Beasts of the Southern Wild: My Thoughts

Recently, Lunanola and I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild which, as most of you know, is a locally produced film with local actors. This is not so much a review of the film as just an assortment of my thoughts during the movie and in the days following. Indeed, Beasts is a grand over-the-top gothic fairy tale as told by a child called Hushpuppy whose imagination runs wild with the stories told to her by her alcoholic father, Wink. They live on a mythical swath of land off the Louisiana coast called The Bathtub by its inhabitants, a small community of people living on the edge of civilization.

Beasts reminds me of poetry in that the poet tells her story in such a personal way that the reader may never grasp its deepest meaning. The reader reads the poem, or story, through the lens of their own life experiences, often completely missing the poet’s intent. And that’s ok – it doesn’t negate the meaning of the work but enhances it by expanding and challenging the reader. The same can be said of this film and how I feel about it. I didn’t read any reviews before seeing the film because I didn’t want any other opinions influencing, even subconsciously, what I was going to see on the screen.

Having said that, I found myself wincing through much of the film; reacting to the squalor of Hushpuppy’s existence, the harshness and obvious mental illness of her father and the rampant alcoholism of most of The Bathtub residents we met. I didn’t see this isolated community largely as a celebration of a self-sustaining culture as much as the smaller stories of a few delusional souls, who’ve long since forgotten the real meaning of community, compassion and care, barely hanging on by their fingernails to a dysfunctional life. There was more about Beasts that bothered me than delighted or awed me and maybe that’s the film makers intention. In any case, it gives the viewer much to ponder.

I felt sad for Hushpuppy and the absence of a positive adult figure in her life except for an apparently cursory relationship with Little Jo (played by Pamela Harper), the resident Shaman, who taught the local kids about medicinal herbs, the flora and animal life in The Bathtub and the importance of being good stewards of the land and water. (Thank you for portraying her as a real three-dimensional healer instead of the stereotypical Voodoo queen!) She was the only positive, grounded character in the film and the only adult who attempted to prepare the kids for a real life instead of encouraging a life based on fantasy.

The interaction of people with each other, and the cause and effect of that interaction, has always fascinated me. I suppose that’s why I focused so much more on this aspect of the movie, while I was actually watching it, over the surrealism and symbolism the film was obviously pushing. In retrospect, though, the symbolism and subsequent cautionary tale is a vital part of what makes this movie unique. For instance, although I found the glacier avalanches jarring and somewhat disruptive I can acknowledge the part they played in the tale and beauty of the cinematography.

Generally, I thought the acting by all of the actors to be just about perfect. There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this film and Quvenzhane’ Wallice, who plays Hushpuppy, and it appears she’s the darling of the Indie film set this year. There’s no disputing the child has a beautiful and expressive face but I always felt like someone was just out of view saying, “Now look fierce; now cry; now act crazy”. For me, Dwight Henry, who played the dad, was pretty incredible. I felt like he WAS the person he portrayed with all the nuances and warts of his character’s personality played completely naturally and believably. Children are so close and open to their emotions that I think most of them can act simply by following directions. But adults have to peel away layers of their own experiences and feelings to find the place where a character can come out. For this reason, I think Dwight was the better actor in this film and it’s a shame his achievement is being overshadowed when it should be equally acclaimed.

The cinematography was magical and pleasured us with torridly beautiful landscapes and seascapes. The manipulation of ordinary pigs into the hulking, mythical aurochs was nothing short of genius.

This movie had parts that I loved (Miss Jo with the kids) and parts that I hated (mamma shooting a gator while naked except for huge white diaper-like panties – WTF?). It made me laugh (the joyous fireworks scene) and cry (the death scene). In the end, I still can’t say if I “liked” it or not; I can only say it was a wild and interesting ride.

However, the most amazing aspect of Beasts is that it was made at all on the hand-to-mouth budget that produced it. The creativity of the film makers and the ingenuity required to make it is impressive and showcases the best this city has to offer artistically. That makes me proud to be a New Orleanian and, ultimately, happy I watched the film.

(And I’m still processing it.)

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Guest Blogger: Bayou Creole on A New Nursing Home Trend

The hands of an elderly resident at a nursing home (John Stillwell/PA Wire)

The hands of an elderly resident at a nursing home (John Stillwell/PA Wire)

New Nursing Home Trend

Many moons ago, the only people  living in nursing homes were the elderly.  If your parents or grandparents needed 24 hour care, you could put them in a home where there would be nurses and aids there 24-7  to assist them. But, there’s a new trend going on( here in Louisiana for sure).

Facilities that previously only had elderly people are now getting young folks,folks in their 20′s-50′s…way too young to be in a facility with the elderly.Not only that, a lot of these young people have mental health problemsor drugs and alcohol problems. Some of the young people who end up in these facilities are helpful to the elderly. But a lot of times, they intimidate the elderly to the point where the elderly are afraid to say anything against them. Then, there’s the abuse and the situation of having young, sexual men in a place with females who are either elderly or mentally challenged. I received a phone call today informing me that an elderly female in one such facility was raped by a male living there. That’s a hard pill for a family member to handle. You think you’re doing the right thing by your loved one, putting her somewhere medical care is available, meals are being served, she can no longer wander out of the home so, she’s supposedly safe. Then, you get a call saying someone raped her there.

The nursing game has changed. It’s sad but, it’s true. I’ve heard horror stories over and over again. I’ve witnessed horror stories too. Since there aren’t any place for the mentally ill to go anymore, it seems the new trend is to put them into nursing facilities. But what happens to the poor elderly people who have to be there… with a paranoid schizophrenic, who refuses to take his medication? Who’s  really protecting them? Folks call the state all the time and nothing ever changes.

If anyone is thinking about putting their loved one in a nursing care facility, do your research first. Don’t believe what they tell you. Visit there at different hours of the day. Walk every single hall in the facility. Take note of the mental capacity and age of everyone you see, employees included. Let your senses be your guide. What do you see, hear,smell? Hang around for lunch and order a plate, how does it taste? Do you see residents wandering around aimlessly or are they engaged in activities? What is the work environment like? Happy employees take better care of people. Visit as many places as humanly possible before making a decision about where you’ll put your loved one because, the game has changed.Healthcare has changed… and the elderly are suffering because of it.
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Bio:
I’m a registered nurse born,raised and living in the fabulous city of New Orleans. I’m married to a man who’s way too good for me and have two kids who keep me young and zany. My passions are for all things NOLA, Elder Rights and Animal Rights.
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This piece was previously published on Bayou Creole’s blog of the same name.

In loving memory of Charlie: LAST CALL…

Charlie Smith, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

We’d met on an intermittently drizzly day in the heart of  the Vieux Carré in January 1992, when I’d stopped to check out the poetry he was peddling at Jackson Square. He watched me reading, not saying a word, then turned and rummaged through a couple of banker’s boxes and pulled a short story he’d written titled “The Girl in the Black Trenchcoat” from a manila file folder which he handed to me with flourish as a greeting gift. The story obviously wasn’t about me (as we’d not yet met), but it resonated immediately. I still have those three type-written pages in a box of keepsakes, safely tucked away.

We were kindred — he’d recognized it from the get-go, and I’m still grateful that I was smart enough to roll with it (despite my New-to-New-Orleans wariness) until I eventually realized that he was absolutely right. I’ve never been good about keeping in touch with people as time passes and the scenery changes, but I somehow managed to keep in contact with Charlie over the years in between then and now, and he welcomed me back when I returned to New Orleans.

If love were enough to keep anybody on this side of the daisies, Charlie would have been a formidable, wry, growling, mischievous, and lively raconteur forever — a one-man court jester/Greek chorus hybrid who’d never pull a punch when he had something on his mind that needed to be said out loud. This man was family to me; he’s the reason why I took up deviling local politicians and community figures as my most favorite sport, and his ability to speak the oft-overlooked yet simple truth of a situation will continue to inspire me. I was delighted when he decided to throw his hat back into the lobbying ring and by the artful descriptions he’d craft for his most recent clientele; as the only lobbyist inducted to date in the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, he was truly legendary, unforgettable, and unique.

I’m happy that the last time we kept lengthy company (blissfully grazing at a pig roast party at Pravda on Lower Decatur), he got to see me use my two minutes of  unanticipated and impromptu face time with Louisiana State Senator Edwin R. Murray to my best advantage… Charlie just smiled and looked proudly amused as I excused myself from the conversation we’d been enjoying to address Sen. Murray directly after he’d taken the seat at our table across from me. Sen. Murray was visibly stunned (as if he didn’t know what had just hit him), and one could also see my date’s brain cells colliding as he watched me snap from relaxed & casual to being a political creature with a three-bullet-point agenda in the blink of an eye, securing a follow-up meeting on the spot. The guy I’d been seeing back then is history for all the right reasons (I remember noticing Charlie watching him quietly and I could see that he’d thought that the guy couldn’t keep up with me), but Sen. Murray hasn’t forgotten my name since, most likely because I’d been in Charlie’s company that evening.

I only knew Charlie after he’d paid his dues and cleaned up his act, and I loved him as I found him — I can only imagine who he’d been in the years prior from the stories he’d occasionally share. I’m pretty sure that I’d have liked him, had I known him “back when,” but I also suspect that I respected and admired him more for his having learned how to live beyond all of that. I think what I loved the most about him was that his smile always reached his eyes and I believe that this was true because of everything he’d experienced, not in spite of.

Here’s who Charlie was, in his own words from the introduction to his first poetry collection, before he chose a different way to go about living his life:

I was sitting, actually I was lying — passed out — drunk and stupid, in this place called the “Copper Bar” next to the Las Vegas Hilton at about three in the morning when this hooker woke me up and handed me my wallet. “You’re sure lucky I’m an honest hooker,” she said. “Don’t bother to count it, you’ve got $1,400 in there; I didn’t touch a thing.”

I thanked her and she said, “Look, it’s obvious to me that you don’t know shit from beans about Vegas or your wouldn’t have been so dumb as to fall out in this place. I’m off duty so what say I show you the ropes around town and you can throw me a chip every now and then… I mean, I just saved your ass $1,400 and all.”

She was right on all counts so we had a drink, and she showed me around Vegas. During the course of the night, or morning (there’s not much difference in a city that doesn’t recognize time), she told me her story.

She said she was a housewife in one of the Carolinas and, having read one too many Vivas or Cosmopolitans, had decided that she wasn’t getting her share of Life’s multi-orgasmic climaxes so she got together all the green stamps she could from her checking and savings accounts, left her hubby a note (just said “Bye.”), checked on a Greyhound Bus and headed to Las Vegas.

On arriving, she discovered that she really loved gambling and had no marketable job skills. It didn’t take her long to run out of money, so she turned to hooking for a living. Life can be hard on you anywhere, but in Vegas you’re operating at a higher rate of speed than anywhere else, and she was due to leave town soon. But, she told me, “At least I’ll have enough material for my book.”

I told her I also wrote, not books but poetry, so she told me what her title was going to be (with some people, titles come first). She said, “Since it’s going to be based on my life, I’m going to call it I GOT OFF THE BUS TWO YEARS AGO, AND I’M STILL WAITING FOR LAST CALL.”

To me, that’s the best title for hard living I’ve ever heard. The people I know, the street people, politicians, entertainers, bartenders, etc., are all waiting for the last call. I haven’t seen her book out so maybe she won’t mind me using her idea. She probably won’t see this book, either, so I guess we’re even.

This is dedicated to all the people who think what I write. The poems were almost all written in some confused state of mind, and a drunk that thinks in iambic pentameter can feel awfully silly the next morning when he looks at what’s been scrawled on the napkins, but that goes with the territory. I thought some of the poems would make great songs and had a flirtation with that idea, but nothing ever came of it. Maybe something will develop sometime or another.

Or maybe it won’t, but as Mr. Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

(From Still Waiting For Last Call… © 1987 by Charlie Smith)

Charlie’s Jazz Fest Cape, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

Thanks to the magic of the ether and pixels, some of Charlie’s songs can be enjoyed here: Charlie Smith’s Songs.

Via a post from Charlie’s daughter on Facebook: “The service will be held at Jacob Schoen & Son funeral home [3827 Canal Street, New Orleans] on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, with visitation beginning at 5:00 PM until 8:00 PM, and then a service held in the chapel at 8:00 PM. Black is always the first choice at funerals, but we think LSU apparel would probably best honor Daddy, so please feel free to break out your purple and gold. This will be an obviously sad occasion, but it should also be a time to celebrate his life. We are not quite sure about the charity to donate to in lieu of flowers, but will post that when we know.” (Me? I’ll be wearing a Jazz Fest shirt, celebrating my memories of Charlie when he’d wear a flamboyant purple cape inscribed in gold lettering with “Defender of Arts / Pets / Historic Preservation / Coastal Restoration / King of Jazz Fest.”)

In closing, I offer this from the poignant-yet-funny write-up by political editor Clancy DuBos of The Gambit titled “Charlie’s Way”: “I once wrote that if Charlie didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Suffice it to say that Louisiana politics is cleaning up its act, which makes Charlie’s exit from the stage timely — but the story will be a lot less fun to watch without him.”

His obituary can be viewed here: Charles Leslie Smith — September 9, 1942 – March 1, 2012.

Amy Winehouse in the black for real this time

Amy Winehouse died today, and you can read all about it on the righteous Huffington Post obituary that reminds us her demise was just a “slo-mo car crash.”

Her death is not altogether shocking, but it is disturbing nonetheless.

In a sense, her artistic marketability stemmed from a bad-girlification of 1960s soul music.  She was a skinny, tatted-up tough girl from working-class London, with big hair and a voice to match.  Her struggles with (or seeming acceptance of) drug addiction only enhanced her reputation as a true entertainer, one with moxie, attitude, and presence.

Fans relished her bad behavior, cheering lyrics like “You love blow and I love puff” (Back to Black”) and “I told you I was trouble / You know that I’m no good” (“You Know That I’m No Good”).  Her refusal to go to rehab was celebrated in a Grammy-winning song (“Rehab”), in which Winehouse admits to suffering from addiction and depression.

This glorification of mental illness and self-destructive behavior sends mixed messages to those who also struggle with these issues.  Winehouse’s drug use was not only acceptable but legitimized by her celebrity status.  This was a double validation:  Her drug use fed into her being perceived as a rock star, and her being a rock star forgave her drug use.  And now she’s dead, and no one’s surprised.

So what does it take to remove the idolatry from substance abuse?  The wasted talents of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and many others including Amy Winehouse now, have all developed into a tragic mythos of “forever young,” without acknowledgement of what really ripped these creative beings from our midst.  The real scourge is untreated illness, the exaltation of which prevents honesty, recovery, and true grit from being communicated to a public sold on the dangerous cheapness of entertainment.