Join 3,574 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Troubling Message of Beasts of the Southern Wild
August 10, 2012 11:57 PM   Subscribe

How the individualist, rights-based message in Beasts of the Southern Wild reflects the society America is today "While the film centers on Hushpuppy’s struggle to survive the degradation that surrounds her — primarily through imagination and her incipient art — this "You’ve got to fight for your right to party" ethos is also a central theme. Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind — the primary building blocks of any civilization — as the height of liberation. “Choice,” even the choice to live in squalor, is raised to the level of a categorical imperative. There is no inkling of the economic and social history of the region that had limited these “choices.” We are left with a libertarian sandbox, with a rights-based life philosophy gone rancid... In his new book The Age of Fracture, Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers suggests that post-World War II American history has seen a “disaggregation of the social,” where the broad social contract that had brought more and more Americans into the domain of full economic and political citizenship has dramatically shrunk. We are left with smaller and smaller visions of “community,” often being reduced to the level of a single "rights-holding self." In a sad way, the characters in the Bathtub are an artistic reflection of this fragmented world."
posted by bookman117 (34 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
As much as I liked the film, thinking about it in any political or sociological sense made it all fall apart. So instead I'll just think about Hushpuppy eating crabs with her bare hands.
posted by thecjm at 12:02 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


This was a very interesting read. I do want to say however that, the use of the word "social" as a noun* as in the quote from Daniel Rodgers fills me with white-hot rage. Being in the humanities, I unfortunately see it all too often. I have actually read and enjoyed an early work of Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.

*This obviously does not apply to "ice cream social" and the like.
posted by dhens at 12:20 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am mainly concerned that the movie is misleading a lot of people about what an auroch is/was
posted by Bwithh at 12:23 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I saw "Beasts" a few weeks ago - great movie! I suppose one could attach a political analysis to this flick if that's one's bailiwick, but academic analysis almost always renders outstanding cultural phenomena into a poorly made sausage. Roger's analysis is one example; academic jazz departments are another.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:43 AM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Roger's analysis is one example

Did not RTFA
posted by bookman117 at 1:26 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I haven't seen the movie yet or read the book, but even if the article is beanplating this, I appreciate any attempt to use the story as a springboard to get people thinking about the tensions between individual rights and government. You could just as easily use "Lost" or any other story in which you have a breakdown of established political structure of some sort. If you can get people debating libertarian and/or federalism ideas by using these stories as abstractions, it seems like you can blow away some of the political baggage and maybe get people intelligently thinking and talking about real policy and ideas again instead of the poo-flinging that seems to pass for current political debate.
Unfortunately, I don't think that's this article's intended purpose, because that last paragraph left me with the impression that the author is saying "Gee I hope this doesn't become the new Atlas Shrugged for the Tea Party 'cause this movie is good and people will actually want to see this and it could become a dangerous glorification for the Tea Party version of civil libertarian ideals."
posted by Dr. Zira at 1:40 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


You could just as easily use "Lost" or any other story in which you have a breakdown of established political structure of some sort.
I think once you've seen the movie you probably won't think this anymore.
posted by bookman117 at 1:49 AM on August 11, 2012


Not following you; are you saying that the Salon piece is overthinking the movie by analyzing the plot through a political lens and that we should just see and appreciate the movie at face value? Are you agreeing with the concerns in the Salon piece that the movie could be used as a banner for an extreme libertarian viewpoint and that we should be concerned about the film being coopted by the Tea Party?
posted by Dr. Zira at 2:04 AM on August 11, 2012


I think it is impossible for Candaele not to see the movie politically because he is geared that way. You could see the movie a number of different ways. I also doubt this would be the poster child for Tea Party civil libertarian ideals.

The whole levee-blowing idea is rooted in the history of this area when the levee was blown flooding the land of poor people downriver below New Orleans in 1929 in order to combat the danger of flooding the city. During Katrina rumors, fears and anger about the levee being blown circulated and many believed they were again deliberately cut.

What this film does show is people who have fallen through the cracks and out the bottom of the social safety net. They are no longer attached. Candaele does not know how to look at them. We discovered during the aftermath of Katrina that there are many extremely poor people whose lives are simply inconceivable to a large swath of America. We recoil from them. We say ridiculous things, such as Barbara Bush was quoted remarking about the evacuees in the Astrodome.

My hope for the film is that we can see the humanity of these outcasts and, especially in this child's transcendent spirit, find in ourselves a path to empathy rather than revulsion or fear or, to dodge that discomfort, engage in safe academic debate about political implications.
posted by Anitanola at 2:11 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Not following you; are you saying that the Salon piece is overthinking the movie by analyzing the plot through a political lens and that we should just see and appreciate the movie at face value? Are you agreeing with the concerns in the Salon piece that the movie could be used as a banner for an extreme libertarian viewpoint and that we should be concerned about the film being coopted by the Tea Party?
I'm saying that the movie makes a very strong, almost black and white contrast between the oppressiveness and constraint of civilization and the freedom of the Bathtub, along with portraying Hushpuppy's father and his fellow compatriots who blow up the levee (and thus presumably drowning hundreds if not thousands of people living on the other side) as glorious freedom fighters while portraying the government agents in helicopters who show up in helicopters shortly thereafter as to get them to move to safety as the agents of tyranny. Really, you should go see the movie, it's really great and I think you'll see what I'm talking about.
The whole levee-blowing idea is rooted in the history of this area when the levee was blown flooding the land of poor people downriver below New Orleans in 1929 in order to combat the danger of flooding the city. During Katrina rumors, fears and anger about the levee being blown circulated and many believed they were again deliberately cut.
On the other hand, I did not know this. I guess this could put that act in a bit of a different light, though I think it's a stretch to expect most audience members to know this.
posted by bookman117 at 2:15 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Arghh, scratch out one of those "in helicopters".
posted by bookman117 at 2:25 AM on August 11, 2012


Bwithh: "an auroch"

Please don't do this. "Aurochs" is singular.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:41 AM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Bathtub Was No Utopia.
posted by mek at 2:52 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think I'm the only one annoyed that the movie steals the title of an early 70s short story collection by Doris Betts.
posted by cropshy at 5:01 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The movie is a magical realist fairy tale y'all. It's not a Ken Loach film. It's fantasy. It's not supposed to be politicized.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:05 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, and I can understand
why everyone confuses this, the hurricane in the film is inspired by Gustav, not Katrina.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:21 AM on August 11, 2012


Or I should say, as much by Gustav as by Katrina
posted by nathancaswell at 5:26 AM on August 11, 2012


the word "social" as a noun* as in the quote from Daniel Rodgers fills me with white-hot rage. Being in the humanities, I unfortunately see it all too often

The grammatical is the political.
posted by escabeche at 6:34 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


It was also a story about how the people who have absolutely nothing and seem like the worst dregs of society are still trying to band together and do the best they can to take care of their own.

Mek's link above talks about "parental abuse" -- and I thought that was the case at first, when I was first listening to some of the things that Hushpuppy's father was saying to her -- but I stopped thinking that, and started seeing it as a horrifically ill-equipped guy still trying to do the best he could. It was far from perfect, but...he was trying. He did love his girl very much, and he was trying.

And the teacher - I was startled earlier on when she was telling the kids about the aurochs and she was cussin' and stuff in front of the kids, but then I was profoundly touched in a later scene when she was teaching the kids how to tend to a child who'd gotten heatstroke and told them "it's your job to take care of the people who are smaller and sweeter than you are."

Something one of the characters in an episode in Firefly comes to mind - he's making a speech to a community of really downtrodden folk and says, "you people been given the shortest end of the stick ever been offered a human soul in this crap-heel 'verse. But you took that end, and you - well, you took it. And that's - Well, I guess that's somethin'." That's what this is about - the Bathtub is the shortest end of the stick ever been offered to people in this country. And they took it. And yes, that is something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Honestly, I don't really see how the movie subverts the noble savage trope. Sure, Hushpuppy's father isn't an idealized portrait of anyone, but it felt very clear to me throughout the movie that we were supposed to sympathize with the communal ethos of the bathtub, versus the alienating influence of greater civilization. No one in the movie, save for the brief evacuation scene near the beginning, ever seems to question why all these people would so quickly jump at the chance to give the modern world the middle finger so they can continue living in squalor. I understand the connection to other societies displaced by natural disasters—namely the debate in the wake of Katrina about why people continue to live in New Orleans when it's such a dangerous area—but here, there's no debate at all. It's just "this is our home and these doctors are weird." No one ever grapples for very long with the idea of leaving everything behind and starting fresh, as painful as it would be.

Add in a dash of Child Mysticism, thanks to Hushpuppy's voiceovers, and you have a movie that seems to me to celebrate the squalor of the Bathtub and apply pseudo-magical properties to it, even if it doesn't paint it in a utopian light. So many other people liked the movie that I wonder if I missed something crucial, but that's how I felt coming out of the theatre, and it's a major reason why I didn't like the film as much as I wanted to.
posted by chrominance at 7:41 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Being from the area, I wonder what people in other place make of this flick. The geography of the location is unique, and was not explained very well.

To me, the film pivots on fatalism. hushpuppy says that the scientists of the future will remember her after she is dead, and the bathtub gone.

So, the movie isn't political to me, it's a loving obituary. but i'm glad if it makes people wonder about how south louisiana got to where it is.

this documentary was filmed in the same location
https://vimeo.com/21713580
posted by eustatic at 7:45 AM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


So Candaele's objection to the movie is that it paints all social institutions as part of a grim and joyless technocracy, which is perhaps a valid criticism, but I have to say I would be more sympathetic if his point were that that were not actually true, rather than that art should uphold the values of grim and joyless technocracy. I'm not that excited to see his version of Beasts of the Southern Wild where Hushpuppy is placed in the foster care system, her father is involuntarily committed to a behavioral health program, and everybody from the Bathtub is evacuated to a mixed-income planned housing development.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:22 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


bookman117: portraying Hushpuppy's father and his fellow compatriots who blow up the levee (and thus presumably drowning hundreds if not thousands of people living on the other side) as glorious freedom fighters

I don't think the movie did this at all, it's obviously sympathetic to a lot of aspects of Bathtub's community, but it also portrays them as being abusive, negligent, and unable to function in a whole series of basic ways. Blowing up the levy is itself not presented as an especially wise or noble act, either.

chrominance: you have a movie that seems to me to celebrate the squalor of the Bathtub and apply pseudo-magical properties to it, even if it doesn't paint it in a utopian light.

That's not what I took from the movie, I saw it more as a celebration of people's ability to conjure up that kind of beauty and magic even when they're living in squalor and poverty and desperate conditions. (It also seemed like a pretty substantial number of people did flee Bathtub before the storm hit at the beginning of the movie, but since the film is so tied to Hushpuppy's point of view we don't really get much detail about them.)

It seems to me that there was a varying degree of magical realism throughout the movie which got thicker and more allegorical when the aurochs approached and when Hushpuppy went out to find her mother, and then got extremely thin when the group was taken to the shelter - once they were there, the whole conceit of a science fiction future world sort of dropped away and we were left with a drama about a bunch of refugees from the rural south in the wake of a natural disaster. Remember the buses to Des Moines? I see it in some ways as a kind of Genet-like story about Hushpuppy needing to be able to find some magic or beauty in the imagination when the reality of life is too crushing to face.
posted by whir at 10:22 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Story Behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

The Secret of the Aurochs
posted by homunculus at 10:22 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The movie is a magical realist fairy tale y'all. It's not a Ken Loach film. It's fantasy. It's not supposed to be politicized.

That's what I said about The Dark Knight Rises, too!
posted by Apocryphon at 4:38 PM on August 11, 2012


The telling scene for me (spoiler alert) is when they are ushered into the spotlessly clean, well-lit and shiny hard-surfaced refugee center. Hushpuppy looks around, takes it all in, and seems to think, "These people don't have anything. How are they going to help us?"
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:20 AM on August 12, 2012


Have not seen this film. While I get their reasons for using Vietnamese pot-belly pigs to portray a lost bovine species, it sort of spoils it for me since I DO know what an aurochs was.
They were glorious animals.
They could have done the gigantic pre-historic swine which were carnivores. Aurochs did not eat people, the carnivorous pre-historic pigs were the stuff of night-mares.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:25 PM on August 12, 2012


Also, mistaking the results of 400 years of oppression for some kind of magical liberation.....
Don't get me started there....
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:27 PM on August 12, 2012


Katjusa: Still see the film. The aurochs stuff makes sense in context.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:02 PM on August 12, 2012


I see it in some ways as a kind of Genet-like story about Hushpuppy needing to be able to find some magic or beauty in the imagination when the reality of life is too crushing to face.

That was my read too. Lots of critics are going the noble savage route in their interpretation, but I did not feel The Bathtub and its inhabitants were glorified in any way except through the eyes of Hushpuppy. The grimness, the abuse, the alcoholism, the disease, that crushing level of poverty is right there on screen. You're meant to see them as they are, and to understand that they are recontextualized through the childlike narration and point of view, because that's how she survives and makes sense of her world. The aurochs, same thing, not meant to represent real aurochs, but her imagination of danger and death embodied.
posted by Freyja at 8:47 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think I'm the only one annoyed that the movie steals the title of an early 70s short story collection by Doris Betts.

Nah, you're not the only one. I studied under Betts. But (and may god strike me down for typing this) this is better than she could have wished for title-thievery.
posted by Token Meme at 12:30 AM on August 21, 2012


Amazing film. I thoroughly recommend it to all who haven't watched it.
posted by Artw at 11:06 AM on August 26, 2012


Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind — the primary building blocks of any civilization — as the height of liberation.

What a strange take on the movie. The squalor of Bathtub wasn't glorified, the relationships between certain inhabitants was. And despite the squalor, certain ways of life and knowledge in Bathtub have been lost in modern society i.e. "plugging old people into a wall".
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 PM on September 2, 2012


Giant mutant pigs were Highland Cattle

Maybe then it wasn't such a stretch to use pot-bellied pigs as aurochs.
posted by homunculus at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2012


« Older Last year, the Heavy Air Laser Slalom regatta was ...   |   Kim Dotcom: suddenly a portly,... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments