Monday, July 5, 2010

Yap Off: Mumblecore

Austin Lugar and Sam Watermeier have argued about film for years now. Instead of just keeping it to themselves, they’re bringing it to the Yap. You’re welcome! Today’s topic is mumblecore.

Austin: For the past few years a new trend has popped up in the independent film movement. It's been coined "mumblecore". The name came from that a lot of the dialog is low audio quality and realistic dialog so it sounds like most of the characters are mumbling. A lot of new voices have come out of this movement like Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, and The Duplass Brothers. The latter have a new film out called Cyrus so that's enough of an excuse for us to duke it out the quality of this new trend. Before we start that, let's actually figure out what we're discussing. So what you you say mumblecore is, Sam?

Sam: Mumblecore is a genre of intimacy, of films that make you a fly on the wall. They are Altmanesque ensemble character studies, told in the language of overheard conversations. These films are unlike other "realistic" indie flicks in that all of their characters feel like they are of the same universe. The aspiring Hollywoodites in Baghead could be friends with the experimental filmmakers in Humpday, for example. The characters in these films share desperation to do something bold with their lives, whether it is breaking into film stardom through extreme measures (Baghead), exploring the possibilities and limits of friendship (Humpday) or testing the strength of a romantic relationship (The Puffy Chair).

In a way, mumblecore films are concept movies. Take Humpday for instance. Two longtime male friends test the limits of friendship and art by making a porn film, in which they would star. Or Baghead — life imitates art when a group of aspiring filmmakers are terrorized by a slasher they invented. Or the upcoming Cyrus — a divorced man meets the woman of his dreams, but her grown son may sabotage their relationship. These films can be summed up in one sentence, but they transcend their concepts with intimate character exploration.

Austin: Ha. See this is where you romanticize the genre and I need to bring you down. First off, calling it Altmanesque is a bit much. There may be some of his touches, but his films are more structured than what is going on in this movement. This leads into more of my issues with mumblecore. It reminds me too much of the 90s independent movement. I see them looking at those films and then not adding enough to make them their own.

The Puffy Chair is the best example of this problem. Throughout the entire film I see the Jim Jarmusch's influences even to a point of them blatantly ripping off one of the key scenes from Stranger Than Paradise. The only thing I'm attributing to this genre is really pushing my limits of how tolerable I can find these characters. I praise them for really tapping into realistic performances, but the flaws of these people becomes overwhelming. I wanted the characters from Baghead to be killed off more than I have for any slasher film characters. (If you say, "that's the point" I may have to punch you in the nose.) Rarely have I liked and rooted for their characters and I think that's a real problem. That has only happened for me in Humpday and Nights and Weekends so far.

So I'll pose my problems to you, Sam. Why do I find these characters intolerable and yet I'm entranced by the similar rambling characters from the French New Wave? I have my theory, but I'll like to hear you defend them.

Sam: I'll admit that most mumblecore characters are challenging and not easily likable. I think that's a result of their inherently selfish motivations. Like I mentioned earlier, they share desperation to do something bold with their lives, but their goals only involve themselves. You have to remember that most of these movies are about young people and most young people think the universe revolves around them.

I think you're more engaged by the similar characters of the French New Wave because they exude romanticism, they're cool. While they are genuinely poetic, the mumblecore characters are merely desperate to be poetic or impressive. The French New Wave characters are who we want to be and the mumblecore characters are who we are.

The New Wave characters may be equally self-indulgent, but they exist in a more romantic setting and their free-flowing lifestyles are more attractive. Perhaps this is also a result of their films' visual style. These characters are lit beautifully whereas the mumblecore characters are presented in a raw, honest light. Perhaps the gritty realism of the mumblecore films is the dealbreaker when it comes to whether you like them or not.

Austin: Can we still use realism in this case? Yes the selfishness and desperation of these characters are more in tune with reality than 80% of the standard Hollywood creations, but it's still a stylistic choice they're making. They are choosing not to have enjoyable aspects of many of these characters. At least in the world I live in, people are more naturally entertaining than the ones depicted here.

Let's bring up my favorite film of all time: Kicking and Screaming. This is the Noah Baumbach film from the 90s (Not the Will Ferrel disaster) and it focuses on a group of characters that are stuck in a rut after they graduate from college. They are all pathetic characters; some of them can't even get a book club to function. Yet through that movie I was constantly entertained. A bit of it was the romantic nature you talk about with the French New Wave movies, but it still showed their flaws. There was sympathy with them and by the end you wanted them to be able to involve.

With mumblecore they are purposefully removing that sympathy in order for a more challenging ride. It's getting to the point with me where it's almost like watching a movie where someone gets hit with a hammer over and over again. Then it becomes critically praised because "That's exactly what would happen if someone was hit over and over again with a hammer. How realistic." Where is the entertainment?

Sam: I think the entertainment lies more in the suspenseful dazzle of the films' concepts than the challenging nature of their characters. The you-are-there immediacy of these films adds to that suspenseful dazzle The appeal of Humpday, for example, is the anticipation with which you await whether these two heterosexual characters will engage in homosexual, pornographic activity for the sake of art — and the sake of being brave. The film is a dramedy, but it has the power of an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Baghead and The Puffy Chair also have that white-knuckle power. However, I suppose they will not work if you're not engaged by the characters. I think these mumblecore filmmakers are trying to balance their heightened concepts with realistic, morally ambiguous, challenging characters (the characters in Humpday are more sympathetic). Perhaps these films would be more effective if the characters were more heightened. But then they wouldn't be mumblecore films anymore, they would be broad comedies. So, the appeal comes from the way these films put ordinary people in heightened situations, revealing their warts-and-all.

I don't know if that completely answers your question, though...

Austin: It sorta answers my question. I just think with what we've seen so far the experiments haven't been interesting enough. I think it's headed in a better direction though. You've praised Humpday and I'm right there with you. Its premise is fantastic and the movie does a lot of great stuff with it. You mention the idea of these movies almost being broad comedies. What do you think about the actors who we are seeing in the latest Duplass Brothers movies? With Cyrus, it isn't Mark Duplass as the hero but John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. Their next movie, Jeff Who Lives At Home, has a cast featuring Jason Segal, Judy Greer, and Ed Helms.

Despite being very disappointed with Baghead and The Puffy Chair, I think this is a step in the right direction. These are well-trained comedic actors who are good at improvisation. I think they can bring forth a compelling movie while making it more entertaining than the previous rounds of mumbling. I don't think this will turn into a Woody Allen movie where everyone becomes the wittiest person in the room. I think characters can still be funny and "realistic."

Or are they just selling out?

Sam: I think these more recognizable actors will only help the genre. Mumblecore filmmakers would only be selling out if they moved in the direction of mainstream broad comedy. With Cyrus, the intimacy and indie sensibility of the mumblecore genre seems to still be intact. I look forward to this film — and the future of this genre.

Austin: It'll be interesting to see how long this genre will really last. I'm glad we live in a day and age where it's relatively easy to make a movie. People can go out and find cameras and make something special. I just hope that the next wave of independent film will focus more on the stories because I think that is what makes these films stronger. Humpday is an easy pitch because it's such a fascinating concept. You can have fascinating character development within a great story. So despite my strong negativity, I think there is a little bit of hope. Maybe.

So what does everybody else think about mumblecore? Are you a fan? What are your favorite films? Do you side more with Austin or Sam? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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