Mumblecore and Urban Life Today, Part 2

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One of the things that struck me about Hannah Takes the Stairs was the profound laziness of its heroine, played by Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay. She lives and works in Chicago, but she might as well life in a small town in Kansas. Cities have had various connotations throughout history, but one of the more constant themes is its association with chance. People who live in the country associated the city with the vagaries of the marketplace. Bankers and lawyers, rarely on the side of farmers, were there. It was also a place where a young man could find a wife—or a prostitute. Good things could happen in the city, but most bad things happened there. Similarly, urbanites were also subject to the same vicissitudes. City dwellers had a much broader range of experiences, which allowed them to better read the signs pointing to good fortune.

City films have always told stories about people taking their chances in a dangerous but thrilling urban setting. From Berlin, Symphony of a Great City to The Naked City, Midnight Cowboy and Blade Runner, the cinema has depicted people finding their fortune in public space. Even the most intimate private spaces, the bedroom, are merely extensions of public space. During its run Sex and the City moved seamlessly between them, yet still privileging social over private space. It’s no accident that Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes were always more of a focal point that her apartment, which was actually kind of generic.

Despite its urban setting, Hannah Takes the Stairs is literally and figuratively interior. The characters never seem to touch pavement. (Nor does anyone take any stairs.) Except for one significant beach scene and a few incidental scenes elsewhere, the film’s settings alternate between Hannah’s apartment and her workplace. Allegedly, she’s a television writer, although we never see her write anything. Her two male co-workers, Matt and Paul (played by the Mumblecore directors Kent Osborne and Andrew Bujalski) sometimes peck away at a Macbook, but otherwise the team is more easily distracted than the TV writers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. They work completely unsupervised, and apparently without deadlines of any kind, so they have plenty of time to amuse themselves with the witty and slyly revealing banter of people with high SAT scores.

Matt and Paul’s earnestness contrasts with the droll eccentricity of Hannah’s boyfriend Mike, played by yet another Mumblecore director, Mark Duplass. Mark is more creative and wry than the two professional writers, but, like everyone else in the movie, he’s still looking for an ambition to latch onto. He makes the mistake of trying to jolt Hannah out of her narcissistic stupor. First he buys them matching diving masks, which, typically, they use in Hannah’s bathtub—actually diving under water being too much trouble. His one attempt to lure Hannah out of her cramped apartment backfires. He takes her to the beach on a weekday afternoon, but the sun only stirs up Hannah’s doubts, and she soon breaks up with Mike.

Hannah doesn’t live in a Woody Allen film, so there’s no network of literate New Yorkers waiting to be encountered in a bookstore or at an Upper West Side cocktail party. Newly available, she takes the first donuts off the table.  First she becomes romantically involved with Paul, but trouble emerges when he lands a book contract and Hannah perceives that he’s going to move beyond the adult playroom in which they work. She then turns to Matt, a dorky brooder. Paul looks on with expressions of extreme glumness as Hannah and Paul explore their own murky depths. 

The film’s climax is a teary scene in which Paul and Hannah share their inner torments, such as they are. They’re framed by a window which is more of a metaphor of internal revelation than the embrace of an uncertain but more open future.

Can anyone call themselves an urbanite if they’ve never had to validate parking? Hannah’s adventure in the nation’s third largest city is like a young woman who gets up off her suburban living room couch and crawls inside her television to have sex with her favorite sitcom characters. In a conventional young-person-in-the-city narrative, urban life delivers its blows, and the character learns from them. Hannah’s wounds are already there from the beginning. Moving to the city is simply a means to give her enough psychic space to feel better about her internal wounds.

To some extent, the inwardness of Hannah Takes the Stairs is specific to Mumblecore. It was given that name by a sound editor who had to make sense of unprofessional actors mumbling their lines into a cheap microphone. Part of the point of the genre is that we have to lean in to hear what the characters are saying. In its deliberately low-budget, D.I.Y. ethos, Mumblecore tries to keep alive a certain kind of stubbornly realist, independent filmmaking. For all his talents, Joe Swanberg is no Roberto Rossellini, and no one involved in Mumblecore has produced anything remotely like Rome, Open City. In Mumblecore films, the urban is simply a backdrop for a basically static portrait. In place of a set of choices, the urban is merely the absence of parental constraints.

How broadly applicable this observation is beyond Mumblecore remains to be seen. Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), for instance, takes place in Portland, Oregon, but the setting doesn’t have the semiotic density of a traditional urban space. Young independent filmmakers seem to be abandoning cities altogether. Many of the most important twentysomething films of the past decade have taken place in suburban spaces with the same rundown, been-there-for-generations look of an urban ethnic enclave: Zach Braff’s Garden State, Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, and Jason Reitman’s Juno.

What’s changed? Have American cities changed? Or movies? The Manhattan of Taxi Driver has become a colony reserved for Wall Street bonus babies. The dreams once fostered by Los Angeles have been coopted by reality TV shows. Maybe years of distribution on VHS and DVD have conditioned filmmakers to think in small, more intimate spaces. These are open questions.

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