15/08/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh ZeitlinLucy Alibar 
Stars: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly


In a hidden-in-full-view delta community called the Bathtub separated from civilization by a levee somewhere in the South, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy scrambles through swampland and piles of junk in pink underpants and white rubber boots where she lives with her father.  Oblivious to danger and endowed with an extraordinary imagination, Hushpuppy talks to her drawings and shares her thoughts about a balance of nature within which she believes she lives.  A fierce storm – no doubt inspired by Katrina – drastically changes her reality.  Her father refuses to leave the shack he calls home in spite of catastrophic damage in the delta and a personal affliction that promises to kill him. Prehistoric beasts rampage Hushpuppy’s fantasies. Faced with inner and outer forces beyond her control, she attempts to repair the loss of balance in the universe by pitting her spirit against the elements.

I found Beasts of the Southern Wild simultaneously engaging and incredulous.  If I let myself, I could put myself in place of this child making her way through a world of disasters as if it were normal.  That is, I could remember when, as a child, I accepted the world in which I grew up as normal and did the best I could with it. There was, of course, lots in my life that wasn’t ‘normal’ and the fear that I lived with as a child did escalate into a fear that often made situations more threatening than they were.  As Samuel Clemens said, “I dealt with more crises than actually existed.”  So when six-year-old Hushpuppy’s fears grow into a nightmare of prehistoric beasts pounding through her psyche, I understood.  But when I stepped back I couldn’t believe this child’s survival depended on her overcoming her own fears.

Faced with a storm the likes of Katrina flooding her homeland below the levy, killing food sources and contaminating more than she could grasp, she blamed herself for her world falling apart and made efforts to repair it.  I have to believe that true, real and elemental threatening forces are, most likely, going to take her life before she has much time to live it.  She’s only six and already her mother’s disappeared.  Adults in her world can barely care for themselves much less a child.  Angry with her beloved father who disappears without warning and returns without apology, she nearly blows herself up.  When she gets cut by a bottom-feeding catfish while trying to bludgeon it to death to eat for food, no mention is made of antiseptic.  Life threatening dangers are an every day occurrence for Hushpuppy.  Her one source of protection – her alcoholic, hard-headed ignorant father — is dying and does die before the film ends leaving her singularly on her own.  No one steps forward to offer an arm. For sure, no one offers safe passage.  I couldn’t imagine one even though at the end she walks toward us, away from the dead end of a pier surrounded by flood waters.

I felt Hushpuppy was an apt name for a wild child likely to be consumed before fulfilling the promise of the filmmakers’ imagination to become a ‘heroine’ putting the world back together for herself and the rest of us.  I walked out of the theater shaking my head, admiring the filmmakers for taking on the story of a child up against elemental forces and inviting us to hope we’re not leaving our children a world beyond their means to survive.  However, in spite of Hushpuppy’s abiding optimism, the filmmakers’ courage to challenge the dregs of Katrina’s wake with a hopeful vision — as well as my own enthusiasm for girls as new heroes for a new age — left me feeling bleak.  I cannot, in good faith, regard this child’s survival with joy when I think we, as viewers of her life, should despair that a child in our country is growing up as she has — and presumably is.

That said, I did get an unexpected insight into the motivation behind the ancient cave paintings I’ve viewed in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain.  Everyone is enthralled by these paintings.  They exhibit sophisticated drawing skill, three-dimensional perspective and creative interpretation of animals and events that tell much about humankind living 40,000 years ago.  But everyone wonders why the animals were painted.  What motivated men to go deep into caves and lie on their backs for hours drawing bulls, horses and other animals by torchlight?Beasts provides a possible answer.  The painters may have been trying to take the power of these animals into themselves, to transform their fear of the beasts they had to kill and eat to survive by drawing them, bringing them to life within themselves.  By capturing their images, they could make their fear work for them.  The cave drawings suggest a connection between the feeling the beast aroused and the power of the beast itself.  Man and beast integrally connected by an imaginative act of creation.  The drawn animal was not symbolic, not a representation but an actual embodiment of a felt fusion of strength.

James Hillman, an eminent archetypal psychologist, believed that dreaming an animal was more than symbolic.  He believed a dream animal must be taken as real, as real as any animal existing in the outside world. To dream an animal is to encounter its characteristics as part of one’s own psyche.  To describe, draw and capture an animal in detail would be to enliven elemental forces and connect with an animal’s being as part of one’s own being.   When Hushpuppy scratches charcoal creatures on the inside of a cardboard box, there’s a likeness to the cave dwellers.  Perhaps she’s literally merging with the primordial beast’s fierce anger and drawing forth survival instincts. Her drawing a face above a cherished tee shirt saved from her mother and talking to it as a parental force, alive in the waters of the Bathtub in which she lives, is one of the most touching scenes in the film.

To be sure, the film’s young protagonist, who survives within the natural ebb and flow of environmental elements, stretched my imagination.  Hushpuppy fused the storm with her fantasies of the beasts.  She fused the catfish with her father; she thought she’d killed her father when she pounded his chest as she had the catfish.  She fused the waters of the delta with the waters where her mother resided.  Her fusion of the realities of everyday life, the realities of her emotions and the realities of the larger natural elements imbue her with a special sense of power that works for her.  And it may well have worked for cave dwellers 40,000 years ago. Unbelievable as real, Beasts of the Southern Wildstands proud and profound as a dream of imaginative achievement that furthers mankind.

We’re all still here, aren’t we?

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

Animal Rights

“In The Piano, as Ada sought Baine’s help to return by horseback for her beloved piano left abandoned by her husband, Stewart, on an isolated beach, the camera hesitates for a moment on the eye of Baine’s horse. What vision is being sought of the danger that’s brewing as Ada breaks with convention? Why do we believe animals can see what we cannot, or will not, see? What wisdom lies behind their eyes?”

At the end of the IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, Goodall says if she had one wish left unfulfilled from her life work with the chimpanzees, it’s to look out from their eyes, see what they see, feel what they feel. What secret vision might she be seeking behind the look she gets from a chimpanzee?

Barry Lopez suggests an answer in his Field Notes* when he writes, “My one salvation, a gift I can’t reason through, has been the unceasing kindness of animals. Once, when I was truly lost, when the Grey Spider Hill and the Black Sparrow Hills were entirely confused in a labyrinth of memory, I saw a small coyote sitting between two creosote bushes just a few yards away. She was eyeing me quizzically, whistling me up with that look. I followed behind her without question, into country that eventually made sense to me, or which I eventually remembered.”

What look passed between coyote and man that day to show him the way home?

We cannot be sure whether we project the wisdom we find in an animal’s eye or whether the wisdom comes on its own but an eye to eye connection between human and animal often creates an alliance of mysterious strength and renewal. Babies know it, chimpanzees know it and especially an endangered animal knows it. It’s a natural, unconscious tendency on the part of humans to see an answer to a desperate need, wild desire or sacred dream in an animal’s eye. An animal’s eye, perhaps, is the ultimate mirror of the wisdom that has brought us this far.

My friend, poet and author Deena Metzger, had an opportunity to have a brief look into the eye of a great bull elephant in Africa when he approached her transport truck curling his raised trunk with clear determination to defend his turf and family from the mechanical intruder. In her book, Entering Ghost River, she wrote about having a few minutes with him, eye to eye, as he came within an elephant trunk’s distance of her. He gave her long enough to ask a question from deep within her mind. What wisdom for an alliance of peace in a world torn by terror, famine and atrocity could he give her? As if a pact were struck, the great bull elephant, his friends and family moved on into the valley along the river. So did Deena’s truck with her friends and family. I’d like to think Deena and the elephant cleared more of a path that day for all of us, one opened by ‘the look’ Barry Lopez followed when he was lost in the canyon. Whether the world itself makes way or we remember our way, ‘the look’ is there if we take a moment to notice it.

In the following films, there are some markers showing that path of creative alliance marked by ‘the look’ from an animal. Films often bring their audiences eye to eye with animals, giving us a gift of being up close and personal long enough to ask a question. Watch for the moment. And ask your question. And tell me the answer you receive by emailing

Horse Whisperer
Directed by
Novel by Nick Evans II
Performances by Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas

“I don’t help people with horses. I help horses with people.” Tom Booker (Robert Redford) says. He might well have said, “I help horses help people. When the horse in Horse Whisperer gets crushed by a Mack truck as he rears in a mighty attempt to protect his young rider, he is left with more than bodily wounds. He is terrified to reconnect with another human being. This 20th century catastrophic collision between machine and horse is a powerful metaphor for the effect of machine on humans that has left so many people feeling alone, homeless and terrified. However, the fear beneath loneliness is usually well hidden beneath the busy lives of modern families – like the one in this film – coping with city life. As Pilgrim, the horse in Horse Whisperer, progresses in his healing with a man who lives close to the earth and near to his soul, the spirit of family is renewed. They find a home they’ve never known with each other and, for the moment, terror is pushed back.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What does Pilgrim need? What does his family need? What does we all need?

Her Response, “A renewal of trust.”

Gorillas of the Mist
Directed By Michael Apted
Written by Dian Fossey, Harold T.P. Hayes (article)
Performances by Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, Iain Cuthbertson

Fortunately, the best part of Gorillas of the Mist are the scenes of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas. She rolls on the ground, squats in the bushes and grunts realistically as she imitates their behavior, making her way into their midst. Perhaps because we don’t get as attached to Dian Fossey as we do to her favorite gorilla, Digit, her murder does not shock us as deeply as his. But, perhaps, we see more death in his than hers. It takes your breath away for this beloved gorilla who becomes our friend (as well as hers) to be crudely decapitated, hands and head stolen by poachers for sale as trophies. Of course, the desperate plight of the mountain gorillas simply mirrors the desperation of people in central Africa. What an awful choice to have to make, kill a mountain gorilla for its trophy value or let your child die of starvation.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What are the mountain gorillas dreaming? What are African children dreaming? What are we all dreaming of?

Her Response, “A safe home.”

Directed By John Huston
Screenplay by Arthur Miller
Performances by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

Marilyn’s getting a divorce in Reno. “You can’t make me sorry for you any more”, she says on the steps of the courthouse when her husband asks for a second chance.

Eli Wallach’s lost his wife to childbirth and Marilyn asks, “She’s dead because you didn’t have a spare tire?”

Thelma Ritter reminds Marilyn, “Dear girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking you can change things.”

But Marilyn persists, “We’re all dying aren’t we. We’re not teaching each other what we really know, are we?” She dances with the men on her lovely toes but leaves them to dance alone with a tree.

When Clark says he wants to get her home all in one pretty piece, Marilyn asks, “Would you have a spare tire”?

Clark puts the moves on Marilyn without knowing she’s not kidding. He wants respect for being a man but she wants respect for her feelings. That’s a problem. And it all comes out after they pick up Montgomery Clift, a young rodeo rider who can’t even buy his mama a birthday present. Poverty of man meets poverty of horse meets poverty of the spirit.

Cowboy meets Marilyn, an endangered species who can take a bet and keep on ticking but can’t see a man or beast take a beating. One woman, two cowboys and a rodeo rider with a father who was killed by a hunter and became a step-son to a man who wanted to offer him wages on his own father’s ranch. After all, Clift asks, who do you depend on?

All three men look to Marilyn who looks into the eyes of animals looking for an answer that can make yesterday today. Clark has no tomorrow to offer. Only Marilyn has an idea and that’s no idea at all. She can only feel what she feels, looking out from her eyes at men willing to ride a bucking bronco to their death, drink to oblivion and hang on to failing egos for dear life.

Clark is a man who thinks he just gets a little angry, not understanding a woman’s fear that a man will hate what he just, one moment before, found irresistibly desirable. And that’s the story of the Misfits.

Once upon a time, the mustangs were the pride and joy of the very men who now send them to the glue factory. Dogs were wild too, once upon a time. They, like women, are still afraid they’re going to end up dead when a man becomes a stranger. Nothing can live unless something dies; that’s a manly story. A woman’s story of a love that prevents death may seem silly next to it but she wants the same respect a man wants.

When she does her thing, he says he takes his hat off to her. But things look different in the morning. And Clark is back to manly business, rounding up mustangs for sale as pet food pretending that he, himself, is not following the same route. What comes into his sights – a stallion, four mares and a colt — is unmistakably the family he’s never had. And as the men encumber the stallion with spare tires, the metaphor of a woman who died for lack of a spare tire is not far behind.

When Marilyn pleads for the mustangs, a triad of heroism – Clark, Clift and Wallach – falls before her. Clark will give the mustangs to her but not if she gets what she wants, only if she gets what he wants to give her. Wallach will give them to her but only if she gives him what he wants. Clift sets the mustangs loose because he’s a man with nothing to lose, nothing to gain. Marilyn stands screaming in the desert, wanting what a man can’t give her but what he takes from her. Then Clark wrestles the stallion, a battle between man and beast that cannot be settled in any desert of discontent.

Clark’s final manly words? “I don’t want anyone making up my mind for me. I got to find another way to feel alive, that’s all.”

And then he offers Marilyn a ride back to Reno. They pick up the dog. The mustangs run free. And, Clark promises that the big star in the sky will take them right home. He’s right, right?

CinemaShrink Asks, “What do wild mustangs need? What do men need? What do we all need?

Her Response, “Respect”.

This month New Cinema Lab may be searching in the eyes of animals on film for their “common sense politics”. Yet CinemaShrink found a real life story of an animal on the verge of extinction that ran smack into human respect, had an amazing return and inspired a renewal of family spirit. Perhaps it should be a movie?

Once upon a time, the duck hunters in the swamps of Louisiana could look upon wild ducks as an endless target for sport, endless food upon the table. Then duck hunters began to use semi-automatic rifles, killing an unprecedented number of ducks in a single season. Soon the skies above the swamps were empty. Preservationists and game wardens were helpless to stop the slaughter. No amount of game regulation could keep up with the hunting spree. Duck hunters would simply pay the fine, do the time and return to hunting with an even greater sense of entitlement.

It wasn’t until a dedicated duck hunter realized if the slaughter were to continue, there would be no ducks for his children to hunt that things began to change. He began to advocate a quota on ducks so the sport of duck hunting could be kept alive for coming generations. With a little help from his friends and local game wardens, he visited schools, community organizations and corporate headquarters to talk about quotas and the joys of duck hunting. Within a few seasons, the ducks were thriving.

In this case, it wasn’t laws, good intentions or spiritual ideals that made the difference. It was one duck hunter’s desire to keep duck hunting as a sport for his children that connected self-regulation and preservation. To this man’s mind, the sport of duck hunting was essential to a healthy up-bringing of his children. Well, then, it was logical. The ducks as well as his children needed his protection. Tony Soprano sought a shrink when he realized that his life of crime could not protect his family — and the realization launched one of the most successful tv shows of all time when a family of ducks landed in his swimming pool giving him ‘the look’.

Animal wisdom or good common sense?

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