The Best of Both Worlds (Mud, Behind the Candelabra)

In a review of the new film Sunlight, Jr. (2013), which I haven’t seen, Mike D’Angelo makes a sharp contrast between Hollywood movies, which entertain by allowing viewers to “vicariously experience glamour, adventure, and excitement,” and American independent films that “often seek to depict life as it’s actually lived” — which is “not so entertaining.” D’Angelo implies that these two modes of moviemaking are so dissimilar in their aims and methods as to be irreconcilable, but one thing that’s striking about Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), a recent indie film, is how much it resembles Jean Renoir’s first Hollywood movie, Swamp Water (1941), which transposed the poetic realist sensibility of his ’30s films to an American milieu. Both movies are set in authentically unglamorous Southern backwaters, but while their stories are grounded in realism, the characterizations in these films have the starkness of fairy tales.

Like Renoir’s film, Mud begins with a chance meeting between the young protagonist — here, a fourteen year old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) — and a wanted man living in the wild. However, unlike the Walter Brennan character in Swamp Water, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has a plan to fix up a disused boat and sail away with his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), if he’s not caught by the family of the man he killed, who are aggressively pursuing him. One can easily imagine this story being told from the perspective of the family, but the movie aligns our sympathies with Mud in part by characterizing him as a hopeless romantic and a gentleman. When Ellis asks him why he killed that guy, Mud says that he did it for Juniper, even though she had left him for said guy who then beat her up. By way of contrast, the dead man’s brother, Carver (Paul Sparks), is first seen assaulting Juniper in her motel room, and when Ellis — who’s as recklessly gallant as his hero — tries to intervene, Carver gives him a black eye. The movie ends, as I suppose it must, with a violent shootout that’s all the more exciting because one believes so deeply in these characters, who seem both real and mythical.

Trapped in the Closet

On the other hand, although it somewhat resembles a backstage musical, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) is arguably even further removed from D’Angelo’s definition of entertainment. The story is based on a 1988 memoir by Scott Thorson (co-written with Alex Thorleifson), who was Liberace’s secret gay lover in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But while Thorson (played in the film by Matt Damon) was on the late pianist’s payroll for the entirety of this time (officially, he was Liberace’s personal secretary), the movie characterizes him not as a gold-digger but as a sweet, naïve kid who sincerely loves this much older man, finding in him the father he never had. Rather, it’s Liberace (Michael Douglas) who treats Thorson as though he were his pet. As a portrait of an unsophisticated young man unwittingly being used, the film is so convincing that it might’ve been hard to watch — despite the fluid storytelling — if it weren’t also hilarious in a creepy sort of way.

As my description suggests, one of the film’s themes is not being able to see what’s right in front of you, whether it’s Liberace’s fans who didn’t know that he was gay (at one point, while standing on stage in a huge, purple fur coat, he asks the audience, “Can you see me now?”), or Thorson who was blind to the true nature of their relationship. The flip side of this is the characters’ acute awareness of being looked at, which provides the basis for some of the movie’s funniest moments. The first time Thorson spends the night at Liberace’s house, they share a bed without having sex, and in the morning, he wakes up to find Liberace staring at him as if waiting impatiently for him to get up. This scene is all the more creepy because Liberace isn’t wearing any makeup and the cold lighting accentuates his wrinkles, making him look almost like a vampire. Even funnier — and creepier — is a scene where Liberace asks a plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe) to make Thorson look more like himself without consulting him first. After subsequently getting a facelift, Thorson is told that he won’t be able to close his eyes completely, and when getting into bed, he finds Liberace (who’s also had some work done) sleeping with his eyes wide open. This is one of those films where you cringe as much as you laugh.

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Vers le sud (Magic Mike, Swamp Water)

A lively and very funny backstage comedy-drama, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) tells the story of an aimless teenager, known as the Kid (Alex Pettyfer), who’s living on his sister’s couch when a male stripper, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum), takes him under his wing and introduces him to the world of show business. Predictably, it’s only a matter of time before the Kid gets involved with drugs, while Magic Mike (who dreams of owning a custom furniture business) has to choose between the big time — namely, moving from Tampa to Miami to dance in a club there — and a conventional relationship with the Kid’s grounded older sister (Cody Horn).

Following a familiar rise-and-fall pattern, the film marries the conventions of a show business drama to an economical style that — notwithstanding the warmly lit upscale mise en scène — reminds one of Jia Zhang-ke more than George Cukor. Scenes play out largely in long shots without a lot of camera movement, and the terse narration eliminates a lot of the redundancies usually found in mainstream cinema. (The ending, though abrupt by multiplex standards, tells us everything we need to know.) Of course, this wouldn’t matter much if the characters weren’t believable, but the screenplay by Reid Carolin and the appealing cast (including Olivia Munn as a benign man-eater and Matthew McConaughey, who’s effortlessly hilarious as the emcee at a male strip club) manage to make the threadbare story seem almost fresh.

Brennan sauvé des eaux

Swamp Water (1941) is a major film by Jean Renoir that’s virtually unknown today among Anglo-American cinephiles, despite the fact (or maybe in part because) it was made for a Hollywood studio and the story takes place in a specifically American milieu. Set in rural Georgia, the movie is about a young man, Ben Regan (Dana Andrews), who goes into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for his dog and finds an escaped convict, Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), living in the wild. Although Tom is initially suspicious of Ben — whose father, Thursday (Walter Huston), was on the jury that sentence him to death — the two men eventually become friends and business partners. Shot partly on location, Renoir’s first Hollywood film is a poetic realist treatment of the American South, and the movie’s major achievement on the level of mise en scène is that it makes both the swamp and the nearby town concrete places while retaining the starkness of myth so that Tom registers as an exile not only from the local community but the whole of humanity.