Most of us who watch a lot of movies share a fascination with human nature. I could say I’m a movie lover or that I am in the midst of a lifetime research project, either would be accurate. I’m particularly interested in examples of heroism such as the kind exhibited in our movie this month.
Just like every art form before it, movies will pass out of fashion some day. This may come to pass far in the future, or maybe way sooner. The mode in which they are told will continue to evolve, but stories and storytelling will never die.
A story is a product of our necessity to ruminate with language. It is the tongue of the soul. Stories began sophisticating our human brains long before they could be applied to any commercial pursuit or conscious artistic statement. Stories are a shared context inherent in everything we do. As storytellers humans themselves are the living record.
Motion pictures, coupled with the digital domain, are morphing into something more that we can’t yet fathom. Even as we speak, something more wondrous than cinema is being born in a way similar to how painting and music delivered us to the doorstep of motion pictures, but let us not forget that humans are the repository of these stories.
Neither the libraries, nor universities, not Netflix, Amazon or any religious institutions, nor even the gathering clouds of digital domination will ever have a corner on the market of story. We are supplying the stories to them. Nevertheless, while new mediums of storytelling are always being born, in our day and age, the common tongue is still spoken most eloquently with cinema.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), directed by Josh Zeitlen, has already garnered the film world’s most prestigious awards. It achieves awe-inspiring performances, gritty splendor and universal relevance with amateur actors, a miniscule budget, and a script adapted from a one-act play.
The most universal stories are also the simplest and this is the great achievement of “Beasts.” With stubborn, giddy pride and self-reliance, a motherless child and her undomesticated father obtain material sufficiency, one day at a time.
None of the three antagonists in this story are human. The foremost is Nature, with whom the characters collaborate for survival. The next most formidable threat is everything beyond the levee–our world in other words–regarded as a kind of modern Mordor by those gentle folk.
The opening shot elegantly represents the entire microcosm of the pre-adolescent protagonist’s ordeal as she coddles a little bird in one hand while fashioning a pillar of mud for the creature to stand on by itself. This procedure comes across as both child’s play and a demonstration of maternal instinct. If the bird represents the little girl, then the little girl represents a benevolent influence providing refuge in a dangerous world.
Who is the protector, while her six-year-old figure wanders half-naked through a shabby, littered landscape, interacting familiarly with a turtle, chicken and hog? When she confides how little she understands them, the filmmaker is inviting us to discover how inadequately we comprehend his subject and the squalid environment she calls home. A visual clue is inserted in the introductory shots to listen for the heartbeat, the mystery that unites the greater universe.
Her immediate universe is revealed to us as a rag-tag regiment of raunchy revelers on Fat Tuesday. They savor their seclusion and simplicity relying on meager livestock, abundant booze, and semi-regular boons of gulf shellfish for subsistence. In that universe life is a party and the party goes on pretty much uninterrupted on top of whatever calamity happens to befall them.
With the glow of moonshine and fireworks on their faces, an assortment of sodden misfits, young and old, parade, royalty-like, down the same single track that most of them will jamb in order to escape nature’s wrath the next day. Among them are fishermen, freeloaders, saloon owners and a witch/teacher that warns her of global warming and the cowardliness of “pussies.”
The imagination of our child hero concocts an apocalyptic myth, woven through her voice-over, about how she prepares for the return of prehistoric predators unlocked from the melting ice-caps. The quest for her present day mother is contrasted with this and her future, destined with the fate of mother earth, to be drowned by the flood. It’s either that or be domesticated and formally introduced into institutionalized poverty.
Most of humankind huddles closely together over the dividing line between poverty and self-sufficiency and Josh Zeitlen’s lens stands squarely over that fulcrum in “Beasts.”
“When you get sick over there,” she says, “they plug you into the wall.” Is this meant to epitomize the sacrifice of the “wild” who become domesticated? The country they are talking about is our country. We must be the “pussies,” they keep referring to.
Like any animal in her jungle, the turns of events in the life of this little girl are fateful and decisive from the beginning. In an early scene her daddy collapses from a mere thump of her fist. Shocked and bewildered, she skedaddles to the witch,” I think I broke something.” When the flood does come, engulfing everything, she faces fear valiantly, while her juiced-up father calls out the rain groping with shotgun blasts for the jugular of the hurricane.
In nature, there are always casualties. This film is an ode to the offspring that survives. “For all the animals that got caught in the flood, the end of the world has already happened.” The little moppet grows philosophical under pressure, with wisdom well above her years, yet never do any of her quips seem fake spilling from her lips. “They’re all down at the bottom now trying to breath through water.”
This film speaks so elegantly in the common tongue to anyone that feels the constant dread of impending disaster hanging over their head. It articulates the pressures of living on the shifting sands of modern existence and it indicts preceding generations for inadequately providing for and preparing us to meet the future.
Therein lies the real antagonist in this rural chamber piece and how you would identify it depends on your social orientation. It’s been called poverty, ignorance, the ravages of alcohol, the existential crisis of being human. I grant it a distinct regard from the previously described beasts because, while we can not tame the monstrous destructiveness of Nature, or reverse the damage our bad upbringing has had on the modern world, we can, and this diminutive heroine does, confront the adversary at her core and does so in a way that is an example to us all.