'Beasts of Southern Wild' Wins Best Picture Nomination

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Film is an example of growing independent film movement.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012 American fantasy drama film directed by Benh Zeitlin and written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar's one-act play Juicy and Delicious, is winning many awards during Oscar season. After playing at film festivals, this independent film  was released in New York and Los Angeles, and later expanded to wider audiences. The film is nominated for four Academy Awards at the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin) and Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis).

Here’s a little bit about the story: As a relentless storm is approaching a southern Louisiana bayou community called the "Bathtub" (a community cut off from the rest of the world by a levee), five-year old Hushpuppy appears optimistic along with her unhealthy hot-tempered father, Wink. The children in school are being taught by Miss Bathsheba on how to survive and about the release of ruthless prehistoric creatures called "Aurochs" from the melting ice caps. At home, Hushpuppy gets into an argument with Wink when he refuses to let her in his house (they have separate homes). Hushpuppy sets her house on fire and a chase ensues between the two, and she ends up getting slapped by Wink.

The fictional island of the film, "Isle de Charles Doucet" known to its residents as the Bathtub, was inspired by several isolated and independent fishing communities threatened by erosion, hurricanes and rising sea levels in Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish, most notably the rapidly eroding Isle de Jean Charles. It was filmed in Terrebonne Parish town Montegut.

The film was shot on 16mm film, and director Benh Zeitlin created the production with a small professional crew, and with dozens of local residents in and around Montegut, Louisiana. The film-makers call themselves "Court 13" and are the first credited at the end of the film.

During the audition, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was five years old, though the casting call had been for girls between six and nine years) impressed the filmmakers with her reading ability, as well as a tremendous scream and her ability to burp on command, both of which are utilized in the film.

Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, was not looking for an acting job. As he explained in an interview with the San Diego Reader:

"Before I was cast in the part I owned a bakery called Henry's Bakery and Deli right across the street from the casting agency where Court 13 had their studio. They used to come over and have lunch or breakfast in the morning. After a few months we kinda' developed a relationship. They used to put these fliers in the bakery with a phone number to call if you were interested in appearing in one of their movies."

The film was designated a 2012 "Critics' Pick" by the reviewers of The New York Times. Author and critic A. O. Scott, writing for The New York Times, calls Beasts a "blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie with a protagonist who can hold her own... Hushpuppy, the 6-year-old heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild, has a smile to charm fish out of the water and a scowl so fierce it can stop monsters in their tracks. The movie, a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana, directed by Benh Zeitlin, winks at skepticism, laughs at sober analysis and stares down criticism." Scott subsequently named Beasts of the Southern Wild the third best film of 2012.

Roger Ebert called the film a "remarkable creation... Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you've never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is one of the year's best films."

The following is an interview with Michael Z. Newman conducted by the Columbia University Press.  Newman is the author of Indie: An American Film Culture.

Question: Why “indie” rather than “independent”?

Book cover: Indie: An American Film CUltureMichael Newman: At some point, maybe in the 1990s, indie became a kind of catch-all for describing edgy, youthful, subcultural, or alternative culture. One thing that appeals to me about the term is its wide usage -- I have seen it applied not just to the obvious things like movies and music, but to video games, crafts, bookstores, even supermarkets and hotels. It’s also a term people use to identify persons: indie kids, indie boys or girls. It obviously comes from independent but it shades its connotations away from a sense of independence from big, powerful companies and toward a sense of style and of identity. Independent cinema was at one time a way of describing films that were pretty far from Hollywood in many ways, certainly in terms of financing and distribution if not also in terms of form and style. It still is, but many of the films we would call indie are not really far from Hollywood; they’re marketed by Fox Searchlight and similar companies, which are subsidiaries of major conglomerates. I argue that calling these films indie rather than independent is a mystification. It takes attention away from economics and industry and refocuses it on sensibility, hipness, cool. It aligns off-beat cinema with forms of music and other popular culture in an ad hoc alliance of subcultural distinction.

Q: A key concept in this book is “viewing strategies.” Where does this idea come from, and how does it help explain the significance of indie cinema?

MN: There are different ways of making sense of a cultural category like a film genre or mode of production. We identify westerns by their setting and iconography, horror or pornography by how they elicit bodily responses. A more slippery and amorphous category like indie cinema might not be so easily understood according to a core of shared features. Efforts to define independent cinema sometimes rely on vague or untested ideas like “independent spirit” or “personal cinema” or “character-driven” storytelling. Some indie films tend toward social realism, some tend toward formal play or genre exercise. It can be hard to see what they have in common, to make the category cohere. I borrowed the idea of “viewing strategies” from David Bordwell’s essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” in which he identifies three ways in which the audience for postwar foreign art films is encouraged to read them: for realism (whether objective or subjective), authorship, and ambiguity. In some ways I think art and indie cinemas are similar, but they arise in different contexts and address different audiences. The viewing strategies I see as most central in unifying the experience of indie cinema are seeing characters as emblems of their social identity, finding novel form as an invitation to play, and reading indie films as opposed to Hollywood. Not all indie films invite the viewer to adopt all three; some emphasize one or two. But I think these viewing strategies account for how we make sense of these films pretty well, and that together they help explain the coherence of indie cinema as a category.

Q: Some critics would say that indie cinema has become more of a corporate branding strategy than a true alternative to commercial mainstream cinema. What do you think about indie cinema’s potential to be an alternative?

MN: At the heart of indie culture -- and this applies as much to indie rock and indie crafts, I think, as it does to indie films -- is a tension between two contradictory values. On one hand, indie can be opposed to the dominant social structure and its ideology. It stands as an alternative to mainstream commercial culture. It has the potential to be resistant and progressive. On the other hand, indie functions as an elite taste culture producing distinction for its audience of cultivated connoisseurs. It is a site for the production of cultural (or subcultural) capital. The fact that the media industries exploit the indie audience, marketing indieness to them, hardly seems to make indie culture less authentic as an alternative, because that authenticity was always a performance for the sake of producing distinction.

I’m most interested in understanding indie culture on its own terms, and appreciating the values circulating within its community of filmmakers, distributors, critics, exhibitors, and audiences. If all agree that indie cinema constitutes an alternative to Hollywood, the circulation of indie films within the institutions of the major media conglomerates hardly seems to invalidate that meaning. I certainly wouldn’t nominate myself the arbiter of indieness. But I’m also interested in those cases in which the community struggles over conferring the designation of indie on a film. This sometimes happens with the indie blockbusters like Little Miss Sunshine: they start to seem less indie upon achieving wider commercial success. The value of indie cinema as an alternative is reaffirmed when critics and audiences deny the authenticity of films like these. But the fact that they sell as indie to a wider audience ironically makes them really important examples of alternative cinema to many viewers, and I would never say they’re wrong to value them that way.

Q: While the typical reader is probably familiar with many of the films discussed in Indie, let’s imagine a reader who is new to this cinema. Where should they start?

MN:
It’s hard for me to imagine never having seen sex, lies, and videotape and Pulp Fiction. I would say sex, lies is historically significant both as an American independent film that won the top prize at Cannes and for the way it was marketed effectively by Miramax. Its low-key storytelling and adult themes probably helped establish a tone for a certain kind of indie film, but I don’t know that anyone considers it a great work now. Pulp Fiction was hugely influential and is regarded as perhaps the best American film of the 90s, a heyday of indie cinema. I would recommend Blood Simple as an example of an indie genre pastiche and Welcome to the Dollhouse and Lost in Translation as examples of character-centered realism. Juno is a good example of a contentious indie film, performing its own indieness but ultimately judged by many people as too mainstream. Examples like these reveal how indie cinema can be different things to different people.

Visit your local library for more resources on this

Beasts of the Southern Wild  DVD
Benh Zeitlin, (2012).

Glory at Sea (short) DVD
Benh Zeitlin, (2008).
 
 
Indie: An American Film Culture
Michael Z. Newman, (2011).
 
American independent cinema : an introduction
by Yannis Tzioumakis, (2006).
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