The Beasts of Summer

September 24, 2012

I’m really busy this week, primarily preparing for a talk at the Scripps Humanities Institute exciting series on Social Media/Social Change, but I couldn’t resist putting off my real responsibilities to pen this short little blog post about the similarities and differences between this year’s two remarkable brute flicks: Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master.

Notable echoes are of course between the very beasts in question: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who live their lives outside any master’s dogma, or related organized rules of etiquette or discipline. Both are offered up by their directors (Benh Zeitlin and Paul Thomas Anderson) as retro-fueled models for a post-modern living that has been too tamed by technology, corporations, and stultifying social systems like race, gender, class and sexuality.

However, there the two must part, for Hushpuppy figures how to be part of a community (of outsiders) even so, has an ethical stance that is her personal amalgam of the many traditions (spiritual, philosophical, social, political and economic) that she rejects in toto, and uses violence with some consideration and moral compass.

While both the beasts need to be tamed by their Daddies, who each ultimately fail, the Mommy plays a different role in each triangle: for Hushpuppy she’s entirely absent, flipping the racist stereotype that black children suffer from missing patriarchs and blaming poverty, instead, for her lack of schooling. Meanwhile, Freddie’s matriarchal lady (Amy Adams) is both too present, and oddly absent (for him) as he only has eyes for Poppa. All the actors in The Master are pretty remarkable, and Adams plays Dodd’s wife Peggy asexually, all cold cunning, leaving the prurient excesses to the man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his beast (which she also does in this weekend’s stunningly ham-fisted The Trouble With the Curve, albeit, we assume, to please this crowd-pleaser’s geriatric and juvenile audiences.)

So, it seems we have two tales of boys’ beasts and girls’, white beasts and black, and adults and children, too, telling us what we need to know today about male masters’ authority and everyone else’s needs to reject them (hello Occupy). Both are spectacular spectaculars, amazing in form and craft, intelligent and affecting, too. But from this brief scrutiny, I’d want to say that the beast (of the southern wild) ultimately makes a stronger claim for me about what and who we might hope to follow, and how, if we were to have no Mommies and then say no to Daddy, too: a personal ethics that allows for a careful and piece-meal consideration and embracing of the best of past traditions, the possibility for willful and strategic loving communities committed to each other and our lived places, as well as a hope and politics for the future.

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