Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (review) & AT: Criticism

So I'm just going to be totally upfront: I loved Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I don't have a whole lot to say about it (especially after eliminating things that have already been said). I went into it expecting a sort of post-Katrina sob story and that's not at all what this was (unless you're watching it wrong—I'll get to this later). Quvenzhane Wallis's performance was absolutely incredible as was a large portion of the writing for her voice overs. The cinematography and set design for this other worldly Bathtub was gorgeous and creative. These are all things you've already heard about the movie.

So today instead of listening to me talk silly theory for ~750 words we're going to look at critics who didn't like the movie and find out why they're wrong. I'm going to look specifically at two reviews, one by Thomas Hackett for New Republic magazine and one by bell hooks for NewBlackMan (in Exile).

Reading some of this criticism of Beasts can be absolutely infuriating. It made me feel at first that the critics and I watched completely different movies and afterward that perhaps I hadn't even watched the movie myself. However after thinking it though (and discussing with a trusted colleague) I've decided that while I disagree that Beasts is objectively problematic in these ways (being racist, for example), there are definitely subjective positions an audience could occupy that would reveal the ground on which these critiques stand. That's probably too vague to make sense at the moment so let's jump right into these critics' arguments.

Hackett makes three major claims in his article: Beasts "deploys a casual racism, vilifies public health workers, and romanticizes poverty." (He then tackles these in reverse order, so for the sake of continuity I'll do the same.)

His argument that the film "romanticizes poverty" basically hinges on the fact that "the headstrong and scrappy Hushpuppy is just about the most adorable thing to come along since that kid in Webster". While Hushpuppy is admittedly adorable, this claim seems to ignore the rest of the movie. The world of the Bathtub is far from romantic, at least in the sense Hackett is getting at. Bathtub is completely flooded at one point and Hushpuppy and her father Wink get around in the flatbed of a pickup truck supported by floating barrels and propelled by an electric motor. Hushpuppy's father dies and she goes to his funeral. These things are all "sentimental" in the sense that the characters are compelling so we feel sentiment for their plight, but definitely not in the sense of Webster and our "cherished" tradition of "pickaninnies". The problem with Beasts is apparently that "we are given no reason to believe that she won’t end up either an unemployed drunk like her father and his friends or a wistful prostitute like the woman we assume is her absent mother." Setting aside the fact that this claim seems to contradict his argument (poverty is romantic despite the fact that Hushpuppy's father is an unemployed drunk and her mother is an absent prostitute) I feel like the proper response to this is, "So what?" Part of what makes Beasts so enjoyable is that the characters are all human, and maybe that's what worries critics like Hackett. Poor people being human renders the objectifying ideological position of charity problematic and even unsustainable.

But maybe I'm reading into this too much so let's move on. If you've been keeping up with my blog you know that I don't particularly care whether a film adheres closely the its source material. That said, maybe the reasons Beasts "casts social workers and public health officials... as villains" is because that's kind of how it happened. It's not necessarily that the relief workers themselves were bad people, but that the place the residents of Bathtub were brought wasn't exactly an improvement. Or maybe that being forcefully removed from your home is always unpleasant even if your home wasn't the best place to begin with. In any case Hackett's conclusion is ridiculous: "This is the film’s ugly operating assumption: if you are already poor (being black doesn’t hurt either), you are uniquely suited to thrive in squalor." How does he even get to this conclusion? I'm not leaving out any link between relief workers as villains and poor people being built to live in poverty and therefore meant to be left there. I don't even know what to say.

My favorite claim by Hackett is the final one of "casual racism" because it's almost completely unsupported. He says racism there in the thesis statement, again in the concluding paragraph, and even puts it in the title of the article. Other than these instances, however, the word only occurs one other time in the article (coincidentally during his "romanticizes poverty" argument): "Basically, it’s a form of moral and intellectual pornography, an easy way of getting off that, in the case of Beasts, begins and ends in patronizing attitudes of racial superiority." No warrants, no explanation. That's it. Why is Beasts racist? Because a white director made a movie about black people? Because we feel bad for the little black girl when she loses her father? Perhaps, as my trusted colleague summarized, the argument goes "this is a cool neat movie about black people with innovative & gorgeous cinematography therefore it's racist."

The criticism of bell hooks is much more nuanced than this, and begins to hint at the claim I made at the beginning of this article. Her argument hinges in part on the claim that that "all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence". However awkward it may sound, I don't think this is actually a problem. The nature of film (as well as books, theater, & entertainment in general) is to grab our attention and tickle our senses. Film functions because it tantalizes us, it toys with our feelings and for this reason all film is a pornography of something (an argument made by Susan Sontag and a logical conclusion of Freud's analysis of libido).

The second hinge on which bell hooks's argument swings seems to be an assumption of the audience's subjective position while watching (specifically one of patronizing racism). For example, she jumps directly from "[Hushpuppy] is also given a lesson in survival, told that she has only her self to count on, that no else will be there for her, that she must be ‘strong.’" to "This is certainly the message black females have received in the culture of imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy from slavery on into the present day." There's literally nothing connecting those two sentences. Can a movie about black people made by a white person not have a message of inner strength? Is that really how this works?

I can see where she's coming from though. It's not hard to imagine Beasts as a sort of "film to be proud of", as evidence that we're not as patronizingly racist as we thought. This is what I meant at the beginning by a subjective position that justifies these critics arguments. Certainly some filmgoers may have occupied these subjective positions. There are undoubtedly ways to watch Beasts that are problematic, I just don't think that this is the movie's fault, that it's the movie that's racist and not the audience. I felt like whereas far too many independent films/directorial debuts fall into the trap of being preachy and bloated with the director's intended message, Beasts on the other hand managed to be beautiful and indeterminate in a really wonderful way.


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