Friday, July 20, 2012

"American Exotic" films use magic realism to illuminate the fringes of American society

I like indie movies for the places and the characters that they portray.

They can be USA places, or somewhere far away, such as Bombay or a Ukrainian village or some remote Chinese outpost.

That’s probably the short story writer in me speaking aloud. My stories are set in a place, usually Wyoming or Colorado, and they are about the dilemmas of real people. There is not a single super-hero or mutant battleship-on-steroids in any of my stories. They are about real people. Period.

I am delighted to read this piece by Tom Shone on Slate. He has the same complaints about movies! They are planetized, bland entertainments. And boring as hell to anyone with half a brain or an ounce of empathy.
No longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainment.” It’s one reason the Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers—The ArtistThe King’s SpeechSlumdog Millionaire—while reserving a spot on the nominations list for something flinty and home-spun from the indie world. Two years ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Louisiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World.
He then takes the next step. Many indie movies now employ the magic realism elements of the Latin American master novelists – Cortazar, Marquez, Borges, and the rest – to portray the fringes of American society, what he calls "American Exotic.” The hot new film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” fits in this category.
Even the genre is telling: Magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken down America has gotten around its edges, but also of just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really ought to make a movie about it.
What movies, large and small, actually rely on a real place and time and real people to make its point? I think of the films by Victor Nunez, who lives and works in Tallahassee, Fla. He made the great “Ulee’s Gold” and “Ruby in Paradise.” The latter film starred a young Ashley Judd and gave viewers a stark and strange and funny view of Panama City Beach during the off-season. “Little Miss Sunshine” portrayed a family full of exotic, down-on-their-luck Americans from Albuquerque who accompany their young one to southern Cal to compete in a beauty pageant. Albuquerque – you can’t get any more Americana than that. Just ask Walt in “Breaking Bad.”

Real people in real places in real situations. Is that too much to ask? He does finds some Hollywood exceptions:
Among their generation, maybe only the Coens are out there taking soil samples, dirtying their mud flaps in Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), LA in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man),Texas in the 1980s (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men), and—in their latest—the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s (Inside Llewyn Davis).

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