First, the 16mm New Wave; then the super-8 No Wave; and now, an American film movement, based on DV, with a name that might belong to one of Harry Potter’s friends: It’s Mumblecore!
Not much movie magic here: A recent college grad casually breaks up with her boyfriend, has a brief office affair, and then embarks upon another. At one point, she goes on location to the beach; in the big emotional scene, she tearfully confesses suffering from “chronic dissatisfaction.” Hannah Takes the Stairs, the third feature by 26-year-old Joe Swanberg, is something like the Mumblecore equivalent Gone With the Wind.
Swanberg’s film gets a theatrical run, starting Wednesday, August 22 as part of the IFC Center’s two-week festival of micro-indie New Talkies (a/k/a Generation DIY, a/k/a Cine Slackavetes, a/k/a MySpace Neo-Realism, a/k/a Mumblecore), a movement which coalesced two years ago when Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (a response, he’s said, to Bujalski’s 2002 Funny Ha Ha), and the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair premiered at South by Southwest; over the next 18 months, these home-made, low-key comedy-dramas of 20-something angst, along with related films like Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA (a comedy-drama about teen-something angst), began turning up in New York (mainly at the Two Boots Pioneer), while critical fave Funny Ha Ha achieved something like cult status.
Funny Ha Ha established the template. Set in a post-graduate milieu, it drew heavily on Bujalski’s college confreres, using nonprofessionals to portray a small galaxy of awkwardly diffident young people—the most obnoxious loser played by the filmmaker. While following Bujalski’s lead in constructing narrative and characterization out of constant chatter and a succession of uninflected moments, subsequent Mumblecormedies eschewed 16mm for DV, became even more doc-like (most are half shot in close-up), and presented themselves as collectively-scripted enterprises with cast and crew often identical. According to Swanberg, everyone shared the same Chicago apartment during the making of Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Typically running a compact 80 minutes, these movies are disarmingly pragmatic, full of abrupt cuts and choppy inserts. Acting is mainly a coping mechanism. The characters in Hannah alternate between unconscious and self-conscious and that’s the charm. Embarrassment rules: In one typical interaction, Hannah (Greta Gerwig) contrives to have her ostensive boss (the ever-creepy Bujalski) come up to her cramped apartment where, squeezed in with her roommate on the couch, she fixes him with her pale hazel eyes and asks, “Do you think I’m doing OK at work?”
Thriving on the modest truth of clumsy mishaps and incoherent riffs, fueled by a combination of narcissism and diffidence, Mumblecore reflects sensibilities formed by The Real World (our life is a movie) and Seinfeld (constant discourse), as well as The Blair Witch Project (DIY plus Internet). Of course, Mumblecorps members prefer to cite Dogma or Gus Van Sant, who cast his upcoming mega-Mumble Paranoid Park through MySpace. That the filmmakers often appear on screen gives their movies a psychodramatic edge. In his youthful Flesh of Morning, Stan Brakhage made a self-starring poem on masturbation; half a century later in Kissing on the Mouth, Swanberg presents himself ejaculating in the shower and brazenly flirts with porn. Kissing opens with its heroine (Kate Winterich) and her ex-boyfriend engaged in startlingly naturalistic intercourse—the movie’s premise is her inability to give up these afternoon trysts, much to the discomfort of an adoring male roommate (Swanberg).
The denizens of Mumblecordia are often failed musicians or would-be writers. Joblessness is rife. Hannah refers to her boyfriend’s newly unemployed status as “the step-up of him pursuing nothing.” Without apparent work or ambition (other than to appear in this movie), Kissing’s protagonist is the quintessential Swanberg character. In his 2006, largely-improvised follow-up, LOL, three guys are more involved with various cyber-relations than with any human at hand.
Swanberg maps a system based on cell phones, instant messaging, websites (with Kissing’s Winterich self-reflexively playing an internet sex symbol) and YouTube, to suggest a virtual world more compelling than the real one. Reviewing LOL sympathetically last summer in the New York Times, Nathan Lee noted that “the impact of technology on social relations has received subtler analysis elsewhere (see the films of David Cronenberg.)” True enough, but Swanberg’s satire might be better appreciated as a critique of the fanboy fantasy world celebrated by Judd Apatow.
Mumblecore is demographically self-contained. Straight, white, middle class. The movies suggest college, without the course load. There are almost no grown-ups—which is to say anyone over 30. One exception is The Puffy Chair, a road movie in which the foundering Josh (played by co-director Mark Duplass) sets off with his needy girlfriend (played by Duplass’s eventual wife, Kathryn Aselton) to present his dad with an eBay purchased simulacrum of a La-Z-Boy recliner he once enjoyed. Their casually ludicrous misadventures, most involving two-dimensional authority figures, are compounded once Josh’s neo-hippie brother joins the expedition that, in essence, strips the upholstery off the couple’s comfy, dysfunctional relationship.
Whether breaking up or hooking up, Mumblecordians spend much time pondering what to do and say. One of Hannah’s most dramatic scenes has the protag and her boyfriend (Mark Duplass) wondering whether they should make love but not knowing what to do instead. As if to underline the pervasive fog of ambivalence, the centerpiece of Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA, made when the director was 24, is a July 4th fete where no one’s dancing. For most characters, it appears to be the summer between high school and college although this is never discussed.
Katz’s fondness for the almost oxymoron can be seen in the title of his 2007 Quiet City. Sweeter than Dance Party, USA, it concerns a young woman who visits New York (swell, naturally shaky camera work on the subway) who fortuitously meets a guy (unemployed, natch) in a cavernous IND station. Because she’s stranded, they spend a lot of time hanging out together. There’s a funny discussion of wine as it’s consumed from metal mugs, but this is no Before Sunrise; the meet-cute is something more behavioral. Katz is less interested in wit than shifting emotional states and his concern is contagious. As in Hannah or The Puffy Chair, tension is less a function of narrative than a perpetual state of being.
Mumblecore’s compulsive navel-gazing, paucity of external references, and narrow field of interest is not for every taste—as Sam Fuller told a French journalist who asked him about Rebel Without a Cause, “I hate these adolescents and their problems.” Like, who doesn’t—although, seeing these films, I regret no one was on hand to fashion art from the stoned blather or communal shenanigans of Viet-era twenty-somethings.
These movies may be self-absorbed—but what else could a self-portrait be? Hannah is writing a play about Kant and Newton as 13-year-old boys, which could be how Swanberg views himself and his peers. The least to be said for Bujalski, Swanberg, Katz et al is that they are confronting the conditions of their lives, including making their movies. It’s impossible to predict how the Mumblecorps will mature but, given their immersion in the moment, I suspect that the films they’ve made will age very well.