There’s this movie called “Mud,” and it taught me about writing.
Because I generally think myself too good for pop culture, I tend to avoid movies for a number of reasons that don’t really make a lot of sense (most of my beefs about movies grow out of my fertile self-righteousness). But, like so many other humans in industrialized countries, I occasionally just feel like watching a movie. This feeling is usually the dregs of emotion left after a long, tiresome day, when it’s too early to justify going to bed but too in-the-middle-of-the-week to open another beer.
Intellectualism dies hard, though, and doesn’t allow me to watch just anything. It’s got to have some meaning so I don’t feel like the brainless pop culture zombies I so love to criticize. My favorites, for example, are sufficiently obscure movies like “Lonely are the Brave” and “Jeremiah Johnson” which are both movies about misunderstood, rugged individuals trying to live outside of their dominant culture. I could watch those movies over and over; they make me feel like I’m somehow a rugged individual myself, even though my rugged activity is limited to weekend camping and watching Hollywood movies about rugged individuals. (I like to think they make my thoughts better, though really I’m mostly waiting for my favorite lines, just like any guy watching a Chris Farley movie. It’s true: I’m comforted thinking I’m somehow above pop culture even when my mouth is lined with its crumbs.)
Now there’s a new film to add to my list: “Mud,” with Matthew McConaughey as Mud (and Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s romantic interest, though her character doesn’t get much screen time). I won’t tell you what it’s about except that Mud has the wilderness skills of Jeremiah Johnson, only instead of a trapper in the Rocky Mountains, he’s a parent-less Southern woodsman that never sleeps in the same place two nights in a row. Mud’s got the renegade morality of Jack Burns (the wayward cowboy in “Lonely Are the Brave,”), only instead of a finicky horse, Mud’s got a boat in a tree.
That’s right. There’s a boat in a tree. The tree is on an island in the middle of a big river. Two boys find the boat and soon after they meet Mud, who is creepy from the get-go. They ask him what he’s doing there on that island. He’s in love with a woman, he tells them, and he needs their help getting the boat out of the tree and afloat so he and the woman can sail off into the sunset. The boys agree to help. Then things get crazy.
I’ll get to the point. “Mud” wears the principles of literary writing on its sleeve, and so makes writers like me think that they’re doing more than just vegging out to a movie. The boat in a tree is a recurring image. The characterization of Mud is thoughtful and complex; the conflict of the movie is based in his character—we don’t know what to believe about him—just like in a good short story. The plot is almost visible (an aspect that critics disparaged) and leads to a clear (I’ll admit: overdone) climax and resolution. The scenes are beautifully rendered and are, surprisingly, anchored in a point-of-view, as explained by the director in a New York Times “Anatomy of a Scene.”
I underlined the components here because that’s how I tried to watch the movie—as a neurotic teacher of writing, I can’t help it—even while I was getting more and more sucked in. I caught myself imagining this as a short-story and, minus a few plot points, could see a story like it being published in a lit mag like our own.
Here’s to over-intellectualizing my momentary surrender to pop culture.
Ben Dolan is going into his third and final year of the MFA program in Nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.