by Kevin Allman
The film is set in a mythical place called the Bathtub, situated beyond the last levee protecting Louisiana's coastal wetlands. It centers on a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, her ailing father Wink, an absent mother and a coming storm. Hushpuppy's world is full of wild animals, close-knit neighbors and fantastic creatures who may signal the end of all things.
That is not what Ben Kenigsberg, movie critic for Time Out Chicago, saw:
The surprise of this magical-realist tale, a sensation at Sundance this year, is that it allegorizes Katrina as George W. Bush might like to remember it. In the Bathtub (standing in for the Lower Ninth Ward), every day is a holiday, and the largely black residents are depicted as alcoholics, inattentive parents or fools who accidentally set fire to their homes. When authorities do intervene, they’re helpless anyway: Bathtubbers run from the hospital. Forget FEMA; in a message amplified by Hushpuppy’s valediction, the movie implies hurricane victims would rather take care of their own.
(I won't go on about this, but as long as we're talking about "stand-ins" — why, for many non-New Orleanians, does "the Lower Ninth Ward" always seems to stand in for every poor and largely African-American neighborhood in New Orleans? Why couldn't the storm in the movie be Hurricane Gustav, or Ike, both of which wrought tremendous damage in the coastal parishes with nary a bit of notice from the national media of any political stripe? And if we're going to talk about stereotyping, conflating a multicultural community on the wet end of Terrebonne Parish with an urban neighborhood just because they both contain black Louisianans might be considered a bit of stereotyping on its own.)
Anyway, Kenigsberg doubled down with a second essay titled "Beasts of the Southern Wild: a Republican fantasy?", to which Roger Ebert, Chicago's eminence grise film critic, responded on Twitter:
To @benkenisgberg: With all respect, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't responsible for how wingnuts respond to it.
OK. Like I said, I haven't watched Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's pretty clear that Korman saw magical realism; Kenigsberg, some sort of Fox News allegory. Korman saw resourceful characters; Kenigsberg, stereotypes. (And I won't even touch this review from Time Out New York, except to say that watching movies for a living at Time Out must be exhausting, and I hope they scrutinize every movie set in New York since 2001 for subtext about the federal response to 9/11.)
There were lines around the Prytania Theater to see Beasts this week. (Read Robert Morris' story at Uptown Messenger about the director's screening at the Prytania last night; it doesn't sound like Hurricane Katrina or George W. Bush was on the mind of the audience.) Did anyone come away with the same impressions as the Time Out writers?