Posted by Anne Nelson
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. Zeitlin 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.
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.