“Nowhere to be Found”
Birmingham Weekly, February 27, 2003
by James Griffin
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if humankind suddenly disappeared. I wonder how long it would take before all the remants of our society vanished and all our architecture began to crumble and revert back to nature. I wonder if the only record of American culture, circa 2003, will be a landscape dotted with the empty, hulking husks of abandoned Wal-Marts. And now there is a film out there that, I think, understands where I’m coming from - This is Nowhere, a documentary directed by Doug Hawes-Davis and released by High Plains Films, a Missoula, Montana-based non-profit production company focusing on environmental, wildlife and natural resource issues.
Birmingham native Ned Mudd, a long-time mainstay of the Birmingham music scene, provided the soundtrack for This is Nowhere. Mudd met Doug Hawes-Davis while the director was working on an earlier project filmed in the Southeast. “After meeting Ned, he passed a tape on to the crew, which became road music during work on the project,” Hawes-Davis recalls. “Afterwards I called him up and asked if he would be willing to let us use some of his music for our project. He ended up providing us with some older songs as well as some original score music. I’ve been working with him ever since. We’ve used his music for eight or nine of our subsequent documentaries.”
In this case, Mudd wrote some of the songs before he ever saw the film. “They called me while they were working on the Wal-Mart project, and said that I had some songs that were perfect for the movie,” Mudd says.
Freedom riders? Older, retired white people populate the community featured in this documentary. They lazily roam the well-traveled infrastructure of America, stopping each night to park their enormous, hulking RVs in Wal-Mart parking lots. Wal-Mart provides them with a secure place to stay the night, and in return, these travelers provide the stores with frequent visitation. The travelers have different motivations. Some crisscross the countryside with metal detectors, searching for gold as modern-day ‘49ers. Others are retired folks living in big, empty suburban homes who decided that the lifestyle of the rootless vagabond had been put off long enough. So, as in the case of one of the interviewees, they sold their homes, bought an RV (replete with all the modern amenities, of course) and set off to the pavement. Surprisingly, millions of people - yes millions - have decided to shed a static existence and live in an RV.
The documentary begins, innocently enough, as a record of this quirky, fringe group of people. But mid-way through the movie, the agenda of the film begins to noticeably change. It goes from being solely about this community of RV-ers, to being a commentary on the effects of sprawl on the American landscape and the homegenization of contemporary society. After this shift, the folks interviewed in the film seem endearingly naive - fully aware of the effects that both their RVs and their constant reliance on Wal-Marts have on the environment and on the quickly fading downtowns across America, yet unable to part with the convenience of it all, like children who just can’t let go of their security blankets.
The key word in most of the interviews in the documentary is, “freedom.” I’m not sure how many times the line, “It’s great having the freedom to pack up and go at a moment’s notice,” was spoken in the film, but it was more than a few. These people consider themselves contemporary pioneers. Not in any exploratory sense, but more like they are voluntarily living on the outside of modern society and viewing it through the eyes of a traveler, as opposed to the average citizen. But the irony lies in that this community, who claim to love the open road and the freedom that an itinerant life provides, has resigned itself to staying in Wal-Mart parking lots. The importance of This is Nowhere lies in its grave outlook on where our consumer culture is heading is we don’t become aware of our tendency to push ever outward and require more sprawl and more convenience.
The film intersperses interviews with shots of the effects Wal-Mart and these RVs have on the environment: clear-cut forests, garbage dumps, traffic, smog and a bland, suburban landscape of strip malls and ever-constant construction.
Sprawling songs One of the songs written before Mudd was even aware of the documentary, features lyrics particularly appropriate to the subject matter. The lines of “Nowheresville” are Mudd’s musings on the sprawl that occurred near his home in Shelby County.
“After they asked me for the use of my songs for This is Nowhere, I began to wade through raw footage and began writing a score,” Mudd explains. “I recorded that music a year ago and they put it where they felt it necessary. My job is to make sure I support them thematically with the music and, so far, I think we’ve achieved that objective.”
Mudd’s incidental music is a unique combination of jazz, blues, techno and ambient guitar-based instrumentals. He recorded the full-band music at Audiostate 55 Recording Studios and Denial Labs, both in Birmingham. Mudd employed several notable Birmingham musicians for his backing band, including acclaimed improvisational guitarist Davey Williams and Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge. For the ambient, instrumental music, Mudd recorded at his home studio.
When composing music for a film, Mudd says he relies more on intuition rather than focusing solely on writing a score. “When I watch the film, I try to get a feel for where a particular segment of the movie is trying to go,” he says. “For example, if there’s a logging truck driving down a lonely highway, I might have a certain emotional response. Then I look around the studio for something that might make a particular noise that will convey the feeling I get.”
Hawes-Davis believes that, musically, Ned Mudd can do anything. “He refuses to do the same thing twice,” Hawes-Davis says. “He’s visually oriented, which makes him great to work with on a film. Plus, he’s a great musician.” Hawes-Davis usually chooses to use independent musicians for a couple of reasons. First, he says, the cost of licensing the use of one pop song in a movie would surpass their entire budget. Second, he feels that employing independent musicians makes for a symbiotic relationship.
“The film is able to bring this music to a larger, more diverse audience,” Hawes-Davis says. “At the same time, they are providing us with some wonderful music for our film.” Other musicians used on the soundtrack include the now-defunct band, The Incontinentals, from Columbia, Missouri, who are friends are Hawes-Davis.
In terms of the intentions behind the film, Hawes-Davis says that he and Mudd are ideologically coming from the same place. “We are exporing the same things that we see in American culture,” he says. “Similar themes are evident in my movies and in his music.” During the collaboration, the two men talked a lot about the homogenization of American and the message they were both trying to get across.
“The filmmakers grabbed onto the idea that nowadays, because of sprawl and cookie-cutter shopping centers, anywhere you go in America, you can’t tell where you are, especially if you’re in a major city,” Mudd says. “The American city has lost its identity. And they found the exemplification of this in this group of people who latch onto Wal-Mart - the ultimate symbol of sprawl.”
As for future projects, Doug Hawes-Davis is working on another documentary, entitled Libby, Montana, about a community in Montana contaminated by asbestos byproduct from a nearby mine. Mudd has already started sending them music to be used in the film.