Beasts of the Southern Wilds Magical and Thought-Provoking

Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Fox Searchlight, PG-13, 93 mins.
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Hushpuppy is nobody's meat! 

The year is 2005, the setting The Bathtub, a small and insular bayou community that lies beyond the New Orleans levies. It’s called The Bathtub for a good reason–its marshes, tidal streams, swamps, and steamy weather are the watery barriers that define life in a sump hole that seldom sees or trusts outsiders. The residents depend upon the waters to provide the crawfish, alligators, and seafood that sustains them. The Bathtub’s also a place of unimaginable poverty and squalor where skin color is irrelevant­–black and white intermingle (and cohabitate) freely in a slice of mud and water that time forgot. There is no town as such, just an old cargo box converted into a seedy bar by Jean Baptiste (Levy Esterly), a wreck of a white guy who might be 40 and might be 70. The Bathtub is where dreaming off island involves staring across the bay at a distant lighthouse beam if you’re a child, and an occasional boat trip to the roadhouse that’s there for a visit to cheap hookers and expensive liquor if you’re an adult.

The Bathtub is also where six-year-old Hushpuppy–the amazing Quvenzhan√© Wallis–lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink is a single father whose wife skipped the island when Hushpuppy was an infant. He’s bitter–Hushpuppy lives in her mother’s shack amidst the moldering remains of her things­–and he has no idea of how to raise a child­–a rope connects their separate residences, which he rings to tell Hushpuppy it’s time “to come to eats.” Hushpuppy’s major role model is Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), the local teacher who is half educator and half juju mistress. Her science lessons include the message that everything and everybody in natural realm is “meat.” But Hushpuppy needs no encouragement to imagine; she has a gift for reading nature’s signs, for envisioning the interconnectivity of ecosystems, and for bringing to life fantasy images. Her senses tell her that something very bad is about to happen, an inkling she gets by listening to clams, feeling leaves, and imaging the awakening of extinct aurochs. She’s right on two levels–her father is seriously ill and Hurricane Katrina is about the make The Bathtub overflow and wash away the little that locals had.

This is an astonishing film that takes us to both physical and imaginary worlds we could not enter on our own. It freely mixes recent history and magical realism as if it were literary sociology. Wallis is a revelation, a child who can make her six-year-old face look as old as creation, or cast a fierce look that stops adults in their tracks. I would yield to those who might criticize the caper-like feel of the last 20 minutes of the film, but the rest is so good that I simply didn’t care. It raises all manner of questions about community, survival, and caring. It raises two big ones: Is it kind or cruel to force people to live in the 21st century? Has humankind authored its own ecological demise? (Think an intelligent version of Waterworld.)

This amazing film has no stars–Henry was discovered running a bakery across the street from director Zeitlin’s casting office and Wallis was literally pulled off the street. It’s a subject that sounds odd to some and the topic of an endangered child is off-putting to others. Do not be deterred; this may be the film of the year. Moreover, it does not ask for your approval–merely that you think about The Bathtub and the big issues raised by simple people who may have a better take on the planet that you. Are the aurochs coming? --Rob Weir


The Poor Know: Government Works

The poverty rate for 2011 hit 15.1% but it's only partly Obama's fault.

I can hear the howl from rightwing radio without tuning in. A new US Census report to be released this fall will show that the 2011 poverty rate reached 15.1% and hit its “highest level since the 1960s." Expect Limbaugh, Beck, Medved, Hannity, Savage, and other Ignororamuses of the Airwaves to seize upon this as further proof that “socialism” and “government” don’t work. Once they get a good lather going they’ll up the ante to “Obama’s tax-raising socialist Big Government programs.”

They will conveniently leave out the rest of the announcement, which says poverty has spiked “since the 1960s.” Let’s be precise; it should say “since 1964.” (or 1983--read on.) 1964 was the year that President Lyndon Johnson–who would be on Mt. Rushmore if he had possessed the wisdom to walk away from Vietnam–announced his “war on poverty.” At the time, about 36 million Americans lived below the poverty line. That was more than 18.5% of the population of the day. Conservatives seldom tell you that during the “golden age” of the 1950s, poverty was over 20%. In 1959, it hit a stunning 22.5%.

Enter LBJ and Big Bad Government. Johnson, to borrow a phrase loved by conservatives, threw a lot of money at the problem–tax money. He, to use Huey Long’s words, soaked the rich. The top 1% of taxpayers had rates from 43%-67% and the top .01% paid a 91% tax rate some of their income.  These figures, it should be noted, were only somewhat higher than they had been in the 1950s, when the richest paid 84% when they hit the ceiling of $400,000 ($3 million in 2012 dollars).

Did the U.S. economy collapse form Johnson's crippling taxes? Did rich people send their assets to the Cayman Islands (to pick a random example!)? Did companies seek to move job overseas to take advantage of cheap labor and get away from job-killing labor unions? Nope. The US economy boomed in the 1960s. Moreover, Vietnam was the major reason for tax increases of any sort; without runaway military spending that was a parasitical drain on the economy (ahem!), the nation would have been wading in cash.

But surely all that money spent on welfare, job training, urban renewal, and antipoverty programs was wasted, right? To be sure, some was squandered in inefficient programs. Hell, some of it was probably given to welfare cheats. But the bottom line is that poverty was cut in half from its 1950s peak. In 1971, poverty dipped to 11.1%. In my estimation, a nation as rich as America has no business having any sizable percentage of poverty, but this was a stunning achievement. It’s simply a load of mule dung to say that throwing money at poverty has no effect.

“But it didn’t last,” cry rightwingers fearful of losing tax breaks for their third homes. That’s correct, but it wasn’t for the reasons they say. The horrifying stagflation of the 1970s took its toll, but despite double-digit inflation, soaring prices, and job loss, in 1979 the poverty rate stood at 12.4%. If you’re wondering how it got so high after the prosperity of the Clinton years, the answer is simple: we stopped spending money on poor people. Blame Ronald Reagan, not Barack Obama. The culprit was Reagan’s profligate spending on the (nonproductive) military sector and his ideology-driven, budget-killing tax cuts.  Reagan increased the debt by 189%, a move that necessitated cutting social spending given the steep decline in federal tax revenue. The poor were the easiest targets for cuts and by 1983, the poverty rate hit 15.3%. (Yes, the advanced announcement is wrong. Poverty was higher in 1983 than in 2011.)  The rate was 13.3% when Reagan left office, and hit 15% again during the recession of the 1990s. Clinton prosperity? The president who “ended welfare as we know it” saw poverty dip a few ticks, but nothing like what was seen under LBJ. That's because the deficit has continued to grow (high military spending again being a major reason why) and no president has had enough spare change to throw into the collective poverty bucket.

It will be tempting to “blame Obama” for the 15.1% rate for 2011, which is exactly what conservative (and Neanderthal) commentators will do. The sheep­–formerly known as the American masses–will probably believe it. To the degree he hasn't spent enough money on the poor, the charge is true. Yep--the real reason for persistent poverty is that we don’t throw enough money at it. The biggest lie ever told was Reagan’s “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” Tell it to the poor. They know that government works.   


Caroline Herring"s Camilla a Gutsy and Marvelous Release

Signature Sounds 2050
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Caroline Herring has come a long way since the Austin Music Awards proclaimed her the best new artist back in 2002. In 2012, she made the list of the top 50 Texas singers of all time! For those who don’t know, she sings with a clear voice and a vibrato quaver that makes her the Joan Baez of country music. So why isn’t this woman a major star? The answer may lie with her gutsy determination to take on the big issues that modern country music buried under a mound of nostrums and slick production. Camilla is largely a theme album, with many of its songs touching upon the third rail of Southern society: the civil rights struggle. The opening track is catchy and energetic, made all the more so by Fats Kaplin’s stellar fiddle and peddle steel contributions, but the song’s content packs a bigger wallop. It’s about one black woman’s determination to stand up to Georgian injustice no matter the cost. She returns to such themes on “White Dress,” and again on “Maiden Voyage,” a song that takes the piss out of redneck patriotism √° la Woody Guthrie.

Need more evidence that Ms. Heering takes chances? How about an a cappella song based on a Eudora Welty short story? Of course, it helps if you turn it into a harmony with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aoife O’Donovan! Herring enjoys changing moods. “Fireflies,” a plea to let old “traditions burn down” has a bluegrass/stomp feel, “Flee is a Bird” is plucked from the 1840s, and “Joy Never Ends” an anthem-like happy song vocally backed by Kathryn Roberts. With Herring, you’ve always got to listen to the lyrics. “When she sings “Bye baby, baby bye” on “Black Mountain Lullaby, it’s the environment she mourns and the baby’s future she fears. Smart stuff, amazing voice, superb backup, and considered production. Give this a listen; if you’re not already a Caroline Herring fan, you will be.