Monday, May 27, 2013
Make Your Writing As Clear as MUD
I always recommend that fellow writers look to film for inspiration. Readers think in a cinematic way. They are exposed to moving images constantly. We can learn much from the storytelling qualities of the movies. I particularly look to cinema to learn more about writing tense scenes of dialogue and to better present pacing and plotting. Most of the great movies of real storytelling have to be seen at home since so few of them make their ways onto the big screen. It is a rare treat to be able to go to the movie theatre and see a film that is a feat in storytelling. Nowadays the cineplexes more often showcase the latest action thriller in which everything is constantly being blown up. So I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to go to the movies with my daughters recently to see a movie that did just about everything right. Not only did it tell a beautiful, layered story, but it also presented a way of life rarely captured on film. One of my goals as a writer is to not only tell a good story but to also show a particular culture. I strive to preserve rural ways of life since our modern media seems intent on either ignoring rural America or perpetuating stereotypes that life in rural places is something only to be escaped or ridiculed.
Mud, the new movie from Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is an exception on all counts.
Like the best storytelling, Mud slowly reveals more and more layers. Just when we think we know where it’s going, it takes us down another bend of the river.
We can learn a lot as writers by how much the story is revealed through the dialogue and how much is revealed through silence. These are two essential lessons for writers. The visuals are simple and stunning.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Mud is that it shows a real world that few people know, although many think they understand. Mud is set along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and showcases a disappearing way of life of those who live and work on the river. The sense of place is palpable and has a profound impact on everything in the movie. Like the best stories, the action could not happen anywhere else. That is the importance of sense of place. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are those that show a character passing through town in the back of his father’s pickup, watching as a very rural yet very New South passes by him, a New South that is not the romantic places of pastures and plantations but one of locally-owned Mexican restaurants, Dairy Freezes, junkyards, boat storage, new apartment developments.
And these are people I know. Rarely do I see them portrayed correctly on film. They are working hard to get by (mot people would see them as poor; they don’t think of themselves that way, and neither should the viewer), don’t set an awful lot of store by material things (if only the culture as a whole could agree), and they care deeply about one another and their place in the world. During one memorable scene a woman and her son approach a roadblock that first appears to be a wreck. “Oh, I hope nobody’s hurt,” the woman says, dragging out each word like a little prayer. Anyone who’s ever traveled a country road and come upon an accident has most likely uttered these words in that same exact cadence. It’s a scene that only someone intimate with rural life could have written and directed.
I thought a whole lot about Beasts of the Southern Wild while watching Mud. They are similar in many different ways. And while I liked Beasts a lot, I also had some real problems with it: why did those rural people have to be dirty all the time? Why did they have to live with trash piled up in their homes? (and I won’t even get into the gender stuff that bothered me…the little girl always being portrayed as masculine to show her strength (can’t strength be shown in the feminine, as well?), the father never receiving a true comeuppance for abusing her). But in Mud, these people are living rough but not nasty, some of them even making their living off of trash (in one great scene a character says, “That junk is his liveliehood!”) but never letting it overtake their lives the way the filmmakers portray it in Beasts and so many other movies about rural folks.
While there are many things to appreciate about Beats of the Southern Wild, it is interesting that that film had to rely on a fantastical South to be widely accepted, as so often is the case. But Mud is unapologetic in presenting a rural place just as it is, with no romanticizing or vilifying. That’s a hard feat to pull off and a balance that can only be achieved by an entire cast and crew who have a deep understanding of the place and its people.
One of the best things about Mud is how believable the characters are in expressing their love for one another. Several times during the movie children and parents say “I love you” to one another. Yet it is never done in a sentimental way. Because this movie is dealing in the realness of life, in the best kind of drama: the family dynamic. We get the sense that we are eavesdropping on a real rural family in the midst of high drama. It is that best sense of storytelling that Shakespeare spoke on when he said that (paraphrasing) all of life’s little dramas happen in the bedroom, meaning of course, that the stories we care the most about are those that happen in people’s homes: small, intimate, real.
I could go on and on about this movie but the main thing I will say is this: go see it. There hasn’t been this great a depiction of rural life in a long, long while, and it joins a handful of other films that I think do justice to capturing contemporary life in a rural place (the main ones that come to mind immediately: That Evening Sun, Come Early Morning, and Winter’s Bone).
The cast is phenomenal, too. I’ve never been a big Matthew McConaughey fan but I will be rooting for him when he gets his much-deserved Oscar nomination for this role. Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon are quietly brilliant. Sam Shepard gives his best performance in years and Reese Witherspoon is very effective in a nuanced turn that could have easily come off as a stereotype. But the whole movie rests upon the backs of the two child actors, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland (in his debut), who perfectly capture the speech and posture of modern rural boys. These are the kinds of boys I grew up with: tough, vulnerable, witty, resourceful, wise beyond their years not because of street cred but because they had seen people work hard all of their lives.
It's not a totally perfect movie (small spoilers: there is a very confusing shot toward the end and the lead boy too readily responds violently to adults; I didn't believe that little boy would punch Matthew McConaughey in the mouth) but I loved every minute of Mud and I can’t recommend it highly enough to everyone, but especially writers needing a boost in their creativity.