December 29, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild got a lot of attention last year, including an Oscar nomination for its young star, Quvenzhan√© Wallis. For those who haven't seen it, it's the story of a young girl and her father who live in a insular, poor community in the Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub and how they fare when a destructive storm hits their community. After viewing it last night, I made my way online to read reviews and eventually to cultural critic bell hooks's harsh critique of the movie.

bell hooks is one of those thinkers who gets blasted a lot, like Camille Paglia. And like Camille Paglia (whom hooks loathes), she's someone whose legitimate insights can be obscured by her goofier statements. I've only read one book of essays by hooks, but I remember feeling really moved and convicted by her intense jeremiad against consumerism and middle-class indulgence and then equally baffled by her assertion that she drives an expensive car without guilt.

hooks was horrified by Beasts of the Southern Wild. She sees it as (1) eroticizing the children in the movie, (2) naturalizing violence and poverty, and (3) perpetuating the myth of the strong black female (for her a racist stereotype that implies that abuse and oppression don't damage their victims).

Of all of these charges, I find (1) the most baffling. Yes, the movie has shots of the girl Hushpuppy from behind, but not in any obsessive or exclusive way. She's just climbing around on little hills, being a kid, in a handful of shots. There's a later scene in which four girls from the Bathtub go to a local brothel for help and end up being coddled by the prostitutes, even slow dancing with them. bell hooks finds the scene sexual and threatening, but the film clearly portrays it as a kind of mothering; these are tender gestures that the girls, starved for nurturing, soak up like sponges. Hushpuppy, picked up by one woman and held in her arm while she sways, states as much, saying she can count on two fingers the number of times she's been picked up in her life.

hooks conflates this issue with the flashbacks of Hushpuppy's mother, whom her father, Wink, is describing to Hushpuppy and who is visually portrayed in shadows and mostly from behind. This is clearly an erotic view, but he is, after all, describing what is for him a powerful moment in his life, when Hushpuppy was conceived. To see his desire for the mother as patriarchal or reductionist is, well, reductionist, since desire is a normal part of romantic attraction and is a legitimate ingredient in many of the most powerful moments in anyone's life. It's also worth noting that the film is deliberately obscuring the identity of the mother, which feeds into a focus on her body rather than her face.

A more legitimate criticism is (2), the naturalizing of poverty and violence. The residents of the Bathtub live in squalor, drink a lot, and are occasionally (but not usually) violent. Early in the film, Wink smacks Hushpuppy in the face when she questions him showing up in a hospital gown after several days' absence. Hushpuppy is sometimes scared, often at least startled by her father's erratic outbursts. What hooks seems to ignore is that the film itself is saying this. hooks sees herself as reading between the lines, seeing what the movie is trying to hide. Though it's true that viewers sometimes romanticize images of poverty (something that can't always be helped by the filmmakers), the movie itself is perfectly clear about how horrible many of the facts of Hushpuppy's existence are.

Maybe what hooks finds objectionable is that Hushpuppy's existence is not seen as only horrible. One of the elements of the movie's greatness is that it is such a complex, full portrayal of this community. The kids are hungry and ill-clothed. They are unshielded from adult affairs. They are cowed by the adults around them. But they are also cared for by the adults around them, taught by those adults, toughened up by them. The community is above all resistant to absorption by the outside world, an attitude that is both destructive and, by the end of the movie, somewhat understandable. Hushpuppy's father is a source of occasional fear and wariness, but also a source of fun, care, and love. He teaches her to fish, plays around with her, takes her everywhere, tries to prepare her for the trying times ahead.

This feeds in to hooks's other main objection: (3) how the movie perpetuates the myth of the strong black woman. I'm sympathetic to the view that this stereotype can be used to minimize abuse and oppression, to imply that black women are undamaged by these destructive forces, maybe even born to endure them. Point taken. But as with all portrayals of specific demographics (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), the point is not to eliminate all representations that might coincide with a stereotype but to widen the range of representations so that nonstereotypical traits are equally included. We don't want girls to be represented only as princesses in need of rescue. We want them to be heroes, we want them to rescue, or to be quiet or straightforward or whatever . . . all the things that girls can be. But that doesn't mean the princess narrative should disappear from our culture entirely; it should rather be just one among many representations. Likewise with gay stereotypes. We don't want every gay man in film and TV to be a flouncy queen—the fun, bitchy best friend. But we don't want to never see another Jack McFarland, do we?

So it seems short-sighted to me to demand that a young black girl can never star in a story of endurance and overcoming adversity. What a shame that would be, especially when we're talking about a role like Hushpuppy, which Quvenzhan√© Wallis plays with such naturalness and variety. She's never just tough or defiant. She's scared, joyful, kid-like, worried, stubborn—all of the things that are so often missing from kids in film, who tend to be overly self-assured and precocious.

Actually, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminded me most of another movie about a child who interacts with an imaginative world in order to face the difficulties of life: Where the Wild Things Are. Hushpuppy often reverts in her mind to a story that her schoolteacher told about beasts of the northern wild, boar-like aurochs who were a terror to all around them and whose remains were preserved through the ice age. Hushpuppy is threatened by them (as they represent both the encroaching forces of the storm and the loss of autonomy by "dry land" do-gooders). But she also identifies with them as fierce wild creatures able to dominate their milieu.

Getting in touch with their primal rage—and strength.

Child against nature:

Facing down their fears (with Snow White for good measure):

The story of a child gathering strength in the face of adversity is universal. It belongs to all children.

December 24, 2013

American Hustle


Tone is the holy grail of art. You can have decades of singers sounding like Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, and suddenly Louis Armstrong comes along and bam: Vocals now sound, feel, a way they never have before. You can try to pin adjectives to tone (Macdonald and Eddy's tone is maybe careful, balanced, and cool, and Armstrong's unpredictable, warm, and colloquial) but individual words can't fully convey the feeling and mindset conveyed in tone.

(Light spoilers ahead.)

David O. Russell's American Hustle is great for so many reasons, but perhaps most of all for its tone. A lot of films combine comedy and drama and deal in the same tropes: the intricate con job; the gung-ho guy who's in over his head; the stylish editing. But not many are this funny while feeling this tragic. The whole cast is superb, but I give special credit to Jennifer Lawrence. She's a riot, but she plays the character from her own headspace, never as just comic relief.

And the ending felt really, really sad, especially considering it's based on true events. A lot of movies of this type end with the smart guys winning and the players getting their comeuppance. But American Hustle is different. Enormous energy has been put into trying to achieve something worthy, even if those trying to achieve it are flawed. And after all that passion and effort spent, the good or relatively harmless are punished while the evil get away scot free. And you end up feeling like this is probably what most of life is, most of what all pursuit of justice is: Enormous expenditures for paltry gains.

December 23, 2013

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

"You're welcome!" (American Hustle)

When the Oscar-worthy movies start coming out!!

December 16, 2013

How's This for a First Line?

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

(Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol")

December 13, 2013

Antihero? Walt Sucks, Jax Rocks


Convalescing with a fractured arm this week, I finally caught up with the series Sons of Anarchy, which I've been intending to watch for approximately the last four years. I was ready to confess to my own hypocrisy in loving Jax Teller and some of the other characters, despite the fact that they are mostly worse than Breaking Bad's Walter White, whom I loathe. But here's the thing: Jax and the other bikers are straightforward about who they are. They don't deceive and set up the people closest to them. They don't wage psychological warfare with the people they claim to love. And although both series have a fairy-tale aspect to them, with the scripts manipulating events just so so that the antiheroes escape the worst moral approbation, Jax is at least legitimately likable as he is. I hated even the original, "good" Walter White, who was a hypocrite to his alleged friends, secretly despised his brother-in-law, and brought exactly nothing to the lives of those around him. You don't have to be an ATF agent or pharma millionaire to be a worthwhile human being and to win the admiration of those around you, but that's what Walter White believes. Wanker.

P.S.: I'm only through season 1.
P.P.S.: How awesome is Katey Sagal?
P.P.P.S.: How awesome is the ENTIRE CAST??

December 7, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club


What a movie. This story of the early days of AIDS and one Texas redneck's startled entrance into the ranks of the afflicted is lit up by Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of protagonist Ron Woodruff. McConaughey reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis's as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father, another movie based on a true story

The great thing about these roles is that the actors portray their characters' transformation over time. To create just one really full personality onscreen is something hardly any performance achieves. To create two—the early personality and the personality transformed by events—and have the second feel like a realistic evolution of the first . . .  it's amazing. Especially without the aid of a-ha moments, melodramatic turning points, or confrontations. In these movies there are no single events that flip the character; no charged arguments that end with the protagonist speechless, realizing in one fell swoop the errors of his ways; no intimate tete-a-tete in which the character confesses how wrong he has been. It's just that person—that very specific, particular personality—living and being changed by life, day in and day out. Fantastic.

Another thing the movies have in common: super bad (but period-appropriate) hair. We'll see if the styling team gets an Oscar alongside McConaughey.

December 2, 2013


Elan Gale's note war with a lady on his flight was all over Twitter, with fans gleeful over his nasty takedowns of the annoying complainer. Here's my question: Would he have written "your lazy ass" and "eat my dick" if the complainer was a large, fit, black male rather than a middle-age woman?

December 1, 2013

This Way Up

Animated film is one of my favorite art forms. "This Way Up" by Smith & Foulkes is perfection.