Monday, 29 October 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Thanks to my superb literary knowledge – I knew that Orlando was written by Virginia Woolf* - I won some goodies from the Cornerhouse last week. Which was all very well, but it necessitated a rare enough trip up the A6 to Manchester to actually collect my winnings.  It also meant the chance to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut film from Benh Zeitlin that's been getting great reviews (though not from Francine Stock on Radio 4's Film Programme).

Hushpuppy is a kid and lives with her father, Wink, in the bathtub, an ad hoc collection of improvised homes on stilts in a bayou on the wrong side of the New Orleans levees.

It's a classic outsider community and Wink lives a life that is self-reliant and independent from mainstream society and yet closely bound with the bathtub community. It’s a world of hard work, hard drinking and carnival-esque revelry, but when the inevitable storm comes many flee the bathtub for safety. Wink rages at the “pussies” for leaving and along with the hardcore hunkers down to see the storm out. Its aftermath and Wink’s rapidly declining health create Hushpuppy’s own perfect storm in which she must sink or swim.

The touches of magical realism establish that we are seeing the world through the imaginative eyes of Hushpuppy, and what we see may shock our liberal sensitivities, as Wink has a harsh approach to child-rearing. But if you’re going to grow up strong and independent in an environment like the bathtub, you’ve got to be tough.

It’s an incredible performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, full of a fierce brightness that can face down a hard world without losing openness and wonder. Dwight Henry gives Wink a brutal integrity, a man who knows how hard it is to survive but hasn’t lost the capacity for love.

Zeitlin has created an atmospheric world of southern gothic; the people are determinedly independent to the extent of fearing state intervention (justifiably so). It is a little unnerving to see an upbringing that would give any right-thinking social worker palpitations producing such a strong-willed and remarkable girl, without it seeming anything other than the proper outcome.

There is an impressive attention to detail in the creation of Wink and Hushpuppy's world, and the rich visual impact is complemented by an excellent soundtrack to create some arresting moments - the sound of the storm breaking over the bayou accompanied by a shot of an Antarctic ice shelf collapsing (trust me, it makes sense!).

It’s not perfect, there are times when the magical realism covers a clunkiness in plotting, and, maybe it’s due to budgetary constraints, but the mythical aurochs, so impressive in earlier scenes lose their visual power just at the worst moment.

But this shouldn’t detract from a film that will live long in the memory - as Hushpuppy says, “in a million years scientists will know there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub”.

* I haven’t read it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Caroline Herschel

Just a quick blog and a bit of a departure from the usual Fringe Festival ramblings.

It's Ada Lovelace Day when we celebrate pioneering women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). So it shouldn't go past without mention of Caroline Herschel, sister of the more celebrated astronomer, William Herschel.

Typhus and smallpox as a child left Caroline scarred and with permanently stunted growth. As a result she wasn't expected to get married so became her brother's housekeeper, astronomical assistant and finally a renowned astronomer in her own right.

Caroline worked alongside William on long nights out of doors making observations of the stars through his home made telescopes. As well as assisting her brother she carried out the complex calculations to confirm his findings.

She used her own 'sweeper' telescopes designed to look for moving objects in the night sky and is credited with the discovery of several comets, and her meticulous observations and calculations led her to update and correct Flamsteed's famous Star Catalogue, with her edition being published by the Royal Society at their expense.

Taken seriously in her lifetime she was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 - not subsequently awarded to another woman until 1996. There is even a crater on the moon named after her.

For much more on Caroline Herschel, her brother and the scientists and scientific advances of the period read Richard Holmes' great book Age of Wonder.