Hey Max, Let's dissect Beasts of the Southern Wild
My friend Jesse and I are big-time cinephiles. Sometimes we watch a film together and hash it out afterwards. This time, we saw Beasts of the Southern Wild separately and emailed back and forth about it. He moved away recently, so that might have to happen more often. Jesse tweets about movies here. Oh, and spoiler alert from here on out. Jesse wrote: So. Out of curiosity rising like the water in the bayou, I rented Beasts of the Southern Wild this morning. I anticipated hating it, based on the cacophony of aversion from the movie noggin crowd and from what little I knew about it already, but in a flip-floppy turvy-topsy what-in-the-bloody-fuck-is-happening-here twist, I wound up liking it quite a bit.
Now, while I understand some of the arguments against it, I feel that they're unfairly venomous and misdirected. I don't think Zeitlin intended to make anything but a fairy tale-type story--a female-centric Where the Wild Things Are--and perhaps impetuously decided to contextualize it in a setting that had sensitive connotations to just about anybody with a beating heart. Maybe he's a snot-nose. I don't know. I have some browser windows open right now of interviews with him and the cast that I have yet to read, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. To me, he didn't set out to fetishize or even really dramatize this community of people and their lifestyle. Maybe he wanted to tell this coming-of-age allegory so badly that it blinded him to the possibility that his film would be viewed as anything but. Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe. All of this is maybe. I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be King Douche and felt it was his duty to give these people some acknowledgment. But just putting them on screen isn't enough, and if he really wanted to document this world, there would be more direct references exploring it. All of the speeches in the film aren't time or place specific. Maybe the accents and dialect are, but the gist is general "Be Good" rah-rah. It's a gentle, watered-down (sorry) version of this story. And I get that's part of why people are so perturbed by it, but I didn't even consider it as being an option. At some point during it, I thought, "Oh. This is just a movie." And while it has its flaws as a film, I enjoyed watching it and I thought it paid off extremely well.
What Iiiiiiiiii liked about it WAS that gentleness, as well as Quvenzhané Wallis, its terrific score and most of all, Hushpuppy's face-off with the liberated ice cube creatures. All of that worked really well for me.
I don't think Zeitlin's a bad guy. One quote I remember reading from him is that he fell in love with New Orleans and wanted to tell a story that captured the spirit of the people who live there. No harm in that, but my perception it is that he's super-naive, however well-intentioned, and comes from a relatively well-to-do, insulated perspective. Sure, he's a debut director and tackled something admirably ambitious, but I think the sociopolitical broad strokes in Beasts are writing checks his filmmaking (and the screenwriting) can't cash. I don't remember all of the details since I saw it months ago, but this reply will give you the basic overview of my beefs.
On one hand, Beasts can be taken as a fairy tale--just like you described with the Where the Wild Things Are comparison, which really fits. I think that's why most people who love it love it. On that level, it's harmless and sweet. Even heartwarming and restore-your-faith-in-humanity-ish.
On a purely nuts and bolts level, the handheld camerawork really distracted me and I didn't find the film beautiful to look at at all (outside of the brothel scene which had some really pretty shots). I didn't get why it'd had earned so many raves about its aesthetic appeal. So watching the film in the theater, my first reaction was just to be annoyed I had to sit through the wobbly ugliness while listening to these semi-poetic-but-kinda-pointless pronouncements from an undeniably cute little imp. I remember the plot feeling sloppy too. All that said, we're still in the relatively harmless range at this point.
What really irked me personally about Beasts was the messy soup of sociopolitical ideas that I picked up on, whether intended or not (and I really think that the ideas were not thought through on any soul-searching level by Zeitlin or the other screenwriter). The plainest way I can say it is that it felt like poverty porn. It romanticized or glossed over alcoholism, child neglect, living in filth, refusing medical aid and destroying public property in the name of civil disobedience.
Self-reliance was a really big deal in this film. Great. But not to the point that providing medical assistance for a clearly sick father is seen as an evil plot. The escape from the hospital really rubbed me the wrong way because of that. In its aww-shucks way, the film celebrates isolationism and makes government seem nothing but fearsome. I'm surprised the Tea Party didn't endorse Beasts.
I was also troubled by some of the gender details. Being a "pussy" was the worst possible fate and it felt like a criticism of femininity vs. generic weakness. (I'm trying to remember now if the mom was a whore or just a cook at the whorehouse, but it seemed that womenfolk in the film were good for just those things. There was the one female teacher, but she talked like a crazy woman and hated "pussies" too.)
I don't think Beasts is racist, but it did remind me of The Help (which I also hated) in being a story about the lower-class being told by the upper-class in a sugar-coated, condescending-yet-affectionate, pat-on-the-head way. "Po' folk sure is sumthin'! Let's celebrate them in a self-congratulatory way, shall we?!" Both films creeped me out because of that.
See, I can completely understand you having those reactions and if I'd seen the film earlier on, I may have teetered over to your side. The sociopolitical soupiness struck me as secondary to the character-specific journey. None of it seemed worth taking seriously enough to get miffed about, whether he intended it that way or not, because here's the thing: It's not going to change the world, let alone someone's perception of those people and the way in which they live. Its sociopolitical impact is about as effective as a foam finger fwapping at the air above our behinds. Prior to the hospital/shelter scene, I'd given up on any scene in which the father was the centerpiece. That man has no business being on or off or near camera. An actual actor may have been able to communicate more or even just a smattering of motivation and emotion in that scene, but with this guy we get Fisher Price acting and therefore a Fisher Price scene.
Now, I do agree with you about the handheld camera being too distracting (I tweeted about how, after his Oscar nom, here's hoping Zeitlin will now be able to afford a steadicam). I normally don't mind shaky since I grew up with a camcorder attached to my eye, but it was tough in Beasts to take in the scenery. The salient shots were effective--the running-with-sparklers, the ice cube creature stare-down, and the finale--but the glue holding them together was all kindsa drippy.
All the "pussy" talk didn't bother me, mainly because the intention behind it was to communicate to the girl that she had to be strong, which isn't a bad message. It felt authentic within the realm of this particular interpretation of this world. Also, all of those speeches were placed in the mouths of women. They weren't saying "You have to be manly." At this point, acting like a "pussy" isn't gender-specific. Uh... right?
Boiling it down, what little works in this film works really well. The rest is forgivable because it's completely ineffectual. There's no explicit statement being made, and if Zeitlin's trying to make one with this film, then he's proven himself incapable of articulating it. What's riling or inspiring people is more about what they're bringing to it than what's being communicated on screen.
P.S. Fuck The Help forever.
I think you really got to the heart of the matter with this: "There's no explicit statement being made, and if Zeitlin's trying to make one with this film, then he's proven himself incapable of articulating it." I agree completely. "Inarticulate" is a perfect way to describe his filmmaking, at least as it applies to Beasts.
I know what you mean in that what each person brings to the film informs what they walk away with, but I'd say that applies to most divisive films. I think Zero Dark Thirty is an especially vivid example of that. I don't think Beasts is going to radicalize anyone, but I do think it may reconfirm in some viewers, however subconsciously, the idea that the impoverished are best left to their own solutions. Filmmakers have a right to convey any message they want in their work, but for a seemingly clueless lad to float a notion like that in a film that's so candy-coated and appealing to the masses is worrisome to me. Ineffectual and inarticulate people can do damage when they have a big enough platform (e.g., George W. Bush--I know, outlandish comparison, but you get what I mean).
Sexism-wise, I think it's even more subversive to put subtly anti-feminine sentiments in women's mouths, BUT I don't think Zeitlin earns the handle of "subversive" here either. I'd really need to watch it again to pinpoint the gender stuff I noticed, but I can't bear the thought of watching that movie ever, ever again. That said, it's reassuring to know a film that I couldn't stand could at least trigger an interesting conversation between us.