Friday, March 20, 2009


Things happen annually. SXSW happens that way. To most pop-culture fans, those four capital letters bring to mind visions of bands playing in not-as-easy-to-get-into-as-you'd-think venues across Austin, TX. But running parallel to the music festival is the SXSW film festival. For years, the festival ran off of the reputation of the music conference, searching for a shtick that could give it a much sought-after niche.

Well, in 2005, festival programmers saw their window-of-opportunity with the films The Puffy Chair and Kissing on the Mouth. From those two buzz-building, low-budget productions and the assistance of a few others, the so-called "mumblecore" scene was birthed. Since then, and without fail, every year at SXSW presents another three to five more mumblecore films. To form a negative opinion about them is costly if you desire to run in circles with people who think Karina Longworth is the Pauline Kael of the aughts. For when Amy Taubin dared to declare the so-called scene a foregone fraud, former SXSW programmer Matt Dentler (and all his friends) nearly blew his (their) top(s). That bickering will work itself out (Dogme 95 is now a punchline...).

Since I didn't take in any of this years' films I thought it could be appropriate to share some thoughts about a mumblecore film I recently watched on DVD: Joe Swanberg's 2006 film, LOL. As the fortune of conversation would have it, blogger buddy MovieMan beat me to the punch and wrote up LOL himself earlier this week. We disagree about the film (MovieMan likes it), but being the quality critical thinker that he his, I think he sells his case well and you should check it out.

Upon arrival at a friends' basement home, Tim (Swanberg) is asked to let himself be "recorded on video camera making sounds with your mouth". Had this been a self-referential comment on the mumblecore scene itself, it would have been a brilliant joke, for those words will make for a fine capsule definition of the scene in the inevitable history books of new cinema. Indeed, Tim proceeds to mumble, gurgle, bleep, and blurt for his friend's digital camera until he is interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. And thus, the crux of LOL : modern men are easily distracted and unhealthily obsessed by their twenty-first century palm technology.

There is also Chris (C. Mason Wells), a soggy man who complains to his girlfriend on how her nudie text message pics don't get him hard enough anymore, and Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), a poor found sound electro-collage musician that aims to scheme his way into random sex via e-mail. Acting as pseudo-title cards, Swanberg occasionally inserts excerpts of Alex's music for punctuation. Sure, there's room for another joke here, the urge to draw lines between Alex's amateurish sound pieces - elementary melodies and rhythms constructed from the verbal nonsensical noise recorded off his friends - and those of the men with the movie cameras, but for a film that's already down, I'll refrain from anymore kicking.

The men in LOL may not be likable, but they're harmless. They're also irrelevant. Many defenders of mumblecore attempt to do so by likening the film's aesthetics and sensibilities to the work of John Cassavetes. That's just lazy. Yes, in line with the work of Swanberg and his compatriots, Cassavetes' camera moved with the pulse of real life, but his characters had weight. As yet, there has been nothing in a mumble-pic within seeable reach of the spousal dynamics and familial pain in A Woman Under the Influence, the trio of under performing husbands in Husbands, or the blocked loved and fulfillment performances by Gena Rowlands, John Marley, and Seymour Cassell in Faces.

In comparison, the men and women of films such as LOL, Quiet City, and Yeast are simply reflections of the everyday mundane that we ache to break away from when we consume art or entertainment or both. Fu*k... if I felt the cultural urge to observe the interactions of such people, I could simply go to a coffee shop, a house party, or perhaps even look at myself in the mirror. Ben Gazzara was a real man... an actor such as Justin Rice comes off like daddy's little boy.

On a positive, I've really enjoyed the two films of Andrew Bujalski's : Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. Not only a gifted writer, Bujalski is a fine actor with nerd-comedic instincts that have the potential to place him in between the styles of a young Woody Allen and present day Michael Cera. I hope he breaks away from the label that - in my opinion - weighs around his neck like an albatross, and someday gets his shot at Hollywood.


Tommy Salami said...

A nice encapsulated review. Mumblecore reminds me of the 90's "anyone can do it!" glut of indie crap that came out once Clerks made money. ugh.

Greg F. said...

I know you've already had the pic up for some days now but I justed wanted to say I love that you put up a pic of Scott in the banner. Look at that face, the redness, the emotional vulnerability. A damn crime Marsan wasn't nominated.

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fox said...


Thanks. Yeah, "anyone can do it" has it's idealistic charms, but in reality, that philosophy seems to clog up the system (and festivals). Perhaps it should be, "anybody can try".

Greg F.-

I figured the least I should do was put his picture up for a bit. I haven't bought the dvd yet, but according to DVD Beaver, Marsen is barely on the extras. Shame. I woulda loved to hear both him and Hawkins on the commentary.


Along your lines of privilege, I think it's accurate when critics/fans make comparisons between "mumblecore" and The Hills. Except The Hills is more interesting than many of these films.

bill r. said...

Fox, I haven't seen any of these "mumblecore" movies, but I thought you might find this interesting.

Fox said...


Thanks for the link. MovieMan referenced that post in his LOL review, and I look forward to reading through it.

I just scanned it real quick, but I like what Kenny says about the last shot of Late Spring. That's such a heartbreaking and bittersweet ending. Also, it's kind of disturbing that someone (the commenter that Kenny references) would compare a Swanberg frame to an Ozu frame.

But I would be interested to hear your take on "mumblecore". You could probably watch three of the movies in a night b/c they tend to be brief.

Bob Turnbull said...

Though I liked LOL a bit more than you, I agree with most of your review Fox...Especially about the guys in the film themselves - I guess they're harmless, but they annoyed the living crap out of me.

I've seen a few of the bunch with the worst (ie. the one I couldn't stand) being "Hannah Takes The Stairs". Perhaps it's where I am in life, but I couldn't relate to any of the characters or see anything useful knowing about these people. The female lead is particularly irritating.

The best by far has been "Dance Party USA". Maybe it's because it focuses on teenagers and their view of the world is much more understandable given their stage of life. But I simply found it more honest with more interesting "characters" who actually have the capability of growing. Aaron Katz did a fine job in making it look pretty good too - considering the almost zero budget he had.

Fox said...

Hey Bob-

I wasn't a fan of Dance Party USA myself, but I did like parts of Aaron Katz's other film, Quiet City. Even though I found the characters in both of those films to be lacking, I think you're right that Katz's characters are at least more interesting and honest.

The thing is, I don't understand why any of these writers/directors would want to nestle themselves into a specific movement or label. To me, the most talented of them (Andrew Bujalski) risk being dragged down by the lessers. BTW, I thought the Duplass Brothers The Puffy Chair was funny and sometimes charming, but their last film Baghead was a wreck.

Oh, and that lead from Hannah Takes the Stairs that you said was "annoying"? Greta Gerwig? It looks like she's starting her path upward... she just signed onto the new Noah Baumbach/Ben Stiller project Greenberg. I wonder if her getting her hooks into Hollywood will let the other mumble-types work their way in as well.

Bob Turnbull said...

I haven't seen Quiet City yet, but certainly plan to. At the screening of Dance Party USA, I was able to chat with Katz briefly afterwards - he didn't seem to consider himself part of the movement (or any movement) because he was simply trying to get his stories into a film for as cheap as he could. I don't believe he had any pre-existing ties with Swanberg, Bujalski, etc.

I thought I had heard that Greta had landed something a bit bigger. Best of luck to her I guess - it'll be interesting to see what she can do. I just never want to run into Hannah...

Donte said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.