The Crimes and Misdemeanors of Beasts of the Southern Wild

   About an hour into Beasts of the Southern Wild, our woebegone child heroine dulcetly asks, "When can I be cohesive?"  At that moment, it occurred to me that this question was one that the film itself should have been asking, and probably was to some degree.  Its sin is that it fails to cohere in ways vital to it standing alone as the successful work people claim it to be.  I went together with my friend and cinematographer Aaron Hollander to see Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in the East Village.  To put our verdict right out there, we were overwhelmingly underwhelmed, which was particularly disappointing because the film had been ecstatically heralded as the arrival of an important new filmmaking talent.  Leaving the theater after a Q&A with the film's reasonably (and justifiably) self-satisfied director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, I flashed to Steve Martin's opening voice-over monologue from The Jerk: "I was born a poor black child.  I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi..."  If Beasts of the Southern Wild were even a marginally better film, I never would have even bothered to equate it in any way with The Jerk, but Zeitlin opens himself up to it.

   To me, Beasts of the Southern Wild just functions as an all-the-bells-and-whistles parody of itself, i.e. a lampoon of the type of obvious Sundance-ish films which the judges in Park City not just consume but eat whole and swallow without chewing.  And of course the critical establishment at large follows them in suit, as they so often do.  As Time Out New York critic Joshua Rothkopf slickly writes in his noncommittal so-so review of this obscenely over-praised little movie, "Bring your liberal pity."  Gradually, I was pleased to discover that I was not alone in finding the work mediocre.  bell hooks (the intentionally uncapitalized pen name of famous African-American social activist and feminist Gloria Jean Watkins) composed a lengthy diatribe blitzing the film as a moral outrage, in which she argues that the story actually expresses a conservative agenda that is dangerously disguised as a liberal one.  Her account of the film cries wolf a tad, but she does raise a valid point about the film's questionable perspective.  Joshua Rothkopf continues, "How can a movie so steeped in post-Katrina imagery eschew even the smallest comment about social responsibility?  Maybe that was deemed too earnest, a decision that makes zero sense when a twinkling score is ladled on like instant pathos."

   Firstly, the film's chief crime, above all else, was to remind me of an exponentially better film about youth living in a world of their own within larger and often dangerously bucolic environs: David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000).  But what Zeitlin's debut feature seems to accomplish most assuredly is the open and unabashed romanticization of extreme poverty, depicting the suffering of its poor unfortunates as unconditionally whimsical and play-like.  I can accept some level of whimsicality, but this "unconditional" element as well as the strained and almost oppressively imposed "hocus-pocus" treatment of the six-year-old Hushpuppy's generically mercurial point-of-view upset me upon further reflection of the film.  Looks like someone's been emulatin' a little too much Terence Malick!  In fact, Zeitlin stops just short of theft and stylistic coup d'etat when it comes to his Malick-swilling.  Every positive review I read seemed to take all this at face value.  However, whereas Malick's more selfless humanism would have elevated this material up a notch or three, Zeitlin recklessly makes light of misfortune in hideously back-patting ways that seem to too easily pass for poetic in today's market of spuriously precious and phony indie films, but deep down are totally wrong-headed...and really never given a moment's cogent thought beyond "people will swoon and think this such-and-such a thing is beauuuuuuutiful."  It is in this that Zeitlin reveals himself as a poseur, and that frustrated me supremely.

   If I were writing for a Yiddish-language rag, I would call claims of the film's "brilliant poeticism" a bunch of bubbe meise, which is a germane description because the whole film self-consciously dabbles in local New Orleans bubbe meise.  I find that my overuse of the word "twee" in film criticism is not merely out of my love of the word, but because it the condition of being twee is unfortunately epidemic in independent filmmaking, and has been for well over ten years now.  Whereas I find the movie's empty poetics somewhat repellent, six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis' performance remains the film's greatest asset.  She is simply stupendous in this role and was the only reason I felt compelled to stay with the film, despite her director's pretentious machinations.  I entered the theater wanting to be bowled over by it, and wowed by its impact at every turn.  Instead, Aaron and I basically turned to each other and shrugged.  The "urban sophisticate" couple in the row ahead of us looked at each other and politely groaned.

   Another filmmaker friend of mine observed that the whole film is "badly shot b-roll."  On that note, the flimsy camerawork, which is so jerkily handheld one gets the impression that the operator is multi-tasking, is just inexcusable.  Jerking around simple establishment shots does not make a movie edgier or artier.  I never want to make a film of my own where I have to subject myself to the prospect of uncles and aunts commenting on how clumsy the handheld camera is.  I am reminded of Roman Polanski's famous quotation: "All that shaky camera nonsense...it looks like the cameraman has Parkinson's disease, or maybe he's filming while masturbating."  I love handheld when it is done well (I have never faulted Lars Von Trier for his use of it, for one), and when it is executed with a certain measured bravado, but Beasts of the Southern Wild's cinematographer is needlessly Dramamine-inducing, and there seems to be no motivation for it.  The most astounding thing about the woeful Beasts of the Southern Wild camerawork: the cinematographer won a Sundance award for his work.  Go figure!

   All I can say is that I think Mr. Zeitlin lucked out big time.  Although the film certainly seemed to connect with many, I just definitely was not one of them -- and for the very life of me, I just cannot see the greatness that all those others see.  A kindred spirit for me exists in Examiner writer Bryan Way, whose article about the film's insane praise is a must-read.

   Post-Scriptum: When discussing the film with a friend who was equally disappointed with it, we both agreed that it is an apt film for which one could direct a response film, a la Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005), which duly responded to the excesses and distortions of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2004).  Regular Lovers presented Paris '68 as something more than a vacuously hip and self-satisfied commercial for youthful eroticism.  Barring Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (2006), a stellar documentary, someone has yet to make a narrative fiction feature that deals both artfully and earnestly with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is not that film.  In fact, it's the exact opposite.  It's something like The Dreamers.

2 comments:

  1. thanks for sharing.

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  2. Nicely put, Dan. The success of this film is perplexing. I too expected great things. The poster pull quotes promised nothing less than a watershed moment in American independent cinema, a game-changer of a movie that would be a call to arms to filmmakers around the country. I expected something on the level of Easy Rider, as it was thrilling to see a film of such modest and humble beginnings achieve such unprecedented acclaim and success. So with expectations so high I can say I've rarely felt such profound disappointment. I really wanted to love this film. One of the few things I walked away with was further confirmation of my belief of the wholesale misappropriation and overuse of superlatives like "triumph" and "masterpiece". Of course I'm always a little bit suspicious of the idea of a first-timer cranking out something so singular, focused and fully-formed his first time out of the gate. I wish I could have been there for the director Q&A. I'm really interested in what he has to say about his film. It's not terrible, but it's far from perfect and more than a little bit problematic. I agree with your criticisms - and I thought The Jerk analogy was hilarious and spot-on! Zeitlin definitely has talent, but my biggest fear is that he might fall victim to that very American problem of too much success too quickly. I mean, how can he possibly grow and learn from his mistakes if he believes he hasn't made any? One of my biggest peeves is the casting. Sure, the little kid was great, as little kids tend to be in movies. They're uninhibited in ways that are impossible for adults to be, in part because they don't fully understand what they're being asked to do or why. And the precocious, wise-beyond-her-years girl is a cliche that no one seems to tire of - we all secretly wish we knew as children what we now know as adults or some such nonsense. But that being said my biggest problem with the film is the acting. I've always been ambivalent about the practice of casting non-actors in movies as some pretense to realism or authenticity. No doubt, in experienced hands this technique can (and does) work wonderfully. In the case of Beasts however this amounts to a first-time director (not of the environment or culture he's depicting) being able to dictate a performance to somebody who is inexperienced and vulnerable to manipulation. It's irresponsible. I feel like if he had hired actors there may have been some discussion about the problems inherent in the film's characterizations. This is painfully clear in the character of the father and a performance that is so odd, erratic and confused it was awkward to sit through. Anyway, I could write more but I feel like I'm rambling. I'm with you though, I don't get what all the fuss is about. For further head-scratching, here's a recent article about the opening of an exhibit in a art museum down in New Orleans featuring the art production of Beasts. And the myth builds! http://www.nola.com/movies/index.ssf/2013/03/beasts_of_the_southern_wild_fi.html

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