Wyoming Arts Council

Kooky indie movies use magic realism to explore the fringes of American life

No longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainment.” It’s one reason the Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers—The Artist, The Kings Speech, Slumdog Millionaire—while reserving a spot on the nominations list for something flinty and home-spun from the indie world. Two years ago it was Winters Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Louisiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World.

Even the genre is telling: Magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken down America has gotten around its edges, but also of just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really ought to make a movie about it.

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