Time and Tide…and Cinema: Degree of Fantasy in TIDELAND and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
13 January 2013
In the fall of 2006 Terry Gilliam’s Tideland released in United States theatres to dismal reviews. The film tells the story of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a girl who recently lost her mother to a heroin overdose. Her father, who is also a drug addict, takes her to a deserted farmhouse, whereupon he, too, overdoses. Although alone in an abandoned house, Jeliza-Rose’s youth stops her from realizing just how precarious her situation is. Instead, she easily amuses herself with her Barbie heads (yes, just the heads), her dress-up clothes, and her odd neighbors. According to Gilliam, even though the film’s narrative is dark and unsettling, this film is meant to be “seen through the eyes of a child,” meaning the audience sees and experiencing everything as a cognitively undeveloped, curious, and blissfully ignorant child would, in bright colors, from dramatic angles, and, sometimes, in stunning pace—not what an audience watching a film dealing with child abuse and neglect might expect. In consideration of its dark narrative juxtaposed with whimsical cinematography, Gilliam suspected Tideland would not be welcomed by critics and audiences alike. In fact, in a personal introduction to the audience which precedes the film, Gilliam claims, “Most of you will hate this movie.” Gilliam was right; most people hated Tideland.
Is it that the narrative follows an innocent girl mistreated and ignored, living in decay, unaware she is constantly in danger? Or, is it that Gilliam’s wild cinematics frustrate adult viewers who must experience a heartbreaking and grave narrative as fantasy without the weight and seriousness the topics of child abuse and child endangerment are most typically handled with? Or, is it some combination of the two?
This past year Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film with striking similarities to Tideland, was released and welcomed with mostly positive reviews. The two films have similar narratives, similar protagonists, and incorporate fantasy, but are cinematically divergent. With Beasts of the Southern Wild currently one of the most celebrated films of 2012, a question becomes how could two different directors translate a common story so differently they would receive polar opposite responses from audiences and critics?
Beasts of the Southern Wild captures the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a child living in The Bathtub, a small isle in the Louisiana Bayou. Hushpuppy’s mother ran off when she was a baby, so she is raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Other residents of The Bathtub help raise Hushpuppy, including Bathsheba, the schoolteacher, who warns the children about Aurochs, mammoth-like creatures from the pre-historic days who will return to The Bathtub and eat all the people up. The living conditions in The Bathtub are deplorable, and strong storms threaten the small isle’s annihilation; yet, Hushpuppy and her father refuse to compromise their way of life by evacuating. Adding more tension, Hushpuppy’s father is gravely ill, and the two frequently fight. When a massive storm finally comes many members of The Bathtub are killed, but Hushpuppy and her father persevere. And, perhaps knowing he will not be with her much longer, Hushpuppy’s father attempts to teach her everything he knows about survival. But, before he finishes, a mandatory evacuation forces all The Bathtub residents off their land and into medical care tents. Unwilling to accept help, however, The Bathtub resident flee the sanctuary and return to their home. Hushpuppy then embarks on her own journey to find her mother and to face the Aurochs, but knows she truly belongs in The Bathtub with her father. With time running out for Hushpuppy’s father, and, likely, the people of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy returns, willing to accept her fate.
From a narrative perspective both Tideland and Beasts of the Southern Wild are stories of girls outcasted from the norm, abused, neglected, and endangered, but headstrong, imaginative, and resilient. Although living in horror, each girl, respectively, emerges as a strong, independent survivor. The only major narrative distinction between the two films is the ending, or the recuperation. In Tideland, a terrible train wreck not far off from where Jeliza-Rose resides attracts her attention. While wandering around, a female survivor mistakes Jeliza-Rose for a fellow survivor. Thus, Tideland offers unexpected hope at the end because Jeliza-Rose is rescued from peril and will, likely, reenter society and be cared for. In the conclusion of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy returns to The Bathtub in time to take care of her father before he passes away. Once he passes, Hushpuppy lays him to rest in traditional Bathtub style and rejoins her community, refusing to leave The Bathtub and its way of life. Interestingly, from a narrative perspective, the film that saves the child in the end was not as successful with critics and audiences as the one that leaves the child in peril. Therefore, the narrative, likely, has nothing to do with what audiences and critics resisted in Tideland. Cinema is cinematics, and, in telling nearly the same story, this is the area where Gilliam displeased the masses and Zeitlin satisfied.
The cinematography Tideland could not be more different from the cinematography in Beast of the Southern Wild. As mentioned, Tideland’s genre would have to be considered fantasy because it is from the point of view of a child, a girl whose parents were, likely, on drugs when she was conceived and has been around these unstable, volatile addicts her entire life. She is the ultimate unreliable narrator because she does not have, and perhaps cannot have, any concept of reality. Yet she is the only narrator, and the film is intentionally as wild, unpredictable, and confused as she is. Conversely, Beasts of the Southern Wild shifts perspectives throughout the film, but mainly tells Hushpuppy’s story as an outsider looking in on her, and not how she would actually experience it herself. Thus, Beasts of the Southern Wild may blend elements of fantasy, but is not a fantasy film.
For example, when Hushpuppy’s father disappears for the first time the film experiments with its own blend of realism and fantasy, primarily siding with realism. Hushpuppy sits alone in her house and sees a jersey hanging on the wall that was once belonged to her mother. Hushpuppy pulls is down, places the jersey on a chair at her table, and proceeds to cook dinner. The audience hears a woman’s voice talking to Hushpuppy, saying things like, “You bein’ a good girl like I taught you.” Even though the woman is never shown, the audience understands it to be Hushpuppy’s mother. Hushpuppy’s responds, “Yes, mamma.” The voice is fantasy; the audience is experiencing something in Hushpuppy’s head. However, what the audience sees is reality, and it is a grim, revolting reality. To cook dinner, Hushpuppy puts a can of broth into a pot, and then adds canned cat food to the mix, licking her fingers after she uses them to scoop the cat food from its can. She turns on the stove’s gas, puts on a football helmet, which she keeps in the freezer (because, without power, the freezer is more of a closet), pulls out a blowtorch, and lights the stove. Hushpuppy then climbs up and stirs her dinner as it warms. The camera cuts to a few shots of the bubbling concoction. Aside from the voice, there is no fantasy; this scene of Hushpuppy cooking details her inhumane and repulsive reality, even though she herself does not see it that way. In Beasts of the Southern Wild the audience is not required to confront unspeakably difficult topics from the innocent mind of a child; the shots of the bubbling food suggests the film itself is making a judgment about this child’s living conditions and the film wants to show the audience this horrifying reality. This type of judgment is exactly what Gilliam avoids in Tideland, and why he chooses to stay in the fantasy mode and never shift to reality.
Even in the most fantasy-filled scene of Beast of the Southern Wild, when Hushpuppy confronts the Aurochs, the fantasy seems only to highlight reality, serving as a metaphor for Hushpuppy’s life and setting up the film’s conclusion. Hushpuppy heard a story about the Aurochs from her teacher, Bathsheba, and created from it a monster she must confront. This monster is born from global warming, as it only appears when the icecaps melt. Global warming is one of the greatest threats to Hushpuppy and The Bathtub’s existence, and she must confront the threat, which she envisions as a mammoth-like monster, to survive. In her fantasy, Hushpuppy valiantly walks toward the charging Aurochs, and, perhaps because of her bravery and strength, the beasts stop and gently bow down in front of Hushpuppy, signaling defeat. That fantasy sequence serves as a catalyst for the film’s final shot, which is of Hushpuppy surrounded by members of The Bathtub cheering and walking down a flooded road. They are walking at the camera, looking directly at the audience, and the mounted camera is quickly retreating from the riled Bathtub mob, moving further away from Hushpuppy, leaving her exactly where she chooses to stay. As with the Aurochs, Hushpuppy confronts all threats to her home and lifestyle. In the film shot, Hushpuppy and her Bathtub family force the camera out, and by extension the audience, and reclaim their land.
It seems as though degree of fantasy is what separates Tideland from Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tideland is all fantasy, and has every camera trick in the book to prove it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the cinematography is purposeful stylized to convey an unconventional perspective. Nevertheless, adult audiences who do not have the energy or imaginative capabilities of a child, particularly a child of Jeliza-Rose’s upbringing, may not have the stamina to absorb Tideland. Whereas with Zeitlin’s Beast of the Southern Wild the fantasy is minimized and used to buffer and sometimes escape reality, which seems more suited for the average audience.