Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of Buddies and Beasts

My original buddy, Brian, is back for this one and hopefully many more. We knew pretty little about Beasts of the Southern Wild going in, which meant for that much more to delightfully stumble upon. Enjoy!

Brian's Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern wild is wonderfully strange and ambitious.

It's odd then to write about the film's influences. It can even look like avoiding a difficult film. Yet, watching it, I couldn't shake the sense that this movie was consciously setting itself in relation with two of contemporary cinema's most idiosyncratic and philosophical filmmakers: Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog. What's more, the film's final act seemed to offer an alternative vision of the world. So in a clumsy way, here is what I'm thinking about (still) in response to this movie.

First Malick, the more overt influence. In Beasts as in Days of Heaven, a young girl with a nearly incomprehensible accent narrates in voice-over a tale of adult relationships. Her voice is naive but philosophical. By narrating a story that is beyond her, she makes the relationships less familiar, more visible, and she comes of age. Stylistically, Malick's influence is strong: the subjective camera that parallels the child's point-of-view while maintaining one of its own; the lyricism of the imagery; the interest in natural landscapes; all of these are emblematic of Malick's recent films. The allegorical side-story of the prehistoric animals and the numerous handheld, shallow-focus close-ups could have come directly The Tree of Life. However, Beasts is very different from Malick's films in that it is less abstract, less sure that things will work out, less certain that God (of some sort) is in his heaven and all is well.

Second Herzog, a set of references that are more specific and less overt. In fact, I've wondered if they are there at all. But the more I think about them, the more I'm convinced that the final scenes of Aguirre: The Wrath of God are the proper context for thinking about the muddy, boat-centered lives of the people of the Bathtub. The only thing missing is monkeys. If you aren't sure what I'm referring to (or know and think I've lost it) watch this clip and this one.

I take the visual references to be plain. So the question becomes how Beasts' ideas about human life in a savage environment compare to those of Herzog's. It seems to me that Beasts flips the moral and ethical terms of Herzog's film on its head. Aguirre is mad, powerhungry and, despite all evidence to the contrary, confident of his superiority to the natural world. His death reveals his folly. In Beasts, the people on the boat are humble, generous and aim to live happily within the natural world. Their lives reveal an odd wisdom. The modern Aguirres (and they have become legion) live behind the levee, a concrete wall that pins nature in and drowns it. If Aguirre speaks to the danger of reaching impossibly high, Beast tells of the danger of sitting quietly in the world (but outside the system).

In the final act, I think the film leaves these sources behind and offers a very different and very old vision of the human condition. Here the concrete, unabstracted poor (who we see so little in contemporary film) live in a different world. Their lives are confusing because they are not presented as failed immitations of our own lives or as interestingly different lives that enrich our experience. They live lives that respond to, reject and denounce the sterile and, yes, lifeless choices we make every day. They are kings of their own kingdom, live their own lives. And life is a holiday. In short, they are carnival figures celebrating the return of physical life, nature, eating, drinking, sex, community, all the things we pretend we can buy at a market but can't. This vision is neither as complacent as Malick's nor as bleak as Herzog's, but it is no less philosophical and no less challenging. What it shares with these other films, however--and this is troubling, really troubling--is an oddly medieval anti-modernism.

As I left the cinema, these were the pieces of thoughts I had floating around in my head. They don't cohere much more now than they did then. But they interest me and hint at what makes this move one of the most exciting and smartest American movie I've seen in quite awhile.

Caitlin's Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild

by Caitlin Murphy
Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I knew about as little as one can know about a film before seeing it.  I had glimpsed the poster image.  And what I thought I saw was the back-lit silhouette of a long-armed alien.  The alien turned out to be Hushpuppy, a 6-year old black girl, running through the woods, holding fire-crackers, and trailing sparks behind her.  And from the film’s opening images – Hushpuppy alone, wearing boy’s briefs and rubber boots, playing in the mud and pressing little animals to her ear in attempt to hear their thoughts – I knew I was a stranger in an endearingly strange land.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with his friend Lucy Alibar (based on her play Juicy and Delicious), is a sort of dark fantasy set off the shores of Louisiana in an area known to its residents, as “The Bathtub”.  Hushpuppy and her hardened father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in separate raised trailers, surrounded by their animals (some pets, some dinner).  When a massive storm descends on them, “The Bathtub” is flooded; the few who remain alive join together, as survival become an even more brutal game. This impromptu family is also filled with caring and kindness though, and lessons abound about always watching out for the littlest ones among us.  As Hushpuppy intuitively knows with her animals – we must listen hardest for the voices we can’t hear.

The mise-en-scene in Beasts of the Southern Wild is itself a filmmaking feat.  With so many locations, so much water(!), and such crazily cramped and dilapidated spaces, the attention to detail is remarkably evocative.  One couldn’t help but wonder how much of the rich environments was already in situ and how much was staged.  And with half the cast hailing from Louisiana bayou country, the sense of place  in the film is intimately drawn and acutely felt.  The real-life images of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those of other recent disasters, of course, hang awkwardly in the air. 

The levee that separates ‘civilized society’ from “The Bathtub”, protecting it from the flood, serves in the film as a metaphorical divide between those aware of nature’s dominance, and those who naively seek to obliterate it.  And through Hushpuppy’s imaginings of massive icebergs crumbling, and pre-historic beasts grunting back to life, we are reminded that our sense of control over nature is illusory, and that we are heading for a painful wake-up call to that effect.  In this sense, a central tenet of the film seems to be, very broadly, that a reckoning is coming.

As the young Hushpuppy, the even younger Quvenzhane Wallis (her mother brought her to audition for the film at 5 years old, even though the call for actors said they had to be 6) is fiery, vulnerable, and eerily present.  Her father calls her ‘man’ and fervently drills into her his most treasured life-lessons– how to rip a crab apart (‘beast it!’), flex one’s muscles, and not ever ever cry – and Hushpuppy goes toe-to-toe with him just as he implores her to.   She doesn’t so much try to match others though, as she does to meet them.

In one of the film’s most striking moments, Hushpuppy scribbles images of her life on a cardboard box that she hides under, as a self-set fire threatens to engulf her in her trailer.  Having learnt about cave drawings at school, she wonders how she will be remembered, deciding that if her life can’t be saved, then at least her story can be.  She asks how her existence, her father’s, and their time in “The Bathtub” will be made known to outsiders and descendants.  And in this sense, Beasts of the Southern Wildis overtly political:  Hushpuppy marches against the tendencies of history and dominant culture to shore up some stories and let others wash away.  The film is an indictment of our strange ability to ignore so many real lives lived. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is Court 13’s first feature-length film.  Clearly, like its heroine, the company is young, small and mighty.