Friday, June 29, 2012

A Few More Words on My 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Piece

As a fan of Glenn Kenny's for a while, I'm sorry that he despised my piece on Beasts of the Southern Wild, where I detailed my problems with the good but overrated film. (You can read my original Deadspin article here.) As I mentioned earlier today, one of the things I dislike about writing dissenting pieces online is that there's an assumption from the reader that they come from a place of wanting to be a willful contrarian. ("Hey, you know that thing that everybody likes? Well, guess what? I hate it! Ha ha ha ha, you're stupid.") But while there's no way of convincing people otherwise, that wasn't how I approached my Beasts article.

Glenn takes down my argument point-by-point, which I understand since he loves the movie more than I do. But my main objection to his argument is his assumption that my article comes from -- as he puts it -- a taunting "Nyah. Nyah. Nyah." perspective. As Glenn himself acknowledges, he doesn't know my work very well, so I can understand his impulse to project onto my piece all of his negative feelings about younger/web-based critics. (Not that it matters now, but I shared a lot of his views on Dan Kois' "cultural vegetables" piece from last year.) But as a consequence, much of Glenn's criticism of my piece operates from the belief that I'm relishing the opportunity to show off how smart I am by trashing a beloved movie and pouring cold water on the many critics and viewers who have been moved by it. (Why else summarily dismiss the positive things about Beasts that I mention in my article: its boldness, its emotional pull, its beautiful cinematography?)

As far as Glenn's specific points are concerned, I agree that my "authenticity" argument is more about the acclaim around the film than the film itself. But I do think it's a trap we're all susceptible of falling into: We confuse the difficulty in making a low-budget movie with an attribute for why a film is great. Still, Glenn's right that I put that on director Benh Zeitlin rather than on some of the film's admirers, which was a mistake on my part.

Moving on, Glenn was affected by the handheld camerawork more than I was and points out the scene in which Hushpuppy's trailer catches on fire, "which literally had me holding my breath." I think that sequence underlines my problem with the use of handheld in the film. Wink's chase of Hushpuppy after the trailer burns is one of the best moments in the film, and it's strengthened by the handheld camera, which gives it a sense of genuine danger. But because a lot of Beasts is handheld, I think the shock of that moment is diminished because so much of the movie is shot in a similar way. (By comparison, the use of static camera throughout Elena makes the use of shaky handheld near the end of the film all the more upsetting in what it's showing the audience at that moment.) I recognize that that's Zeitlin's choice, but I feel it has a tendency to undermine rather than underline the boldness of his vision.

Glenn also takes me to task because I dislike the filmmaker's somewhat cutesy depiction of his impoverished characters -- presumably because Zeitlin isn't poor or black. "To deny the artist his or her imaginative prerogative on the grounds that the artist is not the thing that he or she is imagining is a form of aesthetic totalitarianism, pure and simple," he writes, "and if that's the way Grierson wants things that's fine but he should at least be honest about it." First of all, I mentioned Zeitlin's race to make clear that that wasn't my issue, unlike Richard Brody who had brought it up. My problem is that I do believe there's a generally unrealistic quality to the portrayal of the film's inhabitants. Of course, you could argue that Beasts as a whole is somewhat magical -- or that it's from Hushpuppy's childlike perspective. But I think that strips away the characters' pain somewhat and creates a protective barrier -- a beautiful artifice -- between their plight and our acknowledgment of it.     

As for Hushpuppy as a character being simplistic, I agree with Glenn that her overriding concern is finding her mother, but that's not nearly as forefront as her general observations/experiences as they pertain to her father, the storm and their survival. She's more our entry point into the story than a fully fleshed-out character, so all we're left to hold onto is her voiceover and her actions, which are mostly reactive. I recognize that Quvenzhane Wallis is young, but so was Victoire Thivisol when she starred in Ponette. I think Thivisol (and the filmmakers) were able to craft a more richly detailed character there than what Beasts achieves with Wallis.

Finally, perhaps I'm bringing my own baggage by drawing parallels between Katrina and the events in Beasts, but doesn't the film's setting (and at least some of its plotting) at least open the door for such speculation? I think it's fair to introduce that as a criticism, which is why I included Zeitlin's comments about the subject.

Before I sign off on this post, there's one last thing I'd like to add for others who have read my piece and found it distasteful. Please let me be clear: I don't think the movie or the filmmaker are "smug." Nor do I think Beasts is "hollow." It's a sincere film down to its bones, and, again, I do think it's a good film. But as I tried to explain in my article, I think the movie's biggest sin is a simplicity/naivety in terms of how it approaches its characters and its milieu, which I think makes it susceptible to indie-film cliches that it can't fully overcome. Because Beasts is being held up as a model of what independent cinema can achieve, I wanted to write about the areas where I think the film falls short. I'm open to criticism concerning where my own piece fell short, but to interpret it as a snotty, hip, snarky, "the thing you love sucks" rant is inaccurate.