Why Beasts of the Southern Wild is Metamodern

Beasts of the Southern Wild (co-written by Ben Zeitlinand Lucy Alibar, directed by Ben Zeitlin), came out of nowhere and was nominated in several categories in the 2012 Academy Awards, including the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress (6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis). The film – we’ll get to why we think it is a great example of metamodernism shortly – depicts the plight of a ramshackle community eking out an apparently difficult but often joyous life in an area in Louisiana known as “The Bathtub” because of its location on the Gulf-facing side of a levee meant to protect “the real world” from storms. It’s not clear, but it seems that the folks on the “civilization” side of the levee may not even know that there are people living in The Bathtub. They have chickens and goats and plenty of seafood all around them. Somehow they are getting their hands on fuel to power their motorboats and light their stoves, and things like that, even though they may be cut off from the outside economy. Shortly after all of this is established, The Big Storm hits, and the story is about how the people who live in The Bathtub cope.

This world is presented from the vantage point of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by Wallis), who is being raised alone by her father Wink (Dwight Henry), and whose mother has either died or left the family. As a father, Wink is at times belligerent and irresponsible, but also loving, proud, playful, inspired, and fiercely protective. He disappears occasionally, and it becomes apparent that the reason for his absences is that he is grappling with a serious medical issue, and leaving The Bathtub to go to a clinic for examinations and treatment, something he wants to hide from his daughter. The Big Storm arrives as he is returning from one of these journeys, leaving him just enough time to find Hushpuppy, bring her back to their home, and prepare for the two of them and their dog to ride out the storm.

Meanwhile, woven around and through the story there is a fantasy element: Aurochs – ancient, giant buffalo-like creatures, in the reality of the film –  have been frozen in the Polar ice until now when, with the melting of glaciers, they are being released, alive and presenting some sort of looming threat to humans. By the end of the film the aurochs reach The Bathtub, and engage in a crucial standoff with Hushpuppy.

What’s Metamodern about it?

1) Well, first of all, the whole “aurochs” thing is a great example of Performatism.

Performatism, as used by Raoul Eshelman, is a theory proposing that some literary/filmic works have escaped the confines of postmodern irony/skepticism by creating narratives built on nested “double frames.” The outer frame of a performatist double-frame is some sort of a fantasy reality with its own rules about how the world works. The performatist inner frame is the actual story of the characters and their emotions. Eshelman’s idea is that the outer frame of fantasy creates a sort of anti-irony wall protecting the inner frame’s earnest emotional truth. Whereas postmodernism normally works by dissolving the boundaries of a narrative from the real world, this sort of performatist work forces the reader/viewer to first commit to a narrative that is indisputably separated from the world the reader sits in, and having done that, the reader is in a position to relate to the subjective experiences of the characters on their own terms. In other words, the reader is prevented from – and freed from the obligation of – taking an ironic or skeptical stance towards the characters’ felt experiences.

Although Eshelman’s theory stands on its own as an examination of double frames and as a particular literary technique, we feel that double framing can be considered one among several techniques employed by metamodern cultural artifacts, works of art that foreground the validity of subjectivity and felt experience.

2) The kid thing. 

The film presents complex, very “grown-up” issues through the eyes of a child. Although Hushpuppy is clearly precocious, she is still a kid and she’s kid-cute. The cuteness factor simultaneously keeps the film from getting too dark and morose, AND puts it, in a sense, off-limits from external sarcasm/irony. A not-uncommon trait found in metamodern work is children being used as key figures in stories that are intended for adults. (For example: Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone We Know, Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom.)

3) The film’s depiction of the web of life and the place of humans in it. 

Some of the most beautiful photography in Beasts of the Southern Wild involves swarms of animal life that are also potentially food for humans, just as humans are potential food for the aurochs. As Hushpuppy’s teacher, Miss Bathsheba, explains:

“Meat. Meat meat meat. Every animal is made out of meat.
I’m meat. Your ass is meat.
Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.”

This sort of blending of categories, with everything being a context for something else, has a postmodern tone to it, and yet, embedded within it, we see Hushpuppy repeatedly honoring the personhood of the animals she encounters. Because even though we’re all meat, Miss Bathsheba also explains:

“The most important thing I can teach you?? You gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.”

Metamodern work embraces, or at least acknowledges, postmodern contextualism, but not for the purpose of dissolving the sense of self, but instead to emphasize the cruciality of self-hood at each node in the web of life and in meaning-making.

4) How the film handles race.

The film’s treatment of race is complex, and a couple paragraphs cannot fully do it justice, but here are just a couple key points:

The residents of The Bathtub are about an equal mixture of black and white. Not only do they all get along pretty well and take care of each other, but it almost seems like skin color is not a thing, for them, at all. There is no sense that the white people are making an effort to extend themselves to the black people, or vice versa. They just deal with each other as people. So, idealistically, it depicts a kind of post-racial community.

And yet the film is not in denial about the challenges imposed on people of color. The inhabitants of The Bathbub may have a color-blind attitude with respect to each other, but the film itself is aware that the Bathtub community’s collective plight is indicative of conditions faced systemically by marginalized people in the United States, and the film does not hide that reality. Indeed, the film oscillates between a postmodernforegrounding of difficulties faced by marginalized Americans, a sympathetic depiction of the modernist urban authorities seeking to help them, and a metamodern honoring of the subjective values that give The Bathtub residents meaning and dignity in their lives.

5) And then we’ll end with this exemplary quote from Hushpuppy, which would stand on its own in any context as metamodern GOLD:

“All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other in ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying, ‘I’m hungry or I gotta poop’ or sometimes they be talking in codes.”

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