Tag Archive: Steven Spielberg

I find it impossible to neatly summarize my feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild. After the considerable hype I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. I found it way too messy and all over the place, and frankly short of the mark that I could almost palpably sense it aiming for. Yet simultaneously I thought it was uniquely brilliant and loved it in a very genuine if troubled way, the way you might love a scruffy stray dog you can’t afford to take home. It’s an impossible movie not to love. I can’t remember another instance that admiration for and disappointment in a film have resided together so comfortably in my mind. It’s like I feel a sense of ownership. This is exactly my kind of film, or would be, and maybe that’s why I’m hard on it. In any case I can’t get it off my mind.

Beasts is the debut feature from writer/director Benh Zeiltin, who hails from Queens but is now based in New Orleans. It’s quickly become the most talked-about American independent film of the year, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the US Competition at Sundance before going on to win the Camera d’Or (for best new film) at Cannes. It’s even got an early Oscar buzz. The story is not easy to explain, but if you’re not already on board with the key elements you can get from a really basic blurb – little girl hero, magical realism, backwater bayous, apocalyptic storms, rampaging prehistoric beasts, post-Katrina American mythmaking, nonprofessional actors – we don’t have much in common. Little Hushpuppy and her father Wink live somewhere on the Gulf coast in an impoverished but spirited and tight-knit delta community called the Bathtub, which seems to exist in its own space and time. When a massive storm cuts the Bathtub off from the outside world, its cantakerous residents attempt to pick up the pieces in defiance of the local authorities, while all of nature seems to be turning against civilization. Meanwhile her dad’s degrading physical and mental health creates a crisis of self-reckoning for Hushpuppy at a tender age.

Beasts screened in Official Competition here at Sydney Film Festival a few weeks after Cannes with the highest possible expectations. Local fans and cinephiles went apeshit for it, and everyone assumed it would take the Sydney Film Prize in a cakewalk. Instead the jury handed the award to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an icily cynical and absurdist black comedy that bitterly divided audiences here – a controversial choice (if a stream of resentful tweets counts as controversy). Me, I think Beasts is superior to Alps on most counts, and infinitely more likeable of course, but I had to admire the jury’s cojones and privately chuckle at the monkeywrenching of a consensus.

I saw Beasts on the first Friday of the festival at the opulent State Theatre, back to back with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Surely there won’t be a better or more interesting double feature all year. It was on the one hand a study in contrasts: Anderson’s obsessive perfectionism, his maniacal focus on design – each frame so lovingly composed the whole thing feels like an animated feature; versus Zeitlin’s rowdy, rambling, handheld, deliriously beautiful mess of a film. Yet the thematic parallels between the two are worth exploring: child protagonists, isolated rural communities, storms as key turning points. Going in my expectations were sky-high; I loved both films, but came out bearing reservations. (More on Moonrise later.)

Yeah, Beasts is a rough and messy film. Should I feel bad about pointing that out? Is that like complaining that Wu Tang Clan are too raw, or that Meg White isn’t the greatest drummer? Is it just part of the magic? Maybe the same thing would have been said about Breathless or Stranger Than Paradise when they first came out. Don’t we need a dose of, well, wild energy in cinema on a regular basis? If it was more polished would it also be more boring?

By “rough” I’m not referring to the often quite shaky hand-held camera – I’m fine with a bit of shake. To me the culprit is the editing. There are times during the film when two people are talking and it’s cut in such a way that somehow you never get a good look at either of their faces. Often you’re not sure of the shape of a room or space, or what exactly you’re looking at (however beautiful it might be), or which characters are taking part in a scene. (The fact that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled doesn’t help with the latter.) I suspect a re-edit might have solved some of those issues without selling out the film’s energy at all.

This pervasive sense of disorientation also applies in a macro way to the narrative. Within each scene the style of the film is naturalistic (and wonderfully so); but the overall story doesn’t have much organic sense. Fantasies need internal logic; here, because a lot of this made-up world goes unexplained, we’re not always sure what’s at stake, and there’s a disconnect between the crazy plot twists and the inscrutable choices made by the characters. At times we can almost hear Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tapping away furiously on their MacBooks. “OK, now this has to happen!” Settings and locations change with little warning – we were in a hospital, but now we’re on a beach – while motivations and conflicts are taken up and set aside again like toys. It’s almost as if they wanted the story to reflect the short attention span and freeform imagination of a child. (A friend of mine compared it to Maurice Sendak; others have cited Miyazaki.) Does it work? I’m still deciding. My gut reaction is that it’s absolutely inspired at times – as zany and explosively creative as beat poetry or freestyle graffiti – but sloppy and incoherent at other times.

Some have said the film could have done without the prehistoric monsters. It’s true they don’t help the general problem of clutter in the story – it’s just one more thing that doesn’t tie together and isn’t fleshed out very well. But no way would I get rid of them. If anything I want more of them, along with more clarity about them. Likewise, curmudgeonly types said the dinosaurs didn’t belong in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life; but that film wouldn’t be as visionary without them – the flights of fancy are what make the study of the family so much more. Zeitlin has established an important signpost with the audacious fantasy elements of his film: because special effects are a lot cheaper to accomplish these days, independent filmmakers don’t need to be stuck in the ghetto of realism anymore. Movie magic has been democratized.

Eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy has been the focus of much of the film’s press. If I can risk sounding cynical here, I think some of it amounts to so many indirect or quasi-intellectual ways of saying, “That little girl is so adorable!” I’m not saying her performance isn’t remarkable. I’m saying the commentary on it lacks nuance.

Of course it’s a remarkable performance! Kids can do amazing things when given the chance; but Quvenzhané has extraordinary poise and grit. As Roger Ebert wrote recently (in his review of Glendyn Ivin’s great Last Ride), “I have run out of words to account for young actors.” Without taking too much away from Quvenzhané, I would say Zeitlin also deserves credit for trusting in her and letting her do her thing in such a natural way. This is where the rough style of the film shines, in the way the girl’s rambling and running amok and randomly destroying things is such a part of its aesthetic. It’s reminiscent of the way Steven Spielberg’s early films seemed revolutionary in the way he allowed kids to just be themselves onscreen, with their cluttered rooms and cluttered lives, their dirty faces, their heartbreaking way of shrugging off adult abuse and neglect, their casual violence.

I found her high-pitched scream annoying, but the filmmakers must have thought it was cute because we get to hear it a lot. (Remember Carrie Henn’s tea-kettle-like squeal in Aliens? It sounds like that). Some of her character’s dialogue is a bit forced, and even sappy, especially when she talks about history or the future in a grandiose way – it’s as if she’s working too hard to impress the audience or pull their heartstrings. (Again, at these moments I hear the screenwriters tap, tap, tapping away.)

Quvenzhané’s best moments – indeed, the film’s best moments – are the seemingly improvised scenes with Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. There’s so much fierce affection there, so much electricity between the two, as Wink insists on toughening up his daughter to face a harsh world alone, it seems like documentary footage. With all the attention on the little girl, Henry’s gutty, gloriously ragged performance has somehow managed to fly under the radar. (His work is all the more amazing considering he’s a baker by trade who had never acted in a film before.)

There’s much more to discuss about Beasts of the Southern Wild – just one example is the fabulous production design, with beautifully chaotic sets and crazy vehicles welded together from scrap parts like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s an unforgettable film, filled with piercing ideas and images, even if it doesn’t have very good control of them. It’s the type of thing that might have blown my mind and changed the way I look at film if I’d stumbled across it as a kid late at night on cable TV – the way, say, the very messy Repo Man did. You should see it; everyone should see it – it’s definitely one of those rare indies capable of very broad appeal with little or no compromise. And years from now, when it’s considered an American classic, you can read this review in the archives and scoff at my shortsighted crotchetiness.


The Horror

The other day a friend confirmed what I’d already read, that a scene depicting a marine invasion in Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood owes a rather large debt to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). Apparently it blatantly copies some of the key visual elements, including the grainy, pixillated quality of the film and hand-held and distorted point-of-view techniques; closely recreates specific shots, as when arrows whiz by soldiers struggling in blood-soaked water; and even features dubiously authentic wooden personnel transports shaped like those used on D-Day.

None of this surprises me; Ridley Scott has been riffing on Private Ryan for years. Gladiator (2000) was the first time it was clear to me how much that one devastating sequence had changed the visual conventions of war and battle — something about the way the mud kicked up on the Germanic battlefield was frozen in the strobe-like distortion of the footage. Prior to this, technique would not have been so visible in a historical film; would have been thought to violate the audience’s illusion of witnessing history. But Private Ryan‘s use of overt technique to represent states of mind made it standard.

In fact I love Gladiator — I think it’s perfectly fine for a filmmaker to borrow from another great film. Scott continued the same trend in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). You can see it in almost any film of any genre with a military element released in the last ten years. For example, Peter Jackson effectively used some of Spielberg’s methods to grunge up the fantasy battles in The Lord of the Rings.

I guess I should not go on about a film I’ve not seen. Truth is I don’t have a great desire to see Robin Hood. I’ll never stop respecting Ridley Scott, I enjoy watching Russell Crowe chew scenery, and I’m fascinated by British history. So why am I not interested? I guess because it looks like it’s no fun. Why is it necessary to have a grim and dour and historically “authentic” Hood? How can you authenticate a legend? Shouldn’t legends be unrealistic?

Even on its own terms it can’t be “authentic,” as any portrayal of history, however painstakingly researched, is necessarily compromised by modern attitudes. But somehow I think this will be lost on the same audiences who think of 300 as a definitive account of the Battle of Thermopylae.

I might be a bit more savvy than that but I certainly don’t exclude myself from this effect — I think it’s natural to trust any lavish and detailed presentation of history. Steven Spielberg exploited this tendency along with his mastery of cinematic narrative to widely change public perspectives on war. The opening sequence of Private Ryan is like a modern-day Odessa steps sequence: a great director takes an iconic moment in history and re-defines it with a virtuoso sequence, which then goes on to innovate filmmaking. There was no massacre in Odessa in 1905, but a lot of people don’t know that. The power of that sequence is such that it has nearly replaced the actual history. Similarly I get the feeling people identify Spielberg’s film with what happened at Normandy so much they get a bit confused. Even as I write this I can admit that when I think of D-Day, I think of Saving Private Ryan. Rightly or wrongly it has become a signifier of history.

How did Spielberg accomplish this? The power of the sequence, its ability to alter perceptions, comes from the shock it initially created. And I don’t just mean the realistic blood and carnage, which is one of the scene’s hallmarks. But Spielberg sought to disturb the audience on a much more fundamental level, by undermining cinematic conventions. He altered or did away with the rules of framing and editing and presentation of time — the devices that help us make sense of what’s happening onscreen in most movies. The result was visual chaos that was in itself a form of violence. Spielberg did violence to our ability to predict outcomes, to feel confident in the protagonists’ safety — the subtle visual cues making us assume the good guys will prevail or at least accomplish something. He took away our sense of control.

I use the past tense because the initial shock of this film has waned a good deal over the past twelve years. It’s become its own cinematic language, which is probably a reason to feel cynical about its use in a Robin Hood adaptation.

You could write a book about the 20-minute opening sequence. But just one moment at the start of it illustrates why it’s so memorable: the disembarking of the soldiers from the personnel transport. In any prior depiction of war, here you would have probably seen a medium-range external shot of the craft as it pulls onto the beach, followed by the ramp dropping and a low-angle shot of the soldiers stepping out, guns drawn, looking determined. In fact this is just what was done in The Longest Day (1962), the quintessential Hollywood D-Day epic. This visual style, in which the hero/protagonist is always at the center of things, was borrowed by film from painting and the theater; and it would have been utilized not just in the more gung-ho films, but even in those depicting war as tragic. The hero may be doomed, but he’s still a hero, still the primary subject of the camera, and his suffering or death is given narrative weight. Think of Willem Dafoe’s over-the-top death throes in Platoon.

Everything about the same moment in Saving Private Ryan is inside-out. The point of view is mostly kept claustrophobically inside the personnel transport. No enemy nor objective is seen. Handheld shots of men waiting; several of them are vomiting with seasickness. Uncomfortably close shots of men’s faces, grim or fearful; barring audience recognition of Tom Hanks, no knowing who they are with no exposition. Artillery striking in the water outside but not sure of the source. Then with alarming suddenness the ramp is opening — extreme closeup of its wheel turning. Awkward close external shot of the the ramp falling — instantly men are being cut down by machine gun fire; we aren’t sure who, water on the lens. Shaky footage inside of men hit by raining metal — several we just saw in closeup die unceremoniously. In a few seconds, several uncoordinated points of view of this chaos are edited together in a jumble. All sense of a subject is lost for the moment.

Eventually the sequence takes on a somewhat more discernible mode with Hanks as the protagonist — while still being brutally stylized and very hard to watch. And of course when this famous sequence is over, the movie becomes something more or less like a Hollywood film, though a terribly effective and heartrending one. But these shots set the tone and create an unsettled feeling that doesn’t go away.

Spielberg incorporated into a Hollywood narrative the unlovely, stubbornly unheroic shapes and forms of combat photography. Compare the famous photo of Omaha Beach below with the still from The Longest Day. The subjects, backs to us, are indistinguishable helmets and rucksacks in the water at a medium range. There is no enemy in sight. The unremarkable hull of the transport itself is the only thing in focus. I’ve always liked the detail of the plastic bag left lying on the deck.

While writing my friend about this it occurred to me as if for the first time that while Spielberg was giving up the conventions of war or action films, he actually replaced them to some degree with those of horror films. Specifically the modern subgenre of horror (which Spielberg himself helped innovate) in which the protagonist vies with a terrible force that cannot be understood or reasoned with — zombies, rampaging dinosaurs, aliens, sharks. This is subtly apparent in the same scene: the sound of the artillery getting closer, the apprehension of the men, the sense of foreboding, the spinning wheel of the ramp about to open on something we might be afraid to see.

Leaving aside the plot of the rest of the film, and looking just at this series of shots and the way they are meant to make the audience feel, the “bad guys” are not the unseen Germans firing from the beach. It’s the metal in the air itself, the destruction and calamity itself that Spielberg treats as a movie monster. Not coincidentally it was the horror genre that made blood and gore acceptable in Hollywood. And note that protagonists of horror films are much less likely to be “heroic” — they tend to be frail and human in contrast to the merciless entities they are pitted against.

Interesting that Ridley Scott was behind one of the great horror films, Alien, which innovatively employed similar visual and narrative methods to disturb audiences. So it goes both ways; and maybe he’s earned it a bit.