Wednesday, October 17, 2012

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (2012), directed by Benh Zeitlin, 14th October 2012

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is a fantastically original, imaginative film with outstanding performances, amazing cinematography, gobsmacking production design and is jam-packed full of iconic and beautiful imagery.  And I kind of despise it.

This is a tricky one to unpick and it’s taken me a while to try and work out why the film left me disappointed.  On paper it feels tailor-made to my tastes, very much in the mold of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, or a Studio Ghibli film (it’s even got giant pigs!). While in the process of watching it, it gripped my attention artistically and emotionally almost from beginning to end.  But in the hours that followed after the credits had rolled I couldn’t work out why I felt a strange nagging unease that just wouldn’t go away.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six year old girl living in an area known as ‘The Bathtub’.  Her mother is dead, and she lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), who we soon learn is seriously ill and is teaching Hushpuppy the necessary survival skills to allow her to survive after his death.  The Bathtub is a swampy island community beset by rising flood waters, every storm brings fresh catastrophe; it’s so dangerous that the government are trying to totally evacuate the area.  We focus on the survival of a small community here, an eccentric and self-supporting group who refuse to leave their homes or change their lifestyle even in the face of disaster and death.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis)
This unique world is perceived wholly through the eyes of Hushpuppy.  It’s a damn heavy load for a young actress to bear: the film goes to great lengths to immerse us in the world it creates but it would all be for nothing if Hushpuppy weren’t portrayed just right.  Thankfully, Quvenzhané Wallis is absolutely mesmerising and Zeitlin is a lucky, lucky man to have discovered such a talented child actor.  Wallis’ performance spills from her totally unconsciously, nothing she does ever feels rehearsed or calculated.  This sense of spontaneity and life that Wallis imbues Hushpuppy with is a large part of why the film impresses – we don’t so much watch a performance as feel that we’re peering into her world, documentary style.

The character of Hushpuppy is very much a product of her environment, and her vibrance is echoed by her surroundings.  The world of the Bathtub is a fantastic creation, a world of rich primary colours absolutely teeming with life.  Throughout the film we see a multitude of swarming animal and human life.  The people here seem constantly in motion, moving around the world almost like a dance. Tight closeups and roving handheld cameras allow us to follow our characters anyway they go. 

Wink (Dwight Henry) and Hushpuppy
This abundance of life is also shown in the food they eat and the wildlife around them.  We’re repeatedly shown huge, writhing piles of crayfish which the characters tend to eat raw.  Catching a catfish is shown to be as simple as putting your hand in the water and waiting a few minutes for one to bite you.  This intrinsic connection these people have with nature adds up to a filmic world that the characters fit like a glove, these people exist harmony with their environment.  The world feels vaguely Eden-like towards the beginning, food is everywhere, and everyone is friendly and open.  But these are desperate people living in poverty, and this is a community that is constantly very close to the brink of disaster.  It’s difficult to say if this film is set in the distant or near future, or even the present, but regardless it looks extremely post-apocalyptic.  The fact that it’s entirely plausible the film is set in the modern day gives this post-apocalyptic imagery some pretty worrying implications.

There are a number of instantly iconic cinematic images throughout the film: Hushpuppy standing proud at the stern of her father’s improvised boat; swimming through the deep ocean, running with fireworks in her hands or staring at the entrails of a dead dog.  My favourite comes in a flashback sequence told to Hushpuppy by her father.  He lies snoozing on a deckchair as an alligator crawls out of the swamp towards him.  Waking up, he stares in fear at it, completely frozen.  Hushpuppy’s mother steps into frame and shoots the alligator with a shotgun.  From the father’s perspective we see her lower body, shotgun in hand, her inner thigh drenched with blood.   This single image prefigures much of what is to happen in the film, and the alligator, blood, shotgun and her reaction neatly encapsulates much of the motivations and symbology tied up in Hushpuppy’s mental picture of her dead mother – elements which are later used in different configurations in the latter half.

It's a beautiful film.
All of this is pretty unambiguous praise, so why didn’t I like this film?  After a lot of thought, it’s come to down to the way the character of Hushpuppy’s father is portrayed and the worrying political implications of the film. 

The relationship between father and daughter is the emotional core of this film and informs almost every action that the two take.  For the film to succeed we need to utterly buy into this relationship and if we don’t, then no matter how compelling your performances are, and no matter how beautifully and creatively you shoot the film the whole house of cards collapses.  As Hushpuppy says:

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece... the whole universe will get busted.”

Which is exactly what happens.  Despite all the admirable elements, the emotional core just didn’t hang together for me.  When I realised that I was actively rooting against a lot of what Hushpuppy’s father does, the film lost me emotionally.

The character of Wink is explicitly presented as a man with serious flaws, he’s got a quick temper and his relationship with his daughter at the beginning of the film seems shaky at best.  It’s telling that she doesn’t even live in the same place as him –relegated to her own caravan and summoned by a bell being rung. As the film progresses he hits his daughter, intentionally terrifies her,  gets violently drunk, shouts at her and generally bullies her into conforming to his expectations (forcing her to ‘beast’ her crab in the dinner scene).  Later in the film we see him being given some bad news by a doctor, and his reaction is to violently attack the man in the middle of a hospital, eventually only being dragged off and restrained by a hospital orderly.  All of this confused me a bit.  We’re supposed to be viewing everything in the film from the perspective of Hushpuppy who clearly loves her father despite his flaws but we repeatedly see him painted in a negative light.  This film would be trite if he was some perfect super-dad, but the script and performance add up to a singularly unpleasant man, and it became difficult for me to empathise with, or even like him.

 In some respects the film is a victim of its own success, Wallis is so good as Hushpuppy that I instinctively wished the very best for her.  As a result when her father ignores the evacuation warnings and causes his daughter to risk her life during a deadly flood, its easy to condemn him.  He had every opportunity to remove her from danger, but chose not to.  I was a little frustrated when I realised towards the end of the film that somewhere along the line I’d lost the emotional thread, especially as people around me were sniffling into their hankies. 

I also disagree with the fundamental politics of the film.  Inadvertently or not, Zeitlin endorses a worryingly conservative, libertarian mindset.  The characters we identify with in the film follow a simple and straightforward philosophy.  They are self-sufficient, off-the-grid and proud of their land.  They feel they can survive in the Bathtub without any government assistance, and violently oppose any outside interference in their lives.  They’re fun, charismatic people who live an enjoyable, happy and carefree life, whereas the government is portrayed as cold, sterile and authoritarian.  We glimpse distant helicopters hectoring the residents to move on, or gangs of anonymous social workers coming to forcibly drag people from their homes.  Later we see a government run hospital, which is designed and shot like a repressive prison camp.  The film’s imagery inescapably brings to mind Hurricane Katrina, a disaster where government assistance was desperately needed and inadequately provided.  So the fear of ‘big government’ in the film sits uneasily with me – and begs the question, what kind of person would make a film where the antagonist’s weapons are state healthcare, education and housing?

 It’s difficult to tell whether this is a symptom of a plot whose implications haven’t been entirely thought through, or a genuine attack on state intervention in poverty.  The film seems to try and consciously gloss over its politics, taking pains to focus our attention on the overtly mythic elements in the story.  I foresee an argument against this as being along the lines that examining the events of the film too logically is a mistake, after all, everything we see is filtered through the perception of a six-year old girl, with all the attendant fantasies, biases and misunderstandings.  This film would prefer you to examine these characters as archetypes: Hushpuppy is not a realistic person, she is a universal stand-in for innocence and childhood. Wink should not be examined clinically and judged, he represents a complex, intermingled adult world of regret, violence and passion that’s incomprehensible to a child.  Events and objects become their platonic ideals; this is not ‘a’ flood, this is The Flood, it’s not just any alligator it’s the essence of everything Alligator.  The film admittedly does an excellent job of making the relatively mundane seem epic.

But I can’t disentangle the politics from this mythology.  Consciously or not, the film portrays child abuse as acceptable parental behaviour, demonises socialised healthcare and shows us government intervention in poverty as sinister and oppressive.  It’s a US Republican’s wet dream.  

This might sound like a strange thing to say because the film can be read as a straightforward environmental parable about the consequences of global warming, which in the US is strongly identified with liberal Democratic Party politics.  As far as I’m concerned global warming is not a partisan political issue: it’s a matter of hard science – personal opinion is essentially irrelevant in the face of data.  The role of the state in taking responsibility for the welfare of its citizens is a political issue though.  I’m watching this film in a country where the assets and functions of the state are being systematically sold off to shady private companies by a neoliberal conservative government.   This film condemns these essential functions of the state, paints civil servants like social and health workers as ‘the enemy of the free’ and so plays right into the hands of an ideology I despise.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is a wonderful piece of cinematic art, but very, very flawed.  I want to like the film but ultimately I find can’t help but find it politically repugnant.  This coupled with the emotional detachment I experienced in the latter scenes makes it impossible to recommend.

If anyone can convince me that I've wildly misinterpreted everything, please tell me in the comments as I'd love to be turned around on my opinion.  This film contains so much stuff that I enjoyed that it's a bit sad that I find it so politically problematic. 

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is on general release from 19th October 2012

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4 Responses to “‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (2012), directed by Benh Zeitlin, 14th October 2012”

angstravaganza said...
October 29, 2012 at 11:11 PM

I found your analysis interesting because I was thinking about a lot of the same issues but came to really different conclusions. For one, libertarian does necessarily equal conservative (full disclosure - I'd broadly describe myself as a libertarian socialist), having a critique of the state doesn't make one right wing. It's really important to remember that the people portrayed in the film (all poor, some people of colour) would have real, concrete reasons not to trust the state. Obviously the film is somewhat influenced by Hurricane Katrina. The inadequate government response was largely a product of racism and classism. It went far, far beyond incompetence. See: the Danziger Bridge shootings, the government and police encouraging rumours which led to white vigilante groups killing innocent people. This is a really in-depth article if you're interested in learning more about that I also recommend the documentary Trouble the Water, the portrayal of the place they get evacuated to seems in no way unrealistic having seen that. And even ignoring Katrina, poor people and people of colour are systematically discriminated against by the government. It would have been totally bizarre and unrealistic to have the people in the film trust the government/outside authority, and the idea that everyone should is privileged, utopian nonsense.

The other point is that just because self-suffiency is sometimes fetishized by the doesn't make it an intrinsically bad thing. I actually found it really refreshing to see something highlighting the fact that poor people have been doing self-sufficiency, living off grid, growing their own food, etc since way before those things became the domain of middle class white liberals.

I think those were the two main political points that stuck out for me. Anyway, thanks for writing this review. All of the other ones I'd read had been ridiculously apolitical, so it was good to read someone enagaging with the film in another way!

angstravaganza said...
October 29, 2012 at 11:17 PM

Oops, meant to also mention that my only political reservation about it was the intrinsic issues with a white middle class guy making a film about poor people of colour. Okay, I'm done now!

londoncitynights said...
October 31, 2012 at 12:28 AM

I agree with pretty much everything you say regarding Katrina. But I find the film's motivations and aims somewhat sinister, especially during a time when Mitt Romney is running on a platform of massive shrinkage of the state specifically cutting disaster relief ( while New York is literally underwater. Individualism and self sufficiency isn't going to help the situation. State organisations like FEMA are. I'm not particularly inclined towards authoritarianism, but disaster relief is one power the state should have and be supported for doing so.

It's more than reasonable for the film to critique the specific response to Katrina, but I think it goes further than that in portraying government assistance/healthcare/social work as intrinsically bad, rather than as a good thing applied incompetently, as seen in Katrina.

londoncitynights said...
October 31, 2012 at 12:31 AM

I personally don't think the director's race is relevant, but I'd be interested to hear more of this argument. Sorry for the late reply btw, been busy! x

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