Oscar Movies: Watery Dreamscapes Edition
This is a dark horse nominee, a film from a first-time director that nobody has heard of, who directed a cast of likewise unknowns, led by a protagonist who is a little girl called Hushpuppy. The cynic in me wants to suggest that the awards attention this movie is getting is in service to cutting down on the nominated whiteness. The Oscars chooses these minority pets sometimes (see also: Precious) and on one hand it is condescending, but on the other hand it puts movies in front of people’s faces that they would not even know about otherwise.
Beasts is a strange experience, a modern fantasy built out of one of the top five American tragedies of the last ten years (Hurricane Katrina). The movie follows a colorful group of people living in a (fictitious) fishing and scrounging community, called the Bathtub, located on the outskirts of New Orleans. Their community is constantly being flooded and the government has condemned it as uninhabitable. The government would like to assist the Bathtub dwellers with their displacement, and the Bathtub dwellers would kindly like the government to get the hell off their property.
This ideology is the most interesting and disturbing part of the movie. In fact, I’ve read that some anti-government advocates praised the movie for its commitment to rejecting welfare programs. But that may have just been liberal, hand-wringing “what ifs.” Regardless, the way the Bathtub community so wholly rejects any kind of intrusion from the outside is upsetting. They all live in squalor, but they do not want to be removed from it for “their own well-being.” And it’s hard to see these people run away from clean, sturdy buildings and medical care. Regular meals, probably, less eccentric education for the children. It’s hard not to watch Hushpuppy—especially in the first part of the movie, when her father first leaves her alone and she literally burns the trailer down—and not think “this is an abused child, and she needs to be taken away from her father. Immediately.” But he’s her father. The love she has for him seems real, though not uncomplicated. The rest of the community also takes care of her, as much as it’s in their ability to do so. And it’s hard not to notice that the neglect she has suffered has made her a terribly self-possessed young girl. And government aid is always inadequate and difficult to obtain, and generally a tiny Band-Aid on a gaping societal wound. (Ew.) So why not reject it?
It reminds me of the controversies I read about when I was studying Zora Neale Hurston. In her day, she got criticism for writing her black characters as too black; people accused her of writing to stereotypes. But anyone who has really read her work knows that it all goes much deeper than that. She was a well-educated anthropologist and she saw vibrant culture among African Americans, in their music, in their language, in their myths, in their traditions. This movie does the same: even as they scrape along in poverty and sickness, the movie respects their dignity as people. I watched it the same weekend I rewatched Winter’s Bone, a movie that did a similar thing with Appalachian meth country, though Beasts is definitely not so dark, mostly because of that fantasy element I spoke of earlier.
That fantasy element comes in because Hushpuppy, played by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who is just a small girl, seems to have confused in her mind oncoming storms, invading government forces, and extinct creatures called aurochs she has learned about in school (which look kind of like some combination of buffaloes or wild boars, but giant) and which are always treading closer and closer to Hushpuppy. She spins tales about these creatures that are wiser than she realizes, in the classic “sage child” tradition of Scout Finch. The moments when we see the aurochs tend to be magical and pink with sunset. Late in the movie, Hushpuppy and her friends embark upon a mini-journey into the water and have a dreamlike experience at this strange burlesque-club-on-the-sea.
The movie keeps things vague and mysterious. Hushpuppy’s father has a medical condition that is never identified. What the social workers who briefly capture Hushpuppy intend to do with her (Send her to foster care? Look for her mother? Help her father get his crap together?) is never explained, to her or to us. We don’t even really know what’s real and what isn’t. The experience of watching this movie is the experience of being six years old along with Hushpuppy, of just getting glances, impressions of things. Again to return to To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrative of that novel operates in much the same way—where our guide through the world is a child who doesn’t understand everything—but Harper Lee managed that double speak a lot better. We always knew what Scout was describing even if she didn’t know. Whereas in Beasts I had occasion to ask, “What the hell is going on here?” Still, it’s an interesting and mildly beautiful film.
Expected Awards Attention: None. This is an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” movie. (Don’t fret for Beasts though; it will clean up at the Indie Spirits the day before.)
The novel Life of Pi, which won, among other accolades, the Man Booker Prize in 2002, is about a boy who survived a shipwreck, along with a handful of zoo animals being transported overseas. For weeks, he shares a small lifeboat with a live tiger. The story is how he survives this improbable and frightening situation, both through his shrewdness and through his religious faith.
Most fascinating, popular books get made into movies eventually. This was one of those where everybody said, “…How?” And Ang Lee (director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among other films) somehow made it happen. And it looks great.
I’m not a director, but I can’t even begin to think how most of this thing was filmed. I know there was a real water tank, and a real lifeboat, and the kid who plays Pi was probably in it a lot, and probably also sometimes in a mechanical lifeboat on a set that could be programmed to pitch in specific ways. And I presume they had to have a real tiger on set at least once in a while. Very occasionally in the movie, I looked at a shot and thought I could see where the split was—the actor playing Pi acting opposite an empty space overlaid with an image of the tiger ‘acting’ opposite an empty space. But most of the time, I was looking at a kid and a tiger in a lifeboat and baffled as to how it worked.
It doesn’t look “real” particularly, but that works in the movie’s favor. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, there are a ton of fantastical elements to be seen here. The images we see of the drowned zoo animals, and also of some of the prettiest, most outlandish fish you’ve seen onscreen since The Life Aquatic, are otherworldly and don’t pretend to be part of a recognizable reality. And wait until you get to the carnivorous island! These images could be hallucinations by the parched and starved Pi, or—without spoiling the end of the movie (which corresponds to the end of the novel)—those visions could be something else.
Also, I generally can’t say much about sound design as a movie feature, but there was something about the way that the animals’ claws clicked and clacked against the surfaces of the boat that fascinated me. There’s also this canvas tarp that is a part of the boat environment, and when the tiger climbs up onto it you can hear his claws getting stuck and being yanked out of the fabric with each step. It was so bracingly real, in comparison to the fantastical images. There was also something charmingly real about the way the animals move in the boat. None of them—the gorilla, the zebra, the hyena, or the tiger—are particularly steady on their feet in this rickety lifeboat, and the movie portrays that quite clearly in the way they stagger around like newborn creatures, or lay around in obvious distress with seasickness. The physical movements of these creatures, whether they were performances elicited from real creatures or were generated with CGI, even manage to suggest that a large part of how Pi is able to get the upper hand over the animals (and not be eaten by them) is that he is a lithe biped who can keep his balance even on choppy seas. Maybe that was in the book; I don’t remember. But it is terribly obvious onscreen as you watch the animals dart around frantically in a boat where they can’t get solid footing.
I’m not generally a fan of live action films in 3D, because the 3D tends to make everything look fake, like Colorforms stuck to a static background. The general aura of fakeness that is baked into Pi’s visuals meant that the 3D just made it look a bit cooler. I’m sure the 2D screenings were lovely to look at as well.
Expected Awards Attention: It’s got a shot at Adapted Screenplay, I suppose, but the movie hews very close to what the book is without managing to fix any of the flaws of the novel (such as the incredibly draggy first third before Pi makes it to the lifeboat). It also takes the conceit of grown-up Pi telling his story to the interviewer and wears out its welcome by returning to that framing device too many times, although Irrfan Khan gives a lovely performance as Pi as an adult.
The real challenge/achievement here was in the direction, getting those scenarios and those images onto the screen and portraying this sort of magical world in a way that looks both imaginary and mildly plausible at the same time. It should carry Visual Effects in a walk and probably Cinematography, too.
It won Best Score at the Globes, and could take that again if the Academy is as over John Williams as the rest of us are. Ang Lee will show up and be very smiley as he always is, but his suitcase won’t be any heavier on the way home. Still, give him a pat on the back for this one.