Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Different Intonations of a Mumble

Over the last couple of years, much has been written, both good and bad, about a number of young independent filmmakers in America. Eschewing – though not always or necessarily through choice – both the luxuries and the confinements of big budget filmmaking, these filmmakers have gained a reputation for telling real-life stories about real-life people. Among the filmmakers I'm talking about are Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, and The Duplass Brothers (Jay and Mark), and collectively they are often referred to as being part of the 'mumblecore movement'. As has often been noted by others, this tag is misleading in more ways than one, not least because the word 'movement' implies some kind of group planning or signed manifesto which simply does not exist between these filmmakers. However, despite this fact, it seems almost inescapable for a film by one of these filmmakers to be spoken or written about without recourse to the term 'mumblecore', or indeed without reference to one another.

Although I don’t want to deny that these filmmakers share similarities (principally, low budgets and a focus on what's happening in the film as opposed to getting bogged down with technical issues), I think it's time that people began to take a closer look at the individual filmmakers whose work is often placed under the 'mumblecore' umbrella. I say this because although there definitely are good things about the umbrella – like increased exposure – I think there's a danger that the individual achievements of the filmmakers will remain unacknowledged or overshadowed. Without wishing to return unabashedly or incautiously to the auteurism of the 50s, I think that it's time it was recognized that at the heart of the movement lie a number of talented filmmakers with distinct visions (discernable even through their collaborations with each other).

The reason why I have singled out the particular filmmakers mentioned above is that I believe each one (or duo) goes about creating films in a different way, the result of which is a number of films which are clearly distinct from one another.

I have neither the time nor the intention of turning this into a thorough or exhaustive analysis of these filmmakers and their works, but instead wish to broadly outline my point in the hope of generating something approaching an alternative direction to the way that people discuss their films (and please forgive me if this point has been made before, or better, by others).

So, a quick summary of what I perceive to be the main differences between these filmmakers is as follows, though please note that this is only my opinion and that these statements are in no way meant to be taken as definitive.

Andrew Bujalski, first and foremost, makes films about characters.
Joe Swanberg, first and foremost, makes films which explore ideas.
Aaron Katz, first and foremost, makes films which act as social commentaries.
The Duplass Brothers, first and foremost, make films based around concepts.

Of course, I'm not trying to suggest, even for a second, that, for example, Bujalski's films don't have strong ideas behind them or that Swanberg's don't have great characters, and I hope that my words won't be taken in this way. What I'm attempting to do is outline and suggest independent identities for a group of individual filmmakers who I feel are in danger of becoming permanently consigned to a single, restrictive tag. That said, I feel it necessary to briefly qualify my statements.

Taking a look at the films of The Duplass Brothers, starting with This Is John, it becomes possible to see the concepts they are based on (here, the struggle of a man trying to record a new answer phone message bringing about a crisis of identity). The Puffy Chair, meanwhile, could be defined 'as a road movie which focuses on a guy's relationships with his brother and his girlfriend as he travels to give his father a birthday present'. Of course, this is a crude reduction and I'm using 'concept' only for want of a better word, but hopefully my point is clear.

The clearest hint that Aaron Katz's films can be viewed as social commentary perhaps comes from their titles: Dance Party, USA and Quiet City. Taking the titles as our starting points, it becomes possible to read the events and characters of the films as metaphors (perhaps microcosms is a better word) which explore the state of society as a whole.

For my conclusions on Joe Swanberg's work, I'm going to take the example of LOL. Although I might be wrong, I get the impression that the film grew out of Swanberg's desire to explore the idea of what technology means for us and our relationships – this is what I mean when I say that his films are primarily idea based.

Finally, to return to Andrew Bujalski. I believe that, perhaps, of all the filmmakers mentioned, his films are the least concerned with conventional narrative and the most concerned with characters. This is not to say that Bujalski's films are completely void of narrative any more than it is to say the other filmmakers are making films with a strong emphasis on narrative. The point is more that, where The Duplass brothers give us a road trip (with a destination), Bujalski simply gives us Marnie wondering from one situation (and person) to the next.

Although what I’ve said about each of these filmmakers is indeed contestable (and please feel free to start a debate in the comments section), I hope that I have at least gone some way to demonstrating that each of these filmmakers has their own identity and deserves to be considered as an individual filmmaker and not viewed only in the light of the so called 'movement'.

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