Who would like to see a really good film about America? One of the chief virtues of being carpet-bombed by American movies has always been seeing what the country had been up to lately — how the old girl was shaping up. She’s been a little absent from screens of late. Sure, we get to see a generic New York smashed to smithereens every summer, but the giant vistas that once haunted John Ford, or the jittery streets that kept Martin Scorsese up nights seem to have faded from cinema screens. Woody Allen sends postcards home from London, Barcelona, Rome; even Scorsese went Parisian for Hugo; while the hip young auteurs circle the globe, collecting hosannahs from the international festival circuit: Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is his first set on American soil in a decade.
We’ll always have the Coens, of course, quietly at work stitching together a patchwork quilt of their country — New York in the 1950s (The Hudsucker Proxy), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?) Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), their quirky charm resting in their ability to see their country from the outside — strangers in their own land. Something of that mixture enlivens Beasts of the Southern Wild. Made on a shoestring by a resourceful New Orleans-based collective, and directed by 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, the film came out of nowhere to snatch the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and rightly so. It’s easily the most original American film of 2012.
It’s about a black six-year-old named Hush Puppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who holds the camera’s attention with an indomitable poise, a thick thatch of hair, a feral scowl and a smile that could melt ice-caps. “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub,” she tells us, blessed with innate solipsism known to children and narrators of fiction, from Huckleberry Finn to Terrence Malick’s boys in The Tree of Life. She acts as if the centre of the known universe. In many ways, she is. The film is set in the marshy Louisiana lowland called the Bathtub, whose hardscrabble inhabitants spend their time fishing, scavenging, breaking open crabs and drinking moonshine like there’s no tomorrow in rickety, water-logged shanties built from pieces of old cars and caravans, with occasional breaks to howl at the moon.
On the outskirts of the swamp sits a city belching pollution — a grey Oz. There are melting ice-caps, and a flood, and finally monsters, but none of this amounts to a plot, any more that did the wanderings of Odysseus. Instead, Zeitlin tunes into the lyrical voodoo of childhood with a liquid feel for sequence and consequence: a blow to her father’s chest sounds to Hush Puppy like a thunderclap. A missing mother sounds her Siren call. This has to have been the movie playing in Spike Jonze’s head when he made Where The Wild Things Are: a howl-at-the-heavens ode to being child king, feet planted in the mud and mess of America, head filled with myth and magic. Imagine Mad Max as retold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and you’re halfway there.
Maybe that’s how America should look on screen right now, I thought as I left the theatre. Maybe that’s the American genre now: magic realism. It used to be realism, at the movies as much as on the page, but the role of national chronicler has largely fallen to television these days. In another era, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Band of Brothers would all have been movies, but the industry that would have made them is now largely dead. In a recent New York Times article, Michael Cieply noted that of the 20 biggest hits of last year, only two — Bridesmaids and The Help —were set in anything recognizable as North America. In 1992, it was 15 out of 20. It’s one reason the Academy has gone fishing overseas for its big Oscar winners in recent years — The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire — always reserving a spot on the nominations for something flinty and home-spun from the indie-world: two year’s ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year, it will be Beasts of the Southern Wild.
It’s not entirely free of the romanticism that dogs the genre, and it is now a genre: call it the American Exotic, ferrying news from the furthest pits of national squalor to the comfort of the urban movie house. Zeitlin is a Rousseauist. The drunken dysfunction of Hush Puppy’s family is lushly ennobled — her father even refusing medical treatment to keep the corrupting influence of civilization at bay — but the film gets you with all its glorious rot, like mud between your toes. It’s a sensory marvel. At one point, Hush Puppy and her family are fished out of the flood waters and forcible evacuated; such has been your immersion in the movie’s muck and clutter, that the entire scene, with its bright antiseptic lights and clean, white orderlies — “Like a fish tank without any fish” says Hush Puppy — plays like a report from Mars. Actually, no. Just America. Which might be the same thing, these days.A-