Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

I saw this film last Sunday afternoon and my initial response was that it was weird but that I liked it. However, I’d need time to process it. Several days later, it’s still weird, I still like it in some ways, but having had time to think about it, there are things about it that make me uneasy. In many ways it defies categorisation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure whether that’s because it is actually sui generis or simply because it doesn’t really know what it is all about.

On reflection, my unease really began with the aurochs.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

 

I don’t think most people had ever heard the word ‘aurochs.’ So we figured we could make them whatever we wanted to make them.

 

 

This much I do know: aurochs were wild cattle that lived in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The last actually died in 1627, in Poland, apparently. The nearest we have to them now are probably things like the wild cattle of the Camargue (though apparently not the Heck cattlethat were an attempt to backbreed for aurochs characteristics). In other words, as I understand it, aurochs did not have tusks, or snouts, or indeed look like giant pigs with horns. And that’s before we get on to the plausibility of aurochs being frozen alive in the Arctic ice, to be released thousands of years later by global warming, at which point they set off across the US, apparently in search of Hushpuppy, the child at the centre of this film.

Does any of this matter? I think it does, not least in terms of how best to interpret this film. On the one hand, if the viewer accepts the film as emerging from the six-year-old Hushpuppy’s own perspective on, or misunderstanding of, what is going on around her it makes sense that she might imagine an aurochs as something that is a cross between a cow and the piglet grubbing around her own house. On the other, based on the quotation above, one also has a sense of the film-makers playing a little fast and loose with terms and definitions, arguing that it’s ok, that no one will know. Which is, perhaps, to insult one’s viewers, and if they insult one’s intelligence in a relatively small way, what’s to stop them insulting the viewer’s intelligence in other ways as well?

The film centres on the child, Hushpuppy, acted with extraordinary intensity by Quvenzhané Wallis, who fully deserved her Oscar nomination for such an amazing performance. Hushpuppy lives in the bayous of Louisiana with her father, Wink, her mother having long since moved on. Wink’s views on raising a child are, to say the least, unorthodox. Hushpuppy lives along in a caravan mounted on supports of some sort while her father lives across the way in a shack. The caravan seems to be where he lived with her mother and he moved to the shack later to avoid the memories. Hushpuppy lives surrounded by her mother’s things and decorates the surfaces of the caravan with pictures of the woman she can’t remember. Outside there are chickens and dogs and a pig, and of course the forest and the bayou.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)For the observer, Hushpuppy’s life might seem to be harsh – Wink seems to either believe in tough love or else simply doesn’t have a clue as to how to raise a child – yet we might admire her for her apparent self-sufficiency. We are clearly intended to see her as a child of nature, deeply attuned to everything going on around her, alert and attentive to changes in the world, all this manifested in the way she listens to creatures’ heartbeats. She is curious and observant, undoubtedly, for how else does she survive, but this metaphysical presentation of Hushpuppy clearly comes from outside; what Hushpuppy herself thinks, we don’t really know. <

Similarly, one might wonder if she sees the landscape as we, the watchers, do. We’re invited to revel in the gorgeous scenery – and it is exquisitely filmed – as Hushpuppy and Wink travel up and down the bayous in their homemade boat; but for Hushpuppy, this is surely familiar. It’s home and home is not a thing children tend to romanticise, not until they’re adult and away from home. It’s safe, it’s familiar; those are different things.

And what about the neighbours? This is more complicated. The film opens with scenes of people leaving, furniture piled on station wagons and other beat-up vehicles but I couldn’t get a sense of why they were going other than it seemed to be something to do with a general concern with rising water. These were the people who were going to retreat behind the levee, a long snaking concrete barrier, with some sort of refinery behind it, practical but also symbolic of people kept out. Those who remain in the bayou, christened the Bathtub, Wink and Hushpuppy among them, form a close-knit community. Miss Bathsheba attempts to educate the children to fit them for survival in a world that is becoming increasingly threatening and difficult to understand. The adult survive by hunting, fishing, drinking and convincing themselves that come what may they will survive. One might think of them as a ship of fools, beached for now, or looking for a different form of allegory, one might turn to Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’, with its flight from reality which even so contains the seeds of destruction, but neither really fits here.

These people are presented to the observer as drunk and deluded, familiar caricatures of southern country folk, unable to live more than a day at a time. One starts to wonder who or what exactly the “Beasts” of the Southern Wild might be. Equally, one might look at them and see people who know precisely how to survive within the environment in which they’re living, while trying hard to avoid romanticising their situation as living close to nature. But how does Hushpuppy see them? These are the people she’s known all her life. They are as much as anything family to her. She presumably would not see the stereotypical moonshine-drinking country people with which the audience is presented, though we are of course also invited to find them familiar and comforting, what we expect the denizens of the bayous to be. Even their tenderness towards Hushpuppy can then be used to show that they are the salt of the earth. And they are also magical – there is one moment when Wink tells the story of, as he puts it, Hushpuppy’s conception, how he and her mother met and fell in love, how she was so elemental she could walk into the kitchen and the pots would boil without her having to light the hob. It’s wonderfully done and yet there is also that uneasy moment of feeling we’re in some sort of magical realist territory. like water for gumbo. We see the man Wink might have been if things had gone differently, but we also see a life unreasonably idealised.

Hushpuppy’s self-sufficiency is shown when her father inexplicably disappears – for how long we don’t know but we see Hushpuppy making shift for herself in a kind of timeless present – it could be days, it could be hours – until her father suddenly reappears. For the audience, it’s obvious he’s been in hospital – he’s still wearing his hospital gown – but this is something foreign to Hushpuppy. When he refuses to explain what’s going on she appears to wilfully set the caravan on fire before she runs away from him then turns and lands a heavy blow on his chest. As Wink collapses, the film links this to the sudden collapse of an ice shelf in the Arctic, which Hushpuppy seems also to hear. And of course, the storm is coming. I can see a case for Hushpuppy linking the storm and her father’s sudden collapse but the link to the collapsing ice shelf and the coming of the aurochs eludes me, and this again feels like the film-makers forcing the connection, laying down an extra cosmic environmental connection.

Some flee the storm, while others, including Wink’s friends, stay behind. It is obvious that we are to make the connection with Hurricane Katrina and yet I do so with misgivings for this is a sanitised portrayal of the aftermath of a hurricane. In a time of almost instantaneous relay of news and citizen journalism, we know what the aftermath of a hurricane looks like, and we know in intimate detail what the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in particular looked like. Yet, in the bayou, while there was a storm surge and everything is under water, there is barely a dead body, human or animal, in sight. A horse is stranded on an island here, a few chickens are rescued there, and then later a small group of girls huddled together in a shack, but for the most part the devastation consists of the picturesquely elegant subsidence of the waterside shacks. Wink’s boon companions have survived, every one, having spent the storm drunk in the bar, inevitably.

The reunion, though, is touching as is the feasting, the moment of everyone drawn together round the table as the bounty of the bayou is emptied onto the table. And then, in the subsequent days, the adults and children gather together to build a fantastic ark, part house, part greenhouse, a small floating paradise. But the bayou has been poisoned with salt water and to the community the only way to deal with this is to blow the levee and drain the water out. The authorities are finally alerted to the presence of the group and they are forcibly evacuated to some sort of refugee camp, for their own good. This presumably is the nod to the presence of FEMA in Louisiana, with ‘Brownie’ doing ‘a heck of a job’. Looking at the people confined there, we’re invited to see them as animals in cages, out of their natural environment. Miss Bathsheba has already commented that they can’t survive away from the bayou, and there is a truth in this, one might argue, insofar as they follow a very specific way of life, but given its current state, can they now survive there? Yet what is the alternative? Surrender control to people who presume to know what is best for them and die slowly of boredom and inactivity in a sterile environment. To see Hushpuppy gussied up in a smock dress with Peter Pan collar and her hair neatly combed and arranged is to see a child who is almost a parody of herself, the cute little African-American doll that white people could just eat she’s so lovely. But she’s not Hushpuppy.

There is, then a moment of relief as the group makes its break for freedom, stealing a bus, taking Wink with them when he resists, insisting that he cannot be a burden to Hushpuppy if she is to survive. It is of course heartwarming for the viewer to see the group apparently muddling through to the right decision – we’re invited to see their flight as chaos and comedy but I think it is as valid to read it as a desperate action to reclaim agency and control over their lives while they still can, though even then one can also feel the film-makers approving of this alternative reading.

Which brings us finally to the most overtly mythic portion of the film. As Wink lies dying in a wrecked shack, surrounded by his friends, in some sort of bayou pieta, Hushpuppy and the trio of young girls she rescued (and we must note a distinct lack of young boys in this brave new post-flooding world, another issue that is neatly stepped around) set out to swim to the light that they see flashing across the water, oddly reminiscent of the flashing light on Gatsby’s dock. Hushpuppy is, for some unclear reason, convinced her mother is there. We have no idea why the girls go with her though they seem transformed into water nymphs. They are picked up en route by a pontoon ferry boat that suddenly appears out of nowhere and the captain delivers them to the flashing light, which turns out to be a floating bar, the Elysian Fields. This is so far beyond Hushpuppy’s experience the joke is clearly for the watcher; we must accept that this is something external to her viewpoint yet it is so deeply implausible. Here the exhausted girls dance with the women, rocking against them, cuddled, cherished, while Hushpuppy finds herself in the kitchen with a woman whom she fervently believes is her mother yet who seems not to recognise her. Again, we are in the magical realist kitchen as the woman expertly fillets an alligator tail and turns it into fried morsels which Hushpuppy will take away with her.

It’s on the return journey that Hushpuppy and the aurochs finally encounter one another, as they pursue her and her friends across the marshes, back to the shack. We’ve already seen that the aurochs seem to have a sense of community, an awareness of one another’s needs, through a scene where one seems to fall and is helped back to its feet by the rest of the group. Now, as they approach the shack it is as if two communities, both struggling to survive,  meet face to face. And here it seems clear that for the moment the aurochs are ‘real’ in that those taking shelter in the shack can see them. Hushpuppy faces down the leader of the aurochs and we must assume they recognise a kindred spirit when they kneel to her before turning away.

What to make of this sequence? Honestly, I have no idea. Are these Hushpuppy’s fears made flesh in the shape of mysterious creature from the past? Or the fears of her father and his friends for her continued survival? Or are they simply aurochs? I have no idea. It’s a hugely powerful moment in the film and yet there seems to be nothing to be reached in terms of any understanding. Or maybe we are supposed to be simply overwhelmed by the fact of the aurochs, representing raw nature. Really, I have no idea.

Wink dies, as of course he must, it having been heavily foreshadowed all through the film, although for one brief moment I did wonder if the piece of fried alligator, cooked by his former wife, that he eats for Hushpuppy’s sake would be endowed with magical properties. Mercifully for the film, it was not. Wink’s body is sent off in his burning boat by Hushpuppy, as per his request, and for all the world like a Viking funeral, and we are left with … well, with what.

The film’s final shots show a small group of adults and children, Hushpuppy among them, setting out on foot, banners flying, to cross a causeway over which the water is already slopping. We have no idea where they are going, other than into the formless, shapeless allegorical future of the film. It is, as I said at the time, life-affirming, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is intended as such, but with distance I find myself wondering what sort of positive affirmation I can and should take from this film. The indomitability of the human spirit? Yes, of course, but there can be as much of an agenda in pushing this idea as in undermining it.

If we choose to read this as a Hurricane Katrina film, one might as easily read guilt for what was not done as affirmation of what was done. And, as bell hooks points out in an interesting article on the film, ‘No Love in the Wild’ the mythic is slippery. Quoting Maurice Berger, she notes that “Myths provide the elegant deceptions that reinforce our unconscious prejudices. Myths are the white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not,” before going on to observe herself that “Deploying myth and fantasy we are shown a world in Beasts of the Southern Wildwhere black and white poor folks live together in utopian harmony. No race talk, no racial discourse disturbs the peace.” By the same token, I see a form of desperate tough love, hooks sees one more film portrayal of the black man as brutalising force – can I justify my reading? Well, I might, but I’m honestly not sure I should. (The film’s entry on Wikipedia provides a decent summary of the film’s critical reception, for and against.

And this, I suppose, is what I now take away from the film, that the themes, images and ideas contained in it are slippery, much more slippery than the film-makers apparently realise, or at any rate than they are going to let on. It is ok on one level to simply watch the film and let the gorgeousness of the imagery wash over one (and I can’t deny that I tend to uncritically watch film as spectacle in a way I would never read a book) but to accept this film at face value is to buy into a number of very problematic ideas.

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