Sunday, 13 January 2013

Who can say what’s right….who can say what’s true?; or, On Beasts of the Southern Wild

I have this weird prejudice with books I read regarding their use of narrative technique. Take, for example, the first person narrative technique in film. For all it allows the writer to do, one thing which does not often get recognised is the way it allows a less-skilled writer to have a safety net to fall to. Stories are allowed their inconsistencies, their meanderings, when the reverberating conceit which appears is the “it was the character’s mind – it’s not supposed to be cohesive”. Of course, I bring this up, because even as film is different from literature both Beasts of the Southern Wild is a films which seems to burst almost holistically from the mind of its protagonist, and for all of this daring… Zeitlin gives himself this safety net to fall back on.

It’s been almost three months and I’m still finding it difficult to parse through how I feel about it…or, better, explain how I feel about it.

Andrew: I don’t get it. What’s the big deal in deciding what to say about it? It has its merits, its demerits, it has an insistence on sort of living inside the heads of their characters and you sort of liked it. What’s the kerfuffle about? You already wrote a review

Encore: Look, I don’t know if I’d say a kerfuffle is in session. And, the review is too weird to publish. I’ve just got all these varying thoughts about it is inconsistent but then effective or inconsistent while being effective and then I just want to throw my hands up and say whatever because my ultimate feeling towards it is a is sort of hollowness.

Andrew: Wait, what? How did we get form you sort of liking it to finding it hollow?

Encore: I didn’t say the film is hollow, I just feel that way about it.

Andrew: I feel like you’re splitting hairs. Let’s back up a bit…

Encore: Yes, let’s.

Andrew: Did you at least find Beasts of the Southern Wild entertaining?

Encore: …eh, entertaining…I don’t know if I’d call watching a five year old girl deal with the horrors of poverty entertaining so to speak…

Andrew: Don’t be difficult.

Encore: Look, I think Beasts is a finely edited film with a quite good score to boot. And as far as the technical aspects go, the only significant problem it has is the shaky-cam situation.

Andrew: What do you have against shaky-cams?

Encore: Incidentally, nothing really. But didn’t you get the sense that the film was supposed to be something to effect of magic realism? And if that camera is there jolting about only reiterating that this is a “real” story then doesn’t it end up undermining the fantasy elements of it? And, that’s not the only thing undermining the magic realism…Benh undermines it himself.

Andrew: Woah, woah. Who said anything about magic realism? Aren’t are you just attributing to that genre because you don’t believe Aurochs?

Encore: What the hell with the Aurochs, though?

Andrew: Don’t avoid the question.

Encore: Well, okay – to some extent you’re right in that I’m trying to attribute some genre form to it but magical realism is the only one that fits. Wait, don’t you think that the only way those glimpses into the bathtub work would be through the lens of magic realism?

Andrew: I think magic realism is a fair consideration but couldn’t it just as well be the world seeming to be a much lovelier place because it’s told through the eyes of a child and children tend to find potentially troubling things as lovely because they’re children?

Encore: I almost agree with that, but then there are some key facts which sort of undermine that if that’s the point.

Andrew: How so?

Encore: Look, I don’t want to keep tiptoeing around the awkward beast in the room –

Andrew: You’re so hilarious.

Encore: – But are we going to discuss the film’s treatment of poverty?

Andrew: Don’t tell me you think it is condoning poverty now. *rimshot*

Encore: Well….

Andrew: Seriously, now?

Encore: Okay, fine. Can we both agree that the film takes an especially romantic view of poverty, then?

Andrew: What’s wrong with that? Who wants to see some downer film about how hard a t’ing it be fuh us po’ folks.

Encore: Don’t be flip. On one hand, I get if this is through the perspective of a child it’s bound to be looking at everything in a fanciful way, but then it leaves the Bathtub and I can’t allow it its contrivances. Like, we go to that FEMA tent and the sum of Zeitlin seems to be – see how the poor people who are in touch with nature are so much more close to “truths” of life than those bureaucratic rich folks who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?

Andrew: But, so many good pieces of art have used that. Hell, you love William Wordsworth and his entire oeuvre is about how being close to nature makes you superior. Hell, I love him and still disagree with that.

Encore: And, I’m glad you brought Wordsworth up because on one hand – he was the premier Romantic poet so you can’t contradict me that a large sliver of Beasts is all up on Romanticism. And, further, even as Romanticism has taken on a lesser meaning today Wordsworth wasn’t only about the perfection of nature, think of “Lines Above Tintern Abbey” – more than just nature, Wordsworth was about nature and its relationship with solitude. Whereas Beasts is not just about Hushpuppy enjoying nature alone (and I’d maybe have loved that movie) it’s all about how real those poor folk in the bathtub are and presenting us with these idealistic view of how things are. And, it’s all wrapped up in this gorgeous package that seems “new” but it’s a very familiar story.

Andrew: Now, you lost me. I’m not even getting at your criticism – how is this a familiar story?

Encore: Oh, come on – you know what I’m talking about. That “all poor persons have a heart of gold” thing. It’s like Jose was saying, this movie is in many ways a Hollywoodised version of the poor being saintly. And that’s not an expressly bad thing, but let’s at least call a spade a spade, all right? The impoverished are less fortunate and for the most part those who make movies are more fortunate, so when they take their cameras to espy the lives of the poor the air pervades with diplomacy and political correctness and they can’t treat the poor like nuanced, prickly dangerous persons but like goodly, saintly, wholesome folk who may be poor, but damn aren’t they good and close to the earth and better off for it.

Andrew: So, you hate it because the people are….good? That’s weird – and it’s not even true, what about that slap Hushpuppy gets?

Encore: One slap does not subvert a saintly notion and bear in mind everything that comes afterwards insists on putting him back up on that pedestal. And then he’s dying from some “unnamed” disease and his elements of tough love are just ways to help poor Hushpuppy to cope so really he’s not bad, he’s just a saint but in colour. And, then, we meet with all her father’s friends and they’re this bunch of ragtag spirited poor people, doomed but happy and boisterous and so very much alive. Would it be a “right” film if it examined poverty with characters who weren’t all like that? I don’t know about right but maybe that film would have appealed to me more.

Andrew: So, are you saying that there aren’t happy and boisterous poor people?

Encore: No, but look, I’ve lived in a poor household. Not bathtub level poor, but poor. And I’ve been in the media and observed people that were poorer than Hushpuppy and her father. And, look, I admit Beasts is never truly condescending about its subjects but it observes them with this inclination for servility. They’re humans, Benh, don’t choose to survey them with that overteeming wave of sentimentalism. Sure, some poor people are boisterous and happy. But some of them are sad and unhappy, too. You can’t just say, this is told through the eyes of a little girl and explain away the fact that the entire perspective of the bathtub is one-note of magical poverty. You can’t set yourself up to cover an empathically limited perspective and then get annoyed if you’re criticised for lacking depth. It’s the same problem I had with Bernie, enjoyable and lithe but the documentary style robbed everyone of any fullness so I could not love it.

Andrew: Okay, you’re making more sense somewhat. But, how does Beasts parallel in semblance of a documentary style?

Encore: My analogy has more to do with use of said style than the style itself. Without the style Bernie would be a basic murder tale, so even as the documentary style prevents depth it gives pizzazz. It’s the same for me with Beasts which is this eclectic looking, fast moving poem that has very little to say.

Andrew: You’ve always been so caught up with narrative thrust….

Encore: But, you’ll admit a film does begin with a story, right? And if you’re going to say the film is a fairytale through the eyes of a child what to make of the father and his friend about to blow the bridge up? Political discussions about 2012 films is gauche right now, but you’ll agree that doesn’t fit into the child perspective at all and is just a thinly veiled layer for Zeitlin to point home the issue of society being hollow and evil and the southern wild being doomed to death, but happy and buoyant throughout. He doesn’t shy away from harsh realities, but then he backpedals to give us this feeling of – look how hard these people are trying to survive, and they’re not. They can do more, and I’m sorry if I’m responding in emotional keys but it doesn’t work for me. What is moving here? Isn’t it the situation and not the actual telling of the story? And when the thrust of the film seems rooted in its emotional thrust if it doesn’t work for me it just doesn’t work. This isn’t the tale of a life, but a glimpse of a sliver of a world. Afterwards I wonder, who are these people? Do I know them? And I couldn’t say I had. Hardly damning, but unfulfilling. Or, well, unfulfilling to me.

Andrew: Performances, too?

Encore: It’s more an exercise in directing more than anything…Wallis is lovely, and Henry is study. I’m not clamouring in either of their corners, but they’re fine.

Andrew: So, it’s fine and all but you just don’t like it.

Encore: Exactly. Wait, no. I do like it. I just like it inasmuch as it frustrates me whereby some things are nice and others I don’t really appreciate.

Andrew: Okay, that sounds fair.



Nick Prigge said...

I love this review. This is the perfect format to review this movie because I suspect this is how everyone - or perhaps I should say, a great many - felt in regards to this film. Like, you can see all the flaws, they're all so apparent, but there is something about it that still gets to you and so you wrestle with just what the hell you're feeling.

When I saw it a second time, though, in my living room and outside of the theater, I enjoyed it a whole lot less. "It’s more an exercise in directing..." That sentiment that you express, that really opened up more on the second viewing.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

thanks, nick! i kept trying to write a review and everything just kept getting disjointed. the more i think on it the less i "like" even though i do like it. it just frustrates me in part, and i'm against the notion of giving film's passes for good intentions and i feel this one has some severe issues which tend to irk me.