Folklore: Review of Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild

The folkloristic dimension rests not so much in the myth and magical realism that pervade the film (the piece that reviewers often point to when invoking Zeitlin’s folklore background) as in the unvarnished (and profoundly ethnographic) portrayal of the details of their everyday lives.

Review of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”


Review of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I would encourage
you do so . . . and then to follow that read with run-to-the-theater efforts
to see this remarkable film. As you may remember from earlier posts, the
film-maker is the son of folklorists Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan; in
this work, he brings his complex understanding of the workings of vernacular
culture–clearly influenced by folkloristic thought–brilliantly to life.
The Times’s E. O. Scott’s rave review only underlines the reasons that the
film received top honors at both Sundance and Cannes, calling it a
“passionate and unruly explosion of Americana,” and praising it as both
profoundly thoughtful and a “blast of sheer, improbable joy.” (You can
check out today’s review at:
http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/movies/beasts-of-the-southern-wild-directed-by-benh-zeitlin.html?pagewanted=all ).
The film offers a portrait of a small, working-class community that
fiercely holds onto its sense of self, a self that comes across in its
beliefs, its music, its foodways, its ethos, and–quite importantly–its
spirited aesthetics. The small band on whom the film focuses come across as
fully realized and sensitively portrayed individuals, as folks who are
acting while letting bits of themselves seep through at every opportunity.
The folkloristic dimension rests not so much in the myth and magical realism
that pervade the film (the piece that reviewers often point to when invoking
Zeitlin’s folklore background) as in the unvarnished (and profoundly
ethnographic) portrayal of the details of their everyday lives.
In many ways, Beasts is not the kind of film that tells a
straightforward story and leaves viewers with a clear message; instead, I
found it enigmatic and a bit challenging . . . though quite remarkable. The
filmmaking is nothing if not lyrical, with beautiful cinematography,
striking directing, and remarkable acting from a cast of nonprofessional
actors. When Steve suggested in an earlier posting that folklorists would
enjoy the film, he was voicing an understatement.
So . . . many congratulations to Steve and Amanda, who ought to be
mighty proud of Benh’s achievement. And check out the film when you can . . .
Yours in peace,
— glenn
Glenn Hinson
Assoc. Professor of Folklore and Anthropology

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