Friday, March 1, 2013

When the World Won't Come into Focus: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Very few people were surprised when Argo won the Academy Award for Best Picture this past Sunday.  Nate Silver took his hand at picking Oscar winners instead of political ones, using other award nominations and wins as the basis for his analysis.  He, too, picked Argo.

This past weekend, though, rather than watching Argo, I rented Beasts of the Southern Wild--another Best Picture nominee, though one with a smaller budget and less box-office success.  I was drawn to the cover of the DVD--the rich purples and greens, the lights of the sparkler, the evocation of memories of childhood wonder.  And lots of critics have said how wonderful it is--President Obama even called it "spectacular."

But while I thought the movie was beautifully and brilliantly made, I just couldn't make it all the way through.

Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink, in a Louisiana community called Bathtub.  Bathtub is cut off from the rest of the world by the levee, and as a result, is particularly susceptible to storms.  But in spite of this tenuous existence on the boundary between land and water, this community has an incredibly strong sense of place, a connection between people who genuinely care about each other and a physical location that gives their lives meaning.

Hushpuppy learns in school about prehistoric animals called aurochs, which her teacher, Miss Bathsheba, tells her are being released as the polar ice caps melt.  In between scenes of Bathtub, the viewer occasionally sees shots of the ice caps melting and giant ox-like creatures running across the ground.  It is in these scenes that we begin to realize that not only does Bathtub exist on the border between water and land, but on the border between two different planes of reality as well.

This feeling of interstitiality is made even more profound by the cinematography of the film.  It is rare to see a shot in the film that is clearly in focus.  Most shots have one element that is in focus, while the rest is just slightly off; there are shots that move into focus, or out of focus; and in many cases, the element that you would expect to be in focus is just slightly off.  This technique served as a very powerful visual reminder that the world is not as clear-cut as we like to think of it, that other ways of thinking about the world exist, and that sometimes, all it takes is looking at things just a little bit differently.

Intellectually, I loved the movie.  Even now, writing this, I am thinking to myself, "Maybe I should go back and watch it again."

But as I was watching it, I found it very difficult to push myself to continue.  I would take breaks to check my email, to get snacks, even to grade papers.  And eventually I thought, "If I have to work this hard to watch this movie, maybe I should just turn it off." 

So I did.

The question, of course, is why? 

Part of it, I'm sure, is the Hotel Rwanda phenomenon (as described in this informal survey on Slate).  I tried watching the movie on Friday night, a time when my brain is mush and I'm lucky if I can make it to 10 pm without falling asleep on the couch.  It's no surprise, then, that I couldn't focus on a movie that isn't a fluffy rom-com or action thriller.

But I think there's something more going on, too--something that says something troubling about (at least my) expectations for what fantasy literature and film can and will do.  This "something more" occurred to me as I thought about which other works of fantasy I might compare Beasts of the Southern Wild to.   I realized that the wide-eyed wonder and self-assuredness of Hushpuppy (played brilliantly by Oscar-nominated Quvenzhan√© Wallis), along with the film's hints at the fantastic, reminded me of another little girl in the woods: Lucy Pevensie.

For Lucy, though, her wonder was at a new world, a world that was not her own, a world where if she failed, she could still return home.  For Hushpuppy, the world she looked at with big eyes was the only one she had.  If her dad dies, that's it.  If her town gets flooded, she has no other place to return home to.  The focus on the physicality of Bathtub had the powerful effect of yanking me back into Hushpuppy's very real world, if I ever happened to start to think of the movie as a fantasy.  And without getting into too many personal details about my life, this reality that was just too close to some aspects of my own.

I've talked (and occasionally ranted) about how important I think it is for fantasy to be recognized as not just escapist nonsense--and how the focus on fantasy as escapism just perpetuates this myth that fantasy literature isn't "real" literature. 

And I still think that.

But my experience half-watching Beasts of the Southern Wild made me remember that the escapist aspects of fantasy literature do serve a very important purpose--they put difficult issues at a bit of a distance.  They enable us to think about horrible events, like the death of a parent or a child, or the loss of a home, or assault, or abuse, or poverty, or murder, as things that are not part of our world right now--they are part of a different world that is out there.  And in that world, we can think about them.  We can look at them, maybe a bit more objectively, and in so doing, gain perspective on our own reality.

We escape, arm ourselves, and then return to fight our demons.

By Jen Miller