That I would see "Beasts" (as everyone buying tickets called it) was not at all certain. The trailer had induced an exasperated groan. A child's voice said "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If just one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted." At the words "get busted", it cuts to a shot of antarctic ice crashing into the ocean. Oh lord. Ecological fallacies for environmentalist campaigns are all well and good, but as a master narrative veiled as a child's wisdom, it grossed me out. Here was one more to add to my list of movies not to see, which has been growing unmanageably large lately.
But there I was in front of the Varsity (the sense of this name eludes me), looking at showing times. I had just sat in the cafe above Bloomsbury (a far less opaque name for a bookshop), poking laconically at my keyboard at about one sentence every five minutes. Two cups of coffee, somehow, had given me ennui rather than the characteristic ballooning of the ego. I kept blaming various things. It was one of those days. The coffee was bad. The thick smoke that turned the light yellow and the mountains charred and hazy made me tired. (That which claims things as parts of an identity protested with desperate confusion: but I like smoky days!) None of this changed the fact that I was undead, standing there in front of the theater. I saw that "Beasts" began in ten minutes. I looked at the other films. "Hope Springs", solely on the basis of its title--ew. "Moonrise Kingdom", STILL PLAYING--ew. "Savages", I'm not even sure what that is, but I guess Blake Lively's agent has found ways to try to keep her career from dying after the last season of Gossip Girl ends next year, although honestly I think it's the rest of the cast who might need to worry. Something with Jack Black--ew. I had not watched trailers for any of these. At least with "Beasts" I understood what kind of ew I was getting into. What the hell, I thought, I have a regular source of income for the time being, I'll spend $6.50 on ew. Who knows, maybe the trailer's barely obfuscated environmentalist moralizing totally misrepresented the film. Maybe I'd even like it.
There were some things to like. But my urgent need to urinate halfway through sent me to the bathroom, rather than willing myself to stay in my seat for the last 45 minutes. One thing I liked was the epigrammatic speech the fisherwoman cum voodoo practitioner cum mother to lost children gave to her little flock. She slaps a red mess of glistening red crayfish in front of the camera. "Animals are made of meat. You're meat. I'm meat." (She goes on to name a number of familiar farmyard animals.) The film is constantly daring the audience to be comfortable with their own fleshiness. This off-the-grid estuarine community appears to live solely on meat and booze. The ritual back at Hushpuppy's (the child star of the film, who I also liked) home is: Her father slaps a freshly slaughtered chicken on the grill, rings a bell and yells "feed up time!" She rushes off to eat, making her way among a chaos of chickens, goats, and pigs. In her voiceover narration she refers to everyone as an animal, not distinguishing humans. Actually, the voiceover is less narration than a collection of pithy, extremely general teachings, like a tiny, impractical Sun Tzu. She does, however, introduce her community in voiceover, known as The Bathtub. She says of this primitivist wet dream that "Daddy says The Bathtub celebrates more holidays than anywhere else," and we are given a montage of Bathtubians hollering from a parade float that could've been made at Burning Man, swilling booze, playing with fireworks. I was given the impression of people trying very hard to convince themselves they were having a good time, and I was not at all sure this was the intended effect. The music was joyful during these celebrations.
Despite the deliberate gross-out provocations of the camera (look at all this meat), I think The Bathtub is supposed to ultimately look like a noble alternative to late capitalism. This story divides the world in two: the people in the city, and the people in the Bathtub. The plot revolves around the city people constructing a levee that raises the water level and sinks The Bathtub. It is this artifice to which Hushpuppy refers when she says that something busts. (That shot of the ice crumbling gets carted at the same moment in the film as in the trailer, to my disappointment.) The trouble with the philosophy that Hushpuppy develops of a perfect universe that busts is that, honey, the universe is always already busted.
The film points to complications in the future rather than the past. As our drunken Bathtubians try to put the world back to the way it was, everything just keeps going more wrong. They blow a hole in the levee with dynamite, only to find that their home is half dead and muddy after all that time underwater. Then the city people forcibly evacuate them with helicopters to a hospital. The Bathtubians soon escape from this nightmare ward where sick people are "plugged into the wall", in what I guess is supposed to be a triumphant rebellion against a civilizing mission. The busting of their home is mirrored in Hushpuppy's father's health. "My blood," he says, in a rare moment of nondenial, "is eating itself." Which is a poetic way to talk about an autoimmune disorder, but that, ultimately, is what grates: the artifice of these voices posed as authentic alterity. It is the "Forrest Gump" problem: having someone simple speak your half-baked philosophies makes them sound profound.
That, and how distant these characters ultimately are to us. Chances are, the audience lives in the capitalist world this community so vehemently rejects. Like a Jean Jeunet film, we are entrated to love this band of misfits. They're rough, drunk, and scary, and yet they're drowning in cute. The problem is, we may all be animals, but animals have this thing planted in the animal: a mind. This is a film convinced that the solution to the mind-body problem, and to every other binary opposition, is to privilege the other side.
It has come to my attention, via an article in Film Comment that I spotted while waiting for my brother to finish reading Backpacker in the periodical section of the public library, that Benh Zeitlin (the filmmaker, who I'm sure would scrupulously reject this title) may not have fashioned all of the contours of Bathtubian speech in the image of his own romantic vision of how simple folk should live. (Incidentally, there are a number of backpackers about town this weekend. The herd of Pacific Crest Trail hikers, brought on, as my brother deduced, by the recent publication of Wild, are all at this point in their journey. Four of them entered the library in the twenty minutes we spent there. They generally come in what I assume are romantic pairs, with tiny packs carrying virtually nothing. Their food is cached at several points along the trail. I still wonder at the logistics of this, just as the gritty realism of "Beasts" makes me wonder where they get all their booze and breakfast cereal to feed the chickens. Maybe I just can't handle magical realism. In any case, trade does not exist in this film, but its artifacts seem to undergird the Bathtubians' alternative society. This turns their moralizing about The Big Bad City, to my mind, like the whiny urgings of dumpster divers to bring down The System.) In this article, in which he is interviewed in New Orleans, he says he had to "revise toward the people"--that is, revise his script to the actors' lives, mannerisms, etc. (He also says that the film came out of an epiphany he had in Europe that he "didn't want to be an expat", yet he moved to New Orleans. As much as the article declaims Hollywood tendencies to exoticize that city, I think it's safe to say that those "clichés about black magic and magical negroes" are precisely why Zeitlin has planted himself there, and what animates the fantastical in "Beasts".) He likes to think of the process as "organic". He says "I think it was hard for people, people who don’t know this city and this region, to understand how deep the roots go and how impossible it is to transplant what’s here to somewhere else."His film has failed to translate to "people who don't know this city" the deep roots of its characters, instead leaving them, well, floating. The mystery that drew Zeitlin to the Mississippi delta has been preserved, or missed entirely--your pick.
Yes yes, the beasts. There are in fact beasts, which occupy a parallel cinematic universe for most of the film, a bit like the hilariously nonsequitor dinosaurs in "The Tree of Life" (but then in that film, what isn't a nonsequitor). The Aurochs, tattooed on The Bathtub's resident earth mother goddess's arm, are said to eat people. They are, then, the animal that busts our supremacy over the animal world. They also look like pigs. Sort of cute, gentle-eyed pigs, with snuffling snouts. They have big tusks, yes, and they allegedly eat their kin (I know, I'm wading into a big pool of muck by selectively distrusting parts of the fictional world), as well as trample stuff. Anyway, they bow to Hushpuppy at the end. I guess we were expecting them to do something bad, seeing as they were loosed from the ice by the catastrophic storm (Katrina). I think I missed the point. I stopped following the metaphoric register about halfway though.