Last night, the husband and I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild held over at the local art house cinema here in Reading. It is a tale—often frenzied in its pace—of a six-year-old girl called “Hushpuppy,” her alcoholic father “Wink,” and their Southern Louisiana bayou community named “the Bathtub” for its tendency to fill up with water during storms. The film has been praised by critics. As someone who hails from a distressed and endangered region like the one being depicted, I appreciated this film immensely. However, it fell short of my expectations of great art by merely communicating and reinforcing inherited cultural values and assumptions rather than stretching or pushing beyond them.
Beasts taps into our current cultural affection for place and fascination with fading American subcultures. In the post-Katrina era, this fascination has occasionally fixed upon the Louisiana Delta. While the popular HBO series Treme makes New Orleans appear so exotic as to be in a different country, the bayou in Beasts looks like it could be on a different planet. Or rather, its bleak, water-logged landscape—which Wink tells his daughter is “the prettiest on earth”—appears to hang on the edge of this world. To the north lies the levee that keeps the rest of the delta dry while turning the Bathtub into a sodden backwater. To the south, there is only the melting Antarcrtic ice sheaths and prehistoric aurochs of Hushpuppy’s fertile imagination.
Here at the bounds of civilization, the residents of the Bathtub live a primal, post-apocalyptic existence amid revolting squalor. Their grimy bodies look as though they’ve not seen an actual bathtub in ages. When the rains arrive, you’re certain they’d be safer (and cleaner) outdoors rather than in their ramshackle hovels piled to the ceiling with assorted refuse. One can just imagine them collecting this junk as it washes upon their shores from the lands beyond the levee. In spite of the filth of poverty—or perhaps because of it—residents fete regularly, often drinking themselves into a Dionysian ecstasy. Tearing and sucking the flesh of their abundant Gulf catches during alcohol-fueled, zydeco-charged crawfish boils, they conjure to mind the Maenads of myth.
Beasts’ creators self-consciously portray the Bathtubbers as noble savages who would be living in total harmony with nature if not for the levee. The levee and the constant allusions to the melting polar caps suggest that the filmmakers wish to make a statement about the cost of development and climate change to people living in low-lying coastal areas. The Bathtub dwellers are neither innocent nor ignorant of the price. For them, it is as Wendell Berry recently surmised,”there is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people.” When FEMA-like agents arrive to evacuate the island, the residents must be dragged kicking and screaming from their homes into a shelter. If their land disappears, so do they.
The official name of The Bathtub is Isle de Jean Charles, and that is also the real life island that inspired the fiction. I’ve learned that the twenty-five families who live on the gradually subsiding island in Terrebone Bay are largely American Indian. Perhaps that is why the filmmakers chose to ascribe a universalist spirituality to the Bathtub’s inhabitants rather than the Catholic or Baptist Christianity that dominates Southern Louisiana. However, the ethos of the fictional inhabitants—a non-theistic revisionist paganism—more reflects the metaphysical beliefs of certain strata of white America that it does any actual tribal beliefs. When Hushpuppy fears, in her prescient voice overs, that the storm and her father’s mysterious illness might be the result of something she did to cause “the universe” to be “out of balance,” you wonder if she hasn’t been spending time at Carl Sagan’s summer camp for kids.
While many critics have lauded the film as having an optimistic view of the human condition, the humans on both sides of the levee appear fatalistically slavish to a nature that is “red in tooth and claw.” Rather than shake their fists in rebellion at the chthonic gods, Bathtubbers capitulate to the dark earth deities. In what appears to be a school lesson, the local medicine woman/teacher tells the children, “all animals are made of meat, and that includes y’all asses too.” That meat—stinking, decaying, disembowled—is often the focus of camera close-ups.
Life is brutal, ugly, and short, and Hushpuppy is taught that survival is its ultimate goal. Despite a soaring musical score, a glorious fireworks scene, touching moments between Hushpuppy and her father, and a visit to a brothel named “Elysian Fields” where Hushpuppy encounters a surrogate for her (likely) deceased mother, this bleakness lurks. Even Hushpuppy’s final voice over following Wink’s death—wherein she affirms that “scientists of the future” will one day know “there was a girl named Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”—fails to vanquish the specter of nihilism.
And art, as Nietzsche avowed, is the “only superior counterforce” to nihilism.