Tim Grierson, writing at Deadspin, allows that he "likes" Beasts of the Southern Wild, further generously admitting that he's impressed by the "boldness of its ambitions" and the "depth of its emotional pull." That's the good news. But Tim has some bad news too, which is that the movie exemplifies the five worst indie-film clichés EVER!
But does it really? I don't know Mr. Grierson, and up until now I haven't sampled his work much (thanks a pantload, Jeffrey Wells), but it's clear he went to school and learned a little jargon and has a kit bag from which he can produce terminology to prove his point. Or has/can/does he? My general counter-argument to Mr. Grierson's is that his agenda here and perhaps in general is to outsmart art, rather than to examine and describe it. And that, proceeding from there, he merely unpacks a bunch of received academic/critical ideas, throws them at Beasts, and figures they'll stick, mainly because his terminology is kid-tested/mom-approved. This is my nice/fancy way of saying I think his theses are full of shit. Let's look at them one at a time.
Grierson kicks off by accusing Beasts of "fetishizing 'authenticity'." If you know your Lacan and Zizek, and if you've read the occasionally feisty music critic lay out a lecture you on how, you know, Charlie Patton was actually a POP musician, you'll recognize in this phrase a very big double no-no. Lucky for us, then, that when marshalling proof for this claim, he only refers to promotional materials about the making of the film, not with what's actually on screen. "[P]eople lap up stories about how Zeitlin and his cast and crew essentially lived in the handmade world of their fictional Bathtub while making the movie," Grierson sighs (I assume). "Knowing that the filmmaker personally pounded nails into wood doesn't tell us a thing about how he did at making a movie." Agreed. I don't ever wonder if Godard got seasick while shooting Film socialisme myself. But, I'm sorry, you were saying Beasts of the Southern Wild fetishizes "authenticity." Are you suggesting that its hype is inextricable from the movie itself? Because if you are, that's a different argument. That you are also not making.
Next, Grierson says Beasts "Tries Way Too Hard To be Gritty". Like a few of his other complaints, this definitely falls into the realm of the judgment call, although the extent to which one's argument that a film is "trying to hard" is effective is of course relative to the number of pertinent examples one lays out in support of the assertion. Here Grierson does not do as well as he might. He cites "stale art-house moves" such as "shaky handheld" and...and...and...oh, "other self-conscious camera tricks." Oh. Those. "Contrary to popular opinion"...UH-OH..."having the occasionally out-of-focus shot doesn't automatically suggest 'realness.'" Oooh, snap. OK, aside from the fact that the term "realness" has some Urban Dictionary cred and a vague peripheral connection to what some contemporary philosophers refer to as "the Real," it's a pretty vague term, and Grierson has little leg to stand on in assuming that it is the precise quality that Beast's director Benh Zeitlin was after. For myself, one of the things that impressed me with respect to the visuals in Beasts was a certain deceptive quality; that the way certain shots were set up, handheld or not, giving the viewer the expectation of something relatively mundane happening in the frame, and then something rather unexpected and thrilling and literally dangerous taking place, as in the scene in which a trailer catches fire, which literally had me holding my breath. This elaborate effect was all the more startling for being approached in such a seemingly offhand way, and in retrospect gives one the impression that Zeitlin is a filmmaker in very tight control over his effects, and that the "accidents" that one might take the "occasional" out-of-focus shots for are not accidents, or any such like thing.
The really rich seam of pernicious bullshit is contained in Gierson's assertion and argument with respect to supposed indie-film-cliché number three, "It Treats Poverty As Something Noble." The ostensible nobility of poverty is a complex and vexed issue, as Saint Francis would no doubt tell you were he to appear on earth at this very moment. But after making this assertion, Grierson declines to go directly there. Rather, he just writes: 'There have been eyebrows raised about the fact that Hushpuppy and Wink are black, while Zeitlin is white." Grierson then cites Richard Brody, who makes a not entirely laughable proposition—whether the movie taps into "magical, mythical blackness" is certainly worth arguing about, but not so much if you preface it with an admonishment concerning the film's "love for its characters," oy—and...that's it. Again, how convenient to have all these raised eyebrows at your disposal.
Fact is, there should not be a single eyebrow raised, and for the record, I just got off the phone with a film-savvy friend who was very taken with Beasts and didn't have a single idea as to the ethnicity of its director. Years ago, Anthony Burgess made some cranky noises at the forces of what is incorrectly termed "political correctness" and asserted that as an artist, he had every right to imagine himself into the world and voice of a homosexual, which he was not, or of a black man, which he was not. (He did exactly that in the novels Earthly Powers and M/F, respectively, if I'm not mistaken.) To deny the artist his or her imaginative prerogative on the grounds that the artist is not the thing that he or she is imagining is a form of aesthetic totalitarianism, pure and simple, and if that's the way Grierson wants things that's fine but he should at least be honest about it. But where were we? Oh, the "poverty as something noble" bit. Again, it's a judgment call. I think the residents of the movie's "Bathtub" who refuse to clear out are a bunch of loony drunks, myself. Yes, the film sets them apart as unique, and depicts the forces that come to clear them out in a way that's almost as sinister as the Orwellian campaign van in Altman's Nashville. But with respect to nobility, or a desirable way to live, I don't see how Beasts is actively selling that. Yes, its subjectivity deals with how its protagonist Hushpuppy perceives/survive the insanity and physical calamity around her, and the things within that matrix she's become attached to, but that's hardly the same thing as validating/valorizing a way of life. Again, the baggage here is not the film's but the perfectly insipid counterintuitive don't-love-me-I'm-really-not-THAT-kind-of-liberal non-response Grierson's so invested in erecting.
Bringing us to four, "It Confuses Simple Characters For Memorable Ones." I wonder, had Grierson been on the set of the film, and then in the editing room, at what point he could have said to Zeitlin, "Hey, wait a minute, you're making a mistake..." But again, Grierson doesn't make the argument. Instead, he says that the young girl who plays Hushpuppy is "undeniably captivating" but that the "filmmakers don't really give her a character to play." Huh? It's pretty clear she's a resourceful resilient very young person in an impossible situation, and she's certainly mythologized at least a bit, I can't deny that, but you know, she does also have a kind of quest, that being a reconnection with an absent and herself somewhat mythologized mother. But that's not enough "character" I guess. Further evidence that Grierson's assembling a straw man comes when he bitches that her "banal voiceover musings" are "treated as cockeyed wisdom." Well, they are in voice-over, so they clearly have some significance to them. Does the film make a church out of them? No. The girl is five goddamn years old. The viewer is meant to weigh the pronouncements against the fact that they're coming out of a five year old. Finally, Grierson lays the hammer down and damningly compares Hushpuppy to Forrest Gump, clearly one of the least memorable characters in all cinema, indie or studio, Nyah. Nyah. Nyah. (I'm not even going to get into the assertion that by putting a five-year-old in the lead role Zeitlin was self-consciously "critic-proofing" the movie. No more adorable children in movies, indie filmmakers; that's CHEATING.)
God, I'm exhausted.
Fortunately, we are up to cliché five, which I believe Orson Welles would characterize as "Impossible! Meaningless!," and it is that the film "Touches On Real-Life Events Without Saying Anything About Them." I know I've bored the tits off of most of you with my reiteration of Nabokov's "or still worse, 'What is the guy trying to say?'" So I don't need to get into that again. I'm not a big fan of "allegory" myself, but I don't argue that it ought not exist. Grierson's assertion that Beasts "tries to have it both ways" with respect to Hurricane Katrina is, one more time, more to do with the baggage he wants to load the film down with than anything that actually occurs when the film itself is onscreen.
It occurs to me that I went through a whole lot of trouble here when the sheer shittiness of Grierson's project here is handily epitomized by the way he uses the phrase "Sundance darling" in his headline.
Finally, I am more in sympathy with David Edelstein's review of the movie. And if you consider Edelstein to be precisely the "type" of critic who would be suspicious of a movie coming in on Beast's wheels of promotion, well, that's kind of my point.
UPDATE: On his Twitter feed, a critic friend notes: "So I guess the new rule is: 'Privileged' people shouldn't make art about themselves (Girls) or anyone else (Beasts)." Hmm, pretty much. Although I suspect there may be an exception codicil for Louis C.K.. (No disrespect to Mr. C.K., who is indeed great.)