Sunday, February 24, 2013

ON MASTERS, MONSTERS, AND EMANCIPATORS (PART THREE)

"The crux of it is this: Children are soul-filled. They are also the most fragile of us, and the most tread-upon. They always, without exception, know more than they are meant to, and, as a result, live mostly in their heads. That we might be emotionally unprepared to meet our childhoods on the big screen is indicative of how vital it is for film to untell its former lie: pantomimed foot-stomping and preternaturally witty banter—childhood without complexity."


That quote comes from an interview with Benh Zeitlin in The Oxford American, where the main character in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, is contrasted to Sherley Temple. The comparison at first seems odd, specially because they are both child stars in very different types of films. Films where Sherley Temple was the star were hardly about childhood, but rather about the entertainment adults felt childhood was in itself, and certainly with films like BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN WILD we do not have a treatment of childhood, of what adults thinks childhood is, but of how a child absorbs the adult world.

Now, most readings of the film have in a way approached the film by separating the child's perspective, central to it, from the actual world depicted, and hence have been forced to say that despite the film's many beauties, it remains an empty romanticizing of an abject life. In this view, what's more, the magic found everywhere is a result of using fantasy as a denial mechanism. The forging of a magical realism on film is but a way to deny entrance to any political or historical readings.This type of reading, where a central point of view can be easily woven out from the existence of the world depicted, is better suited to the films reviewed previously, DJANGO UNCHAINED or LINCOLN. Is it perhaps then that those films and BEASTS are that different in their narrative form?



And yet, that view is partly right, but nonetheless derogatory to a film and point of view that are far from denying a type of real everydayness, but actually find joy in it. Why is it that that kind of reading of a film like BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD cannot work? Mainly because in a film like BEASTS, the world depicted is also its point of view. I think a contrast with another nominated film, where a child is also the center of attention, can help us understand these differences. In LINCOLN, I posited Spielberg is giving us a treatment of history and politics that makes children out of all of us. Now, that does not mean he is giving us a child's perspective on great historical and political forces at work in the recreating of a nation, but rather that he is giving us a simplified, sugar coated version of events that are dissected and robbed out of their conflict. The only thing that saves LINCOLN from feeling like a very expensive television special is the remarkable impersonation of Daniel Day Lewis and performances by Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones (but just when he's debating at Congress). Try as he might, the actor who plays Lincoln can only carry so much conflict in his body, as scars to show the world. The film must pick some of that slack too.

Another quote from the interview in Oxford American:
The OA: Beasts has been feted at Sundance and Cannes (and, recently, Little Rock)—what about Louisiana? Are you nervous about the hometown reception, or have you already seen glimpses of what that might look like? 
BZ: So far, so good. Everybody from Louisiana has a very different take on the film. It’s funny, the further away we get from Louisiana as we travel, the more the film plays as a fantasy movie. When we showed it in Europe, people were talking about it as a fairy tale.
When you get close to where it was shot, people recognize everything. They see that it’s not a document of a place—The Bathtub isn’t a real place or anything like that—but it very much is built from real things. So far, every time we’ve shown it to someone from Louisiana, they respond and recognize it as realism. It’s just being expressed through the eyes of a six-year-old and in a very heightened way. That’s my favorite response to the film, so it’s been great.


What Zeitlin is describing here, and I don't think his idea in making the film was as conscious and clear-headed as he shows here in this description of its reception, is the workings not of fantasy or fairytales, but rather the very makings of myth. The myth from which the film's plot stems is shown to be part of the characters' every day life. They surround themselves with it, either painting a wall of carton or tattooing themselves with it. It is also the reason why the point of view of the central character, a child, is also the very world of the film, its phenomenology. What's more, it is the very reason why even the actual monsters from the film are fleshed out, given an extra, more menacing dimension. The fact that the auroch (the mythical monster in the film) resembles other animals, and is rather a grotesque of things we already know, makes them feel more integrated to the world depicted. It is a deliberate aesthetic choice. 

And yet, seeing BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, after all the wonder, and yes, the magic of the reality depicted wash off of me, I cannot help but wonder, where's the director's, the maker's, idea of the foundation? Where is that ultimate point of view with all its cracks? I don't think it's something that should be found in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, but maybe in another future film by Zeitlin. 

 

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