Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beasts of Burden

I'm trying to figure out my reaction to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a critic's darling from last year that seemed like it would be a perfect match for what I like in life and in movies, a sort of outsider-art aesthetic merged with an innocent/sci-fi/bible-story narrative, with a sweet ferocious little girl running the whole show.  Not to be.  I saw it a couple weeks back, after intentionally not seeing it when it was being hyper-praised, and in the cold light of day Beasts feels like a lot of sound and a lot of fury and you know what that means:  it signifies nothing.  There's a guttural, twee spirit here that reminds me of slapstick in silent movies, but in Beasts it's played for High Intentions, not laughs or even giggles, and the Max-Max-beyond-Thunderdome redux at the heart of the screenplay has a hasty sloppy blatancy that doesn't expand, only contract until you feel like you never want to see anyone ever, I mean ever, eat shellfish again. 

An exoticness haunts every scene, but it's a made-up, flagrant exoticness built on the way poverty is often portrayed in movies, as nasty and hopeless and crude, hyper-Brueghelian.  That lavishly accomplished crudeness is supposed to be the aesthetic I guess, but it feels phony because Beasts wants to be precious and mean at the same time, soulfully grimy and full of "life," but it has a lot more bark than bite, and the poetry gets flattened by the movie's undying need to show us how brave and fierce and heroic the little girl is.

And speaking of her, Quvenzhane Wallis is spunky and wonderful, but she does not have enough character to play.  She's a sweet one-note.  In fact all the characters in Beasts are like that, types and not people, rushing around trying to save themselves, but then again also making pit-stops along the way to say something sweet or wicked or profound. 

Sometimes outsider art can feel just as contrived as insider art.  When we used to go to the Folk Art Festival in Atlanta and do a booth, we were always surrounded by artists who wished they were "outsiders," and their paintings and sculpture felt feigned and even a little cynical:  slipshod, catastrophic paintings on old pieces of wood of grinning dogs and Martians, junky, collapsing "found" objects nailed together to create that effect that "outsider art" is supposed to give off, a sense of whimsy and oddness and exoticness.  But for the most part that Folk Art gig felt like a celebration of freaky wannabes, not the real thing.  And that's the Beasts' conundrum too. By trying so hard to be eccentric, the movie turns into a boring little folk song about the end of the world.