Mud is Love and Love is Mud: Interconnecting themes in Jeff Nichols’s “Mud”

Jeff Nichols’s “Mud” (2012) may as well be called “Love” for how interchangeably murky and ugly the film seems to present the two concepts.  It is so easy when it comes to love to be sloppily sentimental and trivial, as is evident by many a rom-com as well as by how dangerously close even this film gets to that.  And yet love remains one of our most powerful driving forces and precious aspirations as well as complicated and painful enigmas.  What makes “Mud” a perhaps more compelling account is that it is not a love story but rather a story about love in its various profound and less-than-pretty forms.  

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The Untouchables: A familiar and funny feel-good

By Elizabeth Lee '16
Copy Editor and Film Columnist

At first glance, “The Intouchables” is a rather familiar and formulaic film — to the extent that in discussing it with my mother months after we had originally seen it together she had no recollection of it having not been in English. In that sense its familiarity serves as less of a bore and more of a comfort in its universally feel good nature.
The French film, directed and written by Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano and starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, became rather popular internationally — at least perhaps as popular as any foreign film tends to be outside its own country — upon its international release in 2012.  Based on the lives of actual people, it tells the tale of what happens when two people of different worlds — of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds — cross paths and in an expectedly-unexpected turn of events find rich companions in one another. It is a basic pattern that has been continuously described as reminiscent of “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which the posh and aloof employer is confronted with the down-to-earth irreverence of their caretaker and both end up inspiring the other to perceive life a little differently than they did before. Where “The Intouchables” becomes more interestingly its own version of the familiar blueprint of a story is in the unabashed humor surrounding touchy subjects like race and disability as well as a relationship between the two main characters that is odd yet natural enough to seem more sincere than sappy.

Philippe is an enormously wealthy and cynical older man who half-heartedly and with more annoyance at his need for assistance than actual helplessness seeks a caretaker. In comes Driss, who cuts a line of candidates to request a signature proving he interviewed and is upfront in admitting that he has no previous experience nor even actual desire to take on the job. He just wants the signature so that he can continue to live off of welfare benefits. Philippe expresses great appreciation for Driss’s lack of ‘pity’ and the next day Driss moves in on a trial period.
There is a great amount of honesty in the relationship between Philippe and Driss that comes across in significant part due to the honesty of the actors’ performances. Driss laughs upon clumsily becoming acquainted with modern art and classical music and has no problem expressing outright horror at the prospect of having to take care of Philippe’s less-than-dignified needs. Philippe, meanwhile, relies on Driss in a way that Driss has not often found himself capable of or interested in. He eventually encourages Philippe to take greater control of his life by being stricter with his adopted daughter, pursuing a relationship with a woman with whom he has been exchanging letters and encouraging him to poke fun at himself constantly while seeking value in life’s little pleasures; cue image of Driss riding on the back of Philippe’s wheelchair yelling to see how fast they can go.
In two particularly memorable scenes, Driss builds off a sense of humor that borders on uncomfortable but never fails to make us and Philippe laugh in spite of ourselves.
During a birthday concert in which Philippe tries to share with Driss his love of classical music, Driss remains unimpressed — pretending to gallop to Bach, reciting to Vivaldi the phone spiel of the Paris Unemployment Agency when one is on hold. He then leads the room in a dance party to Earth Wind and Fire. And when shaving a rather melancholy and bitter Philippe, Driss tortures him for his own amusement with an assortment of ridiculous facial hair styles — a biker mustache, a handlebar mustache and finally pushing his luck with a Hitler mustache.
 Perhaps what feels most familiar about this film is the desire to see past the bleakness of tragedy and even day-to-day life, to laugh at the preposterousness of ourselves and the world, to manage its weight by perceiving it in relation to all lighter things and shifting between the two. Simply put, it is a feel-good movie. It is not a particularly profound feel good, but there is sometimes something more inherently profound in the very nature of this quality.

Sorry for not being sorry: a take on Pantene's anti-sorry campaign

By Elizabeth Lee '16
Copy Editor

As a kid — and, if I am being totally honest, sometimes still to this day — I would imagine myself riding horseback at the front of the line, hair blowing in the wind as I led thousands of troops into battle while wielding my sword. As I grew quieter and shyer with age, I came to believe myself incapable of being a leader, or even just being strong in general, because I was rarely the one making impassioned speeches to crowds or throwing punches at bullies. We feed into and live according to a culture that generally leads us to believe that strength means being aggressive and that winning means beating others.


When Pantene, a hair-products company, released an ad over the summer as part of its “Shine Strong” campaign, it sparked a debate over the gendered use of language — specifically the word “sorry.”  Throughout the ad, women apologize for asking questions during meetings, using their own armrests and speaking first in a conversation. Many people responded positively, viewing the ad as a means of confronting women’s perceivably problematic tendency or, as an article in Latina Magazine put it, “incessant need” to apologize too much or at least the environment causing that need.


I could not agree more that women should not feel they have to apologize when speaking their minds or making reasonable requests. I often do wish I had more confidence and self value. Would that not also mean, however, that women should not have to apologize for apologizing or feel like less worthy individuals for operating on what they may perceive as a value of considerateness and empathy? Since when has feminism meant trying to empower women by encouraging them to adapt traits that are traditionally perceived as masculine? And at what point did saying “sorry” become a filler or indication of weakness rather than a sign of compassion or politeness?


Being an empowered person has more to do with self-actualizing than conforming to a particular method of confrontation — again, a typically perceived masculine approach of dominance and aggression. What I suppose many might, and do, say is that “that's just how the world works,” and if we want to get things done women have to be willing to match or overcome a certain level of aggression by refusing to apologize. But if we are suggesting an ideal version of how the world should operate, why is it we are telling women they need to change rather than men? Maybe some of those guys in the ad should have been apologizing out of politeness for interrupting and talking over someone or taking up someone else's space. Or an even better question, perhaps, is why do we continue to use these traits as a way of defining and polarizing gender roles?


In her recent and now popularly spread speech about the launching of the “He for She” campaign, famed actress and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson called upon men to take part in the fight against gender inequality — the fight she described as being for the sake of an individual’s freedom to be both “strong” and “sensitive.”


“It is time that we perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals,” Watson said. “If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are, we can all be freer.”


Whether Watson can or should serve as a contemporary icon of popular feminism has been heavily debated, but her words have nevertheless drawn attention to and provoked conversations about an important point: Bridging the gender gap should not have to mean one end conforms to or eliminates the other. Rather, we are more likely to reach a state of acceptance and cooperation in seeking an appreciation of balance and finding the value in difference.


There also seems to be the assumption that the use of words like “sorry” or “just” — as in “I was just wondering” — is a sign of timidity or devaluing one’s own thoughts and contributions.  People should not have to feel the need to apologize for thinking what they have to say is valuable, but perhaps that is not why they are saying it. Perhaps what matters more is that they are still sharing those thoughts or acting upon what they think they should be allowed to do. You can say “sorry” and still be coming from a place of internal strength and compelling conviction.  Eliminating “sorry” and all its relatives from our vocabulary when expressing opinions or self-assertion is not wrong and does not have to be part of a culture of domination.  But why should they have to be equated with weakness and submissiveness on the other end of the spectrum instead of compassion or generosity?


The strength and self-assertion we often equate with aggressiveness and confidence do not always have to come at the expense of compassion and grace. Having those last two qualities in addition to the first two is much more noble and admirable, not to mention ultimately more effective in terms of communicating and compromise. Without some amount of aggressive conviction, the compassion approach may fall short of our goals to provoke change or be heard. Matching or one-upping someone else’s level of aggression can serve as a valuable means of creating tension and conflict that can help us grow, but it can also eventually reach a point of destruction. Making people feel weak, inadequate or less valuable for not being more confrontational is not necessarily an effective way of inspiring change. Instead, it can actually silence or discourage someone who otherwise could have something valuable to offer.

As someone who is often told that I apologize too frequently or unnecessarily, I also believe strongly in what I have to say. That happens to be why I am writing this piece. So why do I say sorry? Because I mean it. Aside from serving as a sign of deep remorse and a promise to be better, it is more generally a sign of empathy and compassion. It is not out of self-deprecation or careless trivialization of its significance. In the case of qualifying my words it is an acknowledgement not that I am wrong or not competent enough to make such assertions but that I could be wrong, that I respect that people may disagree or that I realize positive change requires compromise. It is a way of expressing that I can value myself and others simultaneously. It is an assertion that such empathy and compassion are not failures of strength but rather indications of it.