Monthly Archives: September 2012

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

An imaginative, engaging film about the death of a way of life

Beinh Zeitlin, Louisiana, New Orleans, Independent Film, KatrinaIn the opening sequence of Beinh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a wildly imaginative independent film set on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, a herd of Ozarks, towering beasts that roamed the earth in the days before the Ice Age, thunder across the screen. These animals have significance to the main character, a young girl named Hushpuppy, wonderfully played by newcomer and Louisiana native Quvenzhane Wallis. Hushpuppy was raised by her father in the Bathtub, a fictional place that, nevertheless, many South Louisianans swear to God resembles communities that actually exist. These are places that barely resemble an America in any traditional sense. There is Zydeco fiddle music, crawdads and Cajun Country accents, but there is little in the way of recognizable civilization. There are no hospitals, no schools, and no churches. Only a band of survivalist ruffians surviving off the fruit of the earth, who consider themselves a part of the earth, one with the water, the swamps, even the storms. Hushpuppy’s father, a wonderfully ferocious Dwight Henry, catches fish with his bare hands, builds motorboats from the converted flatbed of a pickup truck, and maniacally defends his people from the encroachment of modernity and the wiles of Mother Nature, if not the inescapable dangers of everyday life. He and his daughter ride out Hurricane Katrina in their rickety raised shack, together with their chickens and pigs and dogs, which Hushpuppy will readily cook and eat should it prove necessary. When her father tells her, after the flood, when their land lies deep underwater, he is going to “Fix everything the way it was,” we the audience actually believe him. His scheme is to bomb the levee that protects New Orleans, yet dooms all those outside its protection. Indeed, the water recedes, but the damage is already done. The Bathtub has been destroyed, and the outside world is about to take notice.

Death plays an important role in this film, on scales grand and personal. More than anything, this film celebrates Southern individualism, and the astounding culture of self-reliance in bayou country Louisiana, a culture that has always been at risk by its very spectacular nature, an island of cultural distinction in a sea of American mediocrity. An old New Orleans joke has an anonymous tourist asking a local how far it is to Baton Rouge; the answer: 100 years. Theirs is a self-perpetuating culture that is not overly approving of outsiders, fiercely proud of their own way of doing things, and generally indifferent to traditional “progress” in deference to the preservation of their music, food and social mores. Unsurprisingly, critics there have received Southern Beasts with, er, wild enthusiasm.

Hushpuppy and Wink awaiting the storm

The narrator, Hushpuppy, has a very active imagination. Her mother left she and her father when their child was only an infant, yet, when at her loneliest, Hushpuppy imagines conversations with her. And the Ozarks, too, figure powerfully in her young mind, these mighty wild beasts who some Bathtub residents come to closely resemble when doing battle with local authorities and breaking from the hospitals: “Here, when an animal gets sick, they plug it into the wall,” Hushpuppy thinks. “Daddy told me, when he gets sick, I should put him in the boat, and set him on fire, so that they don’t plug him into the wall.” Indeed, as he refuses medical treatment, and a wound on his shoulder becomes infected, there are more than a few moments of tear-jerking grandeur, as we see in her father’s death the inevitable demise of this spectacular culture, the scattering of its people to the winds and into society, where, one imagines, they would stand out just about as starkly as would the mighty Ozarks.

This post originally appeared on SevenPonds.com, and cannot be reproduced without permission.

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The Denver Omelet

“One Denver omelet, over medium, please,” Charlie said, sitting back in his chair, hands on the table, loosely clasped beside his cup of coffee.

“Sure thing, Charlie,” Monica answered, smiling.

Gratified, Charlie smiled back.

“Two strips bacon, extra cream cheese on the home fries. English muffin, butter on the side, and a bowl of fruit, extra honey dew.”

“Sure think, Charlie.”

“I forget anything?”

“No, you did not,” she laughed, and Charlie winked.

She picked up his menu, turned smartly on one heel and walked away. She’d always liked Charlie. He was one of her favorite regulars. He was polite and patient. He’d never pushed the flirtation thing too far, and he usually left a good tip.

When the cooks finished with his plate, she added an extra wedge of orange, because she remembered from idle conversation that he liked orange, though he had never asked for it special.

“Here you go, Charlie,” she said, setting the plate on his table. “Denver omelet over medium.”

Charlie had one hand on the base of his throat, like he was trying to clear away a stubborn piece of phlegm.

“You okay, Charlie?” she asked.

He raised his eyes to hers. It looked like he was trying to tell her something. But he was usually so obsequious.

Even though she was busy, and she had food out and more on the way, she stopped at Charlie’s table. The restaurant buzzed around them like a meat and china beehive.

“What is it, Charlie?” she asked.

Charlie closed his eyes. He opened his mouth, and a sound came out that made Monica think of a hippopotamus. Then he collapsed face-first forward into his Denver omelet.

Monica screamed.

If it had been eggs over-easy he might well have drowned.

Luckily a recent pre-med graduate was dining at a nearby table. After dialing 9-1-1 and working Charlie’s neck, arms and shoulders to get the blood flowing, he reassured the crowd gathered around them that the poor guy was going to be alright. Except for Monica, everyone applauded.

The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. The pre-med student asked Monica for her phone number, and she gave it to him, though she didn’t feel very good about it. She’d realized that she’d hoped Charlie would ask her, one of these days. But, as it turned out, she would never see Charlie again. Over-medium or no, that was the last Denver omelet Charlie would ever order.

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Knocking at the Door

It was the California take on the shotgun shack: a squat, adobe-style bungalo partitioned from the sidewalk by a ratty fence and a cement lawn.

The door opened before he had knocked three times, which meant Mr. Julius had been right there waiting for it.

“What can I do for you, officer?” he asked, smiling wide.

“Are you Hanover Julius? The owner of this property?” Officer Jefferson asked.

Mr. Julius nodded.

“A woman placed a 9-1-1 call from this address.”

Hanover Julius held the door open with one hand, barring Jefferson’s view. His smile withered. His eyes lowered to Officer Jefferson’s shoes.

“Do you have a wife, Mr. Julius?”

Mr. Julius did not answer.

“Are there any women living here, Mr. Julius?”

“Ain’t nobody here but me.”

“Do you mind if I take a look around?”

“There is no emergency here, Officer.”

“I am obliged to search the premises, sir.”

“Look, this just ain’t none of your business.”

“You are legally obliged to let us onto the premises, Mr. Julius.”

Mr. Julius did not let go of the door. His other hand was behind his back. Officer Jefferson’s hand strayed to the plastic, rubber-gripped handle of his taser, holstered to his belt. He reminded himself how rarely his instincts failed him.

“Officer, just leave me be. Leave us be. This is my house. I’m not gonna say please.”

“Open the door, Mr. Julius.”

“I won’t.”

“You are refusing the orders of a peace officer.”

“I am.”

“You hurt your wife, didn’t you?”

“It ain’t your damn business.”

Officer Jefferson clicked on the mic attached to his collar, and radioed for backup. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hanover Julius make a sudden movement. He might have been closing the door, or swinging the hand behind his back forward.

Officer Jefferson raised his taser and pulled the trigger. Hanover Julius reeled back into the house and fell to the floor, taking a coatrack loaded with hats and coats along with him.

Officer Jefferson stopped in the doorway. He found himself confused, at the ringing in his ears and the smell of gunpowder in the air. He began to wonder whether he had seen all of this before, or, alternatively, whether he had seen it coming.

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Fascism-Light Has Come to America: Its Name is the Tea Party

Even if they don’t win this time around, the Tea Party’s defining influence in the 2012 election should concern everyone who does not want the U.S. decline to give rise to a new breed of 21st century, American-style fascism. I cam to this conclusion while watching Democracy Now!’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. Admittedly, Democracy Now! is very little pre-occupied with American journalism’s fetish for “objectivism”. From time to time their coverage comes across as paranoid and strident. In this case, I believe that they are right to be paranoid. Growing up here in the Bay Area, I have been witness to all manner of hand-wringing and chicken littling about the unchecked powers of the presidency, destruction of the environment, the rise of the military state, etc. etc., particularly during the Bush years. But George W. Bush, for all his destructiveness and extra-constitutional over-reaches, did not scare me the way that the Tea Party scares me. He infuriated and frustrated, and he forced me to marvel at the gullibility of those who supported him, who, as I believed, failed to see through his flimsy smokescreens. The worse alternative, of course, being that there were people out there who actually believed GW was right to reach for American global hegemony. Call this my political naivety. It is always better to assume the other side is ill informed, rather than malicious. It is less terrifying that way.

To my eyes, George W. always seemed something of an outlier, someone that we could probably handle when it came down to it. Even with his formidable machine of right wing political gamers, media cheerleaders and Christian zealots, he always seemed so alone up there, so paltry. His posturing, his transparently Freudian hang-ups, his almost comically sinister vice president. After his re-election in 2004, by my reading, it didn’t take long for the nation to experience something of a collective buyers’ remorse. Not that we regretted turning down the tepid John Kerry. More like we were embarrassed to have been taken by so obvious a straw man, wannabe strongman, duped by his manufactured threats, his in-retrospect almost childish war game rhetoric.

September 11th traumatized us, and the politicians in power took advantage. But even at our worst, I think we all knew that 9/11 was exceptional. Chances were, it wouldn’t happen again. There would be no war on American soil. The mere passage of days, suspiciously free of Muslim terrorism, proceeded to prove as much. The Bushites had gone out on a limb, and sure enough, with the Democrats’ 2006 and 2008 triumphs, the limb broke. As it turned out, we Americans weren’t so easily fooled. Our political system still had some life left in it, and we could elect, and at first overwhelmingly support, a man who seemed to represent everything that his predecessors weren’t. As if to show the world we had so blatantly disrespected that we weren’t all bad, after all.

Little did we know that the 21st Century was only just getting started. Indeed, seven years after 9/11 a trauma far more significant, and far more impactful fell swift and hard upon us. Upon all of us. And this time assigning blame wasn’t so easy. No WMDs, no terrorist training camps, no Axis of Evil. Rather, our entire way of life was put to trial. Something had gone wrong, or maybe it had been wrong all along. Maybe it had always been, and always would be a house of cards. The economy in free fall, basic comforts and assumptions once taken for granted now called into question, along with our very collective future. Our debt. Our children. Our homes. It was all going to be different now. Recession. Depression. The Great American Decline.

At first, we liberals liked to believe that the election of Obama had been our country’s answer to these new challenges. But this over-optimistic assumption was quick put to the lie. No, that had been too soon. Obama came about because of George W. Bush, not the economic collapse. But almost as soon as he stepped foot in office, a buyers’ remorse of a wholly different nature swept the country. Those who had once supported George Bush, and now felt over-chastened, felt it all slipping away. Our economy brought to its knees, our military chastened, And a fucking black man in the Oval Office? A black man with a middle name of Hussein? This while immigration continued unabated, and we whites’ majority status now on numbered days?

Well, not if we had anything to say about it.

With Paul Ryan as VP, Mitt Romney becomes a Tea Party candidate

And thus, the Tea Party was born. The fruits of the Great American Decline. Comparable in genesis, if not yet ferocity, to Weimar Germany’s National Socialists — the once Great Power Germans grappling with sudden collapse, vs. the still Great Power Americans faced with gradual decline. George W. was the political machine’s power grab. Now it was the “grassroots’” turn. White men, Christians, the “real” Americans as Sarah Palin so memorably put it. A nostalgic, virulently nativist, often expressly xenophobic, soon sponsored by bottomless pools of cash and corporate, political and private donor/allies. Encouraged and enabled by the same well-oiled machine that had directed George W. Bush, their intension from the very beginning was to seize control of the political system, and enact radical change in response to the sudden fears and altered realities of 21st Century America. It has been a little over two years since they first came onto the scene. Already they have ensconced themselves within a political system that had never intended to defend against such a movement in the first place. Now, with their first national convention, their mission has been codified and advertised for the nation and incorporated whole-heartedly into the political mainstream. Neither the old style “country club” Republicans like John Boehner, nor the neo-conservative Karl Rovians Republicans knew how to deal with them at first. Now, it seems that the Tea Party has been accepted. Jim Crow-reminiscent anti-immigration and voter suppression laws are passing everywhere, and the Citizens United decision has facilitated the total corruption, and near-absolute oligarchy of a system already groaning with such pressures. Ron Paul, whose delegates could have functioned as dissenting voices, were decisively excluded from the Convention. John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008 are small fries compared to Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.  Even if Mitt Romney proves too weak a candidate to best Obama this time around, in the long run, I fear that the piddling Democrats do not stand a chance.

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