We live in the kind of world where perfume advertising has its own cinematography. Where, each year, award ceremonies spew forth a dirge of award-worthy material starring award-worthy faces, and the Hollywood echo-chamber applauds themselves with gusto. A world where certain subject-matters, those that affect us most, those that will destroy our children, are never filmed.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is elemental filmmaking. This is habitable cinema, the pre-embryonic kind. You could climb inside and live comfortably (or not so comfortably; this is the apocalypse come early). It is a vision of our future, but also our strange present: the wealthy squirreled away in smokestack fortresses, the rest left to live off the residue of society, burned and fucked on the outskirts, drinking themselves into Dionysian frenzies.
The film would not be possible without Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. She is the central force, like an angel of death, a vision in citrus underpants. Her father is everything of this world beneath the levy: violence and passion and self-destruction. He is also dying, in that true way that poor and fierce people will die. There are giant beasts roaming the water-logged wastelands, titans from a forgotten age. Her mother may be dead. When the storm comes, her already dilapidated universe disappears beneath the deluge. The inhabitants of their bayou are ‘resettled’ in stark white warehouses reminiscent of those in New Orleans, set up rapidly as the rich sucked money out of disaster funds. Survivors of such catastrophes are cattle, steered through intersecting corridors, an increasing reduction of choices until the final gate: the killing floor, the loss of freedom.
Yet Hushpuppy escapes once again, out into the black waters. Even an apocalypse is better than the shit we’ve created for ourselves behind storm walls and drilling platforms. She finds her mother (but perhaps she isn’t) and finally confronts the thundering beasts of the southern wild. And maybe she is the fiercest beast of all, in the way that we have all forgotten.
What kind of world is this? Somehow the earth has got away from us. We know that we are so utterly disconnected, but when we are presented with ourselves, forced to view our stunted reflections in a mirror, we see only some pantomime villain. How can this possibly be us? We wish we were the survivors, but we’re the destroyers. We wish we were the righteous, those closest to the earth, who have no means but the will to survive. But we’re the fucking killers and abbatoir operators, flicking the switches that doom millions.
And what has cinema become if it does not embody us? How can we combat this cultural malaise and listlessness, in the face of overwhelming dangers? There is no easy answer, but as long as the world keeps throwing up films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, we can hope for something better than our insulated unthinking non-existence.