Having the Flu OR the Comfort of a Good Story

June 7, 2013

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Having the flu this past week kind of sucked. Silver linings include:

• More time to read – an obvious one.
• More time to catch up on some TV (hello, Nashville!)
• More time to watch movies

After staring at the ceiling for an unhealthy amount of time – I decided to muster the energy to open up my laptop for a viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I was a little worried that it would be, well, boring. Like Tree-of-Life boring (sorry, Malick fans – we can argue about this later).

I was blown away by this little film-that-could.

A good movie (and – by extent – a good book) consists of an encompassing story that stimulates our core emotions – that has the power to lift us up, to make us weep, to tap into what it means to be alive.

Beasts tells the story of Hushpuppy – a wee girl living with her alcoholic father (Mum has left the scene) in a post-apocalyptic bayou in Louisiana – on the brink of a disaster alluding to Hurricane Katrina.

The little girl is powerfully connected to nature. She hears its heartbeat.

Hushpuppy’s father wants to train her to have the strength to maintain their savage, naturalistic lifestyle in ‘The Bathtub,” a place akin to Where the Wild Things Are. Except very, very dirty and poor.

The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps writes wisely:

“It [a scene from the film] taps into a theme Beasts explores from start to finish: the ways people find happiness in a world in where comfort is in short supply.”

And the comfort that we are in the hands of a good storyteller is perhaps one of the oldest comforts of all.

A good story reminds us of the essentials: we need to hear other heartbeats.

We need love.
And comfort.
And courage.

The film works because – like any good piece of magical realism – the world is just familiar enough for us to go along with.

Gorgeously shot, it doesn’t rest on the contrived ‘I wanna teach you something about yourself’ that Tree of Life seems to push.

We come to believe that beasts roam the earth (too long to explain); that a floating brothel can provide enormous comfort. We believe these things because within this imagined world exist subjects familiar to us: father-daughter bonds, cruelty, affiliation for home, negative effects of alcohol and poverty, environmental damage, etc.

It’s the same reason that dead people may walk around in Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, or that beasts talk to humans in Jorge Luis Borges: because a good story needs only basic human components to serve as compasses. A fantastical setting merely adds to how we experience it.

A good story relays the courage needed to stand tall when the water seeps in (and – truthfully – aren’t we always at least ankle-deep in the tide that ebbs and flows according to our own experiences?)

So here’s to the artists – the writers, the filmmakers, the photographers, the songwriters, the painters – you name it – who offer us reminders of life’s necessities – wrapped in the comfort of a good story.

Perhaps a story’s greatest message of all – and I thank the film for pointing this out so poignantly – is that at the end of the day we all want the same thing: to know that we have the capacity to heal.

Kind of makes the flu seem like peanuts.

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