So you’ve now all had time to see MUD. Peter’s reading of it as something of a response to TRUE GRIT, and in dialogue with other films about how The South responds to American Modernity, is a promising and characteristically Lawlerian take. Jeff Nichols does seem just the kind of director whose work invites comparison with such films and related literature—his mention of Charles Portis as an influence is as important to my mind as his mention of Flannery O’Connor, and is the best evidence, besides Peter’s analysis of MUD itself, that Nichols might have made it with TRUE GRIT in mind.
My reading here is more immediately MUD-y. I want to tackle one of the most obvious questions raised by the film, the one about true manliness in contemporary times, and about misogyny. Ultimately, misogyny might matter less to the movie’s take on manliness than Love and Property do, but it’s a good way into it. Spoliers abound from this point forward.
Like the survivor Robinson Crusoe, or Adam in Eden, we find the main character Mud alone on the river island. In his second exchange with the boys, his discussion of snakes directly points to Genesis 2-3, and so it seems we are prodded to think about Mud as a kind of Adam, and Juniper, a kind of Eve. Man’s need for and trouble with woman is front and center.
But the Adam and Eve drama here occurs post-fall. Mud and Juniper are messed-up people, she with a history of betraying his love for her, due to her general fooling around and a particular attraction to abusive men, and he with a history of lying and borderline (and eventually outright) criminality. Innocence is not the issue here, not for Juniper and Mud, nor even for the boys Ellis and Neckbone. Rather the issue is faith in the power of love to make things right.
Now it is Ellis’s father, the character named “Senior,” who most obviously articulates the misogynistic temptation. His wife has initiated a separation, one that will likely result in divorce, that will cost he (and Ellis) their river-boat home—more on his share of the blame for this in a moment. After learning that Ellis has a (one-date-so-far) girlfriend, he offers no encouragement, but instead says “women are tough,” and that they “set you up for things.” Senior even apparently tells Ellis at one point something along the lines of “you can’t trust women in matters of love—they’ll always let you down.” We know this because in the final meeting of Mud and Ellis, Ellis says his dad has said this and asks if it is true. With no hesitation, Mud smilingly says that it’s not at all a truth, and that if he meets a woman as “half as good” as he is, he’ll be alright. He says this despite his knowing by then that Juniper has let him down in a final way, and he offers a forgiving explanation of why she has given up, and why their love didn’t work out overall. This is the climatic dialogue of the film, and should be taken just as it emotionally moves us, as its final statement on the matter of love.
But why do we need this final redemptive statement? That is, what in the plot and world of the film could lead its characters, Ellis especially, to suspect that love doesn’t work, and from a male perspective, that this is particularly because that which draws forth one’s love, womanhood, is itself of a flawed nature?
First of all, we need to note that economically, and thus in terms of status also, life for the typical man in this Arkansas area stinks. The only businesses we see are a fast food joint with a “God Bless America” sign out front, a Piggly Wiggly, a boat salvage yard, a cheap motel, and a road-side bar, although we do catch glimpses of what appear to be a refinery or some other industrial plant in the background. The only main character with a regular job is apparently Mary Lee, Senior’s wife. The only prosperous character we see is King, the owner of a chain of restaurants in Texas, and he is the story’s villain. It must be his snaky nature that has brought prosperity and American respectability. But honest men who work quite hard have next to nothing. Now, one can carry oneself with a kind of dignity about this, as Senior is doing, by making the best “livelihood” (the word is his favorite) one can on one’s own, in his case by river fishing, and then personally selling the fish to neighbors and local businesses.
True, even if one does not invest one’s hard making-ends-meet work with such dignity, as the Galen character never does with his river oyster-diving, one will wind up becoming rather handy due to it, knowing how to salvage industrial/consumer-society leftovers and to generally make things work—we see that the boys have learned from Galen and Senior how to “git-r-done” with very little owned “capital,” and will be able to get by in a “post-industrial” or “post-regular-employment” America far better than most, such as the boys raised purely as “townies.”
Second of all, we can note that erotically and family-life-wise, a man’s options are limited also. If more women than not are like Juniper, given to going to bars in hook-up-open-mode when they get restless, or otherwise “playing games” with love, as Ellis’s 16-year-old girlfriend May Pearl does, then falling in love is a bad deal. Mud says at one point, after admitting that he proposed to Juniper multiple times without her accepting, that “marriage doesn’t work…” and then after a significant pause adds, “…for some people.” Juniper’s unfaithfulness keeps she and he from even entering marriage, and the marriage of Ellis’s parents is falling apart. Both cases tempt Ellis to give up on love’s permanence. In both the cases, it is the woman who holds most of the cards, and who is making the final decision.
The broader temptation put before Ellis and the audience, to conclude that couple-love generally doesn’t work, is our society’s temptation. Perhaps it is felt by post-millennial generation especially, the boys and girls of Ellis’s age. The Boomers had a Sexual Revolution that didn’t bring about an Aquarian age of Love and Understanding between the sexes, my Generation X nonetheless upped-the-ante by paradoxically demanding both more feminism and more “trangressivity,” and the Millenials accepted the Sex-in-the-City Hook-Up Culture, a sort of resignation to supposed post-pill facts of life that really do put men and women at odds. Do you remember that piece our Kate linked to by one Catherine Hakim that simply gave up on marital fidelity, recommending “playfairs,” and that we all learn from the French acceptance of mistresses and the Japanese acceptance of in-public consumption of pornography? Did you read that Atlantic piece where the female writer made a kind of resigned peace what she characterizes as the violent and domineering side of male sexual desire, getting one of her partners to admit that the reason he was especially turned on by penetrating women anally was because it simultaneously pleased him while making the woman uncomfortable? (And that taken with such honesty, she then let him do it to her?) Have you read the reports about the delightful slogan occasionally openly aired by various fraternity men: “No means yes, and yes means anal?” (I have myself seen it scrawled as graffiti near Washington and Lee University.) Or have you read any one of the twenty essays lamenting the popularity, among women, of 50 Shades of Grey? Or any of the twenty essays reflecting on the significance of GIRLS, and how it is something of a response to SEX IN THE CITY and its popularity among women? It’s all depressing stuff, with loads more is available at Slate, The Atlantic, Acculturated, etc., and it’s not advisable to read too much of it, even if it reflects where we are as a culture, and what we’re thinking about.
All of it reflects the bottom-line insight most vividly expressed by Wendell Berry, that whereas the sexual revolution’s advocates initially said it would bring in a time of greater understanding between men and women, it actually brought about an increase of mistrust and hostility between them. Now here at Postmodern Conservative, our posts on the post-sexual revolution situation have tended to stress how bad a deal it is for women, but anyone who has read the sorts of online essays I’ve referred to knows that many elicit comment threads in which man after man rails against contemporary women, often quite viciously. Repeatedly, you see reference to the unfairness of our divorce laws, and claims about the tendency of contemporary women to give-in so easily to the “bad boy” type, and, having been badly trained by feminism, to generally disrespect the virtues and needs of men.
Maybe it is really a worse deal for men, especially when you add in their increasingly poor socio-economic prospects, with less industry, fewer attending college, men shunted aside in a number of fields (mine especially!) by idiotic affirmative action for females, and so on and so on. Their suicide rates are climbing, and books are coming out claiming that Men are Done (Hanna Rosin, usually bad news) and that Men Are on Strike (Dr. Helen Smith, Glen Reynold’s wife, who will be at least sane, even if pro-porn).
So that’s where we are, and that’s what’s at stake when MUD deliberately suggests the question of whether marriage and couple-love really works, and when it shows that in such a situation, coupled with bad socio-economic prospects for males, certain temptations to misogyny that men are always susceptible to grow.
The basic way MUD handles this is give to us five models of manhood, each of which involves an attitude towards love and women, for the two puberty-entering boys Ellis and Neckbone to consider. I may discuss some of them at greater length in a follow-up post, but in outline, here they are:
A believer in dignified manly self-reliance. But the basis of his self-reliance, his access to the river, actually depends upon his wife, the owner of the house-boat. Their love for one another has somehow failed, and the film suggests that this is in large part due to his own lack of openness to the inspiration and threat of eros. So he uses a misanthropic theory about women and love to explain his troubles.
Neckbone’s uncle, but in fact his foster-father. Has a casually misogynistic view of women, revealed in his regular pursuit of hook-ups, his reliance on improve-your-seduction-technique self-help literature (on the rising popularity of such see this 2010 Charlotte Allen piece) , and the fact that the one hook-up partner we see him with bolts out of his trailer due to some sexual move she regards as degrading—likely, anal sodomy. (Both this film and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS contain sly digs against the contemporary mainstreaming of this practice for heterosexuals, via SEX IN THE CITY among others.) He offers an interpretation of his favorite “doing it” song, “Help Me Rhonda,” that reduces the song’s wrestling with feelings of love to a need to for sexual self-confidence: by sleeping with the man of the song, Rhonda will “help” him keep from brooding, and get his groove back. Galen would never beat a woman and shows no anger at women in general. But he has no expectations for them either, and few really for himself. Playing in a small-time punk-ety rock band and regular hook-ups are the extent of his ambitions. He’s not a bad guy—he’s honest and tries to protect Neckbone–but unlike Senior and Ellis, he is a man without any sense of dignity. He’s getting by, economically and culturally, on the trash that floats down to him.
3) King (and his son Carver)
A kind of evil American patriarch, who rules from behind the scenes. Both of his sons grow up to be women-abusers. Mud regards he and his family as satanic, a brood of vipers. Vengeance-driven, and we see he exploits religious and manly instincts for his own purposes. He also corrupts police. His main dialogue consists of his addressing the group of bounty-hunters he has collected as “men.” He says this twice. So his tribe, that is, he, his sons, and his mercenaries (many of them middle-aged guys who apparently have failed in everything else in life), are presented by the film as a possible model of manliness. Mud is driven by love. King’s tribe is driven by hate/vengeance and the need to prove one’s hardness—a contemptuous abuse of women flows from all that, almost as an afterthought. As Galen thinks, women are simply for bedding and the self-confidence you gain from that, but he needs to read his Machiavelli too, to see why beating them is the best seduction technique of all. And even if it isn’t, women don’t matter except for providing kings with sons, and ultimately (despite what that Xenophon guy suggested) sex is just one pleasure among others.
Messed-up by a woman he loves intensely. His love for her takes over his life purpose. Contrary to Senior’s way (and to his “foster father” Tom’s embarrassment) he has no livelihood. He lives for love, not for livelihood. And yet, like the boys and Senior and Galen, he is quite resourceful, and knows how to repair the boat. The symbols of manly self-reliance, the boat and the gun, are understood and utilized by him, but he is not driven by what they represent, and can give them away. He stands for the power and redemptive power of love, and convincingly defends this even when it has failed him. Ellis at one point thinks he is unwilling to forgive Juniper, that like Senior he has given up on love, but close analysis reveals that it is Juniper who makes the final break. Up to that very end, Mud is ready to forgive, and parts ways with her in a beautiful manner. Mud’s goodbyes are like benedictions. There is so much more to say about him, to figure out about him, but this is enough for now.
Messed-up by the untimely death of a woman he loved intensely. Apparently suffers a loss of life-purpose without her. The only educated and cosmopolitan character of the film, and the only real warrior, in a sense hiding out from life’s blows in rural Arkansas. Seems to have not followed through with the alternate life purpose offered him in his becoming a “foster father” to Mud. Or perhaps Mud’s obsession with Juniper kept him from doing so. And so we also hear dark warnings to Ellis about the power of love-for-a-woman from his lips, suggesting, not fully correctly, that Juniper deliberately manipulates Mud. We don’t learn much about his inner struggles, but it seems his reconnection with father-love for his “son” is what allows his and Mud’s final redemptive escape. And perhaps that reconnection is to some degree a reconnection with what Mud stands for.
A boy only really becomes a man by dealing with what love demands of him; thanks to Mud’s example and words, Ellis gets a head start on that. Ellis shifts his main desire from acquiring the boat, to delivering Juniper to Mud (paralleled by gaining May Pearl for himself), and then finally to hoping that Mud lives on. A progression from a focus on property, to one on love, to…what? To something more expansively life-affirming, I think something a bit like faith. The film points to Genesis, to the question of the goodness of Creation, but does not in any obvious way present the faith that Mud imparts as a Biblical one. Perhaps that is a contradiction: Mud cinematically imparts what no real person can without the reality of the Biblical God, and the Forgiving Christ. But in any case, the film does suggest that grappling with love is a necessary step towards even being able to raise these questions, and one has to be prepared to step out from Locke and property’s dignity, i.e., out from the focus on the boat and the gun, before one can deal with love.