By: Daniel Reynolds
“Naturally, there is risk involved, one that I wouldn’t avoid. I see only a few people who take risks in order to change this misery—the misery of having no images left, none that are adequate. We desperately need images, those images that are relevant and adequate to our level of civilization—ones that correspond to those deep inside ourselves.” – Werner Herzog
In the days of big budgets and computer generated images, Werner Herzog is a prophet. As a man who has spent a lifetime chasing images, Herzog sees only emptiness; something absent from our relationship with the most dominant art form of the past one hundred years. While I don’t entirely subscribe to his sometimes doom-saying ways, I do believe that the power of the image has been weakened and undermined. And while there are a few like Herzog (or Noe, or Malick, or even Aronofsky) still making films that reach beyond what we know, grappling with the very context of our relationship to the universe, well, it is always satisfying to add a new piece to that bold and wild and sometimes sloppy pantheon: Beasts of the Southern Wild.
By now some of you have heard the buzz about this movie. It won awards at both Cannes and Sundance, was a big hit on the festival circuit and is now gradually rolling out to a wider release. It is the work of a first time director, Benh Zeitlin (who also co-wrote the script), using non-professional actors, and shot on location in Louisiana. However, it’s the kind of film that seems to generate a certain kind of eye-rolling cynicism, as when Slate commented on its “anthropological voyeurism”. It is true that the drama of the plot is sometimes scattered, lost at times in the feverish visions of its own remarkably rundown setting. But such compelling visions indeed!
The world of the film is quickly established as both something new and painfully familiar. There are people living in the margins of society on the wetlands (the wrong side of a levee), basking in a life unfettered and free. Our hero is Hushpuppy, a girl played by ferocious newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis. She is tended to by her father, Wink, a man troubled by his health and existence. He is not the father figure we are used to; neither a goodly saint nor a callous oaf. The audience learns of the past, of great beasts of a different time, an ice age, a brewing storm. And off in the distance, the mechanized world of dry land can be seen. Zeitlin’s work with all of this is astonishing as he crafts a convincing world of imaginative fantasy without having to rely on ornate special effects. The production design and surging musical score (which he partly composed) also complement these perfect notes of ruin and awe.
The storm arrives and, of course, it cannot be helped but to recall Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It is here where the movie’s design gets the most sticky with a certain romanticism of the rustic way of life, this celebration of a dignity in poverty that perhaps rubs people the wrong way.
The politics of the film, however, become unimportant as the audience gets swept up by the stirring visuals of a fantastic and terrifying land. The story resonates not because of the Katrina callbacks but because of the elemental human struggle at its core: father and daughter. We hear Hushpuppy in voice over (a very Malick-ian touch), explaining poetically her understanding of the world, her relationships with her family and others, and the connections between all living things. Is this too much? Does Zeitlin reach too far?
I think what Herzog was talking about was the quest, the desire, to dream of those big ideas. A film like this, for all its rough edges and perhaps troubling, simplistic politics, eventually coheres into something far greater. It is not concerned with the poor or the rich, the black or the white, but rather, humanity and nature and, really, the universe. Making a movie that strives for that level of contemplation and reflection, that can address that notion while still connecting to a human heart beat, is something to celebrate. I realize how this sounds. I mean, we are just talking about a movie here, right?
But then, those images; people drifting along a river on a pickup truck boat, celebrating on the shores of a place both familiar and foreign, lost in a confrontation with monsters of the past and future. Is it real or magic? Do we trust our eyes or just smile and feel the beating of our hearts? Perhaps, like Hushpuppy, we should just absorb and enjoy the documenting of these lives, all of us staring out from a giant bathtub, connected, as we float out on the sea.