AMERICAN EXOTIC

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At the Cinema: film-makers are less interested in America than they used to be. But now, writes Tom Shone, a gem of a movie bucks the trend...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

Who would like to see a really good film about America? One of the chief virtues of being carpet-bombed by American movies used to be seeing what the country had been up to lately—how the old girl was shaping up. She's been a little absent from view of late. Sure, we get to see a generic New York smashed to smithereens every summer, but the giant vistas that once haunted John Ford, or the jittery streets that kept Martin Scorsese up at night, seem to have faded from the big screen. Woody Allen sends postcards home from London, Madrid, Rome; even Scorsese went Parisian for "Hugo", while the hip young auteurs circle the globe, collecting hosannahs from the festival circuit. Wes Anderson’s latest picture, "Moonrise Kingdom", is his first set on American soil in a decade.

We’ll always have the Coens, of course, quietly stitching together a patchwork quilt of their country—New York in the 1950s ("The Hudsucker Proxy"), Los Angeles in the 1940s ("Barton Fink"), Mississippi in the 1930s ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), Minnesota in the 1960s ("A Serious Man"), Arkansas in the 1880s ("True Grit"), their quirky charm resting in their ability to see their country from the outside—strangers in their own land. Something of that mixture enlivens "Beasts of the Southern Wild". Made on a shoestring by a resourceful New Orleans-based collective, and directed by 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, this film came out of nowhere to snatch the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and the Caméra d'Or at Cannes, and rightly so. It is easily the most original American film of 2012 so far. 

It's about a black kid of six named Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who holds the camera’s attention with an indomitable poise, a thick thatch of hair, a feral scowl and a smile that could halt a buffalo. "In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub," she tells us, blessed with the innate solipsism of children and narrators, from Huckleberry Finn to Terrence Malick's boys in "The Tree of Life". She acts as if she is the centre of the known universe. In many ways, she is. The Bathtub is a patch of marshy Louisiana lowland whose inhabitants spend their time fishing, scavenging, breaking open crabs and drinking moonshine like there's no tomorrow in rickety, water-logged shanties built from pieces of old cars and caravans, with occasional breaks to howl at the moon. 

On the outskirts of the swamp sits a city belching pollution—a grey Oz. There are melting icecaps, and a flood, and finally monsters, but none of it amounts to a plot, any more than the wanderings of Odysseus did, thousands of years ago. Instead, Zeitlin tunes into the lyrical voodoo of childhood with a liquid feel for sequence and consequence: to Hushpuppy, a blow to her father's chest arrives like a thunderclap. A missing mother sounds her Siren call. This has to have been the movie playing in Spike Jonze's head when he made "Where the Wild Things Are": a howl-at-the-heavens ode to being child king, feet planted in the mud and mess of America, head filled with myth and magic. Imagine "Mad Max" retold by Gabriel García Márquez and you’re halfway there. 

Maybe that's how America should look on screen right now, I thought as I left the cinema. Maybe that’s the American genre now: magic realism. It used to be realism, at the movies as much as on the page, but the role of national chronicler has largely fallen to television these days. In another era, "Deadwood", "The
Sopranos", "Mad Men", "Boardwalk Empire" and "Band of Brothers" would all have been movies, but the industry that would have made them is now largely dead. In a recent edition of the New York Times, Michael Cieply noted that of the
20 biggest hits of last year, only two—"Bridesmaids" and "The Help"—were set in anything recognisable as North America. In 1992, it was 15 out of 20. It’s one reason the Academy has gone fishing overseas for its big winners in recent years—"The Artist", "The King's Speech", "Slumdog Millionaire"—always reserving a spot among the nominations for something flinty and homespun from the indie world: two years ago it was "Winter's Bone", which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year, it should be "Beasts of the Southern Wild". 

The film is not entirely free of the romanticism that dogs the genre, and it is now a genre: the American Exotic, ferrying news from the furthest pits of national squalor to the comfort of the urban movie house. Zeitlin is a Rousseauist. The drunken dysfunction of Hushpuppy's family is lushly ennobled, with her father even refusing medical treatment to keep the corrupting influence of civilisation at bay, but the film gets you with all its glorious rot, like mud between your toes. 

It's a sensory marvel. At one point, Hushpuppy and her family are fished out of the flood waters and forcibly evacuated; such has been your immersion in the movie's muck and clutter, that the entire scene, with its bright antiseptic lights and clean, white orderlies—"like a fish tank with no water," says Hushpuppy—plays like a report from Mars. Actually, no. Just America. Which might be the same thing, these days. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in Britain on October 19th

Tom Shone is is a former film critic of the Sunday Times and the author of "Blockbuster". His novel about recovery, "In the Rooms", was published this year by Hutchinson