A frankly amazing new review (and so much more) from Charlotte Getz:
“In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
I tend to watch movies with the eye of one who deems themself some not-so-humble form of an “intellect.” But after watching Benh Zeitlin’s recent film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, I have found myself the fool.
One could watch this movie (and many have) and marvel at its potential messages about the “beasts” of Southern Americana – race, poverty, or a myriad of other sociopolitical issues. Until the last shot of the movie, this is how my own interpretation unfolded. However, with eyes full of tears in the last beautiful instant, I realized that wisdom to be in vain – that maybe “they” aren’t the metaphorical beasts. Maybe I am.
Without giving any spoilers that aren’t relatively evident from the trailer, the film follows a six-year old girl, Hushpuppy, and her father, Wink, as they navigate their peculiar world – a commune on an island in the Gulf called the Bathtub. Initially, we see the Bathtub as a sort of fantastical Neverland, where every day is a holiday. The father and daughter live on a farm and tend to their animals with an almost spiritual authority. Sound familiar? The world outside of the island is the “dry world” where “they ain’t got none of what we got. They only got holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in plastic wrappers. They got their babies stuck in carriages.” This sterile description of the dry world presents a paradox, as compared to the Bathtub – which is utterly primitive, despite the symbolic for cleansing connotations in its name.
The initial glowing cinematography and commanding jazz riffs captivate and draw us into this myth-like society. While seemingly impoverished, the people of the Bathtub milk life to its very dredges. The setting is both oddly familiar and, undoubtedly, completely foreign. Here is a place where freedom reigns and adults run wild with childlike invigoration, living off of the land, so close to nature that we feel like we too could put our ears to the cold static of the television screen and hear the wild thumping heart of it all. We long to be there, with fire in our hands, tearing through the cobalt night – our faces uplifted, our hearts at peace.
“Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen.”
But a Deep Sorrow quickly interrupts the utopian microcosm. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy ever seeks the approval of her father. Most notably, she waits in a cardboard box inside her house (which has caught fire) to see if he would come to save her. He does. But afterwards she rebels against him nonetheless, hitting him on the chest saying, “I hope you die. And after you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself.” This seemingly backwards visual, eating birthday cake on a grave, reminds me of Christmas Eve at my church growing up – where the kids throw Jesus (a man who was born with the sole purpose of dying) a birthday party. There’s cake and laughing and singing and joy for the Deep Magic that happened over this man’s grave.
After Hushpuppy hits Wink, he drops to the ground from a heart attack. Instantly, we see shots of ice caps melting, and beasts, aurochs (who’ve been preserved in ice since the beginning), thaw and awaken. Hushpuppy flees from the scene where her father lies, runs to the water and yells, “I think I broke something!” This violent schism, and inciting incident, also presupposes its resolution – a birthday cake.
As if ignited by Hushpuppy’s rebellion, a pack of aurochs is on the move to the Bathtub just as an apocalyptic storm – a hurricane (reminiscent of Katrina) – falls down upon them. Simultaneously, we discover that Wink’s blood is “eating itself,” and he slowly begins to die as the tempest nears. Most of the island’s inhabitants retreat from the encroaching wrath, but not Hushpuppy and Wink. They dig their heels into the soggy ground and ride it out, the aurochs nearing by the minute.
After the storm passes, the Bathtub is left completely submerged in water. Wink, Hushpuppy, and the few other survivors try to continue living out the glory days of the Bathtub they knew before the storm – but the fish are rotting. Unclean. The water is polluted. They attempt to make do until area officials enforce a mandatory evacuation. And so these wild souls, who once reigned in Eden, are thrust into the dry world.
They are out of place and awkward among the people there – they just don’t fit. And I have to confess that I share that sentiment many of my days. To the tips of my toes, I sense some Deep Wrongness. But I also know that so much of what we understand is based in binaries. I know something is hot because I have been cold before. I know what love is because I’ve experienced it’s opposite. And I know that this Deep Sorrow is here because Paradise must lie beneath its gray and tattered surface.
There is an interesting parallel in the film between the aurochs and Hushpuppy. Initially, I thought it was their strength and fight. Why? Because that explanation sounds more inspiring. In reality, I think the aurochs are a representation of the ensuing Darkness. If these beasts are parallel to Hushpuppy, then she too is the embodiment of that Darkness. And if she is, then so am I. Hushpuppy later mourns, “I want to be cohesive.” And I think that childish cry holds a stinging truth – that we are not cohesive. We are separated. “Son of Man, can these bones live?”
But sin, no matter how rampant it may run, has not won the day. We see this in similarities between the beginning and end shots of the movie. In the title scene, Hushpuppy runs towards the camera with sparklers in her hands, nearly in the crucifix position, liberated and exuberant. In the end, after her world has been ravaged, she again marches toward the camera, framed identically to the title shot. But instead of sparklers, she valiantly waves a black funeral flag across the faint and stormy sky. And the small band of fellow survivors, with Hushpuppy at their helm, trudges across a drenched levy, violent waves breaching its surface, threatening to drown the very thing. And one has to wonder – will the encompassing sea consume them? Or is this damp pathway, across which the triumphant group advances, some divine passage leading to their magnificent and miraculous exodus. Marching through this new parched wilderness, they seem to say, “We know where we came from and, one fine day, we will go there again.”
The creator of Beasts of the Southern Wild poetically likened the narrative to a “jazz funeral.” Louis Armstrong once said, “The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the backyard on a hot night, or something said long ago.” Jazz is personal yet collaborative, it is dynamic, spontaneous, improvisational, intricate, and it utilizes the white keys and the black keys. The qualities of jazz, rooted in African American gospel, pour out the same complexities, struggles, yet beauty of what it means to live. And our lives seem to croon of magical things gone, of something wondrous said long ago. And so we eat birthday cake in their absence and we sing songs in the moonlight, in stubborn hope of life redeemed.
In the beginning of the film the Bathtub, in its full splendor, is extraordinary. Adults and children revel side by side. There is no discrimination or persecution. And remarkably, in the opening scene, through the billowy smoke of brilliant fireworks we see the dim shape of a cross in the ground – unwavering in all of the radiant chaos surrounding it. Just as in Eden, the schism that would come fiercely between Our Creator and us was always in The Plan. It wasn’t an accident. This shadow of the cross appears before the Deep Sorrow descends upon the Bathtub, just as God planned before the fall exactly what He would do to lift this crippling weight and rescue us. We can’t go back to Paradise. But I am comforted by the knowledge that it was always The Plan that we would have to depart from it. In some strange way, it means that there is a purpose for this time of longwaiting for that plan’s fulfillment. And for the time being, although sin and sorrow abound, He has carved a watery pathway through it all for us to move forward – although we may not always be sure of the way.
I am a beast of the wild, underwater and decaying. My blood, like Winks, is metaphorically eating itself. But deep in my bones lies an abiding assuredness that one day Some One will come to take all of that away. And the eyes of the blind will be opened. And the lame will leap like a deer. And a New World will come – a world where the sea spray soars like glad confetti, and it will dazzle and shine like Some Place I have never known or ever dared to imagine. Every day will be a holiday. And we will ride on floats in parades while we guzzle red wine, toast each other, laugh with unadulterated gladness, and stare like children in wonderment at the glittery blanket of fireworks pulsing across the sky. As if to say, “We know where we came from, and we know that, from nothing of our own deserving, we will never have to go there again.” We will eat birthday cake, and it will be a hell of an adventure.