Since publishing this post, I have posted another post which is meant to supplement the ideas that this one contains. It can be read here.
Before We Begin
What follows are some (slightly reworked and heavily chopped up) thoughts and excerpts from a paper I wrote about a year and a half ago entitled Life in the Bathtub: How Hushpuppy Interprets the Universe in Benh Zeitlin’s Beast of the Southern Wild. The entire piece is about 10,000 words which I feel is waaayyy too long to include here in full.
If what follows doesn’t make sense its because a bunch of the argument is missing sorry.
I will also say that, though the paper analyzes a film, I most certainly wrote it from and English major’s prospective. In fact, before my paper on Beasts on the Southern Wild (2012), I had never written critically on any film (though I had discussed a few in academic settings so yay for me). So why did I write on Beasts? Put simply, it was the last film I had seen before I was required to propose a topic for a my second piece of Junior independent work. That, and I had been genuinely moved (like to snot and tears moved) by the film. I also saw Beasts just after seeing The Tree of Life for the first time, and I was hoping to explore some of common interests between the films (my paper on Beasts was originally supposed to be on the child narrators of both works, but for length and time reasons, that did not happen). Savvy?
Here We Go Get Stoked
Add Beasts of the Southern Wild to your personal collection (DVD).
Essentially, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a family drama, but it uses the family at its focus to articulate the workings of the entire cosmos. Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film dares to grapple with issues as daunting and potentially overwhelming as the individual’s place in the universe and the relationship of the human to all that is, has ever been, or will be. To present its vision of the macrocosm’s workings, Beasts turns to its smallest figure, six-year-old Hushpuppy Doucet.
Hushpuppy is the heart of the film. Beasts contains plenty of dialogue, plenty of contemplative silence too, but Hushpuppy’s voice over monologues truly define the work. Contrasting sharply with her small frame, Hushpuppy’s confident declarations envelop and punctuate key moments in Beasts, shaping the viewer’s perception of the story and demanding attention. Hushpuppy and other child-narrators like her, “remind [the viewer] of the metaphysical arrogance of childhood,” of a certain “juvenile narcissism” which believes: “what is inside my head and what is outside” and “what is me and what is not . . . must be equal”, therefore “I too, am a cosmos” (Scott). In Beasts, such “metaphysical arrogance” and “juvenile narcissism” lend themselves to “insight” into all of existence (Scott). Little Hushpuppy is crucial to the ability of Beasts both to make and to convey meaning (Brussat & Brussat); the film is less about its setting or the actual events of its plot than it is about how people—dwarfed as they are by the macrocosm—perceive, experience, and make sense of the world around them. As she looks on scenes of “tenderness and catastrophe” alike, Hushpuppy’s “lyrical ruminations decorate the soundtrack,” and, through them, she demonstrates that she “is a universe in her own right and her own mind” (Morgenstern). Understanding herself as a sort of universe-in-miniature allows Hushpuppy to use personal experience to understand the world; it also allows her to use what she sees and learns of the world to make sense of her own life.
Beasts of the Southern Wild boldly rests its weight on a pair of tiny shoulders, all the while examining and attempting to understand the macrocosmic whole through a microcosmic part. Zeitlin’s film demonstrates that “a good imagination” and “a searching story,” “a gifted filmmaker . . . can move viewers [and characters] into the heart of cosmic mysteries” (Anker 6). As Beasts of the Southern Wild plunges headlong into some of life’s greatest enigmas, Hushpuppy leads the way, and she emerges better equipped for life in her world as a result.
Beasts explores the universe through a story about individuals—an endeavor that would be hopeless if the film did not believe in some meaningful connection between macrocosm and microcosm. As literary critic David Lodge claims, film is “basically metonymic” (Lodge 79). In metonymy, something—be it word or image, person or idea—is replaced by something closely related. What Lodge calls the “metonymic” aspect of film is closely related to film’s ability to “create an ‘illusion of life’” “more readily” than other artistic media; when watching a film, the viewer often feels he is seeing “a record of something that happened, or is happening, only once” (Lodge 83). The “verisimilitude” produced by film “can be explained as a function of the metonymic character of the film medium.” In no insignificant part, such “verisimilitude” results, because viewers “tend to take the camera eye for granted, and to accept the ‘truth’ of what it shows [them] even though the perspective is never exactly the same as human vision” (Lodge 84); thus, films are often experienced as metonymically representing life, truth, and reality.
Zeitlin’s 2012 work seems acutely aware of film’s affinity with metonymy. As viewers “accept” “the camera eye” as a substitute for their own when watching a film, Hushpuppy accepts her perception as window into universal “truth.” Hushpuppy makes sense of life by using her life to makes sense of what she sees. With her, Beasts present a representation of life trying to understand life (A LOT of other films do this too, but this post isn’t about them).
Beasts tries to represent and posit a way for the individual—who is both dwarfed by and is an integral part of all existence— to comprehend all existence. To do so, Beasts also takes the metonymic nature of film a step further, that is, into the realm of synecdoche. In synecdoche, which can be thought of as a subclass of metonymy, the part comes to stand for the whole or the whole for the part. In Zeitlin’s film, the microcosmic is not just connected to or influenced by the macrocosmic; rather, the microcosmic becomes the macrocosmic, at least symbolically. Hushpuppy translates her interactions with her father and her understanding of the storm that strikes her hometown into explanations of the “big, big universe” all around her. Moreover, according to the interpretation of the universe that Hushpuppy develops over the course of Beasts, the microcosmic is an integral and influential part of the macrocosmic. Through her life experiences and her interpretations of those experiences Hushpuppy becomes a synecdochic stand-in for the universe and life in it.
Beasts blurs the boundaries between personal and universal, between microcosmic and macrocosmic; deliberately overlapping such seemingly disparate categories, the film places the “world-encompassing” aspirations of cinema (Plate 535) at its forefront. Hushpuppy may not ask questions when interpreting the cosmos or her place in the world, but Beasts asks plenty. The film is not so foolish as to pretend to have all the answers nor does it claim that Hushpuppy’s way of understanding the universe is the only way. Hushpuppy is wise beyond her years, but, as a human being, her reasoning is fallible, and, as a child, she has a lot of experiencing and interpreting left to do. Still, Hushpuppy firmly believes that she sees things the way are (or at least, that she sees things the way they are to her in that moment).
At the same time, Beasts itself remains ambivalent as to the ultimate truth of Hushpuppy’s elevated voiceover claims. With Hushpuppy and her particular way of making sense of her world, Zeitlin’s film tests the efficacy and the usefulness of using a microcosmic part to depict and comprehend a macrocosmic whole. While Hushpuppy herself may not, Beasts acknowledges the ambiguity involved in determining the truths of the cosmos and of doing so largely through the perspective of an individual. To embrace uncertainty while also attempting understanding may seem counterproductive, but, in this film at least, such is not the case.
Beasts leaves itself wide open to interpretation (Kovvali). Zeitlin invite his audiences not to become disciples of Hushpuppy or to subscribe firmly to her beliefs, but to mimic her—to perceive, to contemplate, to try to understand (Ebert, Morgenstern). By failing to banish ambiguity, Beasts also avoids diminishing the macrocosm (or itself). The entirety of existence may very well be beyond the complete comprehension of any single person’s thoughts or experiences no matter how metonymic or synecdochic they are (no shit, right?), but that does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from pursuing such comprehension. On a journey to understand everything, one is likely not to succeed, but he may come to understand so much of his own life that solving the grander mysteries of everything no longer seems so necessary. Hushpuppy has to cope with much more adversity than the typical six-year-old; by the film’s end, she is an orphan whose home has been ravaged by natural disaster. By making sense of the universe as she does, Hushpuppy remains in touch with reality without being crushed by it (really, she does, go watch the film).
Through Hushpuppy—the smallest cognizant and articulate part of its on-screen universe—Beasts dares to fathom nothing less than existence. Just as Hushpuppy is not crushed by loss of parents and home—by the weight of her personal universe falling in around her—so too does Beasts manage to withstand the burden of its cosmic interests and its universal ambitions. Importantly, Hushpuppy does not gain her understanding of the world all at once; her theory of how the universe operates and where she fits into it develops in stages. Hushpuppy makes sense of the “big, big universe” by making sense of what happens to her as it happens. To her mind, there is little difference between microcosm and macrocosm, so knowledge of one can be used to understand the other. The more Hushpuppy sees, learns, experiences, and contemplates, the more she adds to her understanding. And so, whenever Hushpuppy has a particularly revelatory experience, she speaks to the viewer in voiceover; she does not narrate the events of Beast, rather she narrates her interpretation of them.
Over the course of Beasts, Hushpuppy presents a theory of all-encompassing interdependence and connection. The key tenets of her theory are as follows: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right”; “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can”; and, each individual is “a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right.”
**[The biggest cut occurs here. I have removed the equivalent of 15-20 pages of detailed argument demonstrating just how Hushpuppy constructs her understanding of the universe, why her understanding matters, and how it helps her survive. If there is sufficient interest in this post, I may post some of of those sections separately]**
One of the key ways Beasts emphasizes the universal scope of its interests is by featuring a child as its primary narrator, its central perceiver, its principal storyteller. As is evidenced by the pint-sized figure bearing its narrative weight, Beasts believes in the power of small things. However, it also knows that they are not all-powerful and that there are things one simply has to accept. “Typically,” filmmakers “depict . . . people on all kinds of pilgrimages who are longing for and moving toward some kind of illumination” (Anker 5). Zeitlin is no exception to this tendency. With Hushpuppy, the “pilgrimage” is simply her life, and the “illumination” she seeks is just a way of understanding her life, a way that coalesces with the grim reality around her, a way that makes living with that reality a little bit easier. As Kovvali notes of fiction in general, “A protagonists origins, when humble, are almost exclusively presented as something to escape, an obstacle on his or her road to self-fulfillment,” but “Zeitlin strongly resists this portrayal” (Kovvali). Life in The Bathtub is not easy or glamorous, but it is the only life for Hushpuppy Doucet. For her, leaving The Bathtub is never an option, and she sees her humble home, not as a place “to escape,” but as one to protect. The Bathtub is Hushpuppy’s universe—she is a part of it, it is a part of her, and she is not going anywhere. Rather than see her home as “an obstacle on her road to self-fulfillment,” she understands it as the means of obtaining that fulfillment. By trying to understand life in The Bathtub, Hushpuppy comes to understand her place in the world. By trying to understand her place in the world, Hushpuppy comes to understand the universe.
Even by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s end, Hushpuppy does not have all the answers in the world; rather, she has the answers she needs for hers. In his review of the film, Ebert claims that “You can make ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ into an allegory of anything you want. It is far too detailed and specific to fit easily into general terms” (Ebert). On film’s relation to metonymy, Lodge claims, “it is the very resistance which the metonymic mode offers to generalizing interpretation that makes the meaning we do finally extract seem valid and valuable.” Hushpuppy’s life and her perception of that life are distinctly her own. However, the way she tries to understand the universe and her place in it are not. By mimicking Hushpuppy, viewers can, with time, find “valid and valuable” “meaning” in Zeitlin’s film, even though they themselves will never experience Bathtub life or live in fear of the giant aurochs. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy’s life and the way she interprets what happens to her come to represent a way of trying to understand the entire cosmos.
Hushpuppy looks and listens, she perceives and she contemplates. And then, she interprets. Everything Hushpuppy learns and everything that happens to her becomes part of her; “flying around in invisible pieces,” her experiences and her understanding of those experiences influence her subsequent interpretations of the world and her place in it. As she continues to learn, to live, and to experience—and as her personal situation grows more dire—Hushpuppy allows her thinking to evolve and develop, and she makes sense of her world in a way that enables her to cope with some of its harsher realities (particularly, the loss of her father). Hushpuppy does not have to have all the answers at once. In fact, she does not have to have all the answers at all. The macrocosm may very well be beyond her grasp, but she knows that she is a part of it, and that is good enough.
I’m sorry if the above is unclear due to all of the cutting I did.
Thanks so much for reading. Want to share your thoughts on Zeitlin’s film or my take on it? Feel free to comment.
The secondary works cited in the wall of text above are listed below.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild you definitely should. Watch it now.
Anker, Roy. Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies. Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2010. Print.
Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Rev. of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Spirituality & Practice. Jun. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. 1977. Reprint. London: Edward Arnold. 1993. Print.
Plate, S. Brent. “Visualizing the Cosmos: Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Other Visions of Life in the Universe.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 80.2 (2012): 527-536. Print.