Tuesday, March 17, 2009

LOL

There's a growing mumble in movieland. Though "mumblecore," the movement (genre? grab-bag?) of no-budget features crafted by twentysomething auteurs and usually dealing with relationships, has been around since 2002, it has mostly been under-the-radar. I myself first heard about these films (which have not been coming to a theater near you) a few years ago in a Village Voice article chronicling a retrospective of the mumblecore canon (these filmmakers work so fast that in the five or so years since Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, a dozen or so mumblecore movies had already emerged). I did not attend the retro, but have been intrigued ever since, heightened by the slow-burning buzz which has been emerging up to now.

Then, lately, the mumble has turned into more of, well, a whisper at least. First there was Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running, devoting an increasing number of posts to the most self-promoting, and hence most controversial, member of the mumblecore mafia, Joe Swanberg. This led to probably the best comments thread I've ever read in the blogosphere (you can check it out here; please do). Then there was David Denby's excellent, sympathetic ruminations on the subject, which led to some more of Kenny's trademark snark. Meanwhile, in a bookstore the other day, I came across one of those arty little magazines, in this case called "Paste," which featured Swanberg and mumblecore starlet Greta Gerwig on its cover, accompanied by the caption "The Penny-Pinching Future of Indie Cinema." Penny-pinching certainly does sum up the spirit of the times, to the extent that I didn't buy the $5-plus publication, but I did peruse it in the store, and it got me thinking.

On the cover, Swanberg is wearing suspenders and a beat-up peasant cap, while Gerwig is clad in an old housedress. Apparently they are supposed to be, in the words of journalist Steve Dollar (real name?), "posed as Depression-era vagabonds," though I thought they were just supposed to be posed as 2009-era hipsters. Dollar too notes the discrepancy and skittishly notes, in addendum to the above, "...even as all-too-real panhandlers proliferate on the streets outside." And there we have one of the central conundrums of "mumblecore": it's supposed to be a "movement," the first we've had since - what, Dogme 95? But while its aesthetic may reflect the consumer's present-day thriftiness, is its subject matter too limited, narcissistic, and myopic to warrant much attention or be afforded much relevance? Is it actually a navel-gazing leftover from the Bush era, inappropriately focused on the problems of privileged white kids while America's economy sinks and its government is run by the first black president (this was the gist of a comment on Glenn's site which I can no longer find nor, hence, quote)?

All these questions buzzed around in my head as I awaited my own first mumblecore experience. Serendipitously, my Netflix queue was already prepared to unleash a bevy of mumblecore DVDs when I re-opened it, and my renewal just happened to occur at the moment this hype was building. (By the way, hype never builds without a purpose, and in this case, it's the upcoming release of Swanberg's latest opus, and apparently a more ambitious one at that, the Noah Baumbach-produced Alexander the Last). The first disc to arrive was LOL, which is fitting in a way. As the title suggests, it grows out of the very viral phenomena that gives this movement - in addition to its lately topical microbudgets - its cultural relevancy.

Aside from relationships, laying about, miscommunication, and other usual topics of the college/post-college milieu, the movie is saturated in new media; in a quite literal way, it is composed of text-messaging, online porn, e-mail, late-night cell phone calls, chat rooms, and viral videos (some of this is already dated four years later - no You Tube, for example). When characters chat with each other about one of their girlfriends - who is sitting right in front of them, pretending not to notice - the text scrolls out on the screen. E-mails, humorously, are presented on title cards with old-fashioned borders, like the dialogue in silent movies. Voicemails often serve as counterpointal narrations, most poignantly when a partygoer silences his call and we in the audience are privy to the voicemail his girlfriend leaves before he is: a teary, bleary plea for his attention, listened to while he drinks beer and flirts with undergrads.

LOL seems to slay a few mumblecore stereotypes. 1) Mumblecore films aren't about anything, and they wander aimlessly to the tune of their own narcissism. True, LOL's plot is slight at best, but its thematics are strong, compelling, and - most rarely and rewardingly - wound into the very fabric of its form. Though this could seem forced, and often does, it's new enough (and true enough) to ring a bell. When Swanberg (who acts in his own films) sits on the beach, watching his lover flirt with a smirking frat kid, he passive-aggressively talks on his cell phone, pretending not to care, even as he analyzes his own passive-aggressiveness in that cell conversation. It's a clever - but more importantly, convincing - use of new media to make an old point (and I mean "old" in a positive sense - here old and new are on equal terms, which is as it should be.)

2) Mumblecore acting stinks. I didn't think so, not in this movie. I would suppose that's because everyone is more or less playing versions of themselves, but nonetheless most performances are relatively naturalistic. There is no great acting going on here, but there also aren't any dreadfully wooden line readings or faked emotions (in part because the emotions tend to be dialed down and repressed). The home video style helps, to be sure, but that form can also expose overwrought acting in the same way that film makes theatrical conventions seem misplaced. What we get here is a convincing-enough representation of people behind closed doors, in private moments.

3) There are no aesthetic values to be found in this style. I actually found LOL's video to be incredibly engaging. Though Swanberg is supposedly indulgent with his improvisations and legendary for the clubbiness of his clique, he shows a good deal of discipline as an editor. Not only is the movie short, but scenes tend to be the right length and jump cuts ensure we never linger over detritus that should have been extracted. (Good sound mixing, the lively use of mouth-noise music montage, and the occasional avant-garde touch add to the sense of rough-hewn polish). Yes, the movie meanders and interest can flag from time to time, but all in all, the style and the execution of the cutting are quite satisfying and give the movie a patina of sophistication: a sense that we aren't just watching someone's self-indulgent home project, but a real movie. And that sense of the "real movie" is important given another crucial component of the film's style: the format it's shot on.

The movie opens with a puerile striptease which is exciting in a familiar sense (hence another criticism of Swanberg, that he traffics in the erotica he's pretending to observe; I'll deal with that another time, in a more sex-heavy movie, which this is not, despite the occasional nudity). But what follows is exciting in a quite different way: close-ups of various dudes sitting at home, staring slack-jawed at their computer screen. Why on earth would that be exciting? (It certainly isn't because of their acne-scarred visages.) Because it's shot on consumer-grade video and the sensation of the familiar will course through anyone - that would be all of us - who's ever toted around a video camera and perhaps even tried to make a "real movie" with it. It's the familiar out of context: a thrilling sensation.

LOL, a "real movie" shown in festivals, screened at New York retrospectives, and delivered to my home in that familiar red envelope, legitimizes video in a really exciting way. Here the use of video is coupled with relatively tight editing, sound design, and at-worst-serviceable lighting and color (just compare the usual shots, i.e. the "non-diagetic" angles to use an academic term, to the ones being taken by a video camera within the movie - the filmmakers certainly hope you will do so and may even grunge up the video-within-a-video to indirectly highlight their own comparative quality). This has the result of making video seem like a legitimate choice for storytelling, artistic expression, and the like, which is a necessary first step in the opening up of filmmaking and film-viewing. I love the look of old school film too, but the truth is that - aside from being expensive - the traditional virtues of celluloid are already fading from the film industry, and in picking my poison I certainly prefer consumer-grade video to CGI.

Of course, it's quite possible that LOL's foremost virtues lie in its potential, in promises which could be secured in the future, thus making mumblecore look like the new millennium's Jazz Singer: influential (or simply ahead-of-the-curve) firsts which are soon eclipsed by their successors, leaving little value in the now-familiar original. This is certainly possible. The filmmakers themselves seem to be aware of this, as well as their films' navel-gazing reputation. Swanberg, in the Paste interview, warns that his future movies may not be successful, but he'll keep making them because "I'm selfish. I'm making these things for me."

Yet, let's face it, for the moment mumblecore (and as fragmentary corollary, viral You Tube videos) is all we've got. To the extent that there are other, better, more under-the-radar no-budget movies out there, mumblecore still represents the crest of a wave; if in a year or two it seems passe, its subject matter too narrowly suited to its means, it still will have been the first hint of the tsunami to come. In a backhanded, indirect way, Gerwig herself refers to this in the Paste article: "I just kept watching [no-budget action movie The Pharaoh Project on late-night public access TV] because there was so much to admire...It isn't that far removed from the kind of movies I've made. The 'let's just go do it' attitude. We're interested in different things. I'm interested in the million tiny deaths that occur in everyday human interaction, and they're interested in sweet-ass roundhouse kicks. But the motivation to make something is similar."

Putting aside the pretension (even with its winking quality, it's still there) in her statement, this is actually a winning - and compelling - intuition. And I'd take this idea further: why not only no-budget "home movies"/indies and no-budget genre pictures, but no-budget movies which cross boundaries within themselves? Why not more ambitious no-budget projects, why not no-budget masterpieces? This is a clarion call for all of us who dream of making movies, not necessarily minor-key ones either, without currently having the best means at our disposal. All that's needed is a video camera, an idea, and a vision.

And then perhaps the mumble can turn into a roar.


(A side note: about halfway through the movie, there's a party scene, and I was shocked to see an old poker buddy featured in a fleeting close-up. As if to prove I could have been one of the movie's characters, I paused the DVD, took a picture of the screen with my cell phone and texted it to a friend. Talk about seeing the familiar out of context...)

13 comments :

Joseph said...

Excellent post. I've been wanting to watch some mumblecore myself. I have "The Puffy Chair" from NetFlix, currently. I'll have to add "LOL" to the queue as well.

MovieMan0283 said...

There will definitely be more where this came from. I think I've got about a half-dozen mumblecore (basically all the ones I could find on Netflix) at the top of my 21st century queue. Are you planning to review The Puffy Chair soon? I'll be interested in your thoughts...

Moviezzz said...

The one problem with starting with LOL is it is mostly downhill from there when it comes to Swanberg and others. It is the most tolerable of his films. I found THE PUFFY CHAIR to be virtually unwatchable, same with most of the rest of Swanberg's work. ALEXANDER is particularly weak.

But if you get a chance, check out Aaron Katz (QUIET CITY, DANCE PARTY USA) or Bujalski's FUNNY HA HA. Those are even better than LOL.

Daniel Getahun said...

Really interesting as I've been hearing a lot of...mumbling about Alexander the Last. I'm not convinced that I'll find a lot to like about these movies, but to remain open-minded I should at least check one of them out.

MovieMan0283 said...

Moviezzz, did you feel the supposed "departures" from mumblecore tenets weakened Alexander (just basing this on what I've heard, as I have not seen the movie - though it's available online, right...for free?)

I'm looking forward to Funny Ha Ha, particularly as it's film not video, and (as you can see here) I big part of my reaction this first mumblecore was the fact that it's shot on video.

What about LOL made it more "tolerable" for you than Swanberg's other movies?

Daniel, let me know what you think (or better yet, let all of us know, with a blog post). It seems mumblecore buzz is building rather than deflating right now. I wonder how long it will be until the grumbling hipsters decide it's time for a backlash (though it would be hard to pull off, since it seems there's been a built-in backlash since the beginning, or at least a heavy skepticism).

FilmDr said...

Definitely interesting. I will order the mumblecore films you recommend on Netflix, and when I can, I will show them to my film students. I've never had such enthusiastic students as when they are in the midst of making a film. A new group plans on making a variation of Run, Lola, Run soon.

Moviezzz said...

"Moviezzz, did you feel the supposed "departures" from mumblecore tenets weakened Alexander (just basing this on what I've heard, as I have not seen the movie - though it's available online, right...for free?)"

I don't think it was really a departure, other than casting (and wasting) name actors in it. It is the same, underwritten, improvisational style.

And unfortunately, it isn't available online for free. It is available on Pay Per View as part of IFC On Demand for $7. Not worth that much as it is probably more than the film cost to make!

"I'm looking forward to Funny Ha Ha, particularly as it's film not video, and (as you can see here) I big part of my reaction this first mumblecore was the fact that it's shot on video."

It is worth looking at. Bujalski is a serious filmmaker working beyond mumblecore, sort of Richard Linklater meets Rohmer. His follow up MUTUAL APPRECIATION is good, if maybe a bit too long.

"What about LOL made it more "tolerable" for you than Swanberg's other movies?"

It seemed more focused than his others. In the other films, pretty much nothing happens. I don't remember exactly what happened in LOL, but if I remember, it wasn't as dull as his other work.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Good review. I really should give these movies a chance because I always preach to everyone about how open minded I am, but when it comes to movies that look like youtube videos I have a problem.

It's not that the content of these pictures are all that bad (very college like, as you say in your review) it's the total lack quality. I know that these guys aren't John Alton or something, but it isn't difficult to light a scene, compose a shot, design a sequence. This is just a personal biased of mine.

And I know, I'm a hypocrite because I love films by John Cassavettes, and these are basically the modern day equivalent, but I believe that his films most likely carried more weight.

When a high quality HD camera costs under $5,000 I really expect these movies to look a lot better than they do from now on. Shit, Lynch used a PD-150 on INLAND EMPIRE (a low grade SD camera) and that movie had more interesting visuals than 90% of hollywood films that come out today.

MovieMan0283 said...

FilmDr, if so, let us know what your students think (I suspect some variation of, "I could make something better than that!").

Moviezzz, Funny Ha Ha just arrived today so a review should be up by early next week.

Joseph, what struck me was the effectiveness of the editing. I think you're a camera guy and, when it comes to a specific element of craft I judge most harshly, it's usually the editing. I felt LOL had an effective rhythm and style to its cutting which, believe me, 99% of student films do not have (I would say editing, even more than story, is the most glaring weakness of amateur or student filmmaking). Also, the cinematography really isn't as awful as it's made out to be - it's pretty basic, close-ups, handheld, etc., but there's a base-level understanding of composition at play and the sense that the aesthetic is a stylistic choice in addition to being a material necessity. You should definitely see a mumblecore film or two, and I'll be very interested in your reaction.

Of course, everything I've just written is based only on the viewing of LOL, so take it with a grain of salt...

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Alright MovieMan.

I'm all queued up and ready to go.

And I agree with you 100% While I do put a lot of stock into camera setup and moves, I think editing is the one thing that is truly unique to the medium and is the single most important part of it.

MovieMan0283 said...

As FilmDr suggest in another thread - wouldn't it be great to have a video renaissance? Not only would it be an in-your-face assault on Hollywood's overwrought aesthetic (and on arty apologists like Corliss) but it would actually be more cinematic, for my money, than blockbusters which have abandoned intricate mise en scene for CGI spectacle and any relation (however tangential - even Godard had one) to classical narrative cinema in favor of an stylistic affinity for video games. But for a video renaissance to take place, it would have to be very diverse - avant-garde, classical narrative, genre pictures, art film, as well as the indie aesthetic would not to be at play on a broad scale.

Keep pushing us, Joseph - just like the old-school phones strangling the hip cell user in your video, perhaps our clunky equipment can choke the ossified industry to death.

Or, um, we can pretend and have fun while doing so...

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

I said this the other day.

I wish Hollywood would just go away, and leave all movies (except for those few great blockbusters we get every so often) for us to make.

It's totally possible.

The only problem is, whenever an independent film is made, it has that indie feel.

I don't know about you, but if and when I start making movies, I hope they more represent films from the 40's 50's 60's and 70's rather than the films from the last 10 years.

MovieMan0283 said...

That "indie" feel - exactly - when I was a little kid, I had a knee-jerk antipathy to indie movies, because their ads were so tiny in the newspaper - they were little bugs I wanted to squash. Which is stupid viewed from today's vantage point (were I to make a movie, how much ad space could I afford?) but is onto something, symbollically anyway, in the "smallness" of the indie vision.

It's actually gotten a little more visually ambitious in the past few years, spurred by Wes Anderson's aesthetic I think, but there's still something lacking there. Besides most of these "indies" aren't really independent anyway, in any meaningful sense of the word...so they have all the annoying quirks, but none of the street cred, worst of both worlds I suppose.

And isn't annoying how a nice strong world like "independent" got cutesied and neutered into "indie"?

I want to see a diverse independent cinema, not one as stuck in its own niche as Hollywood genre movies.