A little while ago I was having a discussion with someone over on the Lovecraft Ezine message board where I posited that it is perfectly possible to have a multiplicity of readings of a work of art and that it is also possible, desirable even, for an individual to be able to read a work in different ways. This was, of course, in relation to the racism in the work of Lovecraft and how it informed his cosmic horror. I recently came across a piece by Adolph Reed on the films Django Unchained and The Help which came out in 2013. In the article Reed also discusses the previous year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. In the article Reed analyses the films and their appeal to liberals on their supposedly anti-racist credentials.
Now I never read Beasts of the Southern Wild through the lens of racial politics in the US and more of a fairy tale fantasy with contemporary trappings. The story of the film is told through the eyes of a small child living in extremely harsh circumstances and has a focus on the stories she uses to interpret and understand the events unfolding around her. Adolph Reed however reads it as a valorisation of poverty and as a form of poverty porn for liberal types with a penchant for “social justice”.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which also received startlingly positive responses from nominal progressives, marks the reactionary vector onto which those several interpretive strains converge. It lays out an exoticizing narrative of quaint, closer-to-nature primitives living in an area outside the south Louisiana levee system called the Bathtub, who simply don’t want and actively resist the oppressive intrusions—specifically, medical care and hurricane evacuation, though, in fairness, they also mark their superiority by tut-tutting at the presence of oil refineries—of a civilization that is out of touch with their way of life and is destroying nature to boot. The film validates their spiritually rich if economically impoverished culture and their right to it. (Actually, the Bathtub’s material infrastructure seems to derive mainly from scavenging, which should suggest a problem at the core of this bullshit allegory for all except those who imagine dumpster-diving, back-to-nature-in-the-city squatterism as a politics.) Especially given its setting in south Louisiana and the hype touting the authenticity of its New Orleans-based crew and cast, Beasts most immediately evokes a warm and fuzzy rendition of the retrograde post-Katrina line that those odd people down there wouldn’t evacuate because they’re so intensely committed to place. It also brings to mind Leni Riefenstahl’s post-prison photo essays on the Nilotic groups whose beautiful primitiveness she imagined herself capturing for posterity before they vanished under a superior civilization’s advance.
Beasts of the Southern Wild stands out also as a pure exemplar of the debasement of the notion of a social cause through absorption into the commercial imperative, the next logical step from fun-run or buy-a-tee-shirt activism. The film’s website, has a “get involved” link, a ploy clearly intended to generate an affective identification and to define watching and liking the film as a form of social engagement. There’s nothing to “get involved” with except propagandizing for the film. But the injunction to get involved pumps the idea that going to see a movie, and spending money to do so, is participating in a social movement.
I hadn’t looked at the film that way before and, on reading this, it is entirely obvious that this is one of the effects of the film. Now I’m not from the US and so am blissfully, for the most part, unaware of the cultural setting in which something like this is presented. So for me the film was, as I said above, a beautiful dreamy fairy tale set amid a backdrop of gruelling poverty. Now, thanks to reading Reed, I have a deeper understanding of the work and can place it more firmly in the cultural morass which produced it. I can however still enjoy the movie as a dreamy fairy tale told and filmed beautifully. I don’t see any real contradiction between enjoying a work for its aesthetic and entertainment achievements and being able to analyse it critically.
That’s not to let all works of film and art off the hook however. Sometimes a film or book is so totally devoid of aesthetic and entertainment value that all that remains is the critical analysis which identifies the piece of shit for exactly what it is…
(Seriously, watch this. It’s one of the best film reviews ever 🙂 )