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Jaime Wolf on Mumblecore

"It's rare to watch a movie and believe it could have been made by one of the characters in it, but mumblecore films have a documentary intimacy and rawness, a level of self-examination that feels new."


Mumblecore-the label attached to the current wave of lo-fi, micro-budget American indie films about 20-somethings-is a somewhat misleading term. Hearing it, one thinks of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, or Michael Stipe, interring comprehensibility deep in the mix on R.E.M.'s first records. But mumblecore movies are actually quite voluble, their soundtracks a series of halting announcements, doubtful questions, proclamations fueled by false confidence, drunken blurtations, and sad confessions. Making eloquent use of inarticulacy, films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Mutual Appreciation happen to be precise (and to the extent of their precision, thrilling) depictions of post-collegiate flailing. They are set in a world populated by overeducated, unaccomplished, chronically ambivalent people who are starting to take grown-up jobs but still need a roommate to pay the rent; whose unfocused ambition and vague sense of artistic integrity propel them to pursue creative endeavors, even as they remain mystified by how a book might actually get published or a CD get made.It's rare to watch a movie and believe it could have been made by one of the characters in it, but mumblecore films have a documentary intimacy and rawness, a level of self-examination that feels new.They're products of the thinner art/life membrane that affordable digital production tools have made possible, and which the imperatives of self-presentation on Facebook, blogs, and MySpace have made ubiquitous. Of course, it's not all new. The dialogue in J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey is pure mumblecore; so are the conversational erotics in Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's and the characters' ditherings in his Boyfriends and Girlfriends; the perpetual hangout milieu of Richard Linklater's Slacker; and the diaristic songs chronicling Liz Phair's sexual, emotional, and relationship crises on her album Exile In Guyville.The handful of young directors actively cultivating this aesthetic have accumulated buzz on the festival circuit, but the selection earlier this year of Hannah Takes the Stairs, the third feature by the prolific 26-year-old Chicago auteur Joe Swanberg, for national distribution (as part of IFC's First Take series, which offered the film via OnDemand parallel to its art-house run in selected cities), represents a breakthrough moment. A small miracle of close observation, Hannah follows its title character-played by the New York-based playwright Greta Gerwig in an effervescent star-making performance reminiscent of the young, Woody Allen era Diane Keaton-as she makes her way through three different boyfriends over the course of a summer.Swanberg and the 29-year-old, Boston-based Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha) are mumblecore's leading lights. Bujalski is a writer of subtle grace, the only director of the bunch whose movies contain quotable lines. In contrast, Swanberg barely writes at all, evolving stories in close collaboration with his actors, who extemporize scenes while the camera rolls. He has found that in such situations, nonprofessional actors start drawing on their own autobiographies, discovering and contributing intimate, even mortifying material that Swanberg can then fold into his scenario (typically, all of the actors in his films also receive a writing credit). What this lacks in literary wit, it more than repays in terms of emotional revelation. Swanberg's work is also noteworthy for its explicit presentation of contemporary sexuality-the daisy-chaining hookups of the characters in his Nerve.com web series Young American Bodies feel like a series of American Apparel ads come to life, while LOL (which also features Gerwig, in a series of arrestingly emo phone-cam pix and voicemail monologues) is a pitiless examination of a trio of guys whose obsession with elusive relationships conducted via cell phone and computer sabotages their chances with the flesh-and-blood hotties who are actually interested in them.Embracing mumblecore demands a willingness to forgive a certain cinematic inelegance-wonky sound mixes, awkward acting, uneven, rushed, or unremarkable composition and editing-and to indulge sometimes exasperating, acutely self-conscious characters as they figure out their way, seemingly in real time. When it all works, this rough-hewn approach to situations that don't admit easy answers makes more slickly self-congratulatory Hollywood versions of the same material-Garden State, say-feel just about worthless.It says something about the evolution of film's place in our culture that 13 years ago, Kevin Smith could make the semi-competent mumblecore movie Clerks (wisecracking script, wildly uneven acting, and Smith's stunted camera sense-which has persisted through all his movies even when Oscar-winning cinematographers shoot for him) and get a career out of it, while Hannah Takes the Stairs so far has yet to earn $100,000, and Swanberg continues to be supported by his wife's salary as a public high school teacher. "I'm still sitting in Chicago wondering how I'm going to buy groceries," he recently told The Chicago Reader. "I'm not getting phone calls from agents or studios saying, ‘What are you up to?'" (Bujalski is-he's been hired by producer Scott Rudin to write a script adapted from Benjamin Kunkel's novel Indecision.)It's a classic mumblecore dilemma-deciding how to proceed in a world of diminished possibilities and expectations. And while you can only wish a happy Hollywood ending for Swanberg, and Bujalski and other directors in the genre, such as the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair) and Aaron Katz (Quiet City), you also have to hope that dedicated artists with such idiosyncratic talent continue to remain as far away from Hollywood as possible.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n

Mumblecore through the ages:

\nJ.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Little, Brown and Company)The original mumblecore text; a spiritual quest framed as a series of lengthy conversations, alternately exasperating and riveting, about academics, poetry, theater, ambition, literature, faith, sentimentality, ego, holiness, and, most important, how to separate the phony from the authentic.
\nEric Rohmer, Boyfriends and GirlfriendsBlanche, a young City Hall bureaucrat, befriends a computer-science student named Lea, who tries to fix her up with her boyfriend's friend-only Blanche finds herself attracted to the boyfriend, while Lea develops a thing for the friend. Trivial and self-centered, these characters can be stupid and shallow and annoying … and yet, in the end, incredibly, radiantly human.
\nLiz Phair, Exile In GuyvilleThe lo-fi, livejournal-style indie rock version of a Joe Swanberg movie, Phair seeks self-knowledge via a diaristic series of regrettable hookups, disappointing boyfriends, unattainable fantasies, false hopes, fleeting erotic fulfillment, and meditations on the dichotomy between observer and participant.
\nAndrew Bujalski, Mutual AppreciationSeeking new bandmates, Alan, an indie-rocker from Boston, relocates to Brooklyn and causes tension between his best friend and the best friend's girlfriend. Another friend's impending wedding starts to feel increasingly ominous as Alan's dad keeps calling, ever so reasonably suggesting that Alan get a job. One boozy night after a gig, Alan looks into the eye of the aging former music-biz insider who has offered to help, and asks, "Do you want me to end up like you?"
\nJoe Swanberg, Hannah Takes the StairsOver the course of a sweltering Chicago summer, an aspiring playwright named Hannah dumps her boyfriend and takes up with one, and then another, of the writers she's assisting on a web-based video show. A collection of carefully husbanded moments combine with a star-making performance by Greta Gerwig in the most exhilarating mumblecore picture to date.
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