When is it time to demarcate a filmmaking “movement”? What if the filmmakers in this movement don’t want to be grouped into any kind of movement at all? And what if the films in this movement revolve around the crisis of self-definition? Could it get any worse for one of its members than to have to talk about feeling self-conscious about being in a movement?
It has been called, by some of its members, critics and fans, “mumblecore.” Amy Taubin, writing in Film Comment, attached this group to the “neo-slacker generation,” citing Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith as elder statesmen. Ray Pride has quoted Jamie Stuart who annointed them “Slackavettes.” South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) director Matt Dentler has passed on the term “bedhead cinema.”
If we’re going to generalize, we might say that generally these films are severely naturalistic portraits of the life and loves of artistic twentysomethings. The genre’s ultra-casual, low-fi style has been simmering for the last decade, made possible by the accessibility of DV and inspired as much by reality shows and YouTube confessionals as by earlier American independent cinema.
GRETA GERWIG IN HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS
But it was this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which was dominated by a tight-knit cadre of directors, that focused a public and critical spotlight on the movement. The blogs promptly went abuzz. The group was led by Joe Swanberg, whose Hannah Takes the Stairs premiered out of competition and who co-created the half dozen promotional shorts that screened before every film at SXSW. Produced at the behest of Dentler, the shorts were staged like outtakes from a fictional movie and were filmed on the real set of Hannah. Each film credits Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, Andrew Bujalski, Kent Osborne, Kevin Bewersdorf and Todd Rohal equally as co-creators. Significantly, most of the above list directed features that have screened at the festival, and many of their films starred the makers of the others.
Dentler calls Hannah Takes the Stairs “the dream team film.” The cast, also credited as co-writers, includes Duplass, Russo-Young and Gerwig. Russo-Young’s own feature, Orphans, premiered at the festival this year, and it garnered a Special Jury Prize. Duplass and his brother Jay made waves at last year’s festival with their co-directed feature The Puffy Chair. Gerwig, meanwhile, stars in the Duplass Brothers’ next feature, Baghead. Gerwig was also in Swanberg’s previous film LOL, playing the girlfriend of her actual boyfriend Chris Wells, who co-wrote it. Susan Buice, co-director of Four Eyed Monsters, is also in LOL. Swanberg is in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, which too premiered at SXSW this year. Michael Tully, director of SXSW entry Silver Jew, appears as well in Quiet City. When they are not attending Q&A sessions for their various premieres, Tully and Swanberg are filming a movie at all the festivals they attend in which they star as two indie-rock musicians in a band. Both directors are friends of Frank V. Ross, who shot some of LOL and cast Swanberg in his forthcoming Hohokam. For many more examples of this group’s interconnectedness and to learn about its other members, venture to MySpace.com and examine their cross-referenced lists of Top Friends.
The Hannah dream team also includes writer-director Andrew Bujalski, who co-stars as the eponymous protagonist’s smitten boss-turned-needy/aloof-boyfriend-turned-dumped boyfriend. Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation and its predecessor Funny Ha Ha are arguably the most critically lauded films of the bunch, the first to be in wide(er)spread theatrical release and the only ones shot on film. Bujalski has rightfully cited uneasiness with the reductivist nature of movement-defining exercises and expresses a weariness with comparing films to other films. Nevertheless, it was Bujalski, in an indieWIRE interview in 2005, who first publicized the term “mumblecore.” The phrase was apparently coined by his sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, at a bar during the SXSW festival.
“The real seminal meeting was SXSW in 2005,” Jay Duplass recalls. “It was Swanberg’s first festival ever, I think, with Kissing on the Mouth, and Bujalski was there with Funny Ha Ha, and us and the Four Eyed Monsters crew. Then we spent the whole year on the festival circuit, which meant [Mark and I] never saw our actual friends, but we were hanging out with Joe and Andrew and everyone else every single weekend at a different festival.”
“2005 came like a perfect storm,” says Dentler. “We had a wave of this sensibility in some Canadian films we programmed in 2001 and 2002, like Low Self-Esteem Girl, which sort of whetted our appetite for this kind of movie. I don’t think anybody realized that [these filmmakers] were similar enough to classify [them] as a ‘movement’ until everyone was all together in Austin [that year].”
LILY WHEELWRIGHT (LEFT) AND JAMES KATHARINE FLYNN IN ORPHANS
“If it’s going to be called a movement,” says Swanberg, “it’s important to stress that it’s not exclusive.” Adds Duplass, “It’s not like Dogme 95 or something, with a leader and rules.” In fact, while Rohal, Russo-Young and Tully might have worked as actors in Swanberg and Katz’s naturalistic films, so far their own directing styles are all very different. For instance, says Swanberg, “Ry’s movie Orphans is small, it’s about young people, but it’s very stylized and totally her own vision. Todd Rohal definitely has his own vision. Ti West [The Roost] is doing horror….Every festival some new cool person appears.”
Indeed, SXSW ’07 witnessed the debut of new cool person Ronnie Bronstein of Frownland, who told Filmmaker correspondent Durier Ryan, “I guess I’m sort of the bastard child of mumblecore, even though my film mumbles more than the others.”
Is it harmful to lump movies together? “Some people didn’t want to see our movie just because the description in festival handbooks had the word ‘twentysomething,’” says Four Eyed Monsters directors Buice and Arin Crumley, whose visually sophisticated picture is described by Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary as “pre-mumblecore, because [the protagonists] resolve not to talk.”
Concludes Swanberg, “The only rule is ‘No jerks allowed.’”
What are the criteria for inclusion (besides “No jerks”)? The first aesthetic indicators — and, it must be stressed, not all friends of mumblecore make films like this — are improvised dialogue and naturalistic performances, often by non-actors. The films employ handheld, vérité-style digital camerawork and long takes. Budgets are tiny. The plots hinge on everyday events. The stories are often obvious reflections of the filmmakers’ lives. Most characters are white and educated and pursue creative endeavors when not pursuing one another. They are sensitive. They are sincere.
A lot of tension ensues over the answering or non-answering of cell-phone calls. Characters frequently attend and perform in sparsely populated weeknight music shows. There is an abundance of road trips.
Technology is ever present. Four Eyed Monsters is the story of its directors, Buice and Crumley. The two met online and decided to fall in love without speaking to each other in person, only via texts, emails, notes and MySpace. Swanberg especially, in LOL most of all, gets deep inside the effort to communicate through thick layers of screens. The Puffy Chair’s entire plot is set in motion by a phony eBay listing, perhaps a metaphor for the characters’ interpersonal misrepresentations. The suitcase-clutching heroine of Quiet City arrives in Brooklyn completely stranded, betrayed by her cell phone, waiting throughout the entire film for a voice mail to tell her where to go. She stumbles into a real, live connection in the meantime.
Above all, mumblecore films are about trying to communicate.
“In the ’90s there was a lot of angst and navel-gazing,” says Andrew Grant, head of Benten Films, which has just acquired LOL for DVD distribution and has plans for others from this scene. “This is not that. It’s not ironic. [These filmmakers] are not trying to speak out for their generation. They had good, stable upbringings and are able to view their lives from a critical distance, without bitterness. I certainly couldn’t do that at 25, and I really admire it.”
The focus is on the intricacies — and these are intricate intricacies — of dating and relationships. Commitment is a big problem. The climax might come when a commitment — to a job, relationship or opinion — is forced upon a confused hero.
The choices are often between, shall we say, a squishy rock and a soft place.
AARON KATZ'S QUIET CITY
Aaron Katz, whose films Dance Party USA and Quiet City have both dealt with two near strangers tenuously choosing each other’s company, has become used to defending what some consider trite. “I’ve had people get really antagonistic at Q&A’s,” he says. “‘Why did you make this?’ They’re furious because the problems are so everyday and so small. But the small things seem big as they’re happening to you. Also, eventually the small things become big things, especially when you’re young.”
“Pretentious” being among the worst insults to lob at a twentysomething, personal truths are the ones these filmmakers feel best qualified to express. “I don’t feel like I have anything to say right now about the Iraq war,” says Swanberg. “The stories of my life and my friends’ lives are the ones I can tell most completely.” “All I’m trying to do is make an as-accurate-as-possible reflection of what I see around me,” says Katz.
Is the purpose of these personal films partly to help their directors figure out their own lives? The movie equivalent of writing a long, excruciating letter to someone that you never intend to send?
“It’s funny that everyone was making these movies about break-ups, and those same couples, who were basically playing themselves, are actually married or engaged to each other now,” muses Swanberg. Mark Duplass and Kathryn Aselton, whose characters in The Puffy Chair finally give up on a doomed relationship, tied the knot last year. Swanberg’s artistic preoccupation with seduction belies the fact that he himself has dated the same girl (now fiancée) for seven years — just like his engaged commitment-swami character in Katz’s Quiet City. She (Kris Williams) appears in almost all his films.
MARK (LEFT) AND JAY DUPLASS
“There is some demon-exorcising going on, sure,” says Jay Duplass. And why not? Isn’t that the purest, least commercially compromised reason to make art — to try to understand something that you want to understand?
For Swanberg, “it’s about taking aspects of yourself that you like the least and amplifying them. In making the movies, we really try to expose all our issues, whatever is hardest to deal with. I’m always playing jerks, and it still definitely comes from autobiography. It’s useful to watch later and remind myself, like ‘Don’t be that guy.’”
They can see why some people feel affronted by their work. The Duplass brothers used to have Q&A audiences raise their hands in support of one character or another, a dangerously divisive exercise. (“We noticed that it was always the girls who were very, very angry at Kathryn’s character [in The Puffy Chair], for being ‘needy.’”) Swanberg says he has “come to understand that not everyone enjoys watching a version of themselves onscreen. It’s pretty awful for them. They’re going to the movies to escape.” No one ever said this was escapism.
Highly personal art is a huge gamble — it’s easy for a critic to dismiss it as narcissistic or indulgent. But that’s the bet you make when you decide to express yourself, and this wave is doing it “for the right reasons,” argues Anish Savjani, producer of Hannah Takes the Stairs and several upcoming films by this group. “They aren’t making these films for money, or to get into Hollywood. It’s pure, it’s honest, it’s collaborative, and it’s a process they’re developing film by film.”
After two years on the road promoting The Puffy Chair, Jay Duplass has developed some insight into this process. “I made some really terrible movies after college, and it was very hard to keep going,” he says. “Now I see that nothing worked until I finally quit trying to make movies like other people. We started making these shorts, which were just us making fun of ourselves, and suddenly people responded. The Puffy Chair was a complete accident, or it came out of a process of seeing that the accidents were what we had to offer. It wasn’t until we tapped into the private, weird stuff that the script started to soar.”
“How much of the movie was improvised?” is asked by every audience at every Q&A. Bujalski, in an essay on Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney’s Web site, likens a screenplay to being “approximately as useful as sheet music would be toward signing a rock band.” Most describe a fully formed script which serves as an erasable blueprint, each scene adhering to it differently. Swanberg appears to be on the furthest edge of scriptlessness, and he is the first to say that he tries “to direct as little as possible.” Says Russo-Young, who appears in Hannah, “Joe got us all together living in this house in Chicago for a month, filming everything. It’s not my approach, but I think he deserves more credit — naturalistic acting is fairly easy, but making it interesting, or getting the interesting parts out, is very hard.” Says Swanberg, “I’ve definitely seen some very positive reviews that are still dismissive, like ‘Through no fault of their own, Joe and friends have stumbled upon a gem.’” They point out that the good parts of a movie are not usually good by accident.
“There’s a general outline,” elaborates Rohal about Swanberg’s method. “He’ll say, ‘This is the scene where…,’ but I think his films very much come together in the editing. We’re all credited as writers for a reason.” Buice and Crumley faced a maelstrom of bitterness when, on the eve of Four Eyed Monsters’ Slamdance premiere, several collaborators came forward demanding ‘additional directing’ credit. They detailed the ensuing breakdown in their popular video podcasts. When your life is your movie and your movie is your life, and thus your collaborators are your friends, and you are not a jerk, issues of authorship can get thorny. It seems there is some confusion in the audience as to how accurate an autobiographical movie can really be — for the story to work, the character of ‘self’ still has to function like it would in a purely fictional narrative.
Still, some don’t like the idea of everyone being encouraged to make movie adaptations of their diaries. The critical and commercial success of self-reflexive stories, this opinion goes, will squelch any incentive for young filmmakers to investigate the outside world. Imagination is trumped by Accuracy, and the iPods glow brighter as Cinema flickers dimly into an empty theater.
Critic Peary became an early champion of Bujalski’s work after watching an early VHS copy of Funny Ha Ha the director had mailed to him. He supports the intentions of Swanberg and his peers but is wary of throwing around references to classic arthouse cinema. “Comparisons to Cassavetes, Rohmer, Eustache — I don’t know where some critics get this stuff,” he comments. “Eustache’s movie [1973’s The Mother and the Whore, linked to Mutual Appreciation by the New York Times] is an intense death trip. In Cassavetes’s [films], the stakes are much higher. I think these [movies] work when they work, and even with such low stakes, because there are still big emotions and grand moments. Anguish. Being 24 is a faraway memory, but I can still relate to the feeling of going from party to party, when a whole night doesn’t make any sense.”
“There is no question that many of these filmmakers have watched and found inspiration in [the same older filmmakers, like] Cassavetes,” says Harvard Film Archives curator Ted Barron. (When pressed about filmic inspiration, some in the mumblecore crew confess to influences ranging from Cassavetes to Gus Van Sant’s Gerry-Elephant-Last Days trilogy to Antonioni and Tarkovsky. Others, cheerfully cite BBC’s The Office as their primary reference.) Barron, turned on by Carney to the quiet world beyond alumnus Bujalski, filled Harvard’s 2005 New American Independents program with films from this group, including Swanberg’s early Kissing on the Mouth and Frank V. Ross’s Quietly On By. “I am always careful about the Cassavetes reference because there is a general misunderstanding about the degree to which Cassavetes used improvisation,” continues Barron. “I think the more appropriate connection to Cassavetes is not so much in the content of the films but rather their means of production and distribution. These directors are making their own rules, creating their own models for how films can be produced and seen by audiences. That is the true spirit of Cassavetes: forget everything you already know, be truthful (no matter how much it hurts) and create something that matters.”
When the 23-year-old protagonist of Funny Ha Ha sits down to make a to-do list for her life, “Spend more time outdoors” tops it. Ambitions range among these directors. Some are pursuing John Sayles–style freelance Hollywood jobs and potential directing assignments, foremost Bujalski, who is reportedly adapting the novel Indecision for Scott Rudin. Swanberg, however, intends to stay small (at least for now). “Part of why I want to stick to these really small stories,” he says, “is that there are a lot of places to communicate history or politics — documentaries, the news, novels. I think film is the best, maybe only, way that you can show the smallest parts of human interaction. I enjoy that I’m using this medium for what only it can do.” After meetings upon meetings in Hollywood and with several deals on the table, the Duplass brothers vow to keep a small film, “one we can just grab a camera and shoot ourselves with our friends,” in their back pocket at all times. (When one producer e-mailed them to follow up on their horror comedy Baghead, they told him that they had just finished making the film themselves.)
The MySpace generation” is an unfortunate but tempting add to the list of possible labels for this movement. In fact, however, MySpace and the real-life social networking it reflects are a big part of this story. Swanberg and Ross are in Chicago; the Duplass brothers are from Austin and now live in L.A.; others are in Boston and New York and everyone is starting to travel more and more. “The great thing is I can cast Jay [Duplass] in my movie and not only get him in the movie but get him to Chicago to hang out for three days,” says Swanberg, who indeed cast the elder Duplass as his own older brother in the forthcoming Nights and Weekends, a film Swanberg decided to shoot immediately after the production of Hannah. Producer Savjani says, “Sometimes I think Joe just goes to festivals to hang out with his friends.”
Friendships are forged only through aligned tastes and shared interests, something the Internet enables to a previously unimagined degree. It is an nth dimension where all that brings you together is an overlapping list of favorite things. The future holds the power to harness this tool of like-mindedness.
“The problem with movies is that they’re so expensive, you have to compromise to appeal to the Wide Audience,” says Rohal. “They should be like indie bands, where the people who like it will find it, like browsing a record store.” Functional models of direct distribution, like downloadable movies on a standardized system of media publishing (the so-called Web 3.0) will presumably make this dream come true. Many screenings of The Guatemalan Handshake have come about entirely through the efforts of individuals who MySpaced Rohal from universities or far-flung European cities, wondering where they could see it. “I tell them to have their college or whoever put on a screening, and they go out and do it.”
Can the films of these non-Jerks make money? Does the mumblecore method herald a new manner of self-sustaining cinema? “DIY filmmaking is not new,” points out Tom Quinn of Magnolia Pictures. “DIY distribution is a whole other thing, but again, trying to defy traditional norms of distribution — in my short purview that’s what independent film is about.” “Distribution deals aren’t really necessary,” says Crumley, “although [distribution] is a lot of work to do yourself. We’ve gotten a lot of offers from garage-basement distributors who want to buy the DVD rights for $15,000 — we just started selling it direct on our Web site and have already made $10,000.” In November, Nerve.com told Swanberg that his original Web series Young American Bodies had 600,000 hits. Meanwhile sales of his features on DVD are actually rising steadily over time, into the thousands, against his distributor’s predictions and without his films so far being theatrically released.
To be sure, these remain “niche marketplace” numbers. But “the traditional barometer for success doesn’t apply really,” says Quinn, “because no one has yet monetized, say, video podcast downloads.” Quinn believes that new revenue models that might benefit filmmakers like Swanberg are on the horizon. “We are watching the system change drastically,” he says.
The distribution exec concludes by noting the charmingly relaxed attitude these filmmakers have towards some of the traditional barometers of indie-film success. “I think these films are made with some hint to an anachronistic look at theatrical distribution,” Quinn says. “They speak to me of, like, getting together with your friends in a basement with drinks and no rules and no jerks. And that’s not new media.”
Maybe the power to find more and more of your favorite things — the perfect made-to-order fit in art, music, films and people — can cut you off from the uncomfortable and the new. But then there is the supreme joy of finding someone who goes crazy for the same stuff you go crazy for. It is the pursuit of this joy that everyone is mumbling about.
Remembers Katz, “I saw Kissing on the Mouth at SXSW and just thought it was great.” Great because it was like his movie? “No, that didn’t even occur to me when I saw it. I just really liked it. Then everyone was in the same bar after the screenings, and I guess the rest is history.”