Between Thought and Expression, NYC Mumblecore, The IFC Center, August 22-September 4
In the crucial scene of Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, Hannah (Greta Gerwig), a recent college graduate and uncertain creative professional, reveals herself to a coworker and subsequent lover, confessing her romantic indecision, her professional anxiety, and her unpindownable sense of malaise. But rather than a cathartic breakthrough, Gerwig’s (semi-improvised) big scene is nearly inarticulate: between sobs, she speaks haltingly, drops eye contact, fiddles with her hands, and resorts to clichés.
The often wracking struggle to bridge the gap between interior experience and exterior expression is the central concern of the IFC Center’s “The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y.” series, a survey of the so-called “Mumblecore” movement. As recent state-of-the-zeitgeist pieces in Filmmaker magazine, the Village Voice, New York Times, and elsewhere have noted, mumblecore is very much a scene: the filmmakers know each other and appear in each others’ movies (Hannah’s first two romantic involvements are played by Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski, directors whose work appears in the IFC series), and are fixtures at the annual South By Southwest Film Festival. (It was at SXSW ’05 that Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, jokingly coined the term “mumblecore.”)
Technology enables these social-network productions: the films are cheaply made (with the exception of Bujalski, all the directors shoot on video), and often marketed and distributed via online means. It’s perhaps all these technological tools that spur the films’ self-conscious conversations: mumblecore comes of a time when personal visibility is at an all-time high, and face-to-face interaction is at an all-time low. In Swanberg’s LOL, characters consistently choose cell phone, IM, or email interactions over exchanges with the person sitting next to them.
The difficulty of achieving emotional straightforwardness in direct conversation dominates the genre. Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA, with its July 4th timeframe and lost-in-America ambience, is a usefully archetypal case study: its characters drink to say what they want to say, then find themselves too drunk to say it; they fall back on learned attitudes to get through conversation, and seem at their most harmonious when cocooned by night drives or headphones.
The characters in Dance Party, USA are teenagers, but, as the two protagonists of Katz’s Quiet City say, give or take a few stammers: “You hope that we’re gonna grow up…” “That we’ll grow up, and be able to not freak out, when it starts to get, you know, intense…” Mumblecore’s twentysomethings are adrift in the extended American adolescence, sinking deeper into couches. They’re reluctantly professional, with artistic leanings (music, filmmaking, and art, or some scaled-down, compromised version thereof, are the default fields), their ambition hamstrung by indecisiveness.
The IFC series, having drawn the collective attention of New York’s critical community, has the sense of a grand summing-up; it’s most appropriate epitaph, then, may be the early declaration by the stuttering narrator of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji – 1976): “My stuttering… is like a key to the door that separates my inner world from the world outside, and I have never known that key to turn smoothly in its lock.” What we got here is… failure to communicate.
Not that this is anything new: each generation’s obstacles to interpersonal intimacy provide the subject for much of its lasting thought and art, whether the obstacle be Victorian behavioral codes or postwar plasticity. Mostly recently, and demographically adjacent, the 90s Amerindies of Noah Baumbach and his ilk portrayed the missed connections of overeducated, overmannered, oversocialized postcollegiates; Kicking and Screaming’s paralyzed hyperarticulates could be on the receiving end of The Hold Steady’s admonishment to John Berryman: “You’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.”
Now, though, words are something else: in an era (and, for the mumblecore directors, a filmmaking climate) of unprecedented self-consciousness, the defensive devices of irony, qualifiers and caveats pepper speech patterns. Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, the first two films by Andrew Bujalski, mumblecore’s first and still brightest star, are frequently referred to as “comedies of manners.” And they are, in senses both contemporary—how to act at an awkward, underpopulated party?—and classical: his plots are rife with love triangles, flirtations, attractions alluded to but not acted on, and impulse marriages; his characters agonize over potential infidelities as much as anyone in Edith Wharton (or at least Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.) The subject of Bujalski’s films remains communication and interaction.
Hannah Takes the Stairs, however, is a study of Hannah’s self-knowledge and self-expression, so it’s necessarily a more navel-gazing work. Not infrequently, the filmmakers mirror the knee-jerk self-defense of their characters: in the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair, the treatment of the character played by Mark Duplass is so pervasively, automatically critical—his behavior in difficult situations, romantic and otherwise, so inevitably self-regarding, passive-aggressive, and oblivious—that it’s not actually honest. Mumblecore frequently risks fallacy of imitative form criticisms; it’s hard to make a film about self-absorption or inarcticulacy without succumbing to it.
There is also the question of aesthetics: Swanberg also directs an online “indie soap opera” called Young American Bodies (youngamericanbodies.com), and his feature films, with their extreme close-ups of people talking and/or fucking, play much better at 320 pixels by 240 pixels. Shooting on video, often with an amateur crew, it’s easy to assume that there is a set D.I.Y. aesthetic. This goes along with the ingrained assumption of an inverse relationship between aesthetic and formal polish and emotional “truth”—an absurd notion even without the scare quotes.
As the mumblecore directors have grown up, though, they’ve become more attuned to the world around them. The hi-def autumnal hues and street light glow of Katz’s Quiet City—like stepping out the party for some fresh air—mark it as the series’ most visually interested, and interesting, entry. With its F train transposition of Before Sunrise—a visitor and a Park Slope homebody unexpectedly spend a platonic weekend together—it’s also the purest exploration of communication. At first, Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau) strain to keep their conversation going with anecdotes gently ironic silliness; soon, perhaps because it’s easier to be frank about your life with somebody who isn’t in it, they’re candidly discussing their romantic fears. Quiet City has its share of mumblecore moments—currents of worry about long-term relationships, or making it in the city, are pointedly just below the surface—but more than any other films in the movement, it’s hopeful about the possibility of the characters’ ability to unlock the doors between each other. Towards the end of the film, Jamie and Charlie ride the G train home from a party; sleepily, she puts her head on his shoulder like a character out of Wong Kar-wai. It is, finally, a moment of connection, two people letting words fade away.
Mark Asch is the Film Editor of The L Magazine. He lives in Bed-Stuy.