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Beasting It – Homeric Similes on the Bayou

Corinne O. Pache

The 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild by newcomer director Benh Zeitlin was hailed as “exhilarating” and “a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” just as it was reviled as “borderline racist,” “a Republican fantasy,” and “a crude pornography of violence.” While the film leaves few viewers cold, both its advocates and detractors tend to interpret the narrative in a cultural vacuum, thereby eschewing its many-layered complexities. Many characterize the story as a quest or a lower-case odyssey, but no one has considered the film’s profound engagement with ancient epic narrative. Analyzing the threads that connect the film with the Odyssey, my talk considers the film as a recent reception that can help us rethink ancient poetry, and more particularly Homeric similes.

        As Winkler (2009, 11-12) argues, there is a natural affinity between modern cinema and Homeric epic, especially the Odyssey, which can be seen as a precursor of the newer medium. Beasts of the Southern Wild can be connected to the Odyssey in several important ways, both structurally and thematically. Framed as the reflections of a six-year old girl named Hushpuppy, the narrative is epic in its ambition to record a world and culture in danger of disappearing. Homeric themes include a strong focus on food and hospitality, a visit to a Hades-like brothel named Elysian Fields, and a funeral pyre and the ceremony attending it.  Most Homeric of all are the wild porcine Aurochs of the heroine’s imagination that punctuate the narrative very much like Homeric similes. Although Martindale (2006, 11) might disapprove of film—an artifact of popular culture he thinks classicists should stay away from—my talk heeds his exhortation for a dialogic scholarship that includes artistic and scholarly receptions (1993, 53-4).

        In the first half of the talk, I show how the Aurochs of the film provide a concrete example of Martin’s description of Homeric similes as “transition shots” (1997, 146) and of similes as a site of competition between narrator and character recently analyzed by Ready (2011). The Aurochs function in two ways in the film. For Hushpuppy, they symbolize her fears about her community and family as she imagines these prehistoric beasts coming back to life because of the melting of the ice cap; for the film director, the Aurochs represent an opportunity to frame his narrative with scenes depicting mythical creatures that take the viewer out of the everyday reality of Hushpuppy’s world. The Aurochs thus provide the director with a chance to display a different register, much as similes allow singers to display their skills when performing Homeric epic.

        In the second half of the talk, I look at the simile comparing Odysseus to a lion spattered with blood at the end of the Odyssey in dialogue with the images of Aurochs in Beasts of the Southern Wild. First spoken by the narrator (22.402), later repeated by Eurykleia (23.48), this simile is the last in a sequence of lion similes scattered through the poem. Odysseus the lion standing among the dead bodies of the suitors intrudes on the narrative like the Aurochs do when Hushpuppy finally confronts them the last time they appear in the film. The last appearance of the Aurochs and the last appearance of the lion simile in Odyssey 23 also force us to reconsider all the prior occurrences of the same image, but to completely different effect. Hushpuppy is able to confront the beasts of her imagination and gain strength to face the death of her father. The two final lion similes in the Odyssey stress the savagery of the hero’s revenge, and the narrator shows us a leonine Odysseus who provokes different reactions in different characters, thus presenting Odysseus as an ambiguous and dangerous figure. In both cases, the last image of the animal sequence provides the last transition towards the conclusion of both narratives, which both focus on acknowledging loss and restoring the community.


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Looking Both Ways: Dialogic Receptions in Practice

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