Beasts of the Southern Wild
This is the end, Hush Puppie’s only ‘sort of’ friend, the end. The end for the place that raised her, the thing that made her and the universe as she knows it; an intimate apocalypse, a wasteland in miniature. Beasts of then Southern Wild tells a tale of many ends; one of destruction, of degradation, one of the dirty, of the daily rotting corpse that once was a civilization and it tells it with the unfettered joy of the ultimate child. Hush Puppy is a happy, primitive child ( not a racist remark. I mean, really now) unlike all of those that you would see on the streets were you not inside reading this: she is at one with the soil on which she stands, she plays with, pets, kills and digests animals on an whim and lives in a world of her own imagination. A world that is coming to an end.
The film itself apes both her cleverness and curiosity through Benh Zeitlin’s behind the camera style; it’s essentially a series of short, playful scenes that are filled to the brim with terrific textures, bright lights and rousing, rumbling sounds. It’s sensual and so much designed for the instinctual reaction it will get, regardless of whether or not it could or would really happen. Though despite all of the dazzlingly dramatic imagination presented by the picture it is in fact not a fantasy, but an all too true tale of a real city that to this day lies in ruins. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts is a deeply buried biopic of New Orleans, a closeted call to arms asking us to either fix what is busted or be ready to bear the brunt of its demise when that day comes, and like the Aurochs it is indeed coming.
In many ways Beasts of the Southern Wild felt to me like a wide rooted, swamp grown Tree of Life: low flying, laid back philosophizing on the universe in place of the high brow; hand made physical puppets in place of computer generated effects and a single father family ( best not to focus on the fact that Benh, a white man, made a movie about an African American man who often abandons his daughter) in place of the nuclear ideal. The story of Southern Wild, in so much as it actually has one (another similarity) is thus: six year old Hush Puppy lives as she always has with her father Wink in a semi-permanent shanty town on the semi-permanent southern tip of Louisiana called The Bathtub; but a storm is coming and with it great masses of water, water that will, as water does, fill the Bathtub to the brim. Though before its literal one is lost we are given a glimpse of the the ‘Tubs unique cultural landscape, their way of life and what we stand to lose if it goes.
They eat vast quantities of freshly caught catfish and other seafoods; They hold regular holidays in which they march on foot or fly on floats down the main drag, dragging bottles of booze with them as they go and they do it together. The bathtub then is New Orleans like Gotham is New York, it’s an avatar, an exaggeration of the cities core values, all of which are made sick and withered by that wicked excess of water. With the final shots of his film Benh seems to be saying that we are too late, that this busted city is now irrevocably broken and that we need to be brave. The aurochs arrive (death comes, the end comes) and they do exactly as prophesied in the prehistoric tales: they eat Hush Puppies childhood, their presence signaling the death like thunder does a storm.
That though is dry land thinking; a reaction raised on dust instead of dirt, telephone poles instead of trees and the hum of radiation rather than music. The people of The Bathtub would probably prefer that we take a more instinctual – dare I again say primitive? – approach, as would Zeilin, but ultimately it isn’t the sound and fury of the film but what it signifies that has stuck with me and so it is of this that i speak. This film though handles its concepts like a child does its toys (or chickens); it is fascinated, but only briefly, only before the next one comes along and so the significance is unobtainable and thus unsatisfying.
As for the fury? I didn’t care and so it didn’t fare much better. The parties weren’t electric, just pleasant and when Wink wails into the camera “Don’t you cry!” I had no internal conflict. So see it if you like strange movies, see it if you love New Orleans, hell see it for the stunning sets ( Oscar worthy without a doubt) but don’t see it to change your life or even to change your top five films of the year, despite what the buzz might suggest. To be honest, I was happy when Beasts came to its own, admittedly emotional, end and that is never the sign of a masterpiece.