Commentary: On BEASTS and Burdens

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Commentary: On BEASTS and Burdens
I first heard about the film Beasts of the Southern Wild from reading my Twitter feed. Wendel Pierce, Louisiana native and star of both The Wire and Treme, was extolling the virtues of a little film that was to play Sundance.

I've never been to Park City, but I have a pretty ambivalent record with many of the films that play there. There's of course some wonderful things that find their premiere success near the snow-covered slopes, but often critical darlings that emerge from there leave me cold when seen outside the buzz of festival land.

Following the screening, there were breathless responses coming out last February, extolling the virtues of this little film from south of NOLA about a girl, her dad, and life in a (metaphorical) bathtub. Immediately after first seeing it, many were already proclaiming it the highlight of the fest (or the year!), promising a slew of awards and accolades. I'd seen this kind of enthusiasm before, and it seems 50/50 whether it either plays out for me, or I share in the wonder and pleasure of the film. In short, I was both excited and uncertain, then, what my response to Beasts of the Southern Wild would be when I had the chance to see it.

My growing fascination with the culture of that area has been heightened through a revisiting that I've undergone of the remarkable show, Treme. There will be a much longer article detailing my response to that show, but I mention it if only to provide perspective into my relatively sudden expertise in some of the less obvious facets of Southern Lousiana culture. Getting away from Frenchmen or Bourbon Streets, I've learned about a more boisterous and Gallic courir de Mardis Gras that takes place in the "Southern Wild" outside of town, of rambling folk music from the likes of the Baffa Brothers that tie directly more explicitly to an Acadian culture than the Afro-Caribbean sounds of drums and brass that I've long adored from that locale.

Hearing a scraping fiddle and hardscrabble French patois lilting away amongst the swamps and bayous, it's easy to fall into generic stereotypes. From The Rescuers to Subaru ads to B-movies like Transit, the wilds of Louisiana are thought of as little more than a convenient backdrop for airboats and colouful characters talking with a thick Cajun drawl.

I was part reticent, part excited about sitting down to see this film from a first time director with his amateur cast, telling a magical realist tale set in this off-track environment.
From the opening chords of the tunes, I was enthralled. I was transfixed by the story, swept up in its sweeping score, moved by the more brash and bombastic imagery. I felt satisfied and genuinely enjoyed myself during the screening.

Then, something remarkable happened.

When the film finished, I was left feeling strangely empty.

In discussions with some of my colleagues at the screening, it was clear just how much of my critical brain had been shut off. I tend to not fall for the machinations that have made Malick so celebrated, finding the likes of Tree of Life a interesting foray into poetic cinema, but little more. Only Days of Heaven really speaks to my heart, and even then there's a certain fetishization of the magic-hour photography, laconic narration and lovely score.
Nor do I tend to be a sucker for precocious young-people cinema, but am open to when child actors really bring a unique form of performance to the screen, be it in the form of another Simon work, The Wire, or David Gordon Green's George Washington.

My other local critics were quick to pounce on the film. Once described Beasts as "what Mitt Romney thinks of Black People", another pointing out the fetishizing of poverty, the paucity of metaphoric subtlety, what he felt to be an egregious overuse of score to manipulate the audience into feeling for our heroine.

At that moment I was torn. There's nothing about Beasts that I feel so strong about that I feel I need to defend it from these admittedly hyperbolic, but nonetheless cutting critiques of the work. Looked at dispassionately, there's much to find fault with in the film.

The story is relatively simplistic, and does in one reading glorify a style of ignorance and poverty as somehow a more "pure" form of living, something akin to a paternalistic glorification of the subservience of this class, away and out of mind from the rest of a more prosperous community.

On the other hand, it could be thought that the film, told through Hushpuppy's eyes, is as emotive and raw with regards to those genuinely trying to help as is found in Spielberg's ET, where the scientists are seen as big, scary monsters to the children unaware of the situation aside their narrow point of view.

By this standard, much of the film's core elements, from magical beasts to the land where there are parades every day, is seen as eminently in sync with exactly the kind of wish fulfilment shared by central character and audience alike.

My point isn't to debate whether or not the (tired?) tropes of independent filmmaking are trotted out in this work like some Malick-ian "Greatest Hits", or whether the politics is egregiously simplistic or uplifting, or whether the ending is deserved or inexcusably saccharine.

My point, in short, is that I liked the film when watching it, and then didn't particularly like it after thinking about it afterwards. That, I think, is something particularly noteworthy.

Films need not be exercises in intellectual rumination. Some of my favourite films of the last year have been deliberately idiotic, little more than visual circuses filled with strange beasts, blasts of noise and sweeping imagery. Other films (Tinker comes to mind as a recent one) resonate so strong with both my emotional and intellectual core that they've already for me become classic. It's been out mere months, and already I think I've watched Oldman and co. a dozen or so times, each screening finding something new and remarkable in the piece.

I think it's perfectly acceptable for a film to just make you feel a sort of way, and generate its effectiveness on that ground. I find sometimes comedies have me laughing at various times throughout, yet at the end of the film I found the experience not entertaining. You'd think those moments of laughter would be enough to categorize the film as funny, but when you leave the theatre feeling underwhelmed, it's clear that in total the film didn't succeed.

So to with Beasts - it's a film that as I rode along I was conscious of my pleasure in the ride, the remarkable imagery, the powerful performances by our leads, the almost mystical style embodied by some of the secondary characters. Yet when all was said and done, and I asked myself what I thought, my honest answer was that it was "OK". Then, in brief discussion with others, I released just how much of my "critical" brain I had shutoff during the screening, made oblivious to elements that in other films would have annoyed me almost immediately.

It's clear I wanted to love this film, and was forgiving of its faults in ways I wasn't, for example, willing to forgive in The Thin Red Line or Tree of Life. By situating such a tale in an environment conducive to my proclivities, by focussing on issues that do not rise to the level of masturbatory metaphysics masturbation a la Malick, the film, during its running time at least, allowed me to be sucked in.

I'm in no particular rush to re-watch the film, as I'm pretty certain I'd be unable to capture my sense of acceptance of some of the more absurd elements. Still, I think it would be dishonest, as both a critic and somebody reasonably self-aware about their aesthetic sensibilities, to ignore the fact that during its running time this was a film that totally sucked me in.

Being unable to intellectually defend these feelings may be slightly emasculating, but it would be equally problematic to ignore that a film worked on my gut, and turned off my critical faculties long enough to let slip what's on second look a fairly slightly, forgettable work.

David Simon has said repeatedly that Treme is a show not about institutions, but about culture. Delving back into that show after Beasts, it was remarkable just how much more nuanced, capable, and frankly  enjoyable this sophisticated television series is. If both works attempt to shed some light on notions of culture and community, then Beasts comes across as even more sophomoric then even the most scathing comments of my peers speak to.

It's unfair, of course, to compare 24 hours (and counting) of Treme's narrative to the more slight running time of Beasts. Yet without being immersed in the world of post-Katrina Louisiana in such a powerful way, without being prepped to hear a particular tune and feel a sense of connection to a greater narrative, to see a second-line parade and hearken back to the differences between the rural and the urban forms of this kind of activity, I'm not sure that Beasts would have worked on me at all.

I think I was primed to like Beasts during its running time as a kind of dream, a light fantasy that is a respite from the more engaging yet somber looks at this part of the world. Without Treme, Beasts would not have worked for me, and compared to Treme, Beasts is little more than a slight, forgettable diversion.

Yet I should not be so proud as to not admit that when I sat there in a darkened theatre, my brain filling in story holes from other sources and adding a level of sophistication absent from the work on its own, I was, like much of  the setting of the film, swept away.

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Beasts of the Southern WildcineruminationsTREMEBenh ZeitlinLucy AlibarQuvenzhané WallisDwight HenryLevy EasterlyLowell LandesDramaFantasy

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