Jul 16, 2012

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Watching the preview of this overblown, pointless mythical fantasy, I knew it was not the movie for me, but I was curious to see what the fuss of this much awarded movie was all about. I found it grandiose, illogical, undisciplined, pretentious and borderline offensive.
This much I know: it has to do with polar ice caps melting and flooding the shores of Louisiana via Katrina. It portrays the life of dirt poor (and dirty) inhabitants of a bayou called The Bathtub. It is narrated by a young Black girl called Hushpuppy who, in the first false note of many, talks in voiceover narration like what I imagine young Kierkegaard sounded at his most articulate, around the age of 18. She speaks in "poetry" about the universe and how we are all in this together. She lives with an alcoholic monster of a father who neglects her, but is supposedly trying to teach her to fend for herself. Though Quvenzhané Wallis, the fierce little actress who plays Hushpuppy is the best thing in the movie, she is almost drowned out by the surrounding debris. Her father is revolting. So is pretty much everyone else. These people, black and white, live in utter filth. I don't know if this is the director's idea of poverty, or he thinks he is channeling Beckett, and their unsanitary conditions are a metaphor for something, but if you can't tell, and it distracts you, it's a problem. The tone of this movie is gross and pretentious at the same time. It is a stomach turning mix of clashing tonalities: a deliberately uncouth aesthetic badly blended with poetic effects that never mesh together logically or symbolically.
I have a severe loathing for moneyed, liberal arts educated people who put it upon themselves to fantasize in lieu of the poor by putting their well-meaning, self-absorbed fantasies in the mouths of the poor. How dare they? How can they possibly pretend that they know what the poor dream of? I bet it's not about giant boars and the universe and the planet, and how we are all interconnected. I bet that given a chance, these benighted souls would be happy to decamp at least for a few hours for a warm shower at the nearest Holiday Inn, but in director's Benh Zeitlin's imagination, they are supposed to be heroes for sticking to their mud and behaving in the most self-destructive and irrational of manners. I know that many people refused to leave as Katrina hit, so this is not my beef. It's the way they are portrayed, like pack animals, that I find appalling. This is idealization of poverty by degradation.
The characters are stick figures of abject poverty, and black and white get along like a house on fire (really? in Lousiana?), while they are all in the service of a bombastic allegory about what we are doing to our planet that would be better served by a National Geographic Special. The poetry, with magical realist touches, entails a jerky hand held camera that seems to have delirium tremens, and glimpses of roaming giant wild boar (I guess the beasts of the title) which represent the uncontrollable power of nature.
I am not squeamish, but this movie left a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I sensed a terrifying lack of genuineness and of real humanity. I sensed the revolting pieties of politically correct preoccupations disguised as a fabricated myth, which can never ever in a million years amount to art.
Plus, a ton of other precious bullshit and zero irony.
You know you are in immature, mental masturbation territory when a sequence at the opening of the movie is almost identical to one of those insufferable Levi's "Go Forth" commercials. Tired magic realism clichés abound. One of the neighbors, a kindly black gentleman (of course), wears a bowler hat at all times. Some little girls swim (for no reason I could understand) towards a vessel that delivers them into a softly lit, Fellinesque (they wish) floating brothel, where they are cuddled by kindly whores in nighties. That's when I threw in the towel.
There were three things I liked: The scary sound of the storm pounding on the shack as Hushpuppy and her father brave the storm; an old guy who, passed out from drink, opens the door the next morning and plunges into the flood, and a magical realist moment when Hushpuppy's father recounts how her mother was so beautiful she made the stove turn on and water boil by spontaneous combustion. The rest was hard going.
There have been great films about poverty: Los Olvidados, The Bicycle Thief, Nights Of Cabiria, and many more (curiously, can't think of any recent ones). There have also been films that exploit the poor to make the not so poor feel smug about their own good intentions (Pixote, Slumdog Millionaire and this one). The difference is that the good ones have flesh and bone and heart and soul characters you can recognize as fellow human beings. None of the people in this movie have anything to do with anyone who is alive in this planet, even if the director fished them out of the bayou one by one; and it is not because they are poor and barely literate, but because they have no reason to exist other than to serve his pretentious manifesto.
A very interesting antidote movie to this one, which touches upon similar themes of man and nature,  but with grace and beauty is the Mexican film Alamar. It's worth comparing the two. Alamar will feel like a cleansing after this grotesque film.


  1. I just saw the trailer and found myself immediately turned off by little Hushpuppy using the word "universe".
    As if she were a young Maya Angelou, good grief, how precious and disgusting.
    What a great review, and what I would be saying had I been the one who braved this bunk.

  2. I found this review by Googling® "pixote Beasts of the Southern Wild" since I too saw a similarity. I walked out on Pixote, which Pauline Kael called "shockingly lyrical". A friends daughters were involved in the making of BotSW, so I was stuck there. Much like the art photos of abandoned Detroit, this fetishization of ugliness and ruin strikes me as pretentious. Still, the "hows" of making this movie intrigue me, from the set decoration to the floating truck bed.

  3. Man, it's such a relief to see that I'm not alone in finding this movie such a masturbatory session of non human whatever.
    This film feels like a largened short.
    It has good moments in the beggining and in the end.
    The middle is a torture session of pretty images and bad writing, the guy earning the fame for this should be the editor. I can't imagine how difficult it was to put togheter this load of pseudo deepness.

  4. thanks for your review...just got back from the film after having read great review in the New Yorker....what drug was the reviewer on? I was disappointed from the very beginning. And jesus, get a steadycam.

  5. It is interesting that the commentary I have seen from Louisianans from the bayeau where this movie was filmed thought it communicated life there wonderfully, but you who clearly are not from that area of the country thought it was a masturbatory caricature.

    Perhaps you should research the folks involved with the film both in front of and behind the camera.

    I just came back from this film and aside from the fantasy pigs, which were a bit overwrought, this film was brilliant. Poverty is not pretty, and while you can't imagine this being anything more then a fantasy world, I assure you there are people all over the world living like this.

    Do some research and then watch the film again. Your simplistic analysis of the themes, setting and story does the film and yourself a disservice.

    -Gil Batzri

  6. I agree. I just only today saw this and I left after one hour. It was depressing. I came home and read other reader reviews about the movie from the NYTimes movie review and there were several people there who also did not like this movie who also got a lot of "agree with" votes because they were really put off by this movie. The critics are not always right about what makes a "good" movie. They were definitely wrong about this one.

  7. Spot on review. For some reason I thought it would be moving and thought-provoking but it was just a smelly pile of pretentious bullshit. Utterly false and up it's own butt, it left an awful taste in my mouth. I got a similar feeling from seeing a grant subsidized dance troupe comprised of mid-atlantic accented Juilliard graduates perform a "work" about the ills of American society. After dancing through the gorgeous rooms of the Park Avenue Armory in NYC with four state of the art digital cameras recording them and allowing naked, French performance artists to bitch about the hypocrisy of post 9-11 America (as if we were unaware of it), they invited a homeless woman who lived on the streets outside the grand edifice to participate in the grand finale. They danced her around as "Total Eclipse of the Heart" blasted from the P.A. and they all took turns wearing a blonde wig and singing into the cameras. She seemed mortified. At least she got some new clothes and a bath out of the deal.