Monday, February 18, 2013

Blood Eating Itself: Beasts Of the Southern Wild & the Doctrine of 'Good Suffering'

"You're my friend, kind of," Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) tells the giant auroch facing her, and this simple statement shapes the perspective of the entire film because it reveals the philosophy of the six-year-old and the path she has chosen to follow for her life; I admit, I was dreading watching this film. I am a capitalist and I thoroughly expected a pro-socialist film but that's not what director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin delivers: nominated for the Academy's Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, the spirituality-infused chaos theory the film founds its tale upon whispers of hope and strength, courage and determination, making Hushpuppy a heroine in the eyes of all viewers.
The primary poster of a film depicts the one image the film makers want the potential viewer to have locked within their mind of what will be communicated by the inner-conflict the film will present or the success story or some combination. The visualization of a little black girl with sparklers invokes the day Americans celebrate our Independence, the 4th Of July; for this reason, and because the liberal media portrays the black population has being thoroughly behind Obama and socialism, I did initially react to this as portraying a new independence from capitalism and the traditions of America; instead, in the context of the entire film, it becomes a re-affirmation of everything America stands for and who Americans are and that Hushpuppy is an American, not a socialist. The primary device of the film, magical realism made famous by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, involves basically two elements of the film: the aurochs--a mythical beast frozen in the Arctic ice caps that comes to Hushpuppy's bayou community, and the ship Grumpy she gets on to go in search of her mother at the floating catfish shack, both elements exceeding the realm of reality (and both discussed further below). Why did film makers chose to include this device? For at least two reasons: one, the the sense of something greater at work in the universe is required to validate Hushpuppy's choice at the end, that it's the greater good she chooses and she recognizes it; secondly, that greater good is also working for Hushpuppy. She's not alone in the universe, and by virtue of being  part of the universe, she's important. 
You have patiently been hearing me describe chaos theory all year now--from Men In Black III and the Griffin to Darwin and Chronicle and Pirates! Band Of Misfits--and why it's so important. From the very first images of the film, Beasts Of the Southern Wild validates chaos theory because (while it does not come right out and say there is a God) chaos theory, unlike Darwin/Evolutionary theory, does not make the case for God scientifically impossible. Because the film incorporates both the butterfly effect and Mandelbrot setsHushpuppy understands herself as being a part of something larger, and everything being connected, so when one thing breaks--no matter how small--everything is effected by that. Economically, what is this saying? The point of equilibrium balancing all the world's events likens itself to the invisible hand of capitalism/market forces which describes the self-correcting nature of the market. That equilibrium and invisible hand also guides and protects Hushpuppy, even in the midst of bad things happening.
Why is Hushpuppy called “Hushpuppy?” We can best answer that through the person of Miss Bathsheba. When we first meet her, she instructs the children of The Bathtub about the aurochs, and how they would go into the caves and eat the cave babies. Two things come from this tale: first, she tells the children that the cave babies and parents weren't “pussies” about it, they learned to take care of themselves. In the setting of where Hurricane Katrina occurred, and this is the point of the story, the people of The Bathtub might not do what you and I would do, but they take care of themselves and each other, and it's clear, when the government does come, the government is being intrusive and is unwelcomed and unwanted. Miss Bathsheba's story, then, clearly announces our second point, that the “ways of socialism” with the government coming in to take over your life, is not natural, because when the aurochs attacked the cave babies, there wasn't a government there to defend them or give food stamps and entitlement programs to the grieving parents; they adapted and learned the hard way. The children learning to take care of themselves and each other—those sweeter and smaller than you—and the government intervention not being natural tells us exactly why Hushpuppy is called “Hushpuppy”: Hushpuppy is not a meal for an auroch or anyone else. There are those who might have thought she was born for the sole purpose of being a meal for them (a hushpuppy on the side of a big meal) but she has learned to take care of herself and will, and the auroch isn't going to come into her cave and eat her like a hushpuppy.
While the first most important line of the film is when Hushpuppy tells the auroch, "You're my friend, kind of," the second is what her father Wink tells her: "My blood is eating itself," and he doesn't want her to see it so he tries to send her to safety. Up to the point in the film, we know Wink is sick, but not the exact diagnosis; we see it, however, in the way he acts, because "blood eating itself" is an act of cannibalism, an act of savagery, and Wink literally acts like a "beast," encouraging Hushpuppy to do the same (self-sabotage is another way to describe how Wink behaves). More on this issue in a moment, but heretofore, we have discussed the idea of the recurring theme of the "savage" in film, from Moonrise Kingdom to Savages, and Beasts Of the Southern Wild weighs in at savages and beasts being bad, not just for the person, but society as a whole.
 Now, back to Wink.
The lack of costume change for Hushpuppy forces us to consider why she wears what she wears (and doesn't wear). As we know, feet symbolize the will, so politically--and I believe this is a legitimate problem in the black community with finding their own identity--we could say the white boots ("Cajun Reeboks," as Michelle, a reader, kindly informed me, used in shrimping) being white signifies that her will is an act of faith (symbolically, white is the color of faith, so she has faith in the future) but wearing a pair of shoes so specific to an occupation means she is probably "locked into" the shrimping industry in some way, even if that is like the job of her mother and the other women at the diner later in the film; similarly, her white tank top--covering the place of her heart--could be said that her morals and values are instilled in her by a white society (because the chest is the place of the heart, the torso usually, but not always, signifies the region of the heart and what we hold most valuable to us); likewise, it's not a stretch to say that--as a white person--her relationship with her father and community breaks the typical notions whites have of relationships (such as the way Wink and Hushpuppy show love for each other). By the end of the film, however, this has changed: Hushpuppy is no longer a political or civil rights puppet, she has made her own choices, and the white of her clothes invokes faith and her purity of heart, demonstrating that--in spite of the monsters of hardship she has experienced throughout her story--she is a better person because of it and hardship has not overcome her.
As was noted in the case of Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009) and the character of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the first thing we see her do is "wink" at Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) in the fighting pit; why? It reveals that Irene has incomplete "sight" about where her actions are leading her and she doesn't see the danger she's getting herself into: she's "short-sighted," in other words, and lacks vision of the future; likewise, we can say the same of "Wink" (Hushpuppy's father) that he, too, fails to see the consequences of his actions (Miss Bathsheba would agree with this because she goes to stop him from blowing up the levee, believing that don't realize the consequences of their actions; please see Irene Adler vs Mary Morstan: The Women Of Sherlock Holmes for more, and the discussion extends into the comments section). There is another dimension to this name, as well: "wink" could signal a lack of self-reflection. For a six-year-old, Hushpuppy seems to have a grounded awareness of what is going on and who she is, an awareness Wink seems to lack and, because eyesight often refers symbolically to one's inner-wisdom (the ability to "see" beyond mere appearances), his name--the conveyor of his identity--conveys his lack of identity. 
Why does Hushpuppy fix the cat food for herself? This is her putting herself on the level of an animal because she feels that way because she doesn't have a mama or daddy (in her mind). It's the genius of the film makers to have Hushpuppy “cook the canned cat food” because this image brings together contradictions of which we would not be aware otherwise, namely, the cooking is a human activity (only humans cook our food) but only animals eat the cat food (in a environment as poor as the Doucets', do you really think Wink spends money on canned cat food?). When Wink cooks for Hushpuppy, and they eat together, that's a labor of love he does for her, something to show Hushpuppy that she is “the Boss Lady,” the one for whom he does everything and loves.
From the very start of the film, when we are first introduced to aurochs--the creatures that lived during the Ice Age and ate the cave babies--the viewer sees them and not only knows they are menacing creatures and frightful, merciless predators, but as well, probably a symbol for capitalists. How can I say this? First, because they are "pigs" with inverted tusks, we can relate them to the general, contemporary rhetoric going on about capitalists in films identifying capitalists with pigs, such as Lawless (there is also the ugly factory in the background of the bayou where the people who are afraid of the water live, so there is a divide between those on one side of the levee and those on the side of The Bathtub). Secondly, what Hushpuppy herself says: "You're my friend, kind of," and this qualification "kind of" means she understands that good has come from the evil the aurochs represent, that because she knew bad things were coming, she herself has risen above the circumstances so as not to be destroyed by them and this makes her a heroine and a capitalist; how?
There are numerous references to M. Night Shymalan's The Village, notably in how the aurochs are presented and the use of similar music. Just as Hushpuppy, a six-year-old, goes on a journey to find her mother (and brings the gator back for her father), so Ivy Walker goes on a journey to get medicines from the town; both women seem unable to meet the challenges their journey will present yet both manage because of the kindness of others and their own strength. Ivy's defeat of  one of "those of whom we do not speak" is like, very much so, to Hushpuppy's overcoming her fear of the aurochs and Hushpuppy recognizing that the auroch is her friend kind of because without them she wouldn't have done the great thing she did and become the person she was meant to become. Just as Ivy demonstrates that love is greater than the pain caused by violence and bad people, so Hushpuppy demonstrates that courage and self-reliance, love of family and community can overcome everything.
In films such as Cloud Atlas and Ice Age 4, suffering and hardship are portrayed as bad; trust me, I don't like suffering anymore than anyone else, but liberals and socialists specifically use our fear of suffering to create a desire for government protection in place of God's protection or God allowing us to endure certain events so we become stronger. Hushpuppy realizing this doctrine of good suffering means she knows the aurochs symbolize bad things in general, but if they weren't there, she would be weak and unable to defend herself; lifting herself up (an important theme in the film) she becomes what she needs to be in order to be.
At the end of the film, Hushpuppy looks into the auroch's eye and sees a bit of life, and knows that she has been brave and her life--and the lives of those she loves--has also been spared because she has done the right thing and shown courage. Where else have we seen a person look deep into the eyes of an animal lately? The Life Of Pi, when Pi looks into the eye of the whale and sees the entire universe because the film makers want to illustrate that "point of equilibrium" wherein all things are harmoniously balanced; don't believe me? What happens next in the film? The whale's tale flips over (unbalances) the boat with the food supply. The great question: why does the aurochs kneel before Hushpuppy? Because it's the ultimate transcendence. The auroch is powerful and Hushpuppy is helpless; the aurochs are several and Hushpuppy is alone; the aurochs are huge and Hushpuppy is little. What a film such as Cloud Atlas wants us to believe, is that we are helpless against the terror of the universe and the government has to protect us or we are doomed because capitalists (such as the doctor played by Tom Hanks, or the tribal chief and CEO both played by Hugh Grant) will come, like the aurochs, and devour us. Beasts of the Southern Wild demonstrates how the aurochs recognize the dignity and greatness of Hushpuppy and they respect it because of their own dignity and greatness (the eyes are the window of the soul, so when Hushpuppy looks into the auroch's eye, she seems "him" as he sees her).
We could say that Hushpuppy Mama killing the alligator, and Wink's explanation to Hushpuppy about her being born into the universe about 4 minutes later, invokes magical realism; why do it this way? Because magical realism explains more than just how little Hushpuppy was born, it explains the role of women in society and what makes us strong. Wink sleeping on the lawn chair, wearing a black shirt, means that he is dead—black is the color of death and that he was sleeping means he was in a state of spiritual death—and this explanation supports our discussion on “Wink” not having spiritual insight into himself, because the lack of self-knowledge is death of the soul. What do alligators symbolize? That's an excellent question, because there is no stable “meaning” for an alligator, so we have to use our knowledge of symbols and the storyline to develop a cohesive meaning for this scene.
Throughout the film, Wink perpetually engages in self-sabotage, even self-destruction. In art, when a character has a disease, the illness actually reveals the person's spiritual state of being, the illness illustrates what is wrong with that character. Wink never gives us the official diagnosis of what is wrong with him, only that his blood is eating itself, or that which gives him life is also taking his life.  In terms of his character, we can say that which makes Wink feel free and alive also makes him a slave and dead (the way he lives in the shack and behaves) and that which makes him feels human also makes him an animal and he teaches this to Hushpuppy (as when Uncle John teaches her how to at the crab properly but Wink insists that she "beasts it," or eats it like a wild animal, then he applauds her for it). Culturally, why is this important? Perhaps it's commentary on how the black community is living (more on this below int he next caption). 
Alligators are ancient reptiles, so while we don't know an exact representation, we can compare one ancient reptile to another ancient reptile: dragons. As in the legends of St. George, the dragon not only symbolizes the devil, but the devil's specific means of temptation: sex. Wink describes how he and Hushpuppy Mama were too shy to do anything but sit around and drink beer and smile at each other; when the alligator comes creeping up to Wink, it's clearly a threatening situation, and Wink is unable to defend himself. Hushpuppy Mama stands between Wink and the gator, in her underwear, and shoots the gator, blood splattering over the white of her undergarments.
What does this mean?
Afrocity Brown writes, "I left the Democratic Party when I realized that they did not look at me as an American but as a helpless pawn of a monolith created expressly for their need of government control. When I look at me I see an American with ideas, hopes and dreams of the best for her country. When liberals see me, they see a skin color, a statistic, a vagina, a vote for entitlements, a wounded soul, a charity case, a victim. I reject their observation. I decided that my racial and sexual identity would no longer be used and abused by the liberal body politic."  I think Hushpuppy is saying the exact same thing, and the beasts in Beasts Of the Southern Wild are those who are deliberately sacrificing their humanity to become a liberal statistic. 
We could say that the gun is a phallic symbol—it certainly is in Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters—and Hushpuppy Mama protecting Wink is not a feminist statement of power usurpation, rather, that is the natural role of women, to stop men from giving into temptations (recall, if you will, how Wink and Walrus put dynamite in the alligator to blow up the levee, and Miss Bathsheba, in the role of Hushpuppy Mama, tries to stop them; Hushpuppy blowing up the levee demonstrates that Hushpuppy doesn't know what she should do as a woman, but she's only six, and so the water leaves but the government comes, and instead of “fixing” the universe, Hushpuppy—by listening to Wink—has broken it). Hushpuppy has to learn to "be the man" before she can teach her future husband how to "be the man." 
The black tank top Wink wears in this film signifies a state of death (recall, please, that he was sleeping when the creeping gator woke him up, so his state of sleeping and the black shirt means he was in a spiritual state of death). Hushpuppy Mama stepping in-between him and the devil (the gator) is the role of women proper, to defend the spirit of men because women were created from spirit whereas men were created from the earth.
Why is there "magic in the gator?"
It probably goes back to that ancient idea that if you eat your enemy, you gain power from eating that enemy. Since an alligator was going to threaten Wink, eating the gator demonstrates that threat was overcome and visualizes the dominance gained (what we have been discussing with Hushpuppy overcoming the aurochs and the threat they present). So why doesn't Hushpuppy kill the aurochs the way Hushpuppy Mama kills the gator? Because the aurochs will remain as a part of Hushpuppy to keep her pushing for the rest of her life thereby expanding her strength to live the way she should; the gator/devil was threatening to take Wink's life and so had to be killed but the aurochs will continue to give Hushpuppy life as long as she responds correctly to their presence (she responds to challenges and hardships in her life instead of giving up).
Aboard the ship Grumpy which takes her exactly where she needs to go because it's that kind of ship. Without a doubt, we think of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hearing "Grumpy" because of Grumpy the dwarf; so what does this mean? Perhaps, rather than a specific reference to Grumpy, it's meant to invoke a general fairy tale, the lessons and ways in which fairy tales work out in the end because there is a divine design (chaos theory) to which all events adhere and a greater good guiding those who place their trust in that greater good. Likewise, the strange little side note of the captain of Grumpy saving the wrappers of his chicken and biscuits: it reminds him of who he was when he ate each of them. We could say this is a direct affront to Darwinist principles because Darwinism defines us as animals but, if we grow and become "better" and recognize that in ourselves, we are not animals, but humans.
Why does Hushpuppy send Wink off in the boat/truck all aflame? What does it remind us of? Beowulf and the legend of King Arthur; in lighting the pyre with her father upon it, Hushpuppy recognizes that a part of her has died (the father symbolizes the "founding father," in this case, possibly the traditions of her people, a part of her she holds in honor, but simultaneously purges herself of through the fire); she honors that part of her and treasures it, but she lets it go.
There is an odd situation going on here. On the one hand, going down the stairs, as Hushpuppy does in this image, means she enters the realm of the lower appetites; on the other hand, her mother lifts her up to hold her, and this is an important moment in the film.
So what about Hushpuppy Mama? The girls from the bayou who dance with the old prostitutes will probably become that themselves; Hushpuppy dances with her mother, who is the cook, so what does that mean? Hushpuppy, who was fixing herself cat food earlier, is no longer an animal, the way the government agents might look at her, rather, Hushpuppy will become one who gives nourishment to others, like Miss Bathsheba and Hushpuppy Mama. Hushpuppy giving her father the gator before he dies shows how she has grown up, she no longer has to depend upon him for "feed up time," but she has provided for him the nourishment of the soul, and that soul food is the genuine meaning of the whole film.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner