Tag Archives: The South

Beasts of the Southern Wild (***)

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Dwight Henry), (Gina Montana), (Levy Easterly)

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in what is either a somewhat removed from reality version of hardscrabble life on the Gulf Coast or a subjective version of that life as seen through the eyes of a child. The film and perspective belong to Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominated 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives in a liminal wetland called “The Bathtub” with her frustrated and often-angry father. In the vein of classic Terrence Malick, the humans of the film are part and parcel of the ecosystem surrounding them and as put upon by nature as their animal counterparts. As one character says, “All animals are meat. And we’re meat too.” Hence “beasts”.

The film hinges on the question of survival. When Hushpuppy’s daddy is gone, will she have what it takes to get by? He calls her “man” and conditions her to believe that she is strong and can take on the world. He teaches her to fish with just an arm and to break a crab without using tools. This process has the sentimentality sucked out of it by the dehumanizing reduction forced on them by their hardscrabble circumstances: “My job is to keep you alive”, he says. It’s not clear he understands being a father in any terms more complicated than that.

Like The Tree of Life, the “so what” of the film is somewhat obscured. The subjectivity of Hushpuppy’s perspective makes it unclear, for example, as to whether the demonization of the government’s intervention is meant to be taken at face value or merely as a threat to the characters’ highly guarded way of life. I liked it better than Tree, even with its lack of dinosaurs, but it still has the feel of a film reaching for some kind of higher or mythical truth yet lost in its stylistic affectations. If nothing else, the film is worth the price of admission for its curious flattening out of gender roles at the edge of survival. By the end of the film, Hushpuppy has become a “man”–not a role dictating proper behavior in society, but a survivor–a beast.

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Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

You've got red on you.

If you heard a movie pitch best summed up by saying, “It’s Shaft in a Peckinpah western set in the slavery years of the South”, you’d be forgiven for laughing it to scorn or deciding to be offended. “Who would want to make such a film?” would be one natural response. “Who could make such a film without horribly trivializing the suffering and injustice of that time?” might be another. The answer to both questions, in my judgment, is Quentin Tarantino.

The latter end of 2012 has already given us one nigh-impeccable slavery-era picture in Lincoln, an unquestionably great film perhaps weakened only by its near exclusive (and by most accounts necessary) focus on the agency of white males. It is a “prestige picture”–restrained, beautiful, moving and noble. Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge follow-up to Inglorious Basterds is at times beautiful and, yes, moving in its own way (and emotionally wrenching in a way Lincoln was not). Restrained and noble, however–those are for the white boys. Django Unchained is excessively bloody, ridiculous, cocksure and self-consciously witty. And it celebrates from beginning to end a black male agency that leaves no white oppressor unavenged.

The story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), chained, trudging for miles with other slaves towards an eventual sale at market. This is interrupted by the return to Tarantino World of Christoph Waltz in the role of a German (Dr. King Schultz) working in America as a bounty hunter. That Django can help him with a bounty inspires him to secure his freedom, setting the plot in motion. They ease into a mentor/protege relationship, with Schultz training Django in reading and sharpshooting and the two of them earning several large bounties over a long winter (via montage, of course). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Brunhilde (a gorgeous Kerry Washington), who was sold off to different owners after a joint escape attempt. Why help this black stranger? “I’ve never freed anyone before. I suppose I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.”

Brunhilde now lives and works on the vast Candie plantation, or “Candie Land”, which is overseen by an unctuously cruel Leonardo DiCaprio and his old Uncle Tom house servant played with refreshing nuance and intelligence by Samuel L. Jackson. The majority of the film depicts the protagonists’ efforts to rescue her, which they must accomplish by legal means (purchasing and manumission) for Django and Brunhilde to have a hope of a peaceful future. Framed by a German fable related by the benevolent Schultz, the plot is a self-conscious fusion of mythology and history that seeks to provide a romantic and victorious hero for an oppressed people who had too few.

This is all problematized by Tarantino’s love for the violent vengeance flicks of the 1970’s and our heroes’ occupation as bounty hunters. For the white viewer, Schultz is the closest one has to audience surrogate and moral compass, and by admission his bounty hunting job, like slavery, trades in cash for human bodies. Tarantino is egging us on. His depiction of the worst of slavery (we must assume Django’s horrors only scratch the surface) is edited so as to both spare us and revolt us. It begs the question of whether good men (in the classic Western tradition the film has little use for women except as prizes) can get along in such a world. His most virtuous characters are yet enraged and energized by the violence around them, resulting in a climax of orgiastic arterial geysers intended as cathartic comeuppance for the worst the white man had to offer the black.

I have thought much about my response to this film. I am uncomfortable with eagerly getting in on the vengeance thrill ride, something I more readily participated in when Taratino’s targets were Nazis. I am uncomfortable with implicitly saying, “I feel all the righteous anger of this oppressed people as if I know what it means to be personally affected by their oppression.” In other words, as one never having been the victim of American racism I am hesitant to pretend like I “get it” the way a Black American might. Also, the systemic mass murder of Jews had an end put to it with the force of a World War, whereas despite the Civil War and all the events of Lincoln white-on-black racism is still very much alive in this country and the socioeconomic fallout of slavery continues to affect the black experience in this country in countless toxic ways. It’s a living issue for me in the way that murderous anti-Semitism is not, and that complicated the film for me.

I also found myself, during Django more than any other film by Tarantino, questioning the morality of the director’s viewpoint. Does he wholeheartedly endorse everything Django does? Does he have a healthy dose of humanism (a thin line he danced nimbly in Basterds) in the way he treats his racist villains? Or, as it is for me and no doubt many others, is race still too potent of an issue? Does Tarantino find himself, like his characters, ignoring what seems reasonable in favor of what satisfies his righteous anger?

I am reminded of something the frequent Tarantino-critic Spike Lee said about his incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with a violent act of vandalism against whites. Asked whether the vandal–the main character of the film played by himself–had in fact Done the Right Thing, Lee responded, “No person of color has ever asked me that question.” Does Django do the right thing? Tarantino doesn’t seem to care.

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Winter’s Bone (****, 2010)

Ree on the Homestead

Dirty South

I tend to think of the culture of the American Southeast existing on a fluid polarity between Colonel Sanders and Fred Durst.  Well, it’s fluid in at least one direction:  some antebellum gentility can be shown to have blind idiotic rage lurking underneath its surface.  There’s not really anything genteel about the rest.

Winter’s Bone (2010) takes place in an unspecified part of the Ozarks, a poor hill-country region spanning southern Missouri and northern Arkansas which no doubt goes to church but seems forgotten by God anyway.  One wouldn’t know God was around given the people and events encountered by Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in this film, a 17 year-old surrogate parent-cum-gumshoe who must seek out her breaking bad dad or lose the property she lives on with her siblings and helpless mother.  She has to wade through the undesirables of the “community” in order to ferret out information, knowingly placing herself in harm’s way for the sake of her family.  These are some right nasty hillbillies, and their intransigent wickedness has even the law on edge.

Sherriff

Garrett Dillahunt, who played the Deputy Sherriff in No Country for Old Men, receives a promotion to #1 hick enforcer for this film.

The film is a formal successor to Brick, which transplanted the speech patterns and plot of 1940’s noir film to a contemporary high school, and the spiritual successor to No Country for Old Men, which channeled the hard-bitten culture and landscape of its setting into laconic fodder for its crime-and-consequences myth-making.  Winter’s Bone, however, has a fiercely independent character to it even beyond these films in its refusal to stylize its subject material.  At first I was reluctant to rate the film so highly, then I realized my only qualm was the emotional distance that aesthetic formalism could have provided.  The film is in your face, putting you right alongside the strong-willed but always vulnerable Ree.  There’s nothing pretty to gaze at here, no Burton-esque gothic cuteness or mesmerizing imagery to gussy up the content.  I can almost hear the film saying:  “World’s ugly, yall.”

Whereas as a film watcher I usually favor and am entranced by the clean lines and compositions of film imagery–whether a carefully-controlled mood palette such as in Brick or sharply-realized moments like a pointed flash of lightning on the horizon during one of No Country‘s chases–this film is ugly and is almost aesthetically dull.  It doesn’t have the faux-graininess (or narrative pretension) of “found footage” films, but the film almost feels like cameras were simply set up in these rusted-out locales and left to capture what happened.  It is a hard-boiled detective story of the ethnographic variety, with no artistic formalisms to distance us from the subject material.

Squirrel!

It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is in every scene I can recall, was chosen to star in The Hunger Games after headlining this film.  Her Ree is tough, vulnerable, smart, and tender towards her siblings–almost as if the role was written with Katniss Everdeen in mind.  Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, her quest to find her father (ever the elusive embodiment of a secret, a la Harry Lime or Terry Lennox)* puts her in conflict with a number of people who know something but don’t want to tell anything, a menagerie of surly hill people suggesting at times a broke, illiterate and toothless counterpart to the Corleones.  She’s wandering her own smoky Chinatown, Los Angeles seedy types replaced with Durst-ian hayseeds.

You may have guessed at the overall bleakness of the film and, while I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, I do want to say that this is not a nihilistic film which cosmically whimpers into the darkness like No Country or wallows in existential horror like Chinatown.  The journey, nee the location, is the destination here, with plenty horrors along the way to chill the bones.

*These are characters from The Third Man and The Long Goodbye, respectively, whose disappearances drive much of the conflict and action for their films’ mystery-unraveling protagonists.

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