Monthly Archives: January 2013

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Some Related Films

Posted by Anne Nelson

BotSW 1

Beasts of the Southern Wild has already gathered a good deal of attention: it won awards at Sundance and at Cannes, the reviews have been deliriously positive and although it’s too early to say for sure, it will more than likely take some prizes at the Oscars this year. The performances by newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis (the film’s memorable lead and narrator, Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (who plays Wink, the ailing father of Hushpuppy) have been singled out as spectacular examples of non-actors carrying difficult material with natural conviction. The film is also the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin, who studied under Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer (who has directed uncanny and unforgettable adaptations of Faust, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and one peculiar Czech folktale). Svankmajer seems to have schooled Zeitlin in the ways of making a very lived-in and real-feeling world that is also fundamentally strange and unreal. The island village where Hushpuppy lives is a Neverland cobbled together from a lot of flotsam and one can see some of Svankmajer’s imaginative miniaturism in her rickety house. However, while hard realities of poverty, illness, disaster, and death all loom large in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tone is basically optimistic: Zeitlin does not allow it to take on the sinister air that typifies Svankmajer’s work. Zeitlin’s own cited influences include Svankmajer, of course, but also John Cassavetes (who is also known for working with unschooled actors), and Terrence Malick.  Beasts has drawn a considerable number of comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, whose recent The Tree of Life it most closely resembles. Malick’s small but important body of work is distinctive in its photographic style, his interest in filming the movement of sunlight, the cryptic narration by the lead characters (though Malick’s characters do not narrate for us so much as Malick allows us to eavesdrop on their thoughts). And although the characters may not realize it, the natural world is always intruding on their movies. Malick lets fields and forests and clouds have their own scenes and the impression one generally gets is that the lives of the human characters are all the more fragile, ephemeral, and ultimately unimportant. That’s the distinction between Malick’s first four movies (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) and his fifth, The Tree of Life: Tree of Life suggests that the lives of the human characters have some greater resonance in the universe than his earlier movies would ever allow. In those first four films, the natural world blooms from the edges of frame and promises that it will soon devour every trace of the characters: the lovers, the killers, everyone. Beasts of the Southern Wild looks and sounds a lot like Malick, but Hushpuppy is ultimately too indomitable for any early Malick picture. The extinct (then extant) aurochs seem, like the rain in Thin Red Line or the locusts in Days of Heaven, to be the natural world closing in and preparing to absorb and forget Hushpuppy. Until she meets them and looks them in the eye. Hushpuppy is the beginning and end of her own movie and displays a tremendous interest in being remembered. The scene in which she writes her life story for scientists of the future is loony enough for a Malick movie, but in a Malick movie, Hushpuppy would have paid for her arrogance in the end. In Zeitlin’s hands, she’s nervy, but she’s probably right about being eternal, and this is an angle that Malick has only started to explore in his latest work. BotSW 2Zeitlin isn’t the first filmmaker to riff on Malick in a debut film–David Gordon Green comes to mind–but his movie is very interesting in that for many critics, the character of wise-child Hushpuppy has already insinuated herself in among the ranks of Huckleberry Finn and Scout Finch. Whether this excitement for the character will wear off is hard to say, but at the moment, she is enjoying good company among the immortal ranks of our canon’s most beloved figures. If the buzz is right, and Hushpuppy proves to be a character for the ages, then Zeitlin has pulled off something very special indeed.

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On a personal note, I became familiar with the work of all of these filmmakers through our collections here at Crandall Library, although some titles were available only on VHS and have since been withdrawn from our catalog. Beasts of the Southern Wild has been selected for screening at our Film Festival, which is where I first viewed Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life, and where I first saw David Gordon Green’s superb second film, Undertow. Additionally, the Library subscribes to several film journals that review both popular and obscure titles. These periodicals have, over many years, introduced me to movies that I now consider great favorites, but which I might never otherwise have known about. Were it not for our library’s extensive collection of films, all the titles mentioned in this post would have been unavailable to me.

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Boomerang

boomerang pop art coverBoomerang was good.   It was can’t put it down, just one more chapter, up most of the night and real tired the next day good. Mr. Lewis has crafted a snide financial expose of near Biblical drama, which speaks of a penurious pox on the people of the present, and riffs on an old school adage, which holds that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

The work pushed my buttons, caused fits of laughter, and even elicited a few embarrassing  snorts and snickers.  How had a few good old boys, never meaning no harm, wreaked so much havoc on the general populace?  And how about the heavy-duty quote attributed to esteemed Greek orator Isocrates:

“Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.” 

Politics, economics, human nature, and a cool cameo by the Guvernator.  I knew he’d be back!  It was almost too much.  The work seemed destined to generate a memorable conversation, and I was not disappointed.  As it turns out, any number of terms might be used to describe the Monday Evening Book Group’s January 14, 2013 discussion of Boomerang.  I assure you, however, that sub-prime is not one of them.  Interest was high, and the discussion paid delightful dividends.  But it wasn’t just about the Benjamins.  It never is with this group.

The conversation pulsed with passion, but was tempered by politeness, and ranged from America to the zeitgeist.  Perhaps it was the new members.  Maybe it was the unheard of but absolutely refreshing gender parity.  Whatever the cause, it was one for the ages.  Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?  Conversational highlights include:

  • The Psychology of Entitlement
  • Ronald Reagan: Demon or Demi-God
  • Competition, Character, Culture, and Capitalism
  • Political Correctness and Prose
  • Suitable Sources for the Social Contract
  • Finance and the Fair Sex
  • Labels and Divide and Conquer

Linkage

Home Page: Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis at Vanity Fair

Michael Lewis at Big Think

NY Times Review

Movie Watch

The Queen of Versailles

I checked this out at the urging of staff cinephile Anne Nelson, and it offers a most unique take on the financial crisis.  What a hoot!  Amazon pegs this one perfectly:

“The Queen of Versailles is a character-driven documentary about a billionaire family and their financial challenges in the wake of the economic crisis. With epic proportions of Shakespearean tragedy, the film follows two unique characters, whose rags-to-riches success stories reveal the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.”

Final Words…

I can’t wait to chat with you on February 11, 2013, when we are slated to explore Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game.  I spend an enormous amount of time evaluating works before deciding that they are suitable for discussion.  One of the tools that I use is the “wisdom of the crowd” bar chart at Amazon, and this one sports some seriously sexy data.  For real, look at what the crowd says about Ender’s Game!

ender's game amazon stats 4

Did I mention that Annette “Pedagog” Newcomb is set to lead the discussion? This one has brainiac brouhaha written all over it.  Won’t you please join us.

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Unusual Outreach Programs

Posted by Anne Nelson

BiblioburroSince Frank is not only a Reference Librarian but also our Outreach Librarian, I thought it would be fun to share a little information about some library outreach programs in other parts of the world. The Bibliomulas and Biblioburros (“book-mules” and “book-burros”) are established programs in Venezuela and Colombia, and Ethiopia has a similar Donkey Mobile Library. The animals deliver books to readers–especially young readers–in remote communities. In South America, the mules and burros carry books on their backs and are valued for their ability to climb up even the most steep and narrow roads to reach places Frank’s car could never visit. In Ethiopia, the donkeys haul a small cart that also holds stools for readers and lunch for the donkey! While I was searching for stories about bibliomulas, I also learned about a floating library in Norway that has been bringing books to readers since the 1950s. I even found a short film from the 1940s about a library on a riverboat in England. This is an old idea that’s still really viable: in 2005 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underwrote a program in Bangladesh to convert existing boats into mobile libraries complete with computers and internet access. Like Crandall Library’s local outreach services, these programs all bring the library to the people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach it.  Sadly, we have no immediate plans to acquire a burro.

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My Name is Mary Sutter

My Name is Mary SutterMaybe it was the deluge of drab December days. A seemingly endless iteration of gray that left my roll wore thin. Maybe that’s why I found My Name is Mary Sutter so disturbing. Written by Robin Oliveira, it is a tale of inequality, loneliness, and love unrequited. Medical madness. Men as martyrs.  Women denied but determined. The butchery, suffering, and lunacy of war. Dark drama indeed. History, even of the fictional variety, is often a very nasty business.

The fundamental themes and truths underlying Ms. Oliveira’s freshman effort left me melancholy, and miasma was my name. For real. I was impressed but rendered totally depressed. After all, this kind of thing still goes on everyday in some dark corner. Where is the wisdom of the years?  It hurts me just to think about it.  Call me moved.

I was not looking forward to talking about it either. December 17, 2012 loomed in menacing fashion. It stalked me. I needn’t have worried, as things went well-enough, although the conversation did seem somewhat subdued.  We spoke for an hour about all the above.  Afterwards, I switched off the lights, went home, and fell into a fitful sleep.

Linkage

Robin Oliverira’s Home Page

Times Union Interview

Cokie Roberts and Robin Oliveira

New York Public Library Blog

Joy Huott Via GoodReads

Dorothea Dix

2 Must Read Civil War Tales

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganas

“Bawdy, raucous, comic… The story of the South in all its tragic and self-perceived glory.”
–The Boston Globe

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

“A thunderous, action-rich first novel of the Civil War, based on historical fact.”
–Kirkus Review
boomerangAy caramba!  It’s January 1st, 2013.  Happy New Year!  I can’t wait for our first discussion of 2013!  It’s slated for January 14, will feature Boomerang by Michael Lewis, and is double-your-money-back-guaranteed to rock your cognitive cage.  The financial melt down of 2008 reverberates still, and Mr. Lewis offers an engrossing perspective on the issue.  According to one pundit:
“Lewis’s rare gift as a guide through the world of credit default swaps and sovereign debt doesn’t come simply from his deep understanding of how the global financial system works . . . but also from his skill as a storyteller, his ability to tell the larger tale through fascinating human stories…”
–Boston Globe
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