Film review: Beasts of the Southern Wild


"Part Swiss Family Robinson, part dystopia, and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts... is a visionary film that features poor people living together in interracial, intergenerational harmony. They band together to create a communal life in an area south of New Orleans that they call The Bathtub, and they fight the system in a variety of ways – including violence – to avoid getting sucked into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter. This is a film that celebrates resistance."

The following was written for Kasama.

 

by Mountain Girl

"As post-Katrina New Orleans is proving, it's not simply a matter of building levees; far more important is constructing the basic political architecture to decide who will be protected, and how." John McQuaid, “Storm Warning: The Unlearned Lessons of Katrina,” Mother Jones, August 2007

"In the fall of 2007 the number of active trailers still numbered more than 50,000. By February 2008, when CDC tests confirmed high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers across Louisiana and Mississippi, FEMA began an aggressive push to shut down its trailer parks and 'relocate families into safer and more permanent housing.'" Deepa Fernandez, “Three Years after Hurrican Katrina, Homelessness Looms,” Mother Jones, September 2008

Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the visionary film by Benh Zeitlin which projects a post-Katrina world outside the protection of the levees, rejects the notion of a “basic political architecture” and instead depicts a society of outsiders which embodies that rejection.

 

Part Swiss Family Robinson, part dystopia, and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts has met with high critical praise (at Sundance and Cannes, two major film festivals), wild enthusiasm on the part of early audiences, and negative criticism from some on the left who are concerned about parental physical and emotional abuse, negative stereotyping, and alcoholism.

One established film critic declared that the Republicans must be jumping for joy because the film is all about people being self-sufficient and thus not needing government handouts. These are very narrow interpretations, and I hope to refute them and encourage Kasama readers to get out and see the movie … SOON.

The main promotional Website, complete with soundtrack and live Twitter feed, is at www.welcometothebathtub.com.

In spite of its critical acclaim and glowing praise in social media outlets, distributors are not booking the film broadly, at least not yet. It opened in the Chicago area at two art houses, and some weeks later, it has yet to open at any theater in either the south or west side neighborhoods, where the vast majority of Black Chicagoans live.

The filmmakers are encouraging grassroots support, asking people to work on outreach through their event Website, www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com. And even though esteemed film critic emeritus Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and predicted it to be among the top nominees for Best Picture, it has been a slow process of expansion.

The event Website features accounts of the film getting wildly enthusiastic reception in Guanajuato and the Ukraine, and also lists all the new venues where the film will be starting, and all the ones that continue to show it.

What is the power of this small indie film? Why are so many people not simply liking it, but seeing it numerous times?

It’s a visionary film that features poor people living together in interracial, intergenerational harmony. They band together to create a communal life in an area south of New Orleans that they call The Bathtub, and they fight the system in a variety of ways – including violence – to avoid getting sucked into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter. This is a film that celebrates resistance. Combined with a stirring soundtrack largely written by the filmmakers themselves but also featuring indigenous music of the southern Bayou, the film stirs powerful emotions. In celebrating resistance, can it also inspire to action?

I first saw Beasts of the Southern Wild the day I heard a review of it on the radio, and listened to the director, and heard Hushpuppy’s small but feisty voice. I had to go see it immediately, that day. I was so struck by the power of the film that I wanted to be able to discuss it with others, so one week later eight of us met up at the art house theater (!) where it was playing. Four couples included social democrats, Maoists, and anarchists. Three of the four of the couples had children, the fourth couple worked with children. Much of our discussion centered on that aspect of the film.

“Beasts” was made on what by Hollywood standards is a shoestring budget: somewhere under two million dollars. The two main characters are played by ordinary people who never acted a day in their lives, and were discovered when the director cast his net wide in a search for authenticity. The heroine is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, and we experience the story through her eyes, hearing her voice in the narration.

Remember those criticisms?

The parental abuse (Wink hits Hushpuppy at one point), emotional abuse (Wink yells at Hushpuppy), parental neglect (Hushpuppy runs all over by herself), and stereotypical depiction of poor people (as a bunch of drunks who drink their way through the big storm)?

Here’s how I see it: There are a number of children in this community, and they run free, observing nature, listening to it, paying attention. Hushpuppy continually picks up birds to listen to their heartbeat, thinking that this is some kind of code, a communication from the bird to her. The connection with nature is perhaps the main theme of the movie. Who still pays attention? Those on the very bottom of society, outside its “protection” and therefore depending for their very survival on paying attention: to preparation for flood, for fire, for environmental destruction, and for eventual death.

There is education in The Bathtub, beyond living in and paying attention to nature: a one-room schoolhouse is filled with aquariums, terrariums, biological specimens, and wall charts., and the kids sit and learn from a strong, wise woman who teaches them about history, about nature, and about extinct beasts known as aurochs Her most important lesson, which the children learn in their daily lives as well as from her, is twofold: they must learn to live on their own, as they someday will have to, and they must always take care of those smaller than they are.

The charge of parental abuse is a serious one, and there’s no denying that Wink’s parenting methods do not qualify him for the Parent of the Year award. But I think there’s a class basis to criticism of him that’s important to note: middle-class intellectuals are raising their children with a different set of expectations than poor people who have grown up having to fight for their survival and who want their children to make it to adulthood alive. As Wink yells at Hushpuppy after he has saved her from a fire that she accidentally started, “MY job is to keep YOU from dying!” Wink is trying to prepare his tiny daughter for the day when he will no longer be there to protect her. He is doing this as a single parent, without benefit of a college education, Dr. Spock, Piaget, or any of the host of other wise pediatric advisers many of us relied on in raising our kids. As he says, his job is make sure she knows what the dangers are. That’s how he’ll keep her from dying.

In The Bathtub, parental responsibility is spread among the adults, with different ones taking on nurturing roles from time to time. At one of the communal meals – overflowing with a never-ending supply of shellfish -- one of the men starts to teach Hushpuppy how to use her knife to crack open a shell. Wink jumps in, and yells, “NO, Hushpuppy! NO!” and insists that she use her bare hands. He wants her to be able to survive even when she can’t get her hands on utensils.

This film is full of strong women: the teacher, the memory of Hushpuppy’s mother (long gone), the woman who resists mightily when officials try to subdue her, and then the little girls, led by Hushpuppy. The film contains references to violent resistance, as well as graphic depictions of it. We can only cheer when we witness these, though there are unintended consequences.

The bayou way of “letting the good times roll” is clearly in evidence, complete with Cajun fiddlers early on in the film. Some have dismissed the film as being about alcoholics, but this is not the full story. Poor people outside the system have no way of getting prescriptions for or paying for tranquilizers, anti-anxiety meds, sleeping aids, or any of the myriad other medications available to those of us with health insurance, whether we pay for it or the government pays for it. Alcohol – home-distilled, in this case – is the only available painkiller.

The theme of environmental destruction, and of actions having consequences, is strong throughout. The polar ice caps are melting, and we see dramatic footage of this, intercut with images of the consequences unleashed. What those consequences are, and how they play out, will have to remain for those who go and see the film. I hope there will be more discussion of this here on Kasama.

I think one reason people are embracing this film so totally is that it really does speak to us on many levels, not just the rational. The soundtrack reaches down and grabs us in the non-rational part of the brain to engage emotions. It’s big, and sweeping, as appropriate to the scope of the film, which takes on very big questions – environmental destruction, climate change, historical responsibility – through a very small lens – Hushpuppy’s observations. Hushpuppy has a sense of history that is awe-inspiring. She draws with chalk or crayon on things in her house, because she wants children in the future to know that “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” Perhaps most importantly, she is courageous in spite of her size. This is a memorable heroine.

After the first time I saw this film, I walked out with my inspiration giving way to how-to questions: How did they get their vitamins? How did they get their water? What about waste disposal? And on and on … until I realized that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” offers up not a blueprint, but a vision: of post-capitalist survival, of global destruction, and of resistance. It’s up to us to devise the plan, if in fact that’s possible to do in advance. Be resourceful, take care of others, keep from dying, and celebrate life.

Dig in.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (moorbey)

    Reblogged this on <a href="/http://moorbey.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/4345/" rel="nofollow">Moorbey&#039;s Blog</a>.

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    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.

    full: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/death-to-magical-realism/

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    While it’s tempting and too easy to jump down to Louis Proyecto’s level of ad hominum arguments, I’m going to do my best to stick to questions of political line and list a couple of key points that I’ll go into in more depth later:
    - Why is art that stirs emotions considered a bad thing?
    - Is it gawking to focus on the poor and most oppressed?
    - Can someone from New York portray the lives of people who live in southern Louisiana?
    - Who doesn’t love a clown?
    Oops, sorry! That last one slipped in accidentally.

  • Guest (eric ribellarsi)

    Louis: Cant I ask how you view films like Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno)?

    I still haven't gotten to see this film, but in basically every example I can think of, fantasy realism served to give complex artistic expression to real world struggles and crisis (Pan's Labyrinth, the Golden Compass, and even the reactionary Chronicles of Narnia accomplished this).

    More fundamentally, it seems to me that you are swapping the form for the content of films, and in this example, you didn't watch the film past 20 minutes?? How can one critique something they haven't watched?

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    Pan's Labyrinth was not "magical realism". It was a ghost story with a strong antifascist message. There is nothing wrong with ghost stories. I loved "Ghost" with Whoopie Goldberg and M. Night Shyamalan "Sixth Sense" among others. But this film was typical magical realism, plus the politics were really quite dubious bordering on libertarianism:

    But maybe we shouldn't be so charitable as to put aside the political reading Hushpuppy's view would seem to go hand-in-hand with: the notion that this hard-partying utopian community ought to be left to float on its own, as the unevacuated residents of New Orleans ought to have survived on their natural reserves of good whisky and true grit. Zeitlin doesn't push too far in this direction, whether to his credit or owing to his embarrassment about the implications, but either way, his sustained funeral dirge for the Bathtub isn't as compelling as the stunning opening sequence, a jamboree that closes with an image smartly blazoned all over the ads, of Hushpuppy racing through tall grass with a pair of sparklers. Zeitlin's commercial inclinations suggest a young David Fincher, his narrative careening between a number of discrete, ingeniously designed set-pieces, including a lovely, dreamy interlude in a brothel where Hushpuppy sashays with a woman who's either her mother or the idea of her. There's obviously great talent at work here, but what it's in service of isn't clear. As both ethnography and allegory, the film is hampered by its chronic vagueness, its habit of distancing its incoherent politics behind its protagonist's naiveté. (Consider the throwaway line from Hushpuppy's teacher about protecting those smaller than us, when systematic methods for doing so are frowned upon later in the film.) Conversely, as either a mythical or a purely visceral experience, Beasts of the Southern Wild is held back by its quasi-documentary presentation, its insistence on signposting the swampy aftermath of Katrina--whether it has something to say about it or not.

    full: http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ffc/2012/07/beasts-of-the-southern-wild.html

  • Guest (Red Fly)

    <blockquote> I loved “Ghost” with Whoopie Goldberg</blockquote>

    ?!

    ........

    I'd love to read this review but I haven't seen it yet. Is it spoiler free?

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    Red Fly, yes! There are a few lines quoted, a few scenarios described, but nothing critical to the development of the story line is revealed.

  • Guest (Red Fly)

    Thank you, Mountain Girl.

    This looks like a fantastic movie. I've heard comparisons to Terrence Malick's work and I definitely get that vibe from the trailer. But I'm also getting a bit of a toned-down Terry Gilliam vibe.

    Good review. I like that you focused on what you see as the class bias in some of the criticism the film is receiving. While certainly we shouldn't patronizingly accept the bad acts of poor people, it's absolutely the case that such acts often have a context that needs to be fully understood before a proper judgement can be made. I appreciate this recognition on your part.

    Your take on the frequent use of alcohol as a cheap pain reliever/stress reducer is on the mark as well. It's unfortunate, but yeah, a lot of working class people drink way too much because it's much cheaper/easier to self-medicate that to pay to see a doctor. The generational alcoholism we see in working class communities I lay directly at the feet of the criminals that run this system.

    It sounds to me like this is a warts and all portrait of working class people. That's good when it's also wedded to a humanist sensibility. And that seems to be the case here with Zeitlin's film. The artist shouldn't sentimentalize working class people. (A problem with some Italian Neorealist films.) As I was saying on another thread, I think artists should aim towards fostering working class pride, but that requires the artist to faithfully render both the light and the dark lest the effort come across as phony.

  • Guest (zerohour)

    @Louis, "Pan's Labyrinth" was most certainly magical realism, you're thinking about "The Devil's Backbone."

    It seems arbitrary to say that magical realism should be done away with while ghost stories are acceptable. You quote someone as saying "With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism." Then why single out this particular form? When you look at the glut of formulaic action movies or comedies from Hollywood that predominate our culture, it just seems to be a bit out of place. It's not as is we're drowning in a sea of movies with great imagination, or that take real risks.

    One thing I agree with Louis about is the importance of the aesthetic. It is precisely this that distinguishes art from non-art, that gives art its force, and in the end, that may have more long-lasting effect than any overt statements. I disagree that there is a clear distinction between form and content as if "form" were just another way to express what could be easily expressed in a speech or manifesto. Form is content - or rather form is a part of the content that is often neglected by radicals in favor of more obvious readings. The arrangement of sounds, colors, characterizations, etc., all work to convey substance that doesn't just mechanically reflect words that are being spoken or actions that are observed. As the author says:

    "I think one reason people are embracing this film so totally is that it really does speak to us on many levels, not just the rational. The soundtrack reaches down and grabs us in the non-rational part of the brain to engage emotions"

    She then says: " Hushpuppy has a sense of history that is awe-inspiring." It sounds simple, but let's break that down. If we were to mechanically separate form from content, all we would have is "Hushpuppy has a sense of history." Straightforward, observable, easily confirmed, but facts are not what people really get worked up about, it's the significance we attach to them, in this case "awe." What then conveys the awe if not the form? Isn't that the real point of a piece of art, to inspire a given reaction, not just to put out empirical facts? Why would the visceral aspect, the ways in which art makes us invested in its expression not be considered content? This is what binds us to a given piece of expression, not just its overt message.

    Art doesn't just draw us into its world, but helps to illuminate ours, and can inspires us to transform our world with a sense of possibility - and this applies to "depressing" works as well. It can only have effect with an aesthetic that resonates.

    I haven't seen the movie above but I look forward to it. I'm not that concerned with whether it falls into a magical realism template, I don't insist on novelty (which can mirror capital's imperative for innovation and a mystification of "originality"). What I would argue for is that we pay close attention to the aesthetic which really amounts to paying attention to what the movie actually does, not what it claims to do - see Zizek's analysis of <a href="/http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiTum8eQ51E" rel="nofollow">The Sound of Music</a> for an example. Isn't that what materialism is about?

  • Guest (PrintHead)

    This is a brilliant film in many ways. Also flawed, falling short in others. My big problem with the drinking in the film is that it romanticizes alcoholism, and addiction in general. You see a lot of drunks, but not a single mean drunk. Nobody throws up. Nobody's ever violent or selfish while they're getting wasted. It's definitely not a "warts &amp; all" portrayal, at least not on this front.

    I think the review above is right in many places, but puts the most optimistic and left possible interpretation on a film that's both ambitious and ambiguous. I think Proyect in right on target in saying, "There's obviously great talent at work here, but what it's in the service of isn't clear."

    The film is worth seeing-- and definitely different from anything else out there. Go with some friends, guaranteed it'll give you something to talk about after. The music is great, BTW,

  • Guest (Checkeredflag)

    From an aesthetic point of view I must strongly disagree. I thought the music almost ruined the film for me, the acting was incredible and the story was thought provoking and gritty. But the music was very cookie cutter was irritating triumphant cues and generally pretty generic orchestration. The build ups were manipulative in a way that I think took away from the acting and storytelling.

    @ Louis proyect. ... Lol you literally nit pick this movie to death yet profess your love for " ghost" . Your review says more about your hilariously out of touch politics than it says about the movie.

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    Frankly I like being "out of touch". "Beasts of the Southern Wild", like most of the garbage coming out of the Sundance Film Festivals, lacks the kind of basic story-telling and dialog-writing skills that the classic cinema embodies. I really wonder if many young people are familiar with Ousmane Sembene, for example. Your best bet is to stay away from artsy-fartsy movies like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and to watch Sembene on Netflix:

    Moolaadé
    Camp de Thiaroye
    Mandabi
    Black Girl

    Now these are great stories, with great dialog and characters--and revolutionary politics. Life is too short to waste on the latest darling of the critical establishment, like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or Lena Dunham's crap.

  • Guest (Nat W)

    Just saw this film.

    I thought it was very very powerful, stirring up all kind of emotions.

    It was a film about dignity, resilience and resistance.

    You definitely come away feeling that Zeitlin has a deep sympathy, even love for the poor.

    It is correct to criticize those liberals both white and black, who complain about the film's depiction of what they see as parental abuse, alcoholism, and portraying stereotypes of poor people.

    These criticisms remind me very much of how the movie Precious criticized on a very similar basis.

    On the other hand I would be personally cautious of fetishizing the poverty portrayed in the film.

    And I get the sense, or it is my initial interpretation that this is what Zeitlin is NOT doing.

    As I said this movie stirred up all kinds of emotions in me. And this is what a good film should do. There are scenes that inspire. The scenes where characters, especially Wink's take pride in their own self-sufficiency and reject the bankrupt society north of the levee. Scenes of the resistance against the state coming in to evict the Bathtubbers from their community. The scene when Hushpuppy stares down the Augurs and becomes a “strong” person. The time she spends with the character who is by implication her mother at the brothel.

    There are also scenes that made me cringe. For one just the utter poverty and filth of the conditions in which the community was forced to live in, especially post-hurricane. The disregard that Wink had for his health. The alcoholism was troublesome. And there were signs of violence when drinking even if subtle, as expressed through Wink's sought of bi-polar personality.

    But I think this dialectic between inspiration and ugliness is exactly the point. This is a portrayal of the poor that is real, displaying the love and strength and ability to survive of the very poor. At the same time it shows us the flaws, ignorance, and desperation of the same people.

    It does this and yet it is still very partisan. The love for the people of the Bathtub runs through the whole film.

    This is what the liberal and left critics don't get. They are afraid to see the portrayal of poor people as they really are. And even more afraid to think about their capacity for self-sufficiency and survival in spite of their horrible conditions and lack of education. They are afraid to see the capacity for love in the midst of conditions that drive the same loving people to desperate and ignorant acts.

    This film and this wonderful review by Mountain Girl, made me think of the conversations we have been having here on art and the working class and how communist politics can think about what sections of the proletariat we represent and the question of how we should appreciate the culture of the “working class” or the most oppressed.

    I felt this film got it right. It wasn't anything like socialist realism. It didn't fetishize the poor in my opinion. Through a very surreal artistic aesthetic (and I'm not the most knowledgeable when it comes to artistic or cinematic genres), this film portrayed the many-sidedness of the very poor. And again at the same time it did this in a way that partisan and beautiful and left you leaving the theater thinking about the arduous road ahead but overall feeling very optimistic about the future.

  • Guest (land)

    Magical film. As Mountain Girl says it is not often you feel impelled to see a movie again. I had no idea when I went to the movie what it was going to be. My friend is a good movie picker and we were talking before of different things and so when the movie began I was "what - where is this South Africa". I was stunned all the way through. Only later did I realize the myths that were intertwined with the story.

    Here is one section of an article on this amazing film.http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/17/the-story-behind-beasts-of-the-southern-wild

    Pop Omnivore spoke with director Benh Zeitlin and co-producer Michael Gottwald . (more)

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    This is what the liberal and left critics don’t get. They are afraid to see the portrayal of poor people as they really are.

    ---

    I wonder if comrades can recommend a sociological survey on 9 year old Black children living on their own a stone's throw from a parent or parents living in their own house, using a blowtorch to light ovens, and eating cat food. And all the rest. I am willing to entertain the possibility that this is a significant tendency in the Black community when we have such knowing filmmakers like Benh Zeitlin to serve as a transmission belt for its innermost realities. I understand that his parents are professional folklorists so this gives it an even stronger basis in fact. Of course, maybe it has nothing to do with facts or reality but what titillates white middle-class audiences sopping up grotesque versions of Black reality a la "Precious".

    http://blackagendareport.com/content/selling-precious-0
    The Selling of "Precious"
    by Ishmael Reed

    “A niche market could be defined as a component that gives your business power. A niche market allows you to define whom you are marketing to. When you know who are you are marketing to, so it's easy to determine where your marketing energy and dollars should be spent.” – Defining Your Nice Market, A Critical Step in Small Business Marketing by Laura Lake

    One can view Sarah Siegel on “YouTube” discussing her approach to marketing. During her dispassionate recital she says that she sees a “niche dilemma,” and finds a way to solve that dilemma. Seeing that no one had supplied women with panties that were meant to be visible while wearing low cut jeans, she captured the niche and made a fortune. With five million dollars, she invested in the film Precious, which was adapted from the book Push, written by Ramona Lofton, who goes by the pen name of Sapphire, after the emasculating shrew in “Amos and Andy,” a show created by white vaudevillians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

    (clip)

  • Guest (land)

    What do aurochs represent or symbolize in Beasts of the Southern WIld? What might it mean at the end when Hushpuppy stands up to the whole herd.?

    BZ: I think (the aurochs meaning) evolves over the course of the film. At the beginning, Hushpuppy's relationship with nature is that she's a morsel of food that's going to be consumed by a larger force. The only way she understands death is a big thing eating a smaller thing - the food chain. All the things that are bigger than her and that have created her are being consumed by things bigger than them - her father being consumed by his illness, her home being consumed by storms and floods and saltwater intrusion and land loss. That violent relationship is the way she begins her understanding of nature.

    But over the course of the film her view evolves into a more enlightened, complete view of nature as a flowing system - something in which everything has its place and everything plays a part. She comes to peace with it.

    The idea of the aurochs really began at the end of the movie, and I worked back from that confrontation. What interested me is that you have these two animals on the verge of extinction that are designed by nature - one is supposed to eat the other, and the other is supposed to kill its predator in order to stay alive. But both creatures are these wise, honorable animals that understand at the end of the film that the greatest sin you can commit is to kill an animal on the verge of extinction - to kill the last of a kind. So it's not just about your own survival. It's about allowing each other to go on.

    MG: If nothing else, the film is a new way of rendering a story from a child's perspective. We went to great lengths to really represent Hushpuppy's reality. When you're a kid of that age, there's no separation between reality and fantasy. In Hushpuppy's world, her dad is dying and the storm coming means the world is falling apart. And the aurochs are a key reflection of that. As she says in the voiceover, "Everything has to fit together just right. If it doesn't it falls apart." So the vision of her dad shaking on the ground while a storm brews above her - for a 6-year old, that's larger than those two elements.

    In terms of facing the herd, I think that's her recognizing the harmony that she's always talked about in nature. Everything is its own being. There is a natural point at which organisms in nature show weakness and allow for each other to exist - the same way she learns from her friends in The Bathtub (the fictional Louisiana community where Hushpuppy and her father live) to take care of each other. The aurochs recognize her as a similarly ferocious beast. And so they give way.

    Read the rest of the article, see the film and thanks Mountain Girl for writing this for Kasama.

  • Thanks for sharing this Land!

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    Really interesting article, Land, thank you! I would add to Zeitlin's comments about seeing the world through the eyes of a small child: when the storms are sounding in the distance and Wink has collapsed on the ground shaking, Hushpuppy feels responsible, because she has just punched him in the chest, right over his heart, in retaliation for his hitting her. Her notion of cause and effect is immediate and empirical: how could it be otherwise for a six-year-old? And so she thinks that <em>she's</em> responsible for her father's illness, and all the "bad stuff" that follows. At one point she says, "I think I did something bad."

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    <strong>Note:</strong> Lots of spoilers in the 4th paragraph!

    One aspect of this film that hasn’t yet come up is how the portrayal of Wink contrasts with the way Black men are portrayed in most mass-distributed films. We’ve seen any number of bad-ass gang-bangers, drug kingpins, slaves, slaves fighting heroically for the U.S. government, convicts, ex-cons, prison guards, and wife-beaters. And then the comedic roles: funny cop sidekicks, funny Black families, lovable losers living in a cardboard box, and so on. Junkies, drunks, pimps, predators. The heroic models have been teachers and lawyers: men who not only achieved success and respectability in mainstream society but who took up the role of teaching and preserving the American way of life. There have been a few exceptions, but those merit a separate discussion.

    I do not recall a single movie that was about a loving Black father raising his child alone, living in extreme poverty, and resisting the system. The role of Wink is singular and complex. And as <strong>Nat W</strong> points out in his comment -- made right after seeing the movie! -- there is a dialectic between inspiration and degradation, with a very clear partisan stance against the Powers That Be.

    <strong>Louis Proyect</strong> asks for a sociological survey to back up our assertions. But this is not about statistical accuracy, or quantitative proof. Art is not about simply reflecting reality. Art concentrates reality and raises it to a higher level than reality. The power of art lies in its ability to spark that emotional connection that several have commented on and evidenced here in this discussion. Post-modern art has represented a narrowing down of this emotional connection, in a way that reflects the disillusionment and disorientation of what is clearly a post-revolutionary period in the world as a whole. At least, that’s how I see it. Many of us are struggling to figure out the way forward as revolutionaries. It’s not clear-cut.

    This is all the more reason to celebrate a small film with big ideas and the power to move people. It’s great to read all these comments; each in its own way merits further discussion. Can a mass-market film also be progressive, even revolutionary? What <em>is</em> a revolutionary film, anyway? And what <em>about</em> the role of the music in this film? If it’s powerful, does that mean it’s manipulative? And if it’s manipulative, is that necessarily a bad thing? Sometimes, in this crushing system we live under, we need a little encouragement to get in touch with our true feelings of resistance and love and solidarity. Music can unleash those feelings, and that’s a good thing.

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    Apologies for that comment about spoilers. It was in reference to a paragraph I deleted.

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    What is a revolutionary film, anyway?

    ---

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Ousmane_Sembene.htm

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    Louis, what are the <em>characteristics</em> of a revolutionary film? I can come up with links and examples, too (Burn and Battle of Algiers rank high on my list), but I threw that question out there because it's not so easy to say what makes a film a <em>revolutionary</em> film, if there is even such a thing.

    A related question that I and other filmmakers used to toss around a long time ago was whether it was possible for a film to change the world. As naive as this might sound today, we could just as well ask if a Tunisian fruit vendor could launch a militant uprising two countries and almost two thousand miles away.

    There are moments in history when different elements come together in ways that no one can predict. "Change we can believe in" promised much, delivered little, but raised expectations here and around the world. As it became clear (once again) that it is up to us, the actions of that fruit vendor spread hope and outrage and launched Tahrir Square, which in turned inspired the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, which was emulated and spread and multiplied into Occupy actions all over. And now that has subsided somewhat. What will spark the next prairie fire?

    I mention all this because Beasts of the Southern Wild provides but one example of degradation, transformation, and heroism. There will be others. Meanwhile, it's vital to embrace the narrative of rebellion and resistance in its most exciting forms. So I ask you and others: what are the characteristics of these forms, film in particular?

  • Guest (land)

    This is a film about the lives of the people. What makes it exceptional is the way it brings myth to the lives of people. The title focuses on the Beasts. I read somewhere that it took inspiration from the children's book "where the wild things are."

    It also makes one think. .

    I don't think every film needs to be explicitly revolutionary in the sense Louis means. But this film I would say is revolutionary.

    There is a film that I would like to write a review on. But I haven;t seen it. It is only being shown to date in Nepal and at certain film festivals. Danny Glover helped make it happen. It is called The Highway and is filmed around a bus traveling through Eastern Nepal to Kathmandu. It evidently has alot of real photos of the people in the countryside. Evidently this film has caused huge controversy in Nepal. At first I thought it was the bandhs but it might be the question of sexuality and how this is portrayed in a country where women still have to fight for love marriages.

    If anyone wants to write a review without seeing the film or if anyone comes across a review of it send it on. Nothing I have read has said explicitly why it is controversial.. .

  • Guest (Vern Gray)

    Mountain Girl says: "I do not recall a single movie that was about a loving Black father raising his child alone, living in extreme poverty, and resisting the system." It is an important fact that such movies are indeed few and far between. One example is a movie made for TV in the late 1990s, starring Larry Fishburne. The movie is based on Walter Mosley's excellent novel, "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned." Fishburne plays Socrates Fortlow, an impoverished and usually unemployed older man and ex-prisoner, who takes in and raises a young boy.

  • Guest (louisproyect)

    Louis, what are the characteristics of a revolutionary film? I can come up with links and examples, too (Burn and Battle of Algiers rank high on my list), but I threw that question out there because it’s not so easy to say what makes a film a revolutionary film, if there is even such a thing.

    ---

    I think you have sort of answered your own question. Pontecorvo's films are about challenging the status quo and changing the world. Admittedly, I didn't stick around to watch the end of "Beasts" but everything I have read, including your own write-up, makes it sound like people defending their traditional way of life against 'big gummint'. The NY Times review stated:

    "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."

    Well, I don't know about "indifference to the pursuit of wealth" has more to do with Karl Marx or with E.F. Schumacher but the business about "the meddling good intentions of big government" sounds pretty reactionary given today's political climate.

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    <em>land</em>, I found a trailer to Highway in a Google search. It looks very interesting ... if you can track down a copy I'd love to hear your take on it.

  • Guest (Checkeredflag)

    @mountaingirl

    I will have to dis agree with your assessment of how music in films is supposed to function. Sometimes talented directors make poor choices for the score. The manipulative aspect of the music is that I found it ham fisted and obvious. If a talented musician takes a bad solo or makes a throw away record, people notice.

    Aside from that, I thought it was just uninteresting and very tired triumphant and overly grandiose. All forms of music are like this. Sometimes people can play technically proficiently and have no feel. I am a musician and a music lover, I listen to all kinds of music, but I have tastes for how music is played, interpreted, and what it does.

    The music in this great film fell completely flat in my opinion, bordering on completely distracting, again this is my opinion.

  • Guest (Mountain Girl)

    Checkered Flag, thank you for sharing your obviously very deep feelings for music. I was so struck by your post that I went to see the film yet another time. (THIRD time!) I really wanted to check out my response to the music, and whether I thought it was overbearing in the same way you experienced it.

    Music is profound, and I think for revolutionaries it is super-important to understand how it works on us. After all, it's completely nonverbal in many instances. And even when it's normally performed with lyrics, when it's replayed strictly melodically, with no words, it stirs me. I'm thinking for example of "The Internationale," which has been sung in many languages and in many struggles all over the world. When I hear the opening notes of this internationalist "hymn" to revolutionary solidarity, I get tears in my eyes. But that's just me, and maybe lots of my brothers and sisters around the world. I think of all the people who have given their lives in the service of fighting oppression and struggling for liberation. Another powerful song is "Whirlwinds of Danger," which I learned from Iranian comrades before the Shah was overthrown. When I hear the notes of that song, I don't need the words to conjure up feelings of pride and grief for those revolutionary fighters.

    Much to my surprise on the third viewing of "Beasts," there were very long sequences with no music track at all. This was not the way I remembered it. The soundtrack is -- you're right on this point -- overwhelming, but only insofar as it consists of three different and very powerful themes. We associate each theme with a particular aspect of the film, and because those aspects are the driving force at the heart of this beautiful celebration of resistance and rebellion, it can seem overwhelming. But in fact, the music is restrained, and comes in only to emphasize certain dramatic moments. I do not think of these as cues, but as encores. Let's take a brief look.

    The film opens with Hushpuppy making a little container of water for a little bird to drink out of. She introduces the bird to the water, then lets it drink the water. Next she's wandering through the woods, listening to the heartbeats of different small animals. Gradually we hear the singular sound of a simple percussion instrument -- a xylophone? a wind-chime? -- that we come to associate with this tiny child. I think of it as Hushpuppy's theme.

    Fast forward and we hear the second theme, which I think of as the Bathtub theme. This is all about the collective, their strength, their sense of being outsiders, and their love for one another. Amazingly, the filmmakers/composers recapitulate the music of the John Ford Western, that iconic music that us old folks grew up hearing accompanying heroic Westerns like "Red River." There's one HUGE difference, though: in the case of "Beasts," the hero is actually an entire community. We only hear this theme when the focus is on the community, whether resisting domination by the powers that be, or working together to take care of each other.

    That only leaves the theme of environmental destruction, which is dark and foreboding, and accompanies the collapse of the Arctic ice and the unleashing of the aurochs.

    Now Checkered Flag, I ask you, what is wrong with all of that?

    You mention the question of taste, and I think this is great! The many varieties of personal taste are what make culture rich and diverse. But in your comment on the music, I think you elevate your own personal taste -- which apparently does not jibe with the music in "Beasts" -- and that's what I'd like to challenge you to think about.

    At any rate, there are many other things going on in the world that cry out for our attention and discussion. Even so, film and music are among the most powerful weapons for penetrating deep into consciousness. They need to be well done, on that I totally agree with you, and in the case of "Beasts," I think they have been.

  • Guest (Maurice Patapon)

    Wasn't it a little overdone when the kids under the table were thrown their food, and then scrambled for it under there like a bunch of dogs? It seems like the director was trying to make a point about the toughness of the poor (no need to baby the children by giving them a table to eat at?) but since he didn't really know too much about it he overdid it.

    As far as the libertarian interpretations, I guess the question is how is the "gummint" portrayed when the protagonists DO fall under its power, in the evacuation hospital? I remember the doctors, etc. seeming well-meaning and not really high-handed or bureaucratic or insensitive but maybe I missed something. This would seem to support L. Proyect's view. But then again you can't deny that there is some truth in this depiction - much as we know that poor folks (and not so poor) will take advantage of whatever help they/we can get, there IS a lot of distrust of big government out there and much of it for good reason. Did the director adequately demonstrate this good reason? Maybe not. Did he intend to? I don't know for sure but I did find the film sympathetic (if overly manipulative at times, as with the music), like many others here.

    Also I don't think its true that Hushpuppy started that fire by accident, as mentioned in the review. I remember her purposely making the fire worse.