Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – Benh Zeitlin (Dir.), Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Mud (2013) – Jeff Nichols (Dir.), Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Okay. So you thought I was going to do a piece on Star Trek didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU? Well, jokes on you fools, I had to work on every fucking night that I was meant to see it in 3D IMAX so yeah, ha, you don’t get to hear my witty and over-worded examination of a movie that probably isn’t that good. Yeah, sure there’s Zach Quinto, the beautiful and distant Spock, still on his astronomical career high and, fine, Benedict Cumberbatch as the beautiful and distant and most sadistic villain since Kahn…I mean, who needs to see that? In IMAX 3D? Like, really? C’mon. I have better things to do. Like, like…work and, um, read William Faulkner. Who needs such a dumb, huge, explosive, gorgeous, eye-splitting, brain-enema when there is so much intelligence waiting to be found in our long and deep literary history?
ME! ME! I FUCKING NEED IT! GIVE ME STAR TREK AND STOP DESTROYING MY CHANCES, YOU PESKY CAREER!
Yes, this weekend, I did not have the chance to experience the most grandiose movie of the summer since Robert Downey Jr. so much as sneezed in the direction of a camera. Instead, I returned home, the prodigal son sneaking back into the comforting, peaceful, and shockingly caucasian, warmth of Connecticut. No, there would be no nightly carousing through the streets of Wicker Park and smuggled water bottles stocked full of the finest Andre $10 can buy. No, there would be no blasts of bombastic bullshit or crippling chromatic craziness. And there certainly won’t be the bloated corpse of what used to be Leo DiCaprio offering me a gimlet while the screen blows a wad in my face. Connecticut is a peaceful place and, unless it is our yearly Christmas Mooney Family outing, the insane blockbuster must wait. Instead, my mother treats me to all of the ‘quality’ films I’ve missed while ‘wasting’ my ‘time’ with ‘bad movies’ or as she secretly calls them ‘turd-taculars’ (she doesn’t). So, during my momentary convalescence, my mother, father and I or, as the British call us, “mum”, “dad” and “his lordship”, journeyed to the quaint, whiter-than–a–picket-fence–at-a-neo-nazi-convention town of Madison. There I purchased some ‘literature’ by some American ‘Greats’ (and, no, that does not include Twilight. You dicks), delighted in some tea and scones before sauntering to the local art theater for a film entitled Mud.
I shit you not. All of that is 100% true. Yes, I am British. I am also, if the constraints of hipsterdom were finally loosed, the boojiest boob that ever booed the bourgeoisie. Deal with it.
After said movie, which left us a little lacking, we retired home (yes, in Connecticut, you don’t ‘go’ you ‘retire’ because, more often then not, as a state, the general inhabitant regardless of age is wealthy enough to quit the workforce entirely) and after a few glasses (read: bottles) of wine, we chowed down on another fancy indie film that passed me by last year, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both movies are small. Both are about the South. Both are about story telling, in a fashion, and both are about coming of age. To compare and contrast the two discovered a couple of fascinating little gems of self-realization. But I’ll get to that.
Mud tells the tale of two boys, the blandly named and even more blandly acted ‘Ellis’ and the badassly named and ‘um-what?’-ly acted Neckbone, who discover a bizarre gentleman living in a boat caught in a tree on a lonesome island in the middle of the Mississippi by the name of Mud. What is perhaps most perturbing about this gentleman is that he is played by Matthew McConaughey, LET ME FINISH, and he didn’t make we want to puke my brains out. Coupled with that, he spends most of the movie with a shirt ON. Granted, the definition of ‘on’ is loose and this shirt stretches that definition further than this actor has managed to stretch his bullshit career. Now, of course, he takes it off at some point because a movie without a shirtless McConaughey is like a broken pencil: pointless. I’m fairly certain his contract has a mandatory abs-clause. Well, Mud for all his roughly-edged charisma, is a man on the run, waiting for the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon looking more white trash than a Honey-Boo-Boo convention), while avoiding a slew of bloodthirsty bounty hunters. He spins a good yarn, encouraging the two wide-eyed mentorless greenhorns to scavenge the requisite parts to get their tree-borne boat back to its aquatic habit. Along the way, we enjoy inter-parental conflict, a number of black eyes, Michael Shannon in not-crazy-eyes mode, Sam Shepard whose haircut seems to have said to itself, ‘I want to look more like a skunk’s anus’, and a bitter-sweet, if unabashedly misogynistic, coming of age tale. Jeff Nichols, the madman behind Michael Shannon’s tour de force performance in Take Shelter, is a director who primarily focuses on the economic and emotional meltdowns of the South and Midwest. During a summer of blockbusters intent on making their first bigger and bolder, it’s nice to see a story told simply because it’s a story.
Nichols sautés his film with a healthy helping of natural elements, a handful of slow gorgeous tracking shots depicting the teeming yet morose pace of Arkansas life, and a dash of soulful silence. There is no doubt that he is a masterful director, always providing strong scenes and delightful dialogue. McConaughey, against all odds, shines. Apparently, his agent’s push to create the next Tom Cruise, just with more blonde and less clothing, has finally perished giving way to latter-day McConaughey (say that five times fast). This is the Matthew of Killer Joe, the sadistic hitman with a penchant for young meat, and of Magic Mike, shirtless, yes, but deep as well. His joy of lower-rung dialogue and dialect shines as he spouts BS concerning anything from snake bites to true love.
Be that as it may, while pretty decent, the film felt hollow. The bullshit spewing from McConau-lips turns out to be almost entirely factual and the twists and turns the scripts suggest end up being more curls and bends than actual shockers. Coupled with that, we have Nichols obvious distaste of the ‘fairer sex’. Throughout, his predominantly male cast asserts hateful accusations about women incapable to defend themselves. Witherspoon’s character herself is essentially called a dumb whore by every character who meets her and, save for Mud’s endearing love, she has literally no redeeming qualities. While most filmmakers adhere to the polarized, sexist, Leone-model of woman (either saints or whores), Nichols seems convinced that all the women in the world are out to get his money while getting everyone else’s cock. The only out to this conundrum that I could conjure was by why of Ellis’s little foray with the town’s ‘popular’ girl. He goes on a date, after winning her favor with a slug to the eye, and asks her to be his girlfriend. When she doesn’t respond, he assumes a ‘yes’ and then flips out when he sees her with another guy. If one were to give Nichols the benefit of the doubt, it seems that the movie is somewhat of a ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ for Ellis in terms of his gender beliefs. On all sides he is beset with miserable bastards, from his alcoholic and dead-beat dad, to Neckbone’s stallion of an uncle and Sam “I Growl at Women for Breakfast” Shepard. It’s only through Mud and his unwavering optimism does he realize that women aren’t actually the succubi they might seem. In particular, Ellis’ mother, while leaving his father and causing the destruction of their house-boat, does nothing but make intelligent rational choices, much to the furious chagrin of pretty much every other character in the film.
But, maybe I’m reading too much into it and the south just isn’t nice to women. With that in mind…
After a beef tenderloin, two bottles of wine and a happy helping of scotch, the only sensible thing for the Mooney family is to attempt a heavy fucking Oscar-nominated Indie. As a unit, we have attempted, in vain, numerous times to sit through Magnolia, Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, and, and this was a bad one, Glengary Glen Ross…you know, fun films! The second the lights dimmed and my father’s mass of newspapers found his hand, I was hooked. This movie, for lack of a better term, was magical. Now I’m not talking like that Chris Angel card trick bullshit magical. No, I’m talking, this mutherfucker of a film flew in my goddamn window took my hand and flew me to mutherfucking Neverland (and not the Michael Jackson one. The Robin Williams Glen-Close-in-drag Neverland). Yes, this thing is a feast for the ears, eyes, tongue (I may or may not have licked the screen) and soul. It tells the tale of intrepid little Hushpuppy, a six-year old with a dialect that would make Faulkner weep and a fro that would make the Jackson 5 re-evaluate their lives (if they haven’t already done so). She lives with her father, Wink, on the fictional island of ‘The Bathtub’ just beyond the levies of New Orleans. The movie chronicles her impossible, brilliant, insane journey through a Katrina-esque deluge, the explosion of her elevated motor-home, the depths of a sea-bound strip club and a confrontation with a prehistoric gigantic pig-beast.
What’s perhaps most bizarre about this movie is that it doesn’t dive into the fury surrounding the government’s failure post-Katrina, nor is it an indictment of a failing welfare system. Rather, it’s a Greek myth imbued with the modern cajun gumption of an otherish group of people. They are, for the purposes of the tale, a different world from modern day USA. They live in their fantastical microcosm, self-sustaining and loving life. However, the outside world invades time and again, by way of her father’s medical maladies, a hurricane or Government relief workers forcing them into sterile hospitals from which they stage a daring escape. Now, it makes sense that people are probably pretty infuriated by the depiction of poor black people in the South, no doubt assuming this was going to be some kind of didactic visual essay ala Trieme. Rather it’s how a myth is created, devoid of a specific cultural touchstone and equipped perfectly to its time and space. Hushpuppy, though a child, has seen more hurt and tragedy in her six lives than I probably ever will, but she charges into the future with a scream and biceps showing. I think my favorite link to draw is between her and Gatsby. Throughout the movie, she sees a glint of light out in the ocean, which her father has dubbed ‘her mother’. So, what does Hushpuppy do? She fucking swims into the fucking ocean with a band of fucking six-year-olds and finds out what it is. Because she’s a BAMF. While Gatsby is content to lie in wait for his love, always getting close enough to declare “that’s close enough,” Hushpuppy dives into the waters with almost Grecian impunity. She isn’t Gatsby. She’s mutherfucking Odysseus. She’s a warrior in search of her home.
Beasts of the Southern wild is a different kind of film. It’s a blast of images and sounds that, when analyzed and dissected, lose what truly makes it great. It’s a experience, one that must be completed in a single 90-minute seating, with the lights down and a smile on your lips. To equate it to a piece of jazz would be unfair. It is so much richer and complex. Every choice, while wild and rough, seems precise with the deliberation of, not a mind, but some kind of artistic muse guiding the lens. I doubt Zeitlin, the director, planned every take and every shot. It simply occurred and he was there to witness it. This is the kind of story that transports you to a world you never imagined and drops you back in realness before you’re ready. Over the past five days, I’ve done nothing but roll the images about in my mind, like a tongue trying extract every flavor possible from a heavenly treat. It’s the kind of movie whose imagination is infectious and you can’t help be feel inspired. It’s a rare sense of excitement that I get when leaving a tale such as this; one that hasn’t appeared since my dad read me the Odyssey as a child. It’s a reaffirmation that something beautiful can burst from the chaos. That you can truly lose yourself in a world that isn’t your own.
On my return to Chicago, with my tickets to Star Trek IMAX 3D HDD Blah-de-blih rotting away from unuse, I found myself turning off the Netflix machine, pulling out a book and losing myself again. After that came my laptop. I didn’t even need to think what to write next, it just poured forth.
That is why I love movies. That is why I love stories. Pure and unadulterated inspiration.