Sunday, July 8, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhané Wallis with the director on the set

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD          A                     
USA  (91 mi)  2012  d:  Benh Zeitlin                             Official site

I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.   
—Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis)

A film that comes with accolades, having won awards at Cannes and Sundance, which may play into the audience’s preconceived expectations of what an acclaimed film is *supposed* to be, but if New York has its post 9/11 films, like 25th HOUR (2002), then this is among the most evocative post Katrina films from Louisiana, the most definitive, of course, being Spike Lee’s journalistic exposé WHEN THE LEVEEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS (2006).  One has to wonder what David Gordon Green thinks of this film, which is arguably as good or better than anything he’s ever done, as it’s an original composite of his indie style films (that he all but invented but doesn’t make anymore) like George Washington (2000) and the magnificent poetry of Julie Dash’s DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), which this most closely resembles, especially capturing the harshness and beauty of a remote island culture, using a child narrator throughout whose inner thoughts transcend the poverty-laden conditions of their world with an uncanny elegance and nobility.  Though the filmmaker happens to be Jewish from Queens, New York, studying with the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, he actually wrote this film with co-writer Lucy Alibar in summer camp when they were both teenagers, where the film is their adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious, changing the protagonist from a boy to a little girl, before he moved to Southern Louisiana where he’s lived for the past six years and made the short film GLORY AT SEA (2008), which can be seen here:  Watch Benh Zeitlin's incredible short GLORY AT SEA YouTube (25:48).  Interestingly, the film title, Beasts of the Southern Wild, comes from a 1973 collection of short stories by Doris Betts, also mentioned in the opening line of William Blake’s 1789 poem The Little Black Boy The Little Black Boy by William Blake : The Poetry Foundation.

Apparently dividing audiences along many of the same lines as Terrence Malick’s equally enthralling The Tree of Life (2011), both films couldn’t be more visually intoxicating, rich in atmospheric detail, touching the very soul of man through intensely personal journeys, where the key is developing a shared emotional understanding, like opening a new window to the world around you.  This is a fiercely independent feature, shot on Super 16mm by Ben Richardson, which intentionally takes much of the picturesque beauty out of the movie, leaving a naturalistic film that actually feels like the raw edge of the universe, a place where the last inhabitants of earth might dwell.  This apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario runs throughout the film, which prominently features the possibility of rising floods, toxic environmental conditions, and abandoned children.  The entire film is seen through the point of view of a 6-year old girl, Hushpuppy, the sensational Quvenzhané Wallis, just one in a cast entirely comprised of non-professionals, who lives with her drunk and perpetually angry father Wink (Dwight Henry, a local baker in real life) in the squalor of the Delta backwoods, where they live in hand-built corrugated tin structures that resemble dilapidated trailers on a tiny island in the flood plains south of New Orleans nicknamed the Bathtub (fictitiously modeled on a real place, The Island - Isle de Jean Charles), as once another storm hits, the levee was built to protect wealthier residents, while the Bathtub is destined to be submerged under water.  “They think we're all gonna drown down here, but we ain't going nowhere.”  With this in mind, her father teaches her to be strong, to survive, pretty much forcing her to fend for herself against the elements.

The unique touch here is the inventive use of the imagination, where heightened realism becomes fantasy, which is inherently part of a child’s view of the world, where strange prehistoric monsters called aurochs once ruled the earth that would just as soon eat people for breakfast, where Hushpuppy is driven to find her place in the universe and leave her mark, but she is constantly threatened by these giant creatures that still exist in her mind.  She internalizes their presence whenever life is threatened, where they become a symbol of death knocking at the door, and if this film does anything, it provides a rich, atmospheric blend of love and death, where both couldn’t feel more intensely real.  This extremely well developed inner realm is the real surprise of the film, where there’s a subtle complexity that just has a way of touching people, where it is the director’s choice to stray away from narrative, to allow the story to evolve without definition, where some may find the community where they live a band of drunken misfits and outcasts, where filth is strewn everywhere, hardly worth caring about, but others may understand it as protecting a nearly extinct way of life, living off the land much like the Indians did, where Wink makes a nearly unnoticed remark about not wanting to eat food from a supermarket, a concept that’s hard for most people to understand.  These isolated individuals have a zealously paranoiac view of government as completely untrustworthy, obtained from incidents like The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment — and centuries of lies and historical mistreatment in Louisiana, where in their view government serves and protects the wealthy and all but ignores the needs of the poor, where so many end up languishing in prison, as Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world (>: Louisiana's Incarceration Rate "Highest in the World") also (La.'s incarceration rate leads nation - Law Enforcement News).  So it’s no surprise those in the Bathtub, both black and white, relish living free in their own homes, outside the reach of government, seen as one of the last bastions of freedom and individuality.  

Part of the film’s innate strength is its unpredictability, which beautifully matches the journey of a young child who never knows what’s happening next in her life, where each day brings something new.  Rather than depict an idealized world, Hushpuppy’s mother “swam away” when she was young, and her father is extremely harsh, often brutal with her, forcing her to stand up to him or cower in defeat.  While these backward ways will not win any new converts, and may resemble uneducated Appalachian hill people who live largely outside the law, raising their own to survive in a hostile and unforgiving world around them, Hushpuppy is both angered and drawn to her father, developing one of the fiercest expressions of loyalty ever conceived on film, which is what makes this unlike other Sundance award winners or indie projects.  The subtlety of the writing and direction is remarkable, as this outsiderist community mindset is not immediately apparent, but comes to be understood over time, much like the carefully crafted, meticulously conceived backwoods Ozark community in Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone.  Both films are closely observed, without an ounce of condescension or moral pretense, carefully outlining the landscape, people, and regional habits.  One of the unique aspects of the film is demonstrating how huge the psychic divide is in dealing with the underclass, where even well meaning government officials can’t begin to understand what it means for this group to be separated from their homes.  Part of this is likely a self-inflicted trauma of the uneducated that is entirely based on fear of the unknown, but among the many strengths of the film are both the creation of such a startlingly strange and mysterious world of self-sufficiency and also the empathetic tone towards the people living in it, as the audience has no familiarity and knows virtually nothing about this island culture ahead of time, yet the world outside the theater may look altogether different afterwards when coming out of this film. 

While the mystically insightful narration, obviously wise beyond her years, cannot compete with the originality of Julie Dash’s film, where an unborn child is among the surrealistic swirl of narrators, this more closely resembles Terrence Malick’s spare yet brutally honest poetry from 12-year old Linda Manz in DAYS OF HEAVEN (1976), quite a standard to live up to, as that performance feels unparalleled.  While this is something different altogether, it’s significant that one is reaching into this rarified cinematic air for comparisons, as this film similarly grasps a child’s state of grace and wonder.  The music created by Dan Romer and the director is a perfect fit, blending quiet, solitary moments with rousing pieces of Americana that literally soar, like this incredibly uplifting 4th of July fireworks celebration, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: "Stay Right Here" YouTube (1:37).  At times, as they float down the river in a makeshift raft, the film recalls the enchantment of The Night of the Hunter (1955) where Lillian Gish reminds us of the resiliency of children, telling us “They abide.”  Consider a late scene in a dance club, aka brothel, appropriately enough called Elysian Fields, bathed in a dim light and a near wordless state where Fats Waller music plays in the background.  As the women quietly find a child partner to dance with, their bodies swaying with the music, it’s remarkable how much emotion is conveyed with so little effort, where Hushpuppy is mesmerizing to watch as a maternal life-sustaining force is literally breathed back into her tired body.  This endlessly provocative and hauntingly beautiful film exhibits a dazzling visual flair along with an unusual tenderness and sensitivity towards the characters, becoming one of the most believable yet impossibly involving dramatic works, literally stringing together seemingly random pieces of interconnected parts all blended together into a magical realist tale that summons the heroic journeys of Odysseus in his perilous, fraught-with-adventure search for home, but experienced here through the eyes of a child mostly knee-deep in mud in the backwoods of the Mississippi Bayou.  The film itself is a quest for discovery and a search for meaning, a challenge to our own cynical and condescending views, becoming nothing less than a mythical expression of joy and heartbreak, a ferocious portrait of the will to survive, where only by staring death in the face can you begin to discover the world around you, one of the best expressions of redemptive and transcendent filmmaking seen in the past decade.   

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