For those who’ve already seen “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, you already know about the Oscar-worthy performances of previous unknowns Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry. It’s the film’s community of “the Bathtub”, however, where fantasy and reality seem to coalesce into what we still call magic realism. And it seems that the Delta communities surrounding New Orleans were the perfect places to Americanize magic realism in film after being long associated with South America and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
It’s a tricky balance, though, attempting to employ magic realism in movies. Woody Allen has been one of the few American directors with success at utilizing magic realism, ironically in some of his films starring Mia Farrow. If you don’t think his “The Purple Rose of Cairo” isn’t one of the best juxtapositions of harsh reality and movie fantasy, then you were probably born jaded.
Allen hasn’t stopped there, however. He used magic realism again recently, this time in “Midnight in Paris.” Yet it took magic realism out of America just as Woody Allen was seemingly catching onto something here 25 years ago.
Magic realism simply seems to gravitate easier to the European cinema frame of mind outside of Allen’s use of it through an American lens. All other noteworthy examples that released during Allen’s foray into magic realism were done in France and Spain. If you’ve ever seen “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Amelie”, you know the depictions of real life hardships coalesced beautifully with individuals who happen to find real magic in the way they view or assimilate things.
And that’s the rub when it comes to finding a cause to use magic realism in American films. In America, we love realism to the point of it becoming a curse to our art forms. We’ve now evolved to where depictions of real life seem to be pushed to a level where they look forced merely for the sake of showing an extreme reflection of society.
That’s the ultimate brilliance of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” where the terror of earth’s nature disrupting a New Orleans area community brings on an endemic sense of fantasy. Only, the magical elements appear to be a natural progression of this community and mostly feared when you include the mythical creatures of the Aurochs. What enhances the magic realism is the thought of the Aurochs arriving due to nature’s fury rather than explicitly showing them.
The general look and feel of the Bathtub, though, is one that isn’t a respite from reality. It gives a different variation on magic realism, and only complicates trying to define exactly what it means in the context of a story. Even if it doesn’t provide a sanctuary for the characters in “Beasts”, it still has to be considered as a coping mechanism in the context of the story.
Trying to figure out whether it’s all in their minds or a real place adds mystery and complexity that other American cinematic stories could use. Whoever uses magic realism in a movie again, however, should use it without making it obvious, much like “Beasts” does. That border between what’s real and creating magic in the mind creates a deeper tapestry for American stories, helping bring a sane sense of hope to the near nihilistic reality movies have been showing us.