Sunday, August 19, 2012

Make the Wild Rumpus Stop: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in a Katrina-era marshland somewhere south of New Orleans, but cinephiles may have a hard time watching it without picturing Texas farmland during World War I. The similarities between Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, and Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick, are obvious from the start. Both demonstrate awestruck respect for nature. Both observe tight-knit multi-racial communities of people who have little material wealth but an abundance of joie de vivre. And, perhaps most striking, both are narrated by young girls simultaneously at the center of their adventures yet mostly helpless to shape them who express themselves in free-verse voice-over ramblings that straddle the line between the inane and the profound. Yet what sets these films apart is more striking than what aligns them: Days of Heaven, with its predilection for the pink-and-blue-hued beauty of magic hour, is a delicious feast for the eyes, while the cinematography of Beasts of the Southern Wild will threaten to make you lose your lunch.

What a gruesome film this is. Not because of the moist and dirty shantytown called the Bathtub, or the filthy (and no doubt stinky) characters who inhabit it. Not because of the grim themes of poverty, loss and loneliness. Not even because of the close-ups of the main character's cooked cat-food cuisine. Just because of the moviemaking. Filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier are notorious for making pictures that dare audiences to sit through them, but this is a different sort of cinematic assault, because here it isn't the content that's off-putting but our access to it. The vast majority of Zeitlin's film, with cinematography by Ben Richardson, is presented in the shakycam aesthetic most popularly associated with Paul Greengrass' frenetic Jason Bourne movies or "found film" genre precedent-setter The Blair Witch Project. And while those pictures have clear thematic motivations (or justifications, if you prefer) for eschewing the tripod, there seems to be no artistic incentive for Beasts to go the route of Obviously Handheld unless it's to wrap the movie in low-budget-indie trappings that might lower audience expectations.

Is this a low-budget indie? No doubt. And if the film's modest budget was a genuine obstacle to employing fixed camerawork, so be it. But those financial constraints of production don't change how we see what was produced, and the herky-jerky camerawork of Beasts is an obstacle to simply watching the movie, never mind spotting what's going on beneath its grotesque surface. Written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, Beasts chronicles the adventures of a sweet afroed girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her crusty father, Wink (Dwight Henry). There's a fire and a flood, there's an expedition to blow up a levee and there are several searches for food, but mostly there's Hushpuppy narrating her odd quasi-wisdom ("When you're small, you've gotta fix what you can...") between episodes of being barked at by her irritable dad, who feeds her along with the pets and as often as not calls her "man." In almost any other movie, Wink would be a nightmarish father, volatile and unnecessarily cruel, but his cute daughter doesn't seem to mind his antics, and for a girl who would otherwise have nothing, he's something, so the movie gives him a pass, in large part thanks to Richardson's bobbing-and-weaving camera, which makes it difficult to stare into the face of Wink's rage.

The movie's message is equally difficult to locate. First and foremost, Beasts appears to be an ode to the people of New Orleans' 9th Ward, who have little but one another and an admirable willingness to go on, but Zeitlin over-romanticizes these stubborn, combative, uneducated survivors to the point that their own faults simultaneously function as symbols of triumph; Beasts seems to want us to wring our hands over the horrors of their lifestyle while at the same time applauding their unwillingness to change. Meanwhile, the narrative, if you can call it that, is a gnarled maze of dead ends, much like the flooded Bathtub. Characters are undeveloped. Themes are half-baked. And, saddest of all, the most fantastic elements of the film are also the ones that float adrift of everything else, namely an episode in which Hushpuppy spends an evening dancing with prostitutes on a floating barge and a sequence in which the mysterious and awesome aurochs (here played by pigs dressed up as Maurice Sendak's wild things) rumble into the Bathtub.

With sweet little Hushpuppy bravely going forth, trying to hear the heartbeat of the world around her, and with the Zeitlin and Dan Romer score bursting with the spirit of Mardi Gras, one can't help but want to be touched by the magic spell that Zeitlin is so clearly trying to conjure. Coming out of Sundance and Cannes, where the film delighted many critics and audiences, much has been made of the film's modest budget and Zeitlin's use of non-professional actors — hype about the latter being especially peculiar as Wallis is concerned, given that most 6-year-olds don't have particularly extensive resumes, and given that the choppiness of Beasts' scene structure doesn't provide much opportunity for what we usually think of as "acting." It's as if we're supposed to forgive the film's shortcomings, just like the Zeitlin overlooks those of his characters, because Beasts comes from modest means. But there's a difference between being stuck in the Bathtub and settling for it, just like there's a difference between marketing a touching father-daughter relationship and dramatizing one. In spite of the on-screen mess, Zeitlin manages to flash Malickian potential, just as David Gordon Green did before him. But while waves of cinematic splendor occasionally lap up onto the shore of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tide never rises.

9 comments:

jake said...

Thanks for reviewing this!

It's funny, while watching it in the theater, I had almost the opposite reaction to the camera-work; I felt very comfortable and relaxed with this frantic, kinetic, almost sloppy style. I think there were a few reasons for this:

1) I've done of a lot of run-and-gun documentary stuff, on the cheap, where our only option was to bang out as much content as possible in a short amount of time. I think I recognized the aesthetic immediately in this film and almost sympathized with it? Which gets complicated from a viewer-standpoint; somebody shouldn't have to have gone through the hell of shooting fast, cheap, and out of control to be able to understand/forgive messy camera work.

But also, sometimes this kind of camera work gives the narrative a more immediate, doc-like feel (obviously), and with these non-professional actors and this particular setting, it seemed appropriate; the characters and locations felt more organic, and even the beasts themselves felt daunting and threatening because they almost seemed "real" due to the shaky camera approach (rather than a by-the-numbers, slick CGI approach).

Katrina has such a nightly-news association for most people who weren't there to experience it first hand, so to give this story the shaky, raw camera treatment might be a good way to reestablish those associations and channel a more immediate emotional response to the story?

2) Having worked on ads with larger budgets that could afford some crane/dolly/fixed camera shots, I know this type of cinematography is more expensive and time-consuming. The way Beasts was shot literally seems like the only viable option with a 1.2 million budget, a probably mostly rookie crew, and a demanding set of locations. Still seems worth it to tell this story with these characters in this locale at the expense of steadier camera work.

3) And this is where I really feel like I'm TOO forgiving as a viewer, but I remember thinking during the film that it was smart to shoot it this way for the sake of the performances BECAUSE the wild, catch-as-catch-can camera angles and jump cuts, etc. can allow the director to help sculpt a performance that might otherwise have come off as flat, mediocre, or just plain bad.

Especially with a child actor. I assumed that in her case it was more a matter of channeling her energy correctly and shooting the heck out of a scene until you got the lines and beats and moments you needed, and then pasting them together (rather than her performing line-reads over and over in the more traditional method).

I admit it's up to the viewer to be able to swallow this. I had no problem buying into my own assumptions about her "performance," even if deep down I knew that for most of these actors, the way the film was shot probably helped their performances appear more authentic.

Anyway, that's how I managed to absorb the aesthetic nature of this movie. It was familiar and comfortable for me, and it seemed appropriate to the story (and budget) and performances.

jake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jake said...

(CONT'D)

But that aside, I did really agree with one of your other points about the nature of the people living in the Bathtub. It does seem risky and almost insincere to present their poverty as this almost noble, romantic undertaking. For as much as I enjoyed the narrative and the film as a whole, I did find myself wondering a few times: "Wouldn't this kind of poverty and strife feel about a million times shittier? Wouldn't these guys be a little less triumphant about it and a little more grim and cynical?"

But, I kind of glossed over that too by assuming that because the story is largely told through a child's eyes, that maybe the bitterness/cynicism/negativity that most rational viewers would associate with such a dire situation hasn't quite registered with her yet. Maybe when this grim situation is all a kid knows, she's able to get by with her imagination/fascination on an hour-to-hour basis, like most kids her age seem to do no matter where they are.

This all probably comes off as a series of excuses/justifications that allowed me to enjoy the movie as much as possible and stay caught up in the hype, but when I see a film that feels genuine and honest and ambitious (dressing up boars, old fashioned trick photography? bravo, says I), I can't help but be overly forgiving. There's just so much disposable crap coming out that even the possibility of a fresh voice breaking the monotony of the indie landscape excites me to a fault.

Jason Bellamy said...

"This all probably comes off as a series of excuses/justifications that allowed me to enjoy the movie as much as possible ..."

No, this is great! I mean, obviously we had two completely different reactions to the same thing, but I appreciate that you went into such detail about your response to it. Thank you!

I really wanted to fall into this movie, and there were times I thought I would. But although I've never been part of any official moviemaking (well, I guess that's not true: I've contributed to some projects at work), I do tote cameras around with me on my vacations and make little video scrapbooks for the pleasure of editing them and sharing them with family, and it's enough for me to know the difference between shaky-because-it-couldn't-be-helped and shaky-because-you're-not-even-trying. And in BEASTS there's too much of the latter for me.

In saying that, I don't mean to imply that fixed (crane, dolly, etc.) shots are the gold standard. I think there are valid reasons to go the other way, and for you it created a convincing realism, which might have been part of the intent. But for me if a character is stationary and the camera still can't keep remotely still, and if this keeps happening, it's a distraction. (By comparison, WARRIOR is one of my favorite movies of last year, and that's mostly hand-held even when it doesn't "need" to be, but it's never disorienting. There's a difference between 'sway' and 'shake,' in my mind, and BEASTS does the latter far too often.)

As I suggested in my review, I got the sense sometimes that it wasn't realism the movie was going for ("realism" doesn't seem to be the chief aim of a movie with so much fantasy) but some kind of art-house rawness. Whatever the motivation, it didn't work for me, and for a short movie I often struggled to get through it.

But I LOVED the simplicity of the aurochs and the trick photography. That's terrific!

Jason Bellamy said...

As for the message ... It wasn't just tongue-in-cheek when I said that the shakycam kept me from figuring out what this movie is "about." I really struggled to look into the movie's themes because I was having so much trouble connecting with everything on the surface.

But I suspect the larger problem is that the movie is full of so many stops and starts in terms of its themes and narrative. The free-association of the narration doesn't help there either. I mean, Hushpuppy says that someday people will know that Hushpuppy lived in the Bathtub with her dad. And the significance of that is ... what? That ANYONE lived in the Bathtub? That Hushpuppy and her dad were once together? Something else?

Wink is one of those characters who would be totally unlikeable if his daughter didn't just roll with the punches (almost literally) and if he didn't suffer an unfortunate fate. But that doesn't make him complex. And it's not that I have a problem with a guy being a jerk and still finding sadness in death ... I just couldn't tell what the movie wanted me to feel about the guy. Is it aware that he's a jerk? Is it attributing his faults to his poor health? To his mistreatment by The Man?

By the end of the movie I felt I didn't know these characters any better than I did in the first 10 minutes -- except maybe what I know of Hushpuppy from her dance with the prostitute when she talks about being held (a beautiful moment that deserves a better movie around it).

jake said...

It's true what you say about the treatment of Wink. It did get a little to ambiguous, too objective, and almost seemed to have the attitude of "Hey, I'm just a fly on the wall, here, and this is these are the characters, make of them what you will."

Which might go along with the aesthetic approach, for sure, but doesn't work at all alongside Hushpuppy's highly subjective, suggestive, free-association narration. And so, like you said, it kind of gets messy.

If he had certain things he wanted to say about the dynamic between Wink and HP, about life in the Bathtub, about the legacy of these characters dealing with this situation, then he has to find a way to get his message(s) across coherently in conjunction with whatever type of filmmaking he's using to tell the story, and without falling too deeply into into either effort (i.e. being too heavy-handed and preachy about Themes and Messages, or, on the other hand letting the loose, free-association style totally dictate the flow of ideas - which is kind of what it seems like he did, I think).


Hokahey said...

Jason, I think your observations are well said. (Also, your prose and your obvious editing done to achieve a uniform length always invite me to read your entire post, which is not the case for some blog ramblings.) I, too, was uncomfortable with the romanticizing of uneducated people living like animals.

The film's advertising declares its "magical" elements, but the magic was lost on me. I didn't feel the magic, and I wasn't touched save for two moments: 1) As the fire spreads, Hushpuppy hides under a box and draws with crayons; this really captured the hopelessness of a child thrust into a lifestyle that should be lived by no child; and 2) I liked the warmth of the moment in which the woman cooks gator tail for Hushpuppy; it's a tender moment, and the shots make the gator meat look good - perhaps the only appetizing moment in the film.

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Anonymous said...

To me the theme was quite obviously an environmental one: that if we don't continue to protect our resources we, too, will be flooded. This message is cris-crossed with another about accepting humanity in all it's forms from the obviously flawed but ultimately loving father to the prostitutes who can share tenderness with young children.

I agree with you on the camerawork, though. I can enjoy handheld work, but this film was a bit sloppy. It felt like they shot it 16:9 and cropped it to 2:35 afterwards to make it more quote-unquote cinematic. The only problem is that the characters' eyes were often cropped from the frame. Tsk-Tsk.

The end result was that a story with strong writing and acting, and incredible miss-en-scene was ultimately muddied by unnecessarily loose filmmaking. Still, it was affecting. And I'm sure this director will clean some of that up his next go round.