Monday, 31 December 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Over the past few workaholic days, I have been doing some translations for the Museum of Modern Art, whose collection you can also visit virtually through this link. It includes pieces from (or about) Louisiana, especially photographs of New Orleans by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, and of course E.J.Bellocq, best known for his images of early twentieth-century Storyville. There are some paintings as well and even film, such as Robert Flaherty's (1884-1955) classic docudrama, Louisiana Story (1948). The black-and-white movie points the camera at the rugged, exotic, and still pristine Louisiana landscape, along with its rugged and exotic Cajun inhabitants. The latter are brought out of their impoverished, subsistent lives by the arrival of the oil industry, which comes to perform exploratory drilling. Of course the film—commissioned by Standard Oil—portrays all the oil workers as friendly, helping the naïve Cajuns rise above their hardship. You can see the excitement inherent in the relationship between modern technological progress and the region's natural riches, and yet there is also a moment of wistfulness, as it means a farewell to an old world and an entry into a new one.
Sixty-five years later, that is all old news. Not long ago, the BP oil disaster polluted broad stretches of the Gulf of Mexico, and the consequences are still palpable. On top of that, Louisiana continues to lose land, more and more with each hurricane, in part because the oil companies' exploratory canals are destroying the marshes, and the saltwater flowing in is eating away at the land's natural defenses (animals as well as plants).
Along these lines, the must-see movie Beasts of the Southern Wild is a modern follow-up to the Louisiana Story. It centers precisely around people who are losing the place they call home to floodwaters, but will not leave it for anything. The film was shot on-site with amateur actors and is likewise political in its way, with a message the viewer cannot ignore. Ambitious, disturbing, and full of gripping images, the film fits the life of a young girl named Hushpuppy into the contexts of the country that has forgotten her, the effects of global warming, and the sweep of human history.
That is quite a feat for a directorial debut (Benh Zeitlin—keep your eyes peeled), and somehow he does pull it off. The experimental, independent film manages to steer clear of cynicism or sarcasm, but approaches the subject with passion and, okay, perhaps also melodrama. To be sure, the portrayal of Louisiana is not an authentic one. The people there do not live in shacks so squalid they look no different after being ravaged in a rage. But the film does not rest on cliché either, more so on particular cultural practices that may need some explanation for foreign viewers.
My companion at the movie theater, who had even visited me once in Louisiana years ago, first perceived the film as a glorification of the underclass. This may owe partly to a translation error in the subtitles (the point was not that the residents have more free time or work less than other places, but that they have more festivals—exemplified by the lackluster Mardi Gras parade in the background). The crawfish and crabs are not eaten raw as it may seem, but cooked—in big pots with potatoes, vegetables, and spicy seasonings—then served by dumping them onto tables covered in newspaper. You eat them with your hands, which is not exactly dainty. The toughest even suck out the heads. After my first crawfish boil, I had a dream that the critters were crawling through the legs of my jeans.
The village the film is set in, “The Bathtub,” is an invented one, though indeed New Orleans was referred to after Katrina as a “bathtub metropolis without a plug.” Yet the story was also inspired by the small island of Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, an Indian reservation that has been continually sinking into the water with each passing year but whose inhabitants still refuse to leave. Click here for an excerpt from a current documentary on it: Last Stand on the Island.
As for the beasts invoked in the title, there are a number of them. First there are the creatures constantly tromping through the dreams of the young protagonist, Hushpuppy. Throughout the movie, I took them for oversized wild boars, but they were apparently meant to be aurochses. Then there are the actual animals that the people live with and eat. Finally, the people themselves are also somehow treated as animals, at least in the eyes of the authorities, who want to rescue them. This is hinted at by one scene in which Hushpuppy struggles to crack open a crawfish she is eating, and her father and soon all the other villagers cheer her on, chanting “Beast it!” (In other words, go at it with brute force.)
Friends of mine said they considered it a film about the longing for freedom and the desire for self-sufficiency. But for me, I see it as a film largely about the place one calls home, a film that situates this home in a broader context and celebrates the power of its gathering interrelationships and commonalities. With all its imagery, the film is best seen on a big screen, and it won't be out in theaters for much longer. Both of the lead actors, who followed the movie to Sundance and Cannes, have since returned to everyday life. Little Quvenzhané Wallis has grown into a glamorous young lady, and the man who played her father, Dwight Henry, runs a successful bakery in New Orleans.
Gambit Weekly selected the film as one of the best of 2012 (and I agree). In their words: “New Orleans filmmaker Benh Zeitlin and his ragtag crew made history with a magical and utterly original work of Louisiana art.”
Happy New Year, everyone!
-- Translated by Jake Schneider
For interviews with the two protagonists click here.