[I posted this thought piece on the film Mud in June when it was in the theaters, but since the movie is out in DVD now, I thought I'd post it again. It might help those of you puzzled about what that post about Mandela and Che was all about--this angel/imp, Huck/Tom polarity is for me a central preoccupation, but I think it's also the central preoccupation of this film.]
Jeff Nichols' film Mud is one of those couple-of-times-a-year movies you wake up the next morning with on your mind. It's very, very rich. It asks important questions about love and truth, about the truth of youthful idealism, and its fierceness in a spirited, young soul, and also about its limits, its need to be tempered. It connects with a number of things I've been thinking about lately, so this is going to ramble a bit as I try to think out loud here about them. It won't make a lot of sense unless you've seen the movie, so see it.
I'm not going to belabor the obvious allusions to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, in this case two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, and the runaway "Mud" as Jim. But it's important background information, because the "Tom "and "Huck" archetypes are central to the way the movie plays out. They are [angel and imp,] Cain and Abel, and Cal and Aron in Steinbeck's East of Eden (See my post "Shrewd as Serpents, Guileless as Doves"). Neckbone is shrewd, calculating, and suspicious imp. Ellis is purehearted angel, naively idealistic, and willing to put everything on the line for a noble cause. This movie on one level is about the necessary creative tension between these types, and how anyone is lost if he it too much of one or the other.
Insofar as this is a story about Ellis and Mud, it's a more about Huck than it is about Tom. I think different cultural eras tend to celebrate one or the other. The Victorian era celebrated Hucks, but we live in an era now in which calculating, ambitious gamers like Tom Sawyer are the dominant prototype, so it's refreshing to see a movie where the guileless Huck gets his due. In this era where cynicism, irony, and calcuated self interest are the norms, we need more of the unreserved idealism of the Huck type. We also need to understand his need of a Tom in his life--and Tom's need for Huck. It's never one or the other; it's both together. This movie understands that. It is about Ellis's learning the limits of his idealism without becoming cynical, and it's also about Neckbone's being won over to Ellis's idealistic cause.
Huck types seem to walk with their feet not quite touching the ground. Toms are very, very grounded in the real world; they know how it works and how to work it. It's Ellis's idealism that gets things moving, but It is Neckbone and 'Tom' Blankenship, who in the end are essential for getting things to work. Blankenship is an image of Neckbone all grown up.
After the movie, I was thinking about the Joni Mitchell song "Both Sides Now"--particularly the verse: "I've looked at love from both sides now/from give and take, and still somehow/It's love's illusions I recall/I really don't know love at all." It's song about a romantic idealist experiencing the thud of falling into a world that does not correlate with her ideals. This movie has a lot going on in it, but at its root it's a movie about love in a fallen world. The difference between Neckbone and Ellis lies in that Neckbone, like all Sawyer types, instinctively knows and accepts the world in its fallenness and accepts it as normal. But Ellis doesn't know that yet. He has yet to be snakebit, and then everything depends on how he recovers. The challenge for all Huck types is to learn the lesson without becoming cynical. Ellis recovers, and in doing so learns that people are not how we idealize them--they are more complex than that--and yet while people disappoint us they are nevertheless worthy of our affections and of our loyalty.
So first, a digression about romantic idealization. When we fall in love, do we fall in love with something that we make up? Is it merely a subjective projection? Or is it based on a perception or intuiton of something real about the beloved? Is it all hormones, or is there something else going on? From the Sawyer/Neckbone perspective, it's all about hormones and nice titties and getting to second base; from the Huck/Ellis point of view, it's about touching the eternal. So for the Huck type, less than for the Sawyer type, it's an important issue: Do we see accurately or falsely when we are in the exalted state we call being "in love"? Was there nothing real about it, or was there something in it that points to a reality that we have fallen out of, so to say? Is falling in love a deluional moment, or is it a privileged one?
Or is it both? In Charles Williams's The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante he tries to answer this question:
What Dante sees is the glory of Beatrice as she is 'in heaven'--that is, as God chose her, unfallen, original; or (if better) redeemed; but at least, either way, celestial. What he sees is something real. It is not 'realer' than the actual Beatrice who, no doubt, had many serious faults, but it is as real. Both Beatrices are aspects of one Beatrice. The revealed virtues are real; so is the celestial beauty.
There is nothing new or uncommon about this experience; it is in a great many novels and films and plays and songs; our modern songs hold it as much as the lyrics of the metaphysical poets. All that is new is the seriousness with which Dante treats it and the style in which he expresses it. The lady creates in her lover the sensation of supreme content. It does not last. Why not?
Dante, at least, had a perfectly definite answer. Everything desires its own perfection: "in this all desires are appeased and for the sake of this all is desired." Our desires are everlasting, and to see an image of perfection is not the same thing as to be perfect ourselves, which until we are, possession, even the possession of Beatrice, must lack perfection. This is what all the talk of 'the ideal' comes to; the ideal can never satisfy us until we are [ourselves] ideal. He who pursues any hope of satisfaction, without his own conditioning perfection is bound, sooner or later, straight for the Inferno.
"It does not last. Why not?" It's a cliche of the Romantic tradition that anyone who has fallen in love feels as though he or she is touching eternity. Well, how can anything eternal not last forever? The fervent commitments of lovers to love forever are sincerely felt, but sooner or later the exaltation passes, and you are with an everyday human being, and sooner or later every romantic has the moment when he asks: what was I thinking? Were the Neckbones right all along? Does that mean that one's perception of the beloved while being 'in love' was not knowing love at all?
I like Williams's answer: No, it is not delusional; it's partial--it's a glimpse. It's a temporary beholding of the beloved as God created her to be, but not now as she is. And the glimpse is all that we, in our own imperfection, are capable or worthy of. It's a goad, so to say, that motivates our own moral development. A sneak peak at the communion that is our telos in the economy of salvation. It is the first wine given to guests at the Wedding of Cana; the second wine, the wine transformed or Christified, is the wine that we most deeply long for. For it is our own blood that is water turned to wine, it's a transformation we celebrate in every mass--it's not just the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, but our own. That's my understanding of William's phrase 'conditioning perfection'.
And if you are married and have stayed married, this is an experience that you have had. We all of us inevitably disappoint one another, but it's ok. Because a different kind of love begins to develop if you are able in the hardest moments to live faithfully in the memory of that glimpse as revealing a proleptic truth. Fidelity is in large part about living now into the future while holding fast to a memory of intuited truths, trusting in the truth of those intuitions while letting the fire of experience temper them. And the task becomes one of loving the real person as she or he is now, but also living in the memory of her and of oneself as temporarily gifted perceivers of the beloved not as she or I am now, but as a future possibility.
It is in this sense that faith--the practice of fidelity--is a virtue, a moral work, a work that transforms water into wine, and wine into blood, which is, the conditioniong of our own perfection. With such wine coursing in our veins we will become drunk with goodness, and that's the goal of moral effort, to become effortlessly, unihibitedly good. To become again like children, like Ellis, but like him after having been snakebit. I for one do not long to be washed by the blood of the lamb, but to be inebriated by it.
Ellis is the fervent, open-hearted, naive idealist whom we see falling into the real world with several thuds. His parents' marriage is breaking up; he learns that his "girlfriend", May Pearl, wasn't ever his girlfriend; he learns that his mission in the service of true love, the reunion of Mud and Juniper, is a failure because they are not the Tristan and Isolde he idealized them to be. He comes to see Mud through Juniper's and Tom's eyes, confronts Mud, screams out his disappointment in him, and runs away falling into a mucky hole full of water mocassins, and he gets bit. Thud in the mud. Welcome to the fallen world, Ellis--a world ruled by serpents who see a dove like you as a fool and who will eat you alive.
Matthew McConaughey's Mud is a wonderfuly ambivalent character. Mud appears out of nowhere and disappears at the end. He's like a figure in our dreams, but he's not. We never know whether to believe him. He's a murderer on the lam, and who knows how much of what he says is a desperate con? I found myself half the time looking at him like Neckbone--this guy is trouble, let's get out of here--and half the time time like Ellis--there's something noble in him, and he is worthy of my loyalty and commitment--and in the end it turns out that Ellis's intuition was correct.
Mud and Ellis are kindred spirits. He's an already snakebit Ellis all grown up. Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a Tom type like Neckbone, and so is the "assassin", Tom Blankenship, played by Sam Shepherd. Both Juniper and Tom tell Ellis that Mud is a liar, but it turns out they are the liars and everything Mud said was true. But Mud was snakebit--he already had his 'thud' experience, but the wonderful thing about him was that he was faithful to the memory of Beatrice/Juniper despite her being, from the point of view of Sawyerian calculation, not worth it. That's Tom Blankenship's point of view: Mud is a fool, and his foolish love for Juniper has made him vulnerable to manipulation by her. She's eating him alive. But there's more to Juniper than that--and there's more to Tom, too. Tom can't see it, but Mud does.
But here's the thing about the Tom Sawyer types: they are often deeply moved by and love the Huck types who come into their lives. The Huck type represents a nobility of spirit that Toms find disorienting and hard to understand, but it points to something that they long for. It's why May Pearl, the girl Ellis thinks is his girlfriend, tells him to give her a call. He's just an 8th Grader, and she's much older, but he came to her rescue by recklessly punching a senior who was harrassing her in the 7-11 parking lot. Such guilelessness, such lack of calculation, such purity of heart blows Tom types away; it crashses their frame, so to say, and awakens hidden possibilities in them. It's as if they were waiting all their lives for such a one to find them. And that's why on their "date" later she kisses him. There is such a sweentess in the scene, and it is so lush with misunderstanding. Juniper is May Pearl all grown up.
Tom types like May Pearl and Juniper are smitten by the Huck types', but cannot live for long in their idealized world, and while they love them, can never live with them--unless they come down to earth. It usually plays out with the Tom types admiring but never really being able to stick for long with the Hucks that come into their lives. They are too restless, and they see Hucks as nice guys they want as friends but not as lovers--perhaps in some cases because they feel that they can never measure up. They can never be the Beatrices Hucks see them as, and they shouldn't feel that they should measure up. It's not their job to. It's Huck's job to love them as they are.
I think this describes Juniper: in the end she refuses to go with Mud as a act of love; it sets him free because she knows she is not worthy of him, and that she will be the destruction of him. But it's also that Mud, despite his name, has not come down to earth, not enough to make it work with Juniper. It's not completely her failure to be what he needs. That part is unresolved for me. I'd like to think that maybe they'd find one another again somewhere in South America and live there a real life, a down-to-earth life, a menschy life, a grow-old-together kind of life in which second wine starts to course through their veins.
There's more to say, but this is enough for now. I might add other thoughts in comments later. I want to say something about the Carver family, particularly about Senior and how he represents a perversion of the Huck type that typifies many on the religious right--religious moralism, or the kind of rigid code-centered, deeply alienating morality that we think of as Victorian--it's what keeps nice Huck types merely nice, and not transformed into something deeply, truly drunk with goodness. But I want to talk about dreams, fantasy, and truth in a broader sense. Why is it that it's love's illusion we recall? Is it really true that we don't know love at all?