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...)