Few films have perplexed me more than Beasts of the Southern Wild. On my initial screening I was able to make it through only part of the first reel. I really don't believe in reading reviews before viewing films. The critics' comments (pro and con) always end up upsetting my own ability to analyze by either hyping up or deflating my expectations. I did know that Beasts was almost universally applauded by the critics (but then so was that Obama infomercial, Zero Dark Thirty).
Based upon the evident universal acclaim I figured the film had to have some redeeming features. I could not have been more disappointed. In the first 20 minutes of the film I had issue with over 35 points of script, art direction, continuity and directorial "misconduct." That's more than one and a half problematic distractions per minute! I read a favorable review that seemed oblivious to what I thought were existential problems with the first part of the film. I did find a critic who shared many if not all of my concerns.
Beasts is essentially a fantasy film. The suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential. A fantasy that presumes to be grounded in temporal and physical reality is required to at least present those aspects of that reality with as much verisimilitude as possible. In fact the more extreme the fantasy, the more essential it is that the director not mess with the everyday reality part of the cinematic equation.
With a renewed resolve I reloaded my DVD and took another run at the film. The apparent errors not only persisted but increased throughout the balance of the film. The director seemed to be willfully disregarding any attempt to establish rapport with an intelligent audience. He seemed to be intentionally jarring us with small and large errors, directorial miscalculations and misdirections that left even the most sympathetic viewer (with any knowledge of the craft) completely antagonized.
My hopes that, at some point, the director might pull his film out of the crapper before its conclusion were completely dashed. (Spoiler Alert: I have never been as delighted over the death of a central character as I was near the conclusion of Beasts.) I recorded over ten pages of notes containing issues I had with the film. I will not torment you with an exhaustive elaboration of the many, many ways the film failed on technical, artistic, and emotional levels. These days, where even the most innocuous of films are made with a small modicum of craft, I could not understand how it was possible that a product as inept as Beasts was even allowed to be released, let alone garner praise and awards.
Then an interesting thought occurred to me. What if I and all the critics (pro and con) were missing the real message of the film? What if all the errors were serving, not to destroy the film, but to place the really astute viewer in a far different state than the superficial and cliché story line the movie would seem to be advocating? This was an idea so outrageously intriguing that it led me back to the film for a third viewing and a completely different take on the message.
I wish I had read more about the director before my final viewing. I was determined not to be diverted from my theory that Beasts just might be a strange sort of masterpiece. Biographical material about film producers, screenwriters and directors, while sometimes interesting, should not unduly influence a critique of their productions.
Unfortunately the relative inexperience of director, Benh Zeitlin I think has to factor into my criticism. It could endanger my analysis of Beasts as masterpiece. Age and inexperience can be misleading. Orson Wells was only 25 when he directed Citizen Kane. Nevertheless I was forced to ask myself, was Zetlin capable of the kind of genius my interpretation of Beasts would have required of him or was he merely hopelessly inept and I was projecting my interpretation? Was it possible that the director, in spite of his ineptness, might still have stumbled onto a great truth? Was Beasts of the Southern Wild conscious art or accidental artifact?
I have been recently reading about Terror Management Theory and the psychology of Ernest Becker. Becker contended that much of human behavior and most of the operations of our cultural institutions are determined by our ideas of death and the strategies we devise to repress its final, grim reality.
Scientists attempting to validate Becker's assertions have found ways of creatively testing his theories and objectively confirming them. Some have even turned their attention to an expanded analysis of the strategies we have devised to repress and negate the growing awareness of the demise of the earth as a life-sustaining environment, the inexorable death of Our Mother, Gaia.
These are the two salient themes in Beasts of the Southern Wild personal death and planetary apocalypse. Never mind that the subject, on the surface, seems to be handled in the most cliché manner imaginable, could the director be attempting to make his points in a far more cynical, stealthy way, a way he communicates through his errors and miscalculations not in spite of them? This is a complex idea that is difficult to clearly articulate.
The director seems to be telling us a relatively simple story of a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship tested by the loss of the mother, the violent, emotional tempestuousness of the father, the independence and will of the daughter and the trials of an environmental catastrophe.
I cannot possibly detail the myriad errors of continuity, art direction and the impossibility of most of the scenes in the film. Is it possible that these seeming errors are important elements that are employed to keep the critical viewer in a nearly constant state of emotional and aesthetic agitation? The real challenge for the sophisticated viewer lies in understanding the counterintuitive depth of the message the director is communicating, largely through the bizarre relationship between the two major characters.
First of all, throughout the whole film, all the major adult characters are in a state of near falling down drunkenness. The director seems obsessed with this point. With the exception of a couple of scenes with the schoolteacher, and the father in the emergency shelter, every character on camera is either swigging an alcoholic beverage or has his bottle within reach.
Many appear to be mentally ill, in some form of the manic phase of manic-depressive disorder. They all appear to be in a sustained state of euphoric drunkenness. Director Zeitlin will not be the first or last filmmaker or playwright to romanticize or trivialize through comedy the disease of alcoholism, drug addiction or mental disorders.
It's just that I did not find his romanticizing of drunkenness either romantic, funny or realistic. There are no epiphanies to be derived from what most of the characters say and most of what they say is said under the influence of extreme intoxication and cannot be implied to possess any emotional, logical or spiritual truth. Is this a product of the director's youth, inexperience and ignorance or is he deliberately undercutting the clichés his film is ham-handedly attempting to deliver?
I was lead to question nearly every emotion the characters were conveying as merely the "booze talking." There is no "In vino veritas" here. As you might find in a Eugene O'Neil play like Long Day's Journey into Night for example. These are just raving, overacting maniacs who seem to have an endless supply of drink always at hand--as well as readily harvested, caught and nicely prepared food. Indolence, poverty, ill-conceived survival strategies and environmental collapse have never been so abundantly provisioned!
"Meat, meat we are all meat."
So what points are the director making in spite of himself? The human is the only animal who is fully aware he is meat. Most of our species devote a great deal of energy in their personal, social and religious lives maintaining a fervent denial of this fact. The inhabitants of a tiny island called The Bathtub in the Gulf of Mexico outside the New Orleans levee spend their days and nights in drunken celebration.
Hushpuppy, a six-year-old resident explains that she sees her squalid life as being essentially positive because as she says "The Bathtub got more holidays than the whole rest of the world. Daddy's always saying that up in the dry world they got none of what we got. They only got holidays once a year." Incidentally the belief, no matter how ill-founded, that your group is superior to others, is another strategy for reinforcing ones sense of immortality.
Hushpuppy is a precocious and resolute disciple of Candide's Dr. Pangloss who sees only the best of all possible worlds. She explains rampant child neglect and abuse in her dilapidated community in an equally ill-founded comparison to the dry world inside the levee. "They got their babies stuck in carriages." Oh horrors! The inebriated residents are seen betting on a race where few of the exploited infantile participants seem to be enjoying the event.
The fact that the highlight of the day's orgy takes place in a cemetery, where dangerous fireworks are seen exploding all around the revelers, suggests both the presence of death and the denial of it.
The only resident who seems to have a clear handle on the situation of impending doom for the neighborhood and the planet is the schoolteacher and local herbalist, Bathsheba. Instead of courageously taking constructive steps to educate and assist the adult residents with a concrete strategy of survival, she seems only content to terrify her small charges with horrific tales of how they will all be eaten by prehistoric aurochs unleashed by global warming. At least she is sober part of the time and acutely conscious of the impending doom.
The locals, on the other hand, attempt to deny their fears arising out of their precarious situation by engaging in a constant, frantic state of inebriation. Cinematic inconsistencies and continuity problems abound giving the audience the feeling that perhaps they are watching different and contradictory simultaneous realities or even seeing a senseless world where nothing is consistent or authentic. Is the director's incompetence reflecting and informing life?
Armageddon eventually comes in the form of a hurricane. This occurrence coincides with Hushpuppy's striking her father's chest in self-defense. The poor girl is experiencing intense cognitive dissonance because of the condition in which she finds herself. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted." Unable to resolve the love she feels for her father with the advanced alcoholism that has made him abusive, delusional and increasingly autistic, she, like many abuse victims, takes upon her small self the blame for the condition. This Sartrean responsibility engenders tremendous guilt. It is the only way she can see to still maintain agency in a situation where she obviously has none.
The fate of the absent mother is unclear. Perhaps the father drove her off, murdered her or she just left unable to endure the level of dysfunction in which she found herself. I tend to lean toward murder because, from the few mythic tales of her tenure, she seems, in spite of her own alcoholism, to possess fine human and humane qualities.
I don't think Hushpuppy's mother would ever have voluntarily abandoned her. Hushpuppy's own break from reality comes in the form of clear auditory hallucinations in which she hears her mother guiding, loving and consoling her. In a particularly poignant bit of Ars Poetica, we see the girl attempting to preserve the image of the mother in a crude shrine in the quarters they both previously occupied separate quarters where presumably they hoped to be safe from paternal rage and homicidal violence. Hushpuppy has salvaged her mother's basketball jersey and clings to it like a holy relic or fetish. The auditory hallucinations seem associated with the jersey. The metaphor, of religion as a strategy (opiate?) for preserving agency and autonomy against a sea of troubles, is unavoidable.
Hushpuppy also fantasizes about a personal immortality in a future where in a million years scientists will come to understand her plight and her heroism. She obsessively mutters this mantra to herself as she seeks shelter under a cardboard box after she has set her ramshackle quarters on fire. She remains in resolute denial of her situation, sketching unhappy faces on the inner walls of her soon to be incinerated, cardboard tomb consoled only by the belief in her future, celebrated immortality. A better metaphor could not be found for Art as Immortality. This is another one of Becker's strategies for denying personal death. Don't worry. She survives. Soon she will no doubt abandon art for alcohol in imitation of her elders.
Partially, in reaction to the terrifying tales her schoolteacher has told her, she attempts to take responsibility for the fate of the whole world by hypothesizing that if one little part comes undone the whole fabric of the universe comes undone. One is reminded of William Carlos Williams' poem, "Everything depends on a red wheelbarrow." It is a profound thought motivated however, not by a preadolescent bodhisattva but by a terribly disturbed, delusional child desperate to make sense of her inner and outer world threatened with physical violence and destruction. Hushpuppy, like most religious devotees is not content to only manifest her hallucinations and delusions within. Like her fundamentalist kin she requires real, historical confirmation to reinforce her delusion.
She sets out with some other children to find her real mother in the real world. Here metaphor, mired classical allusions, improbability and cliché become hopelessly intertwined. Pursuing a winking light far out in the Gulf, the children plunge into the water. Fortune brings them rescue in the form of a manifestation of the Styx boatman, Charon, an enigmatic, cliché-spouting tugboat captain who regales our heroine with some of the most pretentious and stupid dialogue ever
written for the screen.
In a continuance of Zitlin's shaky classical metaphor, our prepubescent Odysseus is finally delivered to the Elysian Fields. It is literally a floating whorehouse cum-catfish shack called "Elysian Fields," just in case anyone might miss the reference. Clichés are as abundant as crawfish in this film. Of course the whores all have hearts of gold and immediately begin consoling and mothering the children of the storm who have washed up on their dubious sanctuary.
Hushpuppy separates herself from her companions and follows a beautiful whore who seems to draw her out with a mysterious charisma and magical powers (she bites the cap off a beer bottle!) Perhaps here is finally the physical manifestation of the long sought mother.
After this final ratification of the supernatural connection, Hushpuppy, the Hero, sallies fourth to her own mythical apotheosis, vanquishing the aurochs (These are the funniest, most ineptly rendered monsters a special effects department ever botched. The director doesn't even know what an aurochs looks like for chrissake!), reconciling herself in a tearful farewell to the real monster of the film, her dying father, and with a final poetic flourish delivered at his Viking funeral, reaffirms that she's just a little part of a big picture. The tearful survivors of the Bathtub disaster are delighted to have yet one more excuse to get down to some really serious celebratory drinking.
All criticism involves choices. Once a work of art leaves the gallery, editing room or publisher it is no longer the property of the artist. It belongs to the critics, the consumers and history. The intention of the creator is eventually no longer even relevant. I frankly don't care if some may regard this review as a horrid misinterpretation of what the director, the critics and Sundance sponsors regard as a warm, cuddly story of the triumph of the human spirit. I have chosen to see the film in much darker terms. For many varied and contradictory reasons I found Beasts of the Southern Wild a dark, deeply disturbing film that convincingly demonstrates that its characters and our species are beyond redemption.
I think however that my dubious, even satirical homage may be far more than an immature, painfully incompetent director like Benh Zeitlin deserves.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|