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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15/05/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Chimpanzee (2011)

Chimpanzee (2011)
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Writers: Mark LinfieldAlastair FothergillDon Hahn
Stars: Tim Allen


From deep in the dense rain forest of Africa’s Ivory Coast comes a new hero brought to a theater near you by way of Disneynature’s “Planet Earth” state of the art documentary filmmaking. If you like a surprising turn of events to be a real surprise then see Chimpanzee first and read my essay about the film second. That’s my spoiler alert. On the other hand, if early disclosure that Chimpanzee contains an emerging archetype in our society makes you more eager to see the film, read on.

Disney would like us to focus on Oscar, the abandoned and adorable chimp who, like so many heroes before him, loses his mother and – somehow – survives to bring us a new day. But I’m wagering the hero who’s going to capture your attention and bring the vision for a new day is Freddy, the lead alpha male chimpanzee. As we dig for the values and fearless will to meet unprecedented global challenges, we can look to Freddy who, in his prime and at the height of his power, cracks the hero world wide open. In Chimpanzee Freddy successfully leads, provides and protects successfully by wits and strength of masculinity as startling as the times we face. He’s sending us all a fresh superhero imago tied securely to the force of our planet’s evolving nature.

Chimpanzee treats its audience to more wonders of a rain forest than its chimp inhabitants. The rain forest is illuminated as an ever-moving symbol of transformation by stunning time-lapse photography that brings the entire terrain alive. Vines climb trees as eagerly as monkeys. Drops of rain explode tiny fungi. Furled leaves open driven by unseen forces. As close as the camera zooms in to capture fingernails grooming and clawed ants scrambling over one another, it goes panoramic. We hang high in the sky mid-air over treetops rendered into an undulating carpet of green as far as the eye can see. And now and then, hinting at sacred places beyond reach, the highflying camera penetrates the canopy to reveal cascading waterfalls. For nature lovers, the wildly lush cinematography of Chimpanzee might just be enough adventure.

Even the close encounters with chimpanzee life in the jungle could be enough. Chimps are fascinating. Natural born actors, the camera loves them and gives their every gesture extra cinematic oomph. I watched a chimp methodically crack a tough nut with a stone and then felt myself waiting to watch it all over again. The next time, I watched more closely, noticing the dip in the log where the chimp placed the nut and seeing how a rock works as a hammer and a wooden log doesn’t. But both logs and rocks break, get stolen by other chimps and still the pounding goes on. To eat hundreds of nuts a day takes a lot of skill and a lot of determination. Whether the chimps are making a bed of branches in a tree, stuffing their mouths with figs, berries and fruit or ambushing a monkey for lunch, we’re watching the strategic mind of apes at work. Are they planning?

But just in case awe inspiring images of nature and close encounters with chimps isn’t enough, Chimpanzee lifts a conflict between one tribe of apes and another to the level of human drama. Freddy’s tribe occupies a sweet spot in the forest where a stand of coula nut trees keep them healthy and well nourished. But, not far away by chimp miles, another tribe hovers in a nearby valley, positing an ever-looming threat to Freddy’s peace. They’re a large strong band of apes led by a leader named Scar for an eye that’s been semi-blinded in battle. Even watching these big guys push through the brush in front of the camera lens is a little too close for comfort. Larger, hungrier, and more aggressive, they raid Freddy’s camp on occasion for food and attempt territory take-over. And, on one occasion, Oscar’s mother is wounded and disappears. And while Oscar does seem like a special chimp, always a little more acrobatic and insistent, he’s barely three years old, not old enough to survive on his own.

But we get to watch him try. Oscar hunts everywhere for his mother. He tries going it alone. He tries another mother and gets a big toothy snarl for his effort. His friends shun him. He’s getting very skinny because he can’t crack a nut, can’t share in honey finds or get the ants out of their hole. And so he tries something very brave. He follows Freddy around and eats whatever drops from Freddy’s paw. He mimics Freddy. There’s an unmistakable bonding moment during which Oscar ‘apes’ eating a fruit just like Freddy does, pushing a huge glob back out of his mouth on cue in an equally disgusting manner. And for whatever unfathomable reason, Freddy yields to Oscar’s appeal, allowing Oscar to pad around after him. Then Freddy lets Oscar get closer. He teaches him things. He shows Oscar how to break a nut and how to eat ants on a stick. Then, wonders of all wonders, Freddy gives Oscar the first nut he breaks and lets him take a chewed bean from his own mouth – just like a mother would. And then, in a highly atypical accommodation for a male ape, Freddy allows Oscar to hitch a ride on his back as only a mother would allow.

I have to admit. This highly unusual sight of a baby chimp cuddled up in the arms of a hulking adult male chimpanzee who loosely resembles the film legend, King Kong, raised my suspicion of its verite. But I had been inspired to see Chimpanzee by Jane Goodall who appeared on the Daily Show to promote the film. She explained that the camera crew had come to the Ivory Coast for other documentary film reasons and then, by chance, caught the story of Freddy adopting Oscar. Goodall’s interview made it legit. It was real footage, not staged or photo-shopped.

Once Freddy tends to Oscar, it’s clear that the little guy will survive but will the tribe? Freddy has neglected his duties as sentinel and leader of his pack to tend to Oscar. Scar’s tribe circles for an attack, sizing up the relaxed guard. Then, as if receiving an invisible – or mythic – call to action, Freddy turns away from Oscar and returns to a key act of his leadership. Grooming. He grooms – literally, symbolically and actually – his male mates for battle. Scar and his mob attack Freddy’s tribe in full force and we get to watch! It is truly something to see these huge figures battling while swinging and climbing with an agility of flight through thick trees and brush. Next, with full confidence, Freddy takes the lead and goes head-to-head with Scar for dominance. Whether the younger male apes of his tribe wonder or not, we wonder. Has the emergence of a maternal side diminished Freddy’s skill and superiority?

But we have little to worry about. Freddy might as well have ripped open his shirt and donned a cape. He’s already a hero who possesses the strength of character of a leader, upholds positive values in his community and exhibits a fierce determination to protect those values. Now, his tribe depends on his innovative spirit and good judgment to be more than ordinary, to be extraordinary. Without hesitation he leaps into battle. And Freddy’s relationship-building abilities pay off. His team backs him up. As he runs Scar into the bush, he thumps a tree like a drum, loudly sending the winning signal and settling the dispute about territory between these two tribes for some time to come.

And so I ask. When the dust settles…or the rain falls…what must we conclude? How has Freddy’s feeding, nurturing and mentoring of Oscar added to our cultural notion of the hero? We know hero imagery is always on the change depending on the imagination we need to face the enemy. Can we add nurturing qualities to the realm of fantastic powers that will enhance our abilities to protect ourselves against future threats? We do have some tough nuts to crack on the horizon.

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