Friday, December 18, 2009

A Semester's Surprise

Another very busy and interesting semester has come to an end. Good classes and a lot of really good students. As always, I learned a lot from them, and we explored some new territory together.

Most interesting to me was something I had started a file on a couple years ago but did not immediately pursue: the poorly-named mumblecore movement, a very micro-budget, hyper-realistic style of filmmaking. What surprised me was that none of my undergrads have heard of this movement or of the films or their directors. The New York Times critics have written about this, as well as other critics in mainstream publications; it's not often that a 50-something gets to introduce something "now" to his early-20-somethings. Kind of cool.

What else surprised me is how much this early 21st Century filmmaking echoed what Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their fellow critics at the Cahiers du Cinema must have imagined in mid-20th Century France. Although the French New Wave emerged from cinephiles who were critics-turned-directors, both movements gained headwind from film festivals: the French New Wave from Cannes, in the south of France, and mumblecore, from the SXSW Festival, in the southern United States (Austin, Texas). Both movements rally around a small handful of filmmakers: Truffaut, Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Erich Rohmer back then. Mumblecore claims Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers, Aaron Katz, Todd Rohal and Ry-Russo Young.

Both movements set out to capture the Right-Now: catching their respective generation being themselves. Both venture into the world around them with small crews and casts (often each other), minimal equipment and an improvisational impulse. Whereas the French New Wave relied on Hollywood genre to loosely structure their stories (motivated by their particular critical conceit), mumblecore filmmakers seem to be channeling the cinematic spirit of early John Cassavetes without much if any theory or philosophy besides revealing the confusion early adulthood brings. The inherent low-boil anxiety of their films remind me of Friends, without the acting affects and the coffee shop.

There’s even the existence of a female muse: Truffaut’s was Jean Moreau; Godard had Anna Karina. Mumblecore has Greta Gerwig (pictured above). But whereas we could only imagine the physical delights of Ms. Karina, Ms. Gerwig often has nothing more to hide, both emotionally or physically.

What's important in both movements is the filmmaker's drive for personal expression, not just in one film but throughout a body of work. And that expression is unself-conscious.Each in their time, the filmmakers grant us great emotional and physical intimacy. For example, Swanberg and Gerwig’s collaborative 2008 film Nights and Weekends is a close-up peep show into the pleasures but mostly perils of a long-distance relationship. But just saying that gives the film too much structure and intent. It plays out much more fragmentedly, less calculated, more emotionally fragile.

Perhaps the aspect that helped me understand the French New Wave better by the light of mumblecore is endurance. Scholars often argue about the parameters of the French New Wave: what it was exactly and exactly who it was. Well, I see more clearly now that what got named as something really big and enduring was really something small and finite (which does not in any way minimize its importance, at the time and since). The cinematic new wave in France centered on the five guys I noted above and I argue lasted through their second films, generally. Then they took their theories and aesthetic and themes and—like any aspiring garage band—ventured out into the wider world to apply their sensibilities in the commercial marketplace. This, I sense, is what will quickly become of mumblecore. It burst forth, ignited talent and will be left as an index--like the skin shed by a snake--of a certain confluence of cinematic/ cultural/ economic (but not at all political) realities. But if they, and we, are lucky, the mumblecore-ness that is, to me, so engaging and exciting, will become part of their growing body of work in much the same way the stunning photographic aesthetic of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s early feature films is apparent in his most recent film—the more commercially intended Three Monkeys.

I encourage you to check out mumblecore directors, and specifically three films I liked very much: Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski’s 2005 black-and-white film that often is credited with launching mumblecore—much in the way that 400 Blows launched the New Wave.

No comments:

Post a Comment