Friday, February 1, 2013

On Second Thought: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) Who knows where these things come from?  

This one was inspired by Andrew at Encore's World of Film and TV, who, in his review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, transcribed the inner dialogue he wrestled with, while struggling with his ambivalence towards it.

I had no such issues.  I sorta loved it, even while I didn't quite know why.  Instinctually, my thoughts were positive, tickled by some memory of something else, even if the source was cloudy up there, wispy but in some way comforting.  Andrew's article, and my reaction to it, kept Beasts uppermost in my mind and put my thoughts of it and Andrew's reaction on some back-burner, simmering.

Then, it hit me, what was so familiar, clothed in different subject matter and happenstance, but emotionally playing in the same field.

Andrew's issue with Beasts (among other things) was its depiction of poverty and how it was such a permeating thrust of the film.  I found the poverty irrelevant, both to the characters and to the movies' higher intentions.  The poverty simply "is," and the residents of "The Bathtub" just accept it, and make the most of it—their uses of society's cast-offs is frequently ingenious and a production designer's playground.  In their eyes and minds, however beer-bleery, they're living a good life off the land and the off-islander's detritus, which, given the film's message, is threatened by the crumbling ecology caused by the machinations of the rest of the world.  The child of a protective, frequently absentee father sees these struggles and must process them to a higher truth, a "universal" truth of "man's" place in the universe in stark juxtaposition to his place on Earth.

But, I remember thinking the thought: it was "the poverty is irrelevant just as it is in To Kill a Mockingbird." If I'd had the presence of mind to pusue that, I'd have gotten there sooner, but like Tom Cruise's David Aames in Vanilla Sky, it took me awhile to recognize the form of Atticus Finch when it was sitting in front of me, brooding.

"My only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it."

Because that's what Beasts of the Southern Wild is.  In my review, I posed the question: Is it a child-drama or fantasy, came to the conclusion that it was a little bit of both and left it at that.  But, now I see Beasts of the Southern Wild as a sci-fi 21st century version of To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Oh, I can hear the squelches of the eye-rolling from here, but I can't get the comparison out of my head now.  We have Scout; we have Hushpuppy.  Both are girl-childs of the South, one of the Great Depression and one of the second Greatest Depression.  Money's not the issue.  But the issue is societal in both, and both are about survival.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, it's race—"You don't really know somebody until you see things from his point of view"; in Beasts of the Southern Wild, we've moved beyond seeings in black and white terms, everybody's getting along, no matter race.  Community is key.  That's a good thing.  But, the issue is still this film is talking about is couched in childish terms to understand: "The whole universe depends on things fitting together just right.  If one piece busts, even the smallest piece...the entire universe will get busted."

The Bathtub is dying.  The source of food is going away.  In other parts of the world, the ice-caps are calving, exposing the preserved bodies of extinct animals, raising them from the dead—if that isn't some definition of the Apocalypse, what is?  The matter now is ecology; we're getting along just fine, thank you, but the Earth on which we depend, that sustains us, is turning against us, and its doing it in self-defense.*  Just like in the days of Jim Crow, "we have met the enemy and he is us."  Still us, sawing off the limb that we're sitting on.

For Hushpuppy, she learns from The Bathtub community the questions that she needs answered just as Scout does in Maycomb, Alabama.  But none is more important than her birth-father, Wink, the sole parent in Hushpuppy's life.  What happened to "Mom" is the subject of speculation, but the Father's role is very clear: "It's my job to take care of you, okay?" There are those who will protest that "Wink" is no Atticus Finch—he slaps Hushpuppy at one point—but I would argue they're quite similar: their goals are the same: to raise, to teach, to mold their children for the time when they are adults, no matter the circumstances.  Both are absentee fathers, their kids are largely unsupervised, Wink due to his worsening health, Atticus to his devotion to the law.  But, they both dream of better worlds for their children, at least ones that don't get worse, and they teach their kids for the time when they can confront the demons of the world, and conquer their fears.

"Strong animals know when your heart is weak"

Aurochs and "Boo" Radley a bit of a stretch?  Not really.  They're merely representative of the unfamiliar becoming familiar and the feared unknown seeing the light of day, representative of how the monsters of our imagination can disappear in a puff of understanding from a strong heart.

For me, now, these two films are inextricably linked.  They're the same story, with different social agendas, but the same conclusion.  You gotta grow up, you gotta stand tall, you gotta fill your heart, you gotta survive.  You've got to embrace and not turn away.

  * My favorite ecology "take" is the one of George Carlin's—whose comedy through-line always seemed to hinge on selfishness—who railed against the idea of "Earth Day:" "The planet is fine, the people are f@#ked!"


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I love when I can read a piece on a film I'm uncertain on and still love it. For all my issues with the film it readily invites itself to conversations on what it's "about", for better or for worse. For now I'm hesitant on where I stand on Zeitlin, but I am intrigued to see where he goes next.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

(Also, check your mail please.)