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.