I’ve always been bothered by the ways in which marginality (especially the kind that fuses gender and color) is represented in works of art. In fact, the whole notion of “representation” I have always found problematic and at the same time intriguing. I am a folklorist/anthropologist; my profession thrives on telling other people’s stories —that is, representing other’s realities or, as it has often been the case historically, also mis-representing and acting as “the voice” of the folk whom one presumes are too busy, or occupied, or dumb, or unskilled to represent themselves. Still, despite the sins of ethnography, when representations (even of the anthropological kind) work in appropriate ethical contexts of first-voice and collaborative research, they can actually accomplish some pretty neat and occasionally powerful things.
Representations are forms of communication that seek to persuade viewers, readers, listeners, into particular shift-shaper maneuvers of meaning-making. Artists are always engaged in enterprises of representation; great and effective artists shake the whole apparatus that holds representations in place (and that therefore grants representations the aura of stability and coherence that they, in turn, so intensely wish and NEED to claim but that at any given point they can only aspire to achieve). The best artists at this craft do it through clever juxtapositions, ludic re-arrangements, appropriations and misappropriations. Think, for one, Warhol and a can of soup:
Or Fred Wilson and Africana stereotypes:
Or Astrid Hadad and “Mexican patrimony,” to name just three iconic examples from different cultural registers:
But here’s the rub: representations are never monolithic, or monologic, or one-dimensional. Meanings are never perfectly aligned and manufactured (even if you are Disney or Nickelodeon you are always gambling and hoping that the thing “represented” sticks, flow, instead of backfiring). Think Dora the Explorer; think Pocahontas. So, it is often the case that representations that involve race, class, gender, and that in addition incorporate notions of the abject and marginal, hit the viewer/reader/listener at several different nodes of signification: sometimes causing pain and dislike, sometimes causing pleasure and empathy, and more often than we care to admit, sometimes touching on BOTH ends of this spectrum at once, as embodied in a unified (paradoxical) cultural artifact or text. In these instances, suppressing the rage in favor only of laughter, tenderness, and other sugary sentiments is not an option. But for the same token, only resorting to anger and condemnation in those representations we find objectionable is disavowing the complex interplay of human emotions as (manipulated) or (prompted) by artistic works.
Such was my experience upon first watching the film by the young director Benh Zeitlin “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
As an artistic film with a definitive aesthetic vision, something in it and about it works just perfectly. Audiences are moved. It is hard not to: the film packs a punch of emotions, not the least of which is a non-professional 6-year old child actor, in the film named Hushpuppy, that suffers like no child ever should and steals your heart with her naiveté and good nature. But it is more than that; as Rachel Arons writes in The New York Times, Zeitlin’s directorial approach is conveyed largely as “intuition” and he has the ability to create in the film a “richly imagined universe” even as he attempts to root that imaginary to an actual place and people. As sheer artistic output, the film hits a high note. The problem, however, is that the imagination is never unfettered from baggage. In fact, more often than not our fears, prejudices, and bouts of intolerance are tightly interwoven with how we “imagine” others (migrants, gays, people of color, the poor, the disabled, children) to be.
This is a point that extraordinary critics of race and representations like bell hooks have made forcefully and repeatedly: portraits of Black marginality (in films like Precious or The Help) are nice stories, they may even be important and essential stories, they may be brave stories and attempting to tell them may be even braver, but these stories depend on viewers and readers activating other stories far more familiar and pernicious —-they reinforce at conscious or subconscious levels what the dominant social context has always told us about Blacks….that they are emotional “wild beasts” so much outside the range of the majority of American movie-goers’ experiences that one has only one of two choices: to cringe with horror and pain or to obey the impulse of charity and “help them.” (See related blog post here)
The main character in Mr. Zeitlin’s film is a good example of this impossible dilemma; unlike a character one would find if this same child were to be in a Toni Morrison novel, for instance, in this film we only know the child’s emotional life through a glass looking darkly (and I mean, darkly as in darkies). We know the misery of her surroundings, the despair of her environment, the failings of her alcoholic father –we can barely grasp here and there hints of a resiliency (of sorts) inside the little brave soul. But mostly we grasp her escape into fantasy –but not a Dr. Zeus fantasy, or a HarryPotterian fantasy, or even a Disney fantasy (as problematic as that would be for other reasons); but a folkloristic fantasy –where the folk she knows and of which she is a part are “the other” side of civilization –literally the other side of the New Orleans levee (but can create music and spontaneous celebrations and hold on to strange beliefs and share quaint rituals one can barely grimace at, but that are folksy, and I suppose in a primordial way, “communitarian” nonetheless).
So, here exactly is the dilemma of representations: at an emotional level, the film is quite the aesthetic experience. It stays with you; it haunts the imagination. It fills the senses with stimulations that touch deeper than water-cooler conversations. If that is what good films are supposed to do, this one is good, indeed. But what I just described only references the limbic functions of the brain: in other words, it ties well with the arousal of emotions. What about the intellectual scaffold upon which such emotions and their evocation is predicated? That’s the part of the film that does not work (ethically) and fails to be “good” (especially if a big part of your intellect reacts with an immediate sense of recognition at this portrayal: “I have seen and heard this before”). The familiarity of the abject as object and subject in Mr. Zeitlin’s film is at odds with the strangeness of the place and context where Hushpuppy lives –yet both the strange and the familiar are part of the same script of representation that viewers will draw upon to “read” this work of art as something that they, too, distant from such locales and human conditions, must join the filmmaker in “imagining.”
These musings that I’ve been nursing, somewhat lazily I must confess, for a couple of months took on a whole new life when I received notice of a blog post on the film by my good friend Dudley Cocke, Artistic Director of Roadside Theater in Appalachia, another place like the mythical Louisiana bayou that Mr. Zeitlin crafts in his film, saturated in all sorts of “otherness” in the American imaginary. Dudley Cocke writes from the perspective of someone for whom marginality and abjection are everyday fare both in the sense that these qualities often envelope life for and among his neighbors (his region being one of the favorite prison clusters in America) and are also the raw material that artists in the rural South must often act upon. I am sure Dudley Cocke has the ability to see the artistic merits embedded in Mr. Zeitlin’s work (whom I am sure is a nice enough guy and probably also very much a non-one-dimensional human being in many ways). But seen from the point of view of an insider/witness to rural despair as Dudley sure has been, what the New York Times described as a fantasy world “pulsating with natural beauty” provokes another reaction:
“So who feels exhilarated by a film that appears to be a grab-bag fantasy about the end of time, poverty, and alcoholism? I hope rural Southerners, despite some affinity for the Book of Revelation, know too much about themselves to swallow the concoction.”
and then again:
Is the film, then, thrilling, “a blast of joy,” for penned-up, pent-up middle-class suburban and urban people ready to break free into a hedonistic wild?
My aim in bringing up Dudley’s adverse reaction to a film that by any other account has and will continue to impact viewers, receive critical acclaim, and circulate as example among film school students of a brilliant artistic rendering of the emotional residue of natural and social loss is not to argue simplistically that insiders are always right and outsiders always get it wrong. It is neither my goal to argue that there is a no-trespassing zone about race and poverty, rural life, gender and violence that urbanite Eastern seaboard artists must never attempt to cross. My critique is centrally about the paradox inherent to the enterprise of representation that cannot be ignored by anyone wishing to portray marginality in visual art, literature or film.
Beasts of the Southern Wild may indeed be a film “pulsating with natural beauty and the raucous, defiant spirit” of the imagined inhabitants of a cut-off place on the other side of an overflown levee, as the writer for the New York Times put it; but it is also a film pulsating with the contradictions of a re-telling of “wildness” as embodied in the bodies, ritualized behavior, dirty and maddening environs of poor white Southern folk, African-Americans, and other sorts of melting pot mongrels.
In making a similar observation about the film Precious, Slate Magazine’s writer Dana Stevens said that the film “is supposed to be about the heroine lifting herself out of abjection, yet the film itself wallows in abjection . . . .” And that effect, intentionally or not, haunts the offered folkloric representation in Beasts to the detriment of a more honest appreciation of beauty and agency in all its messy, manifold ways in the bayou.