A Few Mutterings about Mumblecore

Jessjustin

Mainstream Hollywood films are doing better than ever at the box office while independent American films struggle to find audiences. Producers of indie films will have to make their own distribution channels. The so-called mumblecore films, ultra-low budget films about feckless twentysomethings, are leading the way by selling DVDs directly from websites and offering Internet view on demand.

Mumblecore, you may recall, first shuffled onto the scene with Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002). Other tales of languid romantic entanglements and emotional timidity soon followed, the most famous of which are Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA (2006) and Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). “Some critics have deplored mumblecore movies as smug portraits of a new generation of privileged white slacker,” David Denby writes. “But a critic, I think, should grant a filmmaker his subject. When the material is emotionally raw, and the nonprofessional actors show some strength, mumblecore delivers insights that Hollywood can’t come close to.”

Swanberg’s Hannah took last year’s SXSW Film Festival by storm, and it landed a major (for mumblecore, anyway) distribution deal. The title character makes some puzzling romantic choices. Her romantic idealism is both admirable and adolescent, as is the film itself. There’s one powerful moment in the film, and the rest of it ambles along in a genial fashion, but at the same time one waits for, in vain, for a jolt of filmic inspiration, a sense that the director is testing the limits of the medium rather than standing contently within them, hands in pockets. A dash of François Truffaut would have added some aesthetic staying power to the film.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not join Denby in rooting for Swanberg’s next project, Alexander the Last, which will appear in this year’s SXSW festival.  Still, as Denby points out, the mumblecore genre may be yet another casualty of the economic downturn.

It remains to be seen, in fact, whether mumblecore’s ethos can survive in a period of violent economic downturn. Those penny-budget movies were made in a time of prosperity. Now that the parental check or the roommate’s job may be drying up, the movies could dry up, too, or turn from dithering to rage. Of course, fresh young directors, willing to work cheaply, will emerge. But will they mumble if their bellies are beginning to growl?

Just as the Victorians invented childhood as we know it, post-collegiate life as a distinct developmental phase was invented during the 1980s and ‘90s. It may have vanished, though. It’s one thing to take a pass at an entry-level job in the financial services sector, and quite another to not have that job available to reject. People will still turn 25, of course, but in the future overdrawn bank accounts may be of more urgent concern than untapped reserves of emotion and talent.

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