Naked and spectacular

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

The world has been blessed with the spectacular new film Beasts of the Southern Wild by director Benh Zeitlin.  Never have I seen a film that so beautifully and intensely celebrates life, the unavoidable interconnectedness and similitude of all life and the strangeness of our time, its filth and its beauty.

Civilisation itself is confronted with its own perversity and the irresistible brilliance of the film and its six-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy, challenges the fact that the film is likely to be shown within the same civilisation.  There is no hint of morality or sentimentality, no tenderness around the characters being abducted from their homes and taken to the "Open Arms" shelter or their excessive consumption of alcohol.  There is no such thing as hygiene, dry housing, plastic wrapping or products to be purchased; only that which is sacred is held onto, the vitality and joy of life, the love and community of every form of life.  What is not valued is that which reduces life; sterility, authority, levees, weakness, and these unnecessary elements are avoided without moral questioning.

What are we to think, the audience for this film?  The best of us sit down for a meal together around a table with plates and cutlery eating cuisine with manners; the rest of us perhaps sit on the couch in front of the television eating precooked meals defrosted in the microwave.  In the film the characters pour living seafood onto the table and when a man tries to teach Hushpuppy how to crack open a crab with a knife he is shouted down with chants to the girl, "BEAST IT!  BEAST IT!" and she cracks the shell with her bare hands and sucks out the raw flesh and climbs onto the table in her gumboots and shrieks.

Who are the beasts and who are the domesticated?  What do these children really deserve?  To stay in their home while it drastically changes around them living a full life of chaos and joy and difficulty?  Or do they deserve to be protected from life, sanitised, educated, patronised?  Do our children deserve to live in harmony with their environment, understanding their place in their community, feeling a strong and conscious understanding of the natural world of which they are involved or do they deserve to be locked in houses with airconditioning and soap and shuttled to schools and prescribed activities?  They questions are not addressed by the film, their absence is much louder than their presence ever could be.  What is presented is merely a story of a small girl learning to grow strong while her father dies.  She grew up with none of this civilisation and she is given no reason to choose it, even when those who think that every child deserves to have it forced upon them intervene briefly and ineffectively.

What is undeniable is the intensity possible in life, no matter what the situation; what is undeniable is our severe lack in this department, as we sit in together in a beautiful theatre seeing this life-affirming film, in rows, in clothes and shoes, feeling a swelling of emotion inside our bodies as the music grows loud and the title appears huge on the screen, but sitting there quietly, facing forward.  For some people, I suppose, the veil of their culture is to thick to penetrate and they are thus unable to perceive this world in its purity and beauty, seeing only filth, alcoholism and poverty.  I wonder whether they stumbled into the wrong film, whether their inability or unwillingness to submit to the film's rhythm suggests they should have dedicated their time to a very different type of film, one intended to distract rather than challenge, one designed to reinforce cultural assumptions rather than offer alternatives.  Their are at least two distinct types of film being made and distributed, one is promoted by major companies and shown at multiplexes, one is created with passion by independent filmmakers and shown at film festivals.

These two mediums may share a number of techniques and technologies but they are not remotely similar in intent or effect.  One is commonly called propaganda and is designed to manipulate the viewer into a particular type of perception, one that is defined by an authority figure, in this case the capitalists who run major film studios and the things that they value; namely, money.  The other is commonly known as art and historically has always served to challenge culture, to challenge authority, to derange the senses and throw open sanctioned perceptions to allow a flood of new images, from inside and outside the body.  We are constantly bombarded with imagery and language from many different sources and we do not often consider the importance of choosing what we expose ourselves to.  We may choose advertising, a form openly dedicated to the manipulation and perversion of the human animal into facilitating the mechanisms of modern industrial cities, producing and consuming, working, eating and defecating.  We may choose film festivals, where we are offered many realities from many variations on human culture; we may shun even this and prefer the illegal art of graffiti or unscheduled performance.  Either way, we allow ourselves to be created by those who communicate with us or to us or at us.

It seems to me that life itself is satisfactory and nothing needs to be layered upon it to make it right.  Our heroes in this film, these humans, these animals, these beasts, these filthy outlaws, share their lives with us in the unselfconscious form of drama but without the assumptions hidden in television programmes or action movies, their lives are naked, their buildings are falling apart and their home is flooded.  We are not forced to accept their way of life as normal, because who of us civilised filmgoers could accept it.  I hope that we, having exposed ourselves to such a joyous cinematic expression, are confronted with the implicit messages in the propaganda-type media we expose ourselves to; sitcoms and their assumption of domesticity; advertising and its assumption of material consumption; the news and its assumption that the world is a dangerous place.

The truth is best understood without media intervention and is best perceived without the veil of culture.  It is the responsibility of an adult to seek to destroy the imposed layers of culture and civilisation and connect first with art and then, naked and trembling, with the fullness of life itself; chaotic and yet nurturing; problematic and yet worthwhile; full of conflict and love; never able to be contained or controlled successfully or satisfactorily.

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