Friday, January 11, 2013

On Representation and Wish Fulfillment

by Adam Hofbauer

2012’s two most visible films relating the experiences of African Americans were both made by white men.  Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild fantasized a magical Mississippi Delta, where most of the magic seemed to involve ignoring any racial or post-Katrina related subtext and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained continued his increasingly Ouroboros like cycle of cinematic self-reference.  Here is a superhero origin story for a man whose superpower is cultural reparations via bullet to the nuts, where the intended pleasure is escapist, bloody fantasy. 

It is not these films’ treatment of race that raises eye brows, but their shared filter of wish fulfillment.  Their creators seem to be using blacks in the south as set dressing for their own personal fantasies.  Controversy over Django has been mostly limited to its use of the word “nigger”, with little question raised about its muddy approach to morality.  That the film all but equates freedom with gun ownership seems to little trouble audiences and critics when there is so much bloody carnage to enjoy.  Obviously, praise for Django has not been unanimous.  The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called into question many of the film’s issues, from its portrayal of slaves as “ciphers passively awaiting freedom” (a diminishing of populist slave resistance that finds echoes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) to its replacing of history with morally simplistic mythology.  Of course, even a cursory viewing of Django reveals that this is its very intention, restaging the legend of Siegfried through the kind of lone wolf emancipator inspired by real life rebels like John Brown.  Of course Tarantino is aware of his history.  The issue is the wide spread acceptance of stories that reshape history and contemporary politics for the sake of emotional catharsis.

Beasts of the Southern Wild depicts a Mississippi Delta where blacks and whites live in post-racial harmony, idealized happy “po people”, a kind of antediluvian Little Rascals.  Their resilience is never muddied by issues like gender or race relations.  And nearly every paean to Beasts of the Southern Wild acknowledges the film’s “magical” qualities, often describing it as a “Post Katrina fable” with some critics even going to far as to say that the film’s relationship with reality is irrelevant. Because subtext doesn’t matter if your movie is pretty.    

Beasts shares numerous elements with Lance Hammer’s 2008 debut, Ballast.  That film too was made by a white man about the experience of impoverished blacks in the Mississippi Delta.  Like Zeitlin, Hammer also culled amateur actors from the local area.  Much as Beasts is told through the perspective of a young girl, Ballast is told largely through the point of view of a young man.  Hammer’s previous work had been constructing sets for Joel Schumacher’s garish entries into the Batman franchise, an experience which so soured him on the Hollywood system that he sought to create a film as opposed to this sensibility as he could.  Hammer encouraged improvisation and heavily reworked his original treatment based on the influence of his actors.  Brandon Colvin has already isolated Ballast’s success on this site as owing less to the work of an auteur seeking to represent than as a piece of collaboration.  It was, as Colvin put it, Hammer, “Diminishing his own role from totalitarian author to co-creator.” 

It is ironic that Beasts was actually the work of an artistic collaborative, Court 13, a self-described “Independent Filmmaking Army” from Wesleyan University.  After a few semesters worth of “animating meat and building things out of bones,” they decided to take their “communal” based approach to film making down south and make something in praise of Delta resilience.  But their collaborative efforts seem limited to the level of projection.  They are not interested in the Delta as a source of its own idioms and feelings, as Hammer was, so much as a sand box into which they can project their own sensibilities. 

Hammer describes his role as director as attempting to emulate a distant, almost alien presence.  He seeks to document life as closely to its own experience as he can, limiting his own interference.  Ballast has no score.  It has no opening credits.  It is the creation of a former visual effects artist that has no visual effects, outside of the intense visual impact of the Delta itself.  Stray dogs roaming a road to nowhere.  A young boy’s crack pipe hidden in the hollow of a tree.  Nature is the mysterious uplift of birds, the rising puddles of a flooded field. Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, is nothing but cinematic intrusion, utilizing score, narration, flowing camera work, the lights of sparklers, a rich color palette and even some computer enhanced monsters to wow us into submission.  Nature is a choreographed symphony, a magical rush of imagery employed by a young girl’s mind to mask the pain of her life.  But it is also the work of adults, and as such the escapism is their own.  In Court 13’s America, even climate change is de-politicized by the (admitted) charm of a five year old.  In Quentin Tarantino’s prewar South, violence answers violence and vengeance begets increased freedom (a moral step backwards from the “forest of revenge” elucidated in the superior Kill Bill series).
This is what Mark Cousins, in his book and documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, identifies as “the bauble,” the glittering object that draws our gaze, the shiny thing so easily broken that we handle it with care lest it reveal its hollow center.  We are comforted by the ideas of morally just revenge and disaster ravaged communities untroubled by racial conflict.  The quiet ambiguity of films like Ballast are drowned out by surface level praises for whatever tucks us in and tells us it is going to ok.                 
Adam Hofbauer is a contributor to the SF Informer.  You can follow his writing at


Joel Bocko said...

Actually I have similar problems with both Beasts and Ballast: aesthetically, they eschew romantic imagination (whatever Beasts' desire for 'uplift' it fully subscribed to the sub-Dardennes penchant for shaky-cam close-ups) and in terms of their creation, it's nice Hammer wanted to collaborate with the Delta folks, but why not just give them a camera and let them make the film if the goal is their self-expression rather than his? There's a whiff of high-minded condescension in the whole neo-neorealist movement, frankly.

The problem with the film industry, including the indie film industry, isn't that it doesn't tell enough stories about poor people, or minorities, or women or whatever. It's that there are too many barriers to those people making films, especially the first group. Change the input, and the output will take care of itself.

Joel Bocko said...

I'd also note that the lack of aesthetic richness is related to the aspects of creation - it is often the self-conscious outsider's assumption, not the subjects', that the style must be drab.

Adam Hofbauer said...

Just now noticed these comments. Thanks for reading.

I agree about the institutional "inputs" that you are talking about here, and one of the points I was trying to get at was the absence of the voices of people of color in the film making community. But the need for these voices doesn't necessarily mean that all white male film makers should jut just either make films about white men or turn their cameras over to the stories of their subjects. By this argument, people should only make art about their own experience, which then further limits the stories being told. Taken to its logical outcome, this argument would insist that everyone just make documentaries about themselves. I mean, obviously it would be preferable to have a cinema of representation where the "input" is truly open ended, but I don't think this should lead to the dismissal of any art that seeks to cross cultural, racial or socio-economic barriers. The ideal example to contrast Beasts and Django too would be films about the black experience made by black people, but I only use Ballast as an example of how outsiders can have drastically different approaches.

As for the outsider imposing drabness, I don't think you can really take a single example and draw some over arching conclusion from it. Heck, what about Sounder, another film about poor southern blacks made by a white person? That film is filled with color and life and energy in a way that, unlike Beasts, is sincere and never feels condescending at all, but you can't really hold it up as an example of how the "outsider" imposes color, life and energy onto the "other".