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June 29, 2012

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I.V.

Since my review of the film for Mubi got brought up in this discussion, I thought I'd chime in on the subject of "rich kids."

Yeah, I make a parenthetical jab in the review at the fact that Zeitlin doesn't share a class background with the characters. But the "class disconnect" between filmmaker and subject isn't an issue. Rossellini was a rich kid. Renoir was a rich kid with a famous dad. Visconti (born a count!) was the ultimate rich kid. The class difference between Zeitlin -- who I assume is one form of middle class or another -- and his subject doesn't come close to the difference between, say, Visconti and the characters of OSSESSIONE or ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS.

The issue isn't with the privileged making films about the poor; most filmmakers are privileged, either by background (which gave them the connections / capital to get into movies in the first place) or by virtue of their profession, since filmmaking tends to pay fairly well. And anyway, making movies / books / TV shows / video games / whatehaveyou about people who aren't like you is one of the joys of creating fiction, isn't it?

The issue is with the film's politics. The basic underlying ideas of its little magical realist universe range from offensive (though probably well-intentioned) to half-baked, and they suggest -- at least to me -- the work of someone who hasn't really thought very hard about class because it's not something that they've ever had to think about. This wouldn't be as big of an issue if the film's characters' lives weren't entirely defined by their belonging to an underprivileged class, and if the central plot points -- the storm, the levee, the evacuation -- weren't directly tied into as well.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks for the considered response, I.V. From my perspective, the "closing off" of the Bathtub represented a definite choice on the part of Zeitlen and company, rather than a hedge based on insufficient consideration of class. That the deliberate side-stepping of overt class issues was a choice with respect to their NOT making a "realist" work, that they decided to "mythologize" rather than document, or, to use your term, work in a "magical realist" mode. This is a path fraught with real and virtual peril, and as I said in my own review of the picture, the chance that the result might emerge as an "ash heap of 'we-care-a-lot' clichés" filled me with dread. That the movie took me to a rather different place was pretty gratifying to me. And for me, what wound up being its crucial underlying "idea" was an askew quest story in a very unusual context. Whether it's "too soon" to apply Hurricane Katrina to one's mythmaking is something else again. For myself, I'm not going to extrapolate Zeitlin's ideological assumptions or blind spots from what's on screen, and I'm curious as to what you'd think the film might have achieved, or looked more like, had Zeitlen "thought through" the politics to your satisfaction. I imagine that Pedro Costa's politics are impeccable, but that hasn't stopped the two or three critics who object to his work from throwing "exploitation-of-the-poor" accusations at him.

As for "thinking about class," yes, that's all well and good, but I suppose there's also the question of what context you do your thinking. As the son of working-class parents who through his created surplus value achieved something close to bourgeois status, and am currently maintaining it pretty much on a month-to-month basis, I can confidently state that I'd rather be thinking about class in college.

Account Deleted

The only thing less relevant and more degenerate than film criticism is this reversion to critics criticizing other critics. Never mind the thing itself, your opinion of the thing obsesses me.

Glenn Kenny

@ Mr. Muckle: The fact that you felt compelled to toodle over here and inform everyone of this says as much about your neurosis as it does about my practice. So everybody loses!

Oliver_C

"This is Mr. Muckle's TypePad Profile.

Following 0

Followers 0"

jbryant

FWIW, Mr. Muckle is undoubtedly trying to live up to his namesake, the cranky old blind man who wreaks havoc with his cane in W.C. Field's grocery store in IT'S A GIFT.

Oliver_C

Who the fuck calls film criticism, however incestuous, "degenerate" anyhow? Obergruppenführer Kunst von Kulturkampf?

Brian Dauth

The choice to mythologize the characters also has the effect of placing the movie in the history of films where the lives of black characters are stripped of their social context and presented as universal types. Add to this the invocation of the tragedy of Katrina (a tragedy which was intensified and worsened by social contexts), and the result is a film that can be experienced as problematic in terms of what it chooses to avoid. Zeitlin chose this avoidance -- agreed -- and we cannot infer anything about Zeitlin or his politics from this choice. But every viewer is going to respond to this choice in her own way. I think it is a safe bet to assume that Zeitlin would like the film to be understood as an “askew quest story” (though it is always dangerous to infer artistic intentions), but that does not mean the movie will be experienced that way.

I do not believe that pointing out the problematic positioning of the film (with regard to class and race) amounts to complaining that Zeitlin did not think the politics through to the extent a viewer wanted him to. Zeitlin thought things as far through as he cared to, and the movie should be received on the terms it offers – inclusionary as well as exclusionary. Viewer responses to those terms will then produce a range which includes Glenn feeling gratified and I.V. being offended. All a critic can do is record her response to the aesthetic experience she has.

John M

"I do not believe that pointing out the problematic positioning of the film (with regard to class and race) amounts to complaining that Zeitlin did not think the politics through to the extent a viewer wanted him to."

I am in very much agreement with this, for whatever that's worth. Especially now that I've seen the movie.

Because, whatever you think of it, whether you think the "myth" of Beasts is a successful one, dramatically or philosophically, it IS a political myth. The parallels to Katrina are intended and thunderously clear and, in my opinion, woefully muddled (blowing up the levee, for example: an inversion of historical rumor, or just a sampling of the rumor for dramatic expediency?). Zeitlin clearly CONSIDERED the politics here--and I don't think his intentions are malicious, I don't think he's a racist, I don't think he's totally ignorant of class, I DO think he really cares about these spirit-characters he's created--but the FILM doesn't take these very complex dynamics much beyond the doorway. And so we have a film that's very, very confused. Conveniently confused, in a fashion that allowed Zeitlin to stuff into the narrative as many heart-wrenching moments of poignancy as can be imagined.

So, it certainly FEELS like something. As though he landed in New Orleans, really dug the vibe, really dug the people, and decided to capture that high feeling--which might work for a short piece, and is a noble endeavor. But 90 minutes of a vibe, complicated only by the kind of road bumps (missing mom, mean dad, symbolic angry cattle, faceless villains) you might find in something like SHREK? With almost no investigation beyond that? Like, here's another example: we all might agree that, when a community of people gets drunk, day in and day out, it ain't just because they're living life to the fullest. Zeitlin probably considered that--but it got in the way of his triumphal myst-quest, so...onto the aurochs? In any case, it's a left turn, a moment of reflection, that the film simply refuses to follow. Hushpuppy's not the only one on a quest: Zeitlin is too. He'll get our tears flowing or he'll die trying.

The whole thing is sporadically moving because Zeitlin is good at, and relentlessly dedicated to, moving us. But you look back on the thing, you peel away the music and the fog machine and the artful junk and the airy voice-over, and it sort of crumbles. "We are all connected"--that's the message of the movie, right? Or is it, "We must fight to be free"? Or, "Home is where the heart is"?

A sort of Pixar-spirited Katrina allegory with some very cool design and very annoying music.

Don R. Lewis

John, et; all...Zeitlin is FROM New Orleans. That's why I have a hard time agreeing with people like you and Ignatiy who say his politics seem misguided or mythologized to the point where they're rendered moot. The dude was THERE for Katrina. Yeah, maybe we don't all agree about the film but it seems really weird to say the guy is "wrong" when it's his experience and maybe his way of processing it? Just feels shortsighted and derogatory to say "oh yeah, I KNOW you were there and lived through it and this is the point you want to make...andI know you have an aesthetic you use like in GLORY AT SEA, but that's all bullshit." Which, to me is what Ignatiy said in his review.

John M

No, he's from Westchester County, by way of Queens. He lives in New Orleans. He has lived there for some time since AFTER Katrina. I'm sure much of the cast lived through Katrina, but, as far as I know, he did not. I do not doubt his dedication to, or love for, that city. But the movie ain't autobiography, and it ain't his experience.

All of this is, I might add, totally beside the point. I don't really care where he's from--it doesn't really matter, just as the fact that the dudes who made it worked real long and hard on it doesn't really matter. I mean, it makes for nice press, but I didn't pay $12 to watch a press packet.

Tom Carson

Zeitlin is a New Yorker who moved to New Orleans in 2008. And I could care less about anyone thinking that somehow invalidates his movie, which I liked a lot.

Steve

Don, why does the fact that Zeitlin lived through Katrina means that he has made a film that touches on it intelligently and thoughtfully? That brings us back to the myth of authenticity Grierson brought up. Do you think a rapper who got shot 10 times necessarily has insight into street life?

I think John M. is right about the film's flaws. BEASTS rubs the viewer's nose in how environmentally conscious it is, but in the end, it's both on-the-nose and substance-free about Katrina and climate change. If Zeitlin didn't mean to invite the kind of readings Ignaity offered, why include images of ruined homes and glaciers breaking apart? He dabbles in politics, so it's fair game to judge him on political grounds.

Steve

OK, I was wrong about Zeitlin living through Katrina. Don's point about the film's authenticity is even less valid now.

Don R. Lewis

First off....MY BAD! I could have SWORN he lived through Katrina. And I think that does matter a bit, even if he's there now (and wasn't then) and it has nothing to do with true "authenticity" inasmuch as it has to do with a real RESPONSE to what's going on where he lives. You act like this is some kind of "he's Jewish for the jokes" thing. I feel the film reflects an artistic look at how Zeitlin sees the world or at least how he wants to reflect it. Again, you don't have to like it, that's not my issue with these 2 reviews.

And yeah, I kind of do think a rapper who's been shot or lived that life has insights; his/her OWN. Much as Grierson and Ignatiy seem to dislike BEASTS in part because Zeitlin isn't "poor" I don't think they're in a place to use someones social status as a reason to take a film down a peg. I don't require financial statements from anyone. It's akin to gripes about "young, white filmmakers who don't seem to have any black friends." Should they get some so their movies feel more authentic to other people when it's not their reality?

I also don't think he was trying to make an "authentic myth" which was the aspersion cast on it in the Grierson piece. I have NO problem with people taking up issues or even not liking the film. I just felt Grierson and Ignatiy went a little too personal and I still feel both reviews smack of responses to critics/press rather than what was on the screen. As if they went in with a chip on their shoulder.

Also-- this is all said respectfully....not in an angry tone.

gcgiles

I'm not a fan of Grierson's five-point manifesto against "indie-film" cliches. It's way too broad, and as Glenn aptly indicates, it makes vague references to indie-film attributes that are somehow understood without explanation ("self-conscious" camera quirks, e.g.--whatever that means aside from "no tripod"). However, I think readers should take a closer look at Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's MUBI review of BOTSW, because while being equally damning, it takes time to investigate influences that buttress the "pretty poverty" arguments it makes. I am glad Ignatiy took the time to respond here, because I do think being lumped with Grierson unfairly and inaccurately suggests that they are using the same rhetoric. Glenn chose a very convenient and deserving target, and I'm glad he got on Grierson's case for essentially using a film review in order to bitch about vague conventions that are rarely identified beyond nudges, sighs, winks, and terms that in themselves are cliche. But Ignatiy, as per usual, focuses his critique on this particular film, providing a context for his engagement with this particular film, and in the end, cogently justifying his exasperation with this particular film without resorting to bland position statements.

Lee Vy Uthan

Grierson's shoddy piece at least could have cited a few more pictures as examples of his five indie-film cliches - it was sheer laziness to pile on a single film (and not very convincingly) with all of them, as if some how critiquing Beasts were just shooting fish in a barrel, at least for those who've seen "enough" independent cinema to pick out these chronic flaws. The piece reads like a screed from a frustrated, aging film-school grad, who likely hasn't been the subject of the acclaim Mr. Zeitlin has received for his film, and compensates for a lack of success (or ambition?) with a churlish, flimsy, "I'm really not a hater [yes i am]" takedown.

Teo Macero

Honestly, Glenn, if you would spend even a fraction of the time you spend taking other critics to task simply analyzing films more closely and sharing the results, you'd be a must-read rather than a continual disappointment. You're a brilliant guy. But this endless series of "SOMEBODY IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET" posts is not the most productive use of your knowledge and talents. The thing is, you know this--and you've said as much. But you keep getting...pulled...back...in, for which you only have yourself to blame.

Why don't you pick a film or filmmaker that you really admire and have though about a lot, and set yourself a goal of writing a long, careful blog post--or hell, even a monograph--about it/him/her? I imagine the results would be much more interesting than this.

I know this sounds incredibly condescending. But I'm not saying anything you haven't yourself said before. And do you really want to spend so much of your life taking these lesser critics to task, rather than doing something really critically productive?

I stopped checking into you blog regularly years ago because it had become (or remained) dominated by critical infighting. I'll bow out again until someone lets me know that things have changed. I hope they do.

FWIW I had wish this movie were better but I found it to seem entirely too modish, calculated, and awkwardly staged--full of clichés about poor people being close to the earth and fun-loving and community-minded. And most of the "big" moments felt overemphatic and rhetorical, something _not_ helped by the insufferable Sufjan-style soundtrack (which alone would make the film a near-total loss for me). Despite the circumstances of its making, almost everything in this film felt familiar, received. It struck me as art conceived in the same well-meaning but uncomprehending spirit as a community art project that's supposed to turn around a blighted-for-decades rust belt city. If that sounds suspiciously overdetermined, I promise you I didn't know a thing about the filmmakers before I saw this. But was not surprised when I did read a bit about them.

Sal C

I think Teo's got a point there. Glenn's got a lot of nerve writing about just any old thing he wants to write about on his own personal blog. Especially given the funds that people like Teo contribute the blog's coffers. Glenn owes us all a little more than that.
Wait...

Teo Macero

I didn't say he owed me or any of his other readers anything, Mr. Remedial Reading Comprehension.

I argued that his criticism is more interesting when he's analyzing a film than when he's attacking a fellow critic. The former activity is IMO a better use of his talents. If he disagrees, well then he does. But he's basically made the same point himself on this blog, several times. Then he just goes back to the same old same old.

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