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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Poverty Porn, Cold Narratives, and the Appreciation of Life in 2012 Film (Motifs in Cinema)

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across 22 film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilized by different artists.
Last year, we saw a number of films marvel at the varieties of lives far and beyond--unfathomable to accessible. Specifically, audiences were fascinated to watch the many stories which showed how certain characters lived their daily lives under unimaginable duress, or in a somehow unorthodox way that doesn't compare to what we've seen or been exposed to in past films. In essence, these characters lived extraordinarily. They had a fierce appreciation for their own remarkable lives.


Take, for instance, Stéphanie played by actress Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone. In the beginning of the film, she had it all. She was a sought-after woman, both professionally and socially. The world was literally at her feet, until her legs were stolen from her in a terrible killer whale incident while on the job (she was a trainer). Though she was dejected, completely turned around and overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, she later meets a man who, in his own sloppy and unintentional way, teaches her that she can still be that woman who is needed, envied and a master of a whole new domain. She becomes reborn.


And in Cloud Atlas, we got to see several parallel lives coincide in extremely vivid fashion. The title reflects the song lead character Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) struggled to conceive. But the film as a whole follows his story and those which it inspired and by which it itself was inspired; each vignette directly influenced another, providing a kaleidoscope of emotions and themes. Every character (from Halle Berry as a determined journalist to Tom Hanks as a tribal father in danger and Doona Bae as a futuristic Korean rebel  ) all start off as inquisitive yet cautious individuals at the turn of a major event that will shape not only their lives but those around them. They never truly get to realize how heroic their actions were, and how they will affect one another deeply and earnestly. But each story is cemented in its own time.


Then there is Zero Dark Thirty, which is a bit of a head scratcher with its often cold but determined storyline. The film, led by the single moniker character by the name of Maya (Jessica Chastain), is defiantly headstrong yet never allows us to get to know any of the characters. In their strenuous efforts to capture an infamous global terrorist (Osama bin Laden), there are several protagonists that become casualties. But even in their fateful moments, we are never allowed to mourn for them. No matter how long their screen time was, since we never truly knew them we felt nothing when they sadly didn't make it to the ending credits. However, it was the last few moments of the film that allowed us--and Maya--to take in all the amazing events which occurred. It granted her and us to recognize the exceptional series of events that led to this moment, those that we never had the opportunity to absorb before. It encapsulated all the emotions that were bottled up for most the movie.


But no 2012 film is more encompassing of this theme of appreciating life more than Beasts of the Southern Wild. A few months ago, there began an flurry of think pieces across the web simplifying the film as "poverty porn."  Obviously, poverty is something that is very much real, and it is incomprehensible to think of it in terms of something that can be seen as glorified.

Now, I have never been poverty-stricken myself, but I can't imagine how anyone can mistake a story of people simply living their life in severely humble circumstances as some kind of frivolous notion subjected for mass entertainment.

In the movie, the characters have been wrought with severe storms and the demolition of their homes in the New Orleans area. Despite dire conditions, they have chosen to stay in their homes, what little is left of them. They continue to celebrate joyous occasions, laugh like they have nothing to mourn, and live like they are surrounded by rainbows, fine silverware in a house that could rival any Robin Leach could sell you.

In reality, the lead character, a mere 6-year-old Afro-donned youngster named Hushpuppy (Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis) takes comfort in the various elements in nature--from seashells to stray animals. And she learns how to make a meal out of cat food she discovered in the middle of the debris circumventing her and her dad's shack. From afar, she looks like a little girl at play. After all, it is her story we are captivated by; it was her tale that screenwriters Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin took special care to spotlight in her naive yet poignant narration of the story.

How can you belittle and trivialize the consumption of a narrative told by a young girl? Both Alibar and Zeitlin  are sensitive in not only how the story is told, but also how audiences receive it. It's not supposed to be just another sad drama about a family who essentially lives in a disaster area, so to speak. The film encourages you to see these people from the eyes of its smallest member, to comprehend how a young girl could perceive life in what people on the outside would consider a relentlessly abysmal situation. One that continues to get worse as the film progresses.

Flimsily categorizing this film as "poverty porn" is not only lazy, but vastly inaccurate and condescending. It may be difficult to see these lives as any of which someone may take pride but, while pity-inducing, these are the only lives they have. Don't hate on them just because you may not be able to appreciate their means. Not only is this a realistic story, but it's one not to be taken lightly. It is as heart-wrenching to watch in its more horrific scenes as it is enchanting to discern. It is truly magnificent.

4 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is, I think, in such a problematic position because the film is caught between the being a fantasy film and a realist drama about poverty. It's the fantasy elements which I feel it derives its strongest "appreciation of life" themes from, in the way that children manage to be appreciative of whatever situation they're in. In that way it's sort of the ideal film for this theme.

Everything about Hushpuppy's ideology stems from appreciating her surroundings.

Courtney said...

"Despite dire conditions, they have chosen to stay in their homes, what little is left of them. They continue to celebrate joyous occasions, laugh like they have nothing to mourn, and live like they are surrounded by rainbows, fine silverware in a house that could rival any Robin Leach could sell you."

As someone who's from New Orleans, this summarizes the film and people of New Orleans precisely. I think that's why I loved the film so much--it showed a fictitious society with ideals completely comparable to the city in such a unique and mesmerizing way.

Brittani Burnham said...

Good call on Beasts of the Southern Wild. I hate that anyone would call that "poverty porn". Hushpuppy really does show t-he best appreciation for life, and that's awesome for a 6 year old to be able to convey all of that.

Daniel said...

Another wonderful read and having finally seen Beasts of the Southern Wild I wholeheartly agree with your points. Calling it poverty porn is a massive disservice. That film brought me back to moments in my childhood and that innocence without the cynicism.

I’ll be honest I wasn’t even aware the poverty porn issue was such a topic of discussion until I started reading articles and reviews after I’d viewed the film.

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