After twenty minutes of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I walked out of Lincoln Plaza Cinema muttering under my breath about how much I hate magical realism, especially in movies.
I sympathized with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, not so much from the blasphemy angle but on the aesthetics. Back in 2005, there was an LRB review by Theo Tait (lovely name there) of Salman Rushdie’s latest, “Shalimar the Clown”. I figured that the novel had to be bad from the get-go if for no other reason that it had something to do with clowns. Clowns and magical realism are a particularly toxic combination, like washing down crushed glass with lye. “The Last Circus”, another film I walked out of, had this deadly mixture–an allegory featuring a clown that made reactionary points about the Spanish Civil War.
With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable (especially when British writers imitated South Americans, as they often used to do in the 1980s and 1990s). Julian Barnes skewered this ‘package-tour baroque’ in Flaubert’s Parrot:
Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle.
The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cosy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale. Again, this is especially true of its anglophone variants: see the tedious fables of Jeanette Winterson, or the eccentric but warm-hearted villagers of Louis de Bernières.
While Tait’s remarks were directed at the novel, they apply equally as well to film, especially the atrocious “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. They should be required reading in film departments everywhere, especially for directors aspiring to win a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, I should have paid closer attention to the fact that this movie won the Grand Jury prize there this year, as well as the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes. The Sundance esthetic is positively rancid, based on quirky notions of small-town people and relying heavily on mumblecore conventions. Ugh.
I have pretty much sworn off narrative films but wanted to make an effort to see about one a month in order to have some credibility with my colleagues in NYFCO. These are people who are paid good money (averaging about $30,000 per year, I guess) to see a movie a day, including the latest Adam Sandler. I’d rather have root canal done without an anesthetic than to see such films, but I thought I’d give this one a shot, especially since Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez (a NYFCO colleague) had good things to say about it:
In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, the wild things are in a place known as the Bathtub, a remote stretch of the Louisiana bayou profoundly cut off from the rest of modern civilization. Technology is nonexistent, education a matter of hard knocks, and poverty a constant, yet everyone is rich in imagination, especially Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who regards this wasteland at the edge of the world as “the prettiest place on Earth.” To this seven-year-old, whose stream-of-consciousness gush of alternately practical and mystical observations feels haunted by the ghosts of Lewis Carroll and William Faulkner, man and animal are inextricably bound, and the harsh drama of Hushpuppy’s young life, a fierce resistance against the eradication of land and an even fiercer struggle with family ties, is presented as an origin story for us to gawk at with the same sense of wonder we may lavish on ancient cave drawings.
Looking back in retrospect at what Ed wrote, I should have given some thought to a movie that invites you to “gawk at” the two leading characters, an African-American father and his daughter.
Most reviews gave you the impression that the story was about the struggle for survival by the two main characters after a Hurricane Katrina type flood that was linked to global warming, a theme right up my alley. So, throwing caution to the wind, I went down to Lincoln Plaza Cinema after work yesterday and plunked down my senior citizen’s $8.50 admission and walked into the theater with my fingers crossed. What a mistake.
(Just to make myself clear, this is not a review. I am not posting it to Rotten Tomatoes. It is just a rant that I want to share with my readers who tend to have the same prejudices as me, bless their knotty little heads.)
Within the first five minutes or so we are introduced to Wink, an African-American man in his late 30s or so, and his daughter Hushpuppy, who looks about 8 years old. My first reaction to discovering that these were the characters’ names was to wonder what the screenwriter was up to since it is highly doubtful that any Black people in the U.S. have such names. Much more likely, the father’s name would have been Curtis or Jerome and the daughter’s Letitia or Shawniqua. The screenplay, I should hasten to add, was co-written by the 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin, the son of New York folklorists, and playwright Lucy Alibar whose “Juicy and Delicious” the film is based on. Both Zeitlin and Alibar are white.
Wink and his daughter live in separate ramshackle mobile homes sitting on top of stilts. Apparently, the place they live—deep in the bayous and nicknamed “The Bathtub”—is frequently deluged by Katrina-like storms. Wink keeps Hushpuppy in her own lodgings because he doesn’t like her very much, why we don’t have any idea. He keeps referring to her as “man”, like “Go put some pants on, man”. I have no idea why Alibar used such an affectation since it is unclear what dramatic purpose is being served. To illustrate the father’s coldness? It just as easily might be interpreted as the jargon of a jazz musician saying something like “Man, ease up on the tempo in your solo.”
We don’t know much about Hushpuppy’s mom except for her voice-over remark that she just “swam away”. What does that mean? That she swam to her death? That she swam to New Orleans? Left to her own devices, Hushpuppy can barely fend for herself. She cooks her own dinners when dad isn’t around, lighting the gas stove with a blowtorch. Why a blowtorch? I have no idea. Of course, kitchen matches would work just as well but wouldn’t have that “magical realism” touch. And when she runs out of normal human-being type food, she cooks up some cat food out of a can. Just what might be expected from backward Black people.
Her dad can hardly be relied on for parental support. When he prepares dinner, it is always the same thing, a chicken thrown on a grill just outside his trailer and nothing else. Hushpuppy eats the chicken with her hands and gives the leftovers to a dog and a pig that live in a shed nearby. You are left with the distinct impression that the eponymous beasts of the film’s title could be referring either to the human beings or the animals they keep.
In the midst of this squalor, Hushpuppy walks about without any friends or affection from her father. Instead of thinking about her isolation and obvious misery, she instead frets about ecocatastrophe, at least based on the images of melting glaciers interjected throughout the first 20 minutes of the film I endured. There is no attempt to connect these images with the characters’ plight although the hurricane that eventually bears down on them is implicitly its bitter fruit.
When the winds begin to howl, Wink tries to demonstrate that he is more powerful than any storm. He proves this by taking his shotgun and walking out into the driving rain and shooting at the storm clouds. What was this supposed to represent, a riff on King Lear? At this point I began to fidget mightily in my seat. This was a film much more about flamboyant gestures than plot or character development.
The day after the storm hits, Wink takes Hushpuppy out in his boat to demonstrate the survival skills that will serve them. He tells her to put one hand in the water and raise the other above her head with a clenched fist that will be deployed against any fish foolish enough to resist them. After a minute or so, Wink cries out, “I’ve got one!” and hauls what looks like at least a 5-pound largemouth bass from the waters. As someone who has actually caught such a fish, I was so insulted by the foolish notion that you can pluck one out of the water with your bare hands like a dill pickle from a barrel that I just walked out.
Slate Magazine provides a useful summary of what takes place in the film after I walked out. You get a sense of the magical realist hokum that pervades each scene:
Amid all this chaos, 6-year-old Hushpuppy and her father must unite their scattered but loyal fellow Bathtubbers in a joint project of bare-bones survival. They build a floating shelter out of flood debris, stocking it with chickens, goats, and potted vegetables. During the day Hushpuppy and her dad set out on separate fishing expeditions in their own boat, fashioned from a severed pickup-truck bed mounted on barrels. At one point, Wink hatches an ill-planned attempt to blow up a levee in order to drain a flooded patch of land; later, Hushpuppy and three other children swim out to a floating brothel to eat deep-fried gator and dance with prostitutes. There are multiple scenes of drunken crab-shelling parties that seem to have been filmed during actual drunken crab-shelling parties.
Don’t you just love the bit about eating deep-fried gator and dancing with prostitutes? I think if poor Gabriel García Márquez knew how this genre would have turned out, he would have written like Herman Wouk instead.
I do want to quote a couple of critics who were not taken in by this malarkey. My favorite is Tim Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger who nails the carcass of this skunk to the wall:
Although “Beasts of the Southern Wild” never actually mentions Katrina, or the Ninth Ward, it’s clearly invoking that disaster, and identifying with the poorest of its victims. The native Louisianans we meet here are resourceful, stubborn, suspicious survivors.
But while this film is meant as a salute, it feels more like a patronizingly indulgent smile. While it’s supposed to be about people preserving a culture, none is on display – not music, not cuisine, not religion, not even conversation. There’s just drink, and dirt, and ignorance. Director Benh Zeitlin may think he’s made a movie about poor people; what’s he’s really made is a film about impoverished ones.
The film doesn’t self-righteously revile these characters, which is fine. But perhaps worse, it loftily treats them like something out of Rousseau – simple people who are somehow more in touch with the earth than us uptight, educated folk.
There’s an unconscious but still distasteful condescension to that – a thinking that patronizes poor people as fascinating savages (however “noble”), a quaintly uncivilized “other” who can be romantically admired, or studied, from a safe distance.
And that feeling curdles the film, like bad cream in café au lait, whether the filmmakers taste it or not.
Tim Grierson of Deadspin.com says he was “impressed by the boldness of its ambitions and the depth of its emotional pull” but that did not prevent him from identifying The Five Worst Indie-Film Cliches In Sundance Darling Beasts Of The Southern Wild, among them:
4. It Confuses Simple Characters for Memorable Ones.
For as much praise as Wallis has received as Hushpuppy—she was only five when she auditioned—her performance is built around natural cuteness and spunk. She’s undeniably captivating—you don’t feel like she’s acting—but the filmmakers never really give her a character to play. She’s an adorable innocent, whose banal voiceover musings like “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” are treated as cockeyed wisdom. Reviews have compared it to Terrence Malick’s use of a similar device, but I couldn’t help but think of Forrest Gump, another naif who hasn’t been corrupted by the mean ol’ world. Hushpuppy isn’t someone we’re supposed to look up to—she’s a nonthreatening innocent who can teach enlightened liberals important life lessons. Plus, it’s a can’t-miss critic-proofing move: How can you not absolutely love a movie with a girl this sweet? What are you, a terrible person?
Not to quibble with this astute observation, it appears that the last thing on director Zeitlin’s mind was teaching liberals “important life lessons”. Although I didn’t stick around to see the entire film, apparently the father and daughter refuse to accept emergency relief. This led the NY Times reviewer, who just adored the film, to write:
Viewers inclined to see things through the lens of ideology will find plenty to work with. From the left, you can embrace a vision of multicultural community bound by indifference to the pursuit of wealth and an ethic of solidarity and inclusion. From the right, you can admire the libertarian virtues of a band of local heroes who hold fast to their traditions and who flourish in defiance of the meddling good intentions of big government.
Yes, who needs the “meddling good intentions of big government” in this day and age, especially when the people who would benefit from its largesse are plucky enough to start a gas range with a blowtorch and shoot a shotgun at hurricanes to prove their survival skills?
In a highly revealing interview with Film Comment, the journal of the Lincoln Center film department, director Benh Zeitlin made his political perspectives clear:
“When I first came here a year after the storm, it was a totally surreal place,” says Zeitlin, who credits the phantasmagoric films of Emir Kusturica with inspiring him to become a filmmaker. “It seemed just like Biblical apocalypse, and whether or not that was every individual experience, it was important to me to kind of elevate the story, as I did with Glory, to the level of a myth or a folktale. Look, the politics of any event is always incredibly divisive: ‘It was all Bush’s fault.’ Or: ‘It was the local government.’ Black people. White people. None of which actually gets at the real tragedy or the real emotion of the event. To me, that’s sort of the purpose of myth and folklore, to be able to talk as an entire culture about something. So we have the story of the West, and there’s this cowboy, and we can revise the story of the cowboy depending on how we want to interpret our culture.”
This just reveals how reactionary “edgy” young filmmakers can be. This twerp’s interest in a Katrina-like catastrophe was not blaming the political powers who allowed it to happen but to elevate the story to a “myth” in which nobody is really to blame.
This is the sort of thing that will get you a prize at Sundance and fawning reviews in the NY Times but I’ll be damned if I see this film as anything but what is: a racist piece of garbage that treats Black people as “beasts”.