Once Upon Our Time: Behn Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Nº 3)

Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

This time I got a guest writer to speak of one of the nominees to  best picture, here I present you the great Bob Clark.

By Bob Clark

It’s always surprising to see a film from a first-time filmmaker nominated for one of the big awards when Oscar season rolls around. Usually it’s the veteran writers and directors who find themselves assembled at whatever theater has been gaudily dressed up with giant idols of golden naked men like some art-deco pagan temple. More frequently you may see young (or relatively young) filmmakers nominated on their second or third go, and if they win anything at all it’s liable to be in the screenplay category, very often the Oscar’s equivalent of a consolation prize while some better-known director with a longer career picks up the main trophies.

As such, Behn Zeitlin’s work here as a first-time feature director, adapting a stage-piece by Lucy Alibar and turning it into a one-of-a-kind piece of intensely physical, convincing fantasy filmmaking, stands out all the more and his nomination for directing becomes even more impressive. It also makes the controversy surrounding the movie seem all the more perplexing, and at times even detrimental to the cause of a younger generation of filmmakers just when we need more of them ascending the ranks of the studio system. It’s hard to imagine so much trouble brewing up over so modest a success as this film, a relatively small budgeted feature based on an unheard of theatrical production portraying a free mix of reality and fantasy in the trials and tribulations of a young girl growing up in a dream-vision of the American south in the permanent aftermath of a hurricane and flood, living in a world populated by monsters and operated by rules not far removed from a fairy-tale or government emergency protocols.
Though its usage of symbols from Katrina and other such natural disasters strikes an immediate and obvious chord– perhaps too immediate and obvious especially when paired with the film’s nightmarish take on individualism versus state assistance– there’s a level of genuine magic and wonder present in every frame of this palpably physical vision of destruction that puts it on par with the very best of Spielberg and Terry Gilliam alike for the ways in which it so convincingly builds a world that operates by its own laws and immerses the audience, and for how it elicits such a strong set of performances from its child actors. Thanks to the strength of its young actors, the graceful simplicity of its storyline and the creative heft of its vision, the film by all rights could be mistaken for the same kind of childrens’ film as Wolfgang Peterson’s “The Neverending Story” or Alphonso Curaron’s “The Little Princess”, but by and large it’s the filmmakers’ willingness to tackle more than fairy-tale storytelling and address contemporary, even contentious social issues that helps it turn from a showcase of mere fantasy and into a work of true magical realism, the cinematic equivalent of Marquez at his most imaginative.
When I went to see the film during its initial release in the middle of last year, I was first struck by the immense amount of attention it was receiving from older audiences. There were one or two pairs of parents standing on line who had kids in tow, a not together unusual sight for art-house theaters, but for the most part the crowd the movie had assembled was one of adults, and not just the usual mass of twenty/thirty-somethings that habitually seek out art-films either. Many of the attending filmgoers I found myself surrounded with were well past retirement age, and as such well past the ages that receive most of the attention in the film’s running time. And furthermore there was such a crowd, the likes of which I haven’t encountered before in years of seeing movies at small suburban art-houses like this, that it was only by the skin of my teeth that I was able to purchase a ticket and cram myself into the theater, right up by the front of the screen, the lines and seats so teeming with patrons that you’d think the screen would be filled to fire-department regulation capacity.
What was it about this film that by its very reputation it was able to draw crowds large enough to sell-out at a theater which would ordinarily be lucky to fill half its seats at a time? Is it the simple power of the innocent characters up against reality’s intimidations as seen through the palpable veneer of the American dream? Is it the dense, immediate imagery of the piece, the kind that encourages you to get up as close to the screen as you can and reach out to feel it with your bare hands? Perhaps it’s that mesh of the real and the unreal, and furthermore the crossed barriers and comfort zones when dealing with dreams so intimately based upon reality, that kindles this kind of curiosity and stokes the fire of imagination. In a decade that has seen an increasing frequency of massive disasters stemming from unpredictable weather patterns and geological events all over the world, there’s something inspiring to see a vision of childlike resilience to the elements on the face of ordinary individuals contrasted against bureaucratic incompetence and oppressive impersonality, even if those qualities aren’t exactly the most pragmatic of virtues when countering real-world disasters. But even now, years after Katrina and Fukishima and months after Sandy with government and corporate efforts to repair affected communities coming up short to say the least, I don’t think there’s any question whether or not this film will speak to future generations of children and adults growing up in the midst of a truly monstrous global climate– conservatively, it will speak volumes.
This is Jaime  again, on my behalf, I think the movie is ok, good in some parts, but mainly  meh in others, that’s why I just give it…

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