John Presnall really let us down.
At the end of his great GATSBY post a few weeks ago, he indicated he was going to talk about MUD. I hadn’t heard of it, and the reference passed me by. John didn’t post any more on it, alas. And so now, a full month after its release, I just got around to seeing to one of the most enjoyable and rich films since TRUE GRIT.
The story could be described as a much less-sentimental STAND BY ME or SUPER EIGHT scenario, wherein boys just entering puberty get into an adventure, in this case, meeting and getting involved with an intriguing “cast-away” on a river island, a guy named “Mud.”
Obviously, I haven’t been paying adequate attention to the arts journalism recently, or I would have known about the film, and one I’m sure that many writers have described it as a “modern Huck Finn story,” since it portrays lower-working class life in an Arkansas river-town, and its main boy-character, Ellis, lives on a house-boat, helping his father earn a pittance-level but self-reliant living as a fisherman. And we see that Ellis and his best friend, who is also a poor white river rural kid, live a very skill-rich and independent boyhood life, using boats and motorbikes to go where they will. Boy heroes, in touch with their place, who to their credit don’t want to become “townies.”
But their life, and Ellis’s father’s self-reliance, turn out to be shaky, threatened by what we might call “modern” forces: marital troubles and some kind of regulation by the “River Authority” seem ready to remove Ellis from the river life and put him in the town, a prospect he abhors.
So, it’s like Huckleberry Finn (BTW, there’s a great Paul Cantor essay on that novel, “Aristocracy in America,” over at CRB–H/T Powerline), but it largely stays in one place–it’s more about the small town, its limitations and failures mainly, than about America in full. The characters don’t go down the River to observe America, rather, the River brings cast-off bits and pieces of America down to them. And while there arguably is a Huck character (maybe Ellis, maybe Mud) and a Jim character (Mud is hiding out on an island and has to helped by the boys), there is no Tom character. Perhaps we’re to see Ellis as a combination of Tom and Huck, and Mud as combination of Huck and Jim.
Perhaps the more obviously literary references, however, point to the Bible–Genesis, mainly. As in TRUE GRIT, snakes play a big role. I even detect some intertwined meditations on Locke and property–a desirable boat stuck in a tree (yes) is something like an apple in a tree, in both the Lockean and Biblical senses.
But I think the main theme is about Manliness. When I have a bit more time, and have hopefully heard y’als thoughts, I’ll try to analyze the film in terms of Manliness and its relation to a self-reliance increasingly difficult in modern America, but also to the modern male’s temptation to Misogyny, a temptation closely related to his oft-thwarted desire to believe in Love, i.e., couple-love. For many of the males in the film are struggling with these issues, and represent different possible models of manliness for the two boys.
Those are some of issues raised by the film–but know first of all, it’s a compelling story that draws you in, and gives a you slice of real American life seldom seen on the big screen. Don’t miss it.