does, evoking in the many closeups of her face a stoical, indomitable, worldly-wise quality, even though when she's held up and hugged for a long minute by her mother in one of the movie's best and most beautiful sequences, on a floating brothel, she's also still got a lonely, needy little girl side too. Yet her daddy addresses her as "man" and her oracular side may be enhanced by hints that like Tiresias she is both male and female.

Hushpuppy is a life force and the poetic voice of a dying race, but Wink is not to be discounted either. Dying, never the same since Hushpuppy's mama went off, he nonetheless is an indomitable defender of the Bathtub people and way of life and fierce protector of his daughter.

Zeitlin was raised in Queens by a Jewish father and southern white mother, both folklorists, but after Wesleyan started a filmmaking collective called Court 13 in New Orleans that made this film with limited means and Sundance help. The critical response has been through the roof, putting this late-June 2012 released film up with the top rated releases of the summer, Trier's Oslo, August 31, Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, and Zvyagintsev's Elena, three movies by filmmakers more clearly at the top of their game. But the general public is likely to be puzzled, moved perhaps by the young girl's ordeal, but alienated by the fatalistic musings and the in-your-face mud and muck.

In his review Variety's Peter Dubruge cites as a strong influence on this film Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, "in which a young Cajun boy observes oil drillers commandeering the canals near his home. Half a century after Flaherty's eco-conscious statement, unsightly refineries flank the coast, leaving a string of small islands vulnerable to flooding." Toward the end a small band from the Bathtub seeks to destroy part of the refineries' long walls of levees to drain the flood waters inundating their land, but they find sometimes something that has been taken apart can't be put back together.

Beasts is a powerful amalgam but an internally contradictory one. The fringe-dwellers it centers on are such an extreme back-to-the land group that they are uncivilized and their "eco-consciousness" seems without real resources. The magical narrative tone is undercut by the documentary element. Zeitlin and his collective have drawn powerful imagery from the wreckage of Katrina, but they may need to move beyond this disaster to express their point of view more gracefully and clearly. We won't forget the young star, who reportedly concealed her real age because she was only five when she won the role in a field of 4,000 applicants but the minimum age to try out was six.

The film screenplay was co-written by Zeitlin with Lucy Alibar based on her stage play, Juicy and Delicious. Beasts of the Southern Wild debuted at Sundance Jan. 2012 and was next shown at Cannes in May, when it won the best first feature award. It opened in NYC and LA June 27, and is scheduled for UK release Oct. 19 and in France Dec. 12. Screened for this review on its Bay Area opening day, July 13.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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