' ' Cinema Romantico: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

It happened again recently. I was asked why I love Lady Gaga. And whenever someone asks me that I direct them to a quote from my idol, Bruce Springsteen, in discussing his album "Born To Run." He says: “I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat. To insist that you pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive.” The best songs of Lady Gaga sound, to me, enormous. They grab me by my throat. They insist that I pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive. It’s a very raw, lucid and almost indescribable sensation but whenever, say, the chorus for Gaga’s "Marry the Night" kicks in, I feel. Feel what? Anything. Everything. I just……feel. It’s fantastic. It gives me chills. That’s all I can think to say.

I apologize for bringing this all down to Her Gaganess (as I am so wont to do to the chagrin of so many) but I have wrestled with attempting to encapsulate my experience of seeing "Beasts of the Southern Wild", the Sundance sensation, for the past two weeks and this is truly the best way I can hope to express it. Benh Zeitlin’s fast-moving film may have been shot on a shoestring budget in a lo-fi manner with a fidgety camera but it felt, to me, enormous. It grabbed me by the throat. It insisted that I pay attention – not just to the movie, but to life, to being alive. It is a sensory explosion, a movie less concerned with a cohesive narrative and a delicate meshing of its overflowing themes than with taking you on a ride of thunderous feeling and with making us see "everything that made (us) flying around in invisible pieces."

Our heroine is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). She’s six. What were you doing at six? Riding your bike around the neighborhood? Catching lightning bugs? Hushpuppy braves biblical floods, dynamites dams and stares down aurochs. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hushpuppy lives with her dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), a drinker who's mostly a Bad Dad with desperate intentions to be a Good Dad, in a place that time forgot, referred to only as The Bathtub. It is barely there, a blip - houses are barely even houses and, yet, they are undeniably still homes. It is meant to evoke a post-Katrina world, no doubt, because early on "a storm" is pronounced as being on its way. We learn of this storm not from weathermen chattering on the TV but from locals telling other locals. "Aren't you getting out?" asks one to an older man laying out in the open. The man merely takes an umbrella and opens it - as if to say, bring it on.

"They think we're all gonna drown here," Hushpuppy says in one of her many poetically defiant voiceovers. "But we ain't going nowhere." Well, they will go somewhere when the storm arrives and the flood hits - aboard a rudimentary floatilla, like an indie "Waterworld" crossed with a much more motley Walton Family - but they will still be together. Community. The importance of community. Again and again this addressed. A place can be destroyed, but a place is only as strong as its inhabitants.

When those inhabitants are incarcerated - in their own minds - in a skewered, sterlized version of Oz, they break out and launch the film headlong from its heightened realism to a more magic realism with Hushpuppy re-imagining Dorothy Gale as a hardened troop leader taking her charges on a journey to Elysian and beyond. Her performance, which remains grounded even in the face of beastly mysticism, is so pure I almost wish it would not be viewed in terms of nominations and awards.

The film's most effective visual motif is Hushpuppy leaning in close to the heartbeats of both humans and animals alike and as that reassuring "thump-thump-thump" sound dots the soundtrack we realize that "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a heartbeat - a heartbeat for celluloid. It never purports to know the meaning of life.

It's life itself.

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