When I worked at the Reader, my job required me to know most of the movies, concerts, and plays going on in Chicago. It was handy for when I was going out, because I knew not only where and when things were happening, but also whether or not our critics recommended them. But it also meant that I couldn’t see anything without preconceptions. Now that I no longer have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of arts and entertainment events, I can wander into a mystery—a blissful ignorance particularly suited for an oddball film like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It has a weird title; it has a weird poster; it was made by and stars total unknowns; so I went and saw it.
(Mild spoilers below; how much it spoils things for you depends on how much context you want going into it.)
The short of it: Beasts of the Southern Wild was co-written and directed by Behn Zeitlin, a 29-year-old with a background in animation who moved from New York to New Orleans while making his previous film, the short Glory at Sea [see below]. Notably, for the purposes of the movie, his parents are both folklorists; you may have encountered his father’s work on NPR, the New York Times, or elsewhere.
It’s about Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives in “The Bathtub,” a poor, self-sufficient enclave—set, roughly, on Isle de Jean Charles—on the Delta coast with “more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” Its multiracial residents live in elaborate squalor—residing in houses constructed from flotsam and rusty mechanical parts, subsisting on crawfish and livestock, holding ramshackle brass-band parades, treating one another with folk remedies, and drinking a lot. (One of the many wonderful contraptions assembled for the film is Hushpuppy’s dad’s boat, a motorized raft built from the back of an old pickup.) I’ve seen it described as “part Tree of Life and part Treme,” but my first reaction was that it was a bayou Gummo, down to the amateur cast and the perceptive, wild-haired young narrator, but without the suburban nihilism.
They’re poor and isolated, and prideful in their isolation; Hushpuppy and her dad, Wink, revel in the physical beauty of the Bathtub and distrust the land on the other side of the levee, visible only as an out-of-focus refinery in the distance. They’re deeply and fervently attatched to the land and the community, and refuse to leave in the face of an oncoming storm.
Therein is another small spoiler, and much of the tension in the movie. After the storm passes, the remaining residents of the Bathtub are forcibly relocated to an eerily bright, sterile shelter, which Hushpuppy describes as an acquarium without water, and the people of the bathub react like fish in a dry tank, miserable and angry. The revelry and freedom of the Bathtub are in stark contrast to the shelter, and the direction intensifies the frozen claustrophobia and suffocating captivity of the latter. It’s an uncomfortable tension for a lot of reasons.
First, the film was shot in post-Katrina Louisiana. As Michael Phillips writes, “his work is unthinkable without the aftermath of that natural and then human-exacerbated disaster.” Zeitlin, as you would expect from his heritage, is a canny folklorist, and I tend to agree with Roger Ebert when he argues that “the Bathtub is this place in this time, and how can it ’stand for’ anything else?” But given the context of the movie, I had to forcibly treat it as folklore and not metaphor. That said, it’s uncomfortable to see an allegory (whether or not that allegory is in the screen or in the viewer’s head) for a massive public-policy tragedy, one exacerbated by poverty, being described as an uplifting celebration of simplicity: “A wholly original post-Katrina bayou fairytale…. The Bathtub is a happy, communal place, a sort of damp marsh where people and animals roam blissfully unconstrained by materialistic standards…. The film offers a resounding tribute to the resolve of The Bathtub’s hardy locals, who refuse to abandon their homes or their dreams of maintaining their unlikely, magical community.”
Zeitlin himself has encouraged this reaction, to an extent:
Obviously on some level, on some very real level, these characters do experience poverty. But the film, their story, I think, is far more centered on the idea of living free from the burden of possessions. Phrases like living off the grid or DIY living come to mind. One of the things we establish early on is that anybody in the Bathtub [the fictional swamp community where the characters live] could move out into the community beyond the levee and get a job. But they don’t want to. In fact they live in a sort of decadence. They’re connected to the land and each other and there are always these celebrations between people. They feast on seafood and all they need is all around them all the time. In fact there’s very little sense of oppression that one normally associates with poverty.
But the portrait Zeitlin paints in the film is more complex. Wink is a protective father, teaching his daughter to survive the rough life of the Bathtub; he’s also an abusive drunk who is shown shoving and throwing things at Hushpuppy (who, in turn, hits him back). Dana Stevens, in a perceptive review and one of the few negative ones the film received, presents how difficult this is to resolve: “Zeitlin is at pains to remind us that the Bathtub people are courageous, life-loving survivors, despite (or, it’s sometimes suggested, because of) heavy drinking and family dysfunction…. Wink is shown treating his daughter with alternating savagery and neglect—behaviors that were hard for me to square with later scenes, when he’s painted as a devoted, self-sacrificing father.”
I don’t know that it needs to be “squared.” People can be savage and devout, aggressive and protective. Wink, an older single father, is teaching Hushpuppy to survive on her own in the Bathtub in his absence; it’s easy to see how this can bleed over into violence, the subject of the lesson becoming the target. “My only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it,” Wink says, and in a hard place like the Bathtub, that means making her hard. Zeitlin’s portrait of Wink is in keeping with that of the Bathtub. Hushpuppy is loyal to him despite his negligence, just as the Bathtub’s residents are loyal to their home despite its uncertainty—despite the fact that living their could kill them at any time.
What does the Bathtub have to do with Chicago? It has to do with anywhere people are resettled; as a friend once reminded me, the only contemporary mass relocation of people comparable to the Katrina exodus is the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. Beasts of the Southern Wild particularly spoke to me because of that, and because the first short story I wrote, as a middle-schooler, was a fable about a farmer who refused to leave as his land was flooded for a rural-electrification project—inspired by the shacks under the man-made lake I swam in as a child, and no doubt by my mother’s own background in Appalachian storytelling. It was a bit like the story of Erastus Lindamood, a real-life folk hero of the TVA resettlements, which itself has echoes of Beasts of the Southern Wild:
With a gray beard, a long nose and deep dark eyes, Lindamood was a man as quirky as his name. He was eccentric even in a holler of eccentrics, in the remote Union County glade he called home, maybe 25 miles north of Maynardville, Tenn., near the unnavigable Powell River.
A slow, methodical man with a photographic memory, Lindamood knew the birthdate of every tree and bush planted on his property. To hear his neighbors talk about him, he was a man of near-supernatural powers. They said he could cure children of diphtheria. He also had a secret technique that would make elderly cows and goats long past their reproductive years bear young again.
As the story goes, Lindamood’s family kept a “perpetual fire” burning from the Civil War up through the day he was relocated to make way for the Norris Dam, one of 2,900 people (and 5,000 graves) uprooted by the flood control and electrification project. The Norris Dam resettlement is the subject of a book, TVA and the Dispossessed, and the accounts of the former residents of the Norris Basin reflect the death of self-sufficiency they saw with the destruction of the area: “They [the community] worked together. If someone got sick and couldn’t work his property, why, people would go in and work it for them and take care of it a lot more than they would now—they wouldn’t do it now nowhere, but they did then at that time.”
James C. Scott calls the processes that bring about plans like the TVA “seeing like a state,” and it can be a bloodless enterprise, as captured in an article about the real-life Isle de Jean Charles, which is being consumed by erosion, the rerouting of the Mississippi, and sea-level rise:
“We did originally try to put them in there,” Mr. Zeringue said. “The problem is, based on the cost-benefit ratio, it would cost too much to include that sliver of land. For the cost, you could buy the island and all the residents tenfold.”
In effect, the government had to ask itself: is it worth $100 million or more to protect a shrinking spit of an island, its only road, its modest homes, some of them little more than shacks, and its 250 residents, whose families have lived here for generations? Its conclusion: no.
NB: you could buy all the residents tenfold.
The people left on the island, mostly the native Biloxi-Chitimacha, don’t want to leave, but they don’t necessarily want the government to save them, either:
A few years ago, the island’s residents rejected a proposal to be relocated somewhere within the Morganza skirt. Since then, water and mortality have continued to creep, leaving some of the younger members to question the point of it all.
Not that many of them trust the government. Residents float conspiracies about greedy land speculators and oil interests craving the liquid gold that may lie beneath. Their distrust runs deep in the softening soil; they don’t have to think too far back to remember a time when they could neither pray nor learn beside white people.
Zeitlin, in an interview with The Atlantic, comes down firmly on the side of the dispossessed, no matter what: “I guess it is a political statement. People should not be forced to leave their homes. The whole movie is about why you can’t be pulled out of your home…. It’s not good for people to be put in a shelter in the middle of nowhere. That’s not better than them fending for themselves in their homes, even if it threatens their lives. It threatens their lives much more to be removed than it does to stay.”
But Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t a polemic. Even as Zeitlin calls the Bathtub an utopia, the film he made presents something different. It’s a paradise built in hell, with all the paradoxes and questions that idea raises—but that the film doesn’t answer.
Related: Zeitlin’s 2008 Glory at Sea:
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