Mumblecore begins with a seminal film:
In 2002, Andrew Bujalski, a 24 year old Harvard Department of Visual and Environmental Studies grad living in Boston, completed his first feature, "Funny Ha Ha", a loose, chatty, naturalistic portrait of an early-twenty-something girl's post-grad ennui, un-moored love life and nonchalant forays into the job market.
Shot in August 2001 in Boston on 16mm film with a $50,000 budget and a non-professional cast, Bujalski insists he had no intention of starting anything:
"I kind of more feel like [Funny Ha Ha] is more like the end. This is like, you know, the last indie movie of the '80s. We just got this one in really late."
Critics said of "Funny Ha Ha":
"Floating, indecision, the indefinite: This is the gray arena of 'Funny Ha Ha'. The surprise is how the movie comes together and gets under your skin before you even know why you should give a damn. What seems improvised and random turns out to be controlled, at times cunningly shaped, and the surface of nonsequiturs and random shrugs conceals fairly intense emotions - the emotions of self-consciously cool, easy, inarticulate people afraid to pin anything down."
"Bujalski's improv approach is gracefully married with a style that is not overly-dramatic, and therefore seems just a hair short of pure documentary."
"Realistic dialogue, believable situations and characters and the sheer natural likeability of Kate Dollenmayer make 'Funny Ha Ha' a charmingly irresistible little comedy with a documentary-like flare that will remind us all of the little bit of 'been there, done that' within each of us."
"If it were not so resolutely modest, and so rigorously confined in its minute observations of individual behavior, you might almost call 'Funny Ha Ha' [...] a generational statement."
"Funny Ha Ha" premiered quietly at the 2002 Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, Alabama and continued playing festivals, eventually showing on the Sundance television channel, screening at colleges and art houses and receiving critical acclaim through its 2005 limited theatrical run. The New York Times' A.O. Scott included "Funny Ha Ha" in his favorite films of 2005. It grossed $82,620 over three weeks at the box office.
In 2004, 23-year-old former festival volunteer Matt Dentler took over the South by Southwest Film Festival as the Festival Producer and opened the door to the rising trend of earnest micro-budget indies.
The 2005 SXSW Film Festival was the break-out year for a new wave of intimate relationship films: Joe Swanberg's "Kissing on the Mouth", Mark and Jay Duplass's "The Puffy Chair", and Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" follow-up, "Mutual Appreciation".
As Dentler explains:
"In 2005, something was different, but we didn't know it at the time. People have asked why SXSW brought all these films together that year, as if the programmers did it on purpose. We simply programmed what we liked and the rest happened on its own. A new Andrew Bujalski film ("Mutual Appreciation")? We loved it and premiered it. A film from our old pals the Duplass Brothers ("The Puffy Chair")? Post-Sundance, it won a SXSW audience award. An odd, but highly enjoyable experimental narrative featuring hardly any dialogue ("Four Eyed Monsters")? After Slamdance, it won a SXSW audience award. And then, some kid from Chicago (Joe Swanberg) made a no-budget movie on video ("Kissing on the Mouth") where he and his friends get naked, talk, hang out, and explore intimacy? I think Joe's fearlessness about exploring intimacy (and his charismatic nature) made it easy to make friends with some of these other filmmakers when they attended SXSW 2005. After that year, they stayed in touch, and a community of artists from around the nation, started to grow. Thanks to MySpace, e-mail, and blogs, that was very easy. Thanks to MySpace, e-mail, and blogs, more collaboration and films were made."
"Matt Dentler is directly responsible for the success that I have had in my career. If you remove him from the equation of my life, I am still making films right now, but nobody has heard of them and I am working a 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. It's actually scary for me to imagine how different my life might be right now had Matt not programmed 'Kissing on the Mouth' in 2005. I met so many of my future friends and collaborators at the festival that year, and it lit a fire in me that is still there. I am forever indebted to him for taking a risk and showing my first film. It changed my life."
Films that went on to premiere during Dentler's tenure at SXSW include: "Alexander the Last", "Creative Nonfiction", "Drinking Buddies", "LOL", "Hannah Takes the Stairs", "Medicine for Melancholy", "Nights and Weekends", "Quiet City", "Sorry, Thanks", and "Tiny Furniture".
Dentler now works for iTunes Movies.
Bostonia Magazine: Describe the "mumblecore" film movement.
Andrew Bujalski: "In 2005, (my second film) 'Mutual Appreciation' played at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, where I now live. There were a few films made that year by young filmmakers about young people in relationships. Jokingly, I said to Eric Masunaga (pictured above, left), the sound mixer on my film, 'Some of these bloggers think there's a new film movement going on. What would you call that movement?' He came up with the term "mumblecore." I thought it was funny, and made the terrible mistake of repeating it in an interview. The word lay dormant for a few years. Then in 2007, it seemed to be all over the place. Now we're stuck with it."
So how did "mumblecore" come to be "all over the place" in 2007?
First a number of new films arrived to reinforce the genre, including Joe Swanberg's "LOL" and "Hannah Takes the Stairs", Aaron Katz's "Dance Party USA" and "Quiet City", Frank V. Ross's "Quietly on By" and "Hohokam" and Kentucker Audley's "Team Picture" - all shot and edited digitally, and all soon to show together at the end of summer 2007 at the "New Talkies: Generation DIY" show at IFC in New York.
And then, as SXSW's Matt Dentler had mentioned, social media was on the march, providing a space for filmmakers who had met at film festivals to continue networking and cross-pollinating. At the extreme end was Joe Swanberg, who, by 2007, had cast fellow directors Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Ry Russo-Young and Frank V. Ross and actors like Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Kent Osborne, Tipper Newton, Kevin Bewersdorf and Kris Swanberg in his films and web-series as well as acting himself in new films by Frank V. Ross and Aaron Katz.
There was clearly a trend and critics needed to frame it.
"It has been called, by some of its members, critics and fans, 'mumblecore'."
In "Speak Up", a May 2007 piece in the Guardian, critic Andrea Hubert's took the baton:
"A slew of film school alumni dubbed the "mumblecore" movement have, both separately and collectively, produced a body of work that encapsulates a world of intimate relationships between uncertain characters in the vague pursuit of happiness... or something. It's hard to tell; they tend to mumble."
Even Chuck Klosterman weighed in:
"For a time, (Andrew) Bujalski sardonically embraced the term "mumblecore" to describe his filmmaking style, but it did not catch on."
Yeah, but it did catch on.
On August 22nd, 2007, the IFC Center in New York started showing its serial overview of the fledgling Mumblecore movement, calling it "The New Talkies: Generation DIY".
The New York Times' Dennis Lim, in his Sunday Times review of "The New Talkies", proclaimed:
"Recent rumblings - perhaps one should say mumblings - indicate an emerging movement in American independent film. Specimens of the genre share a low-key naturalism, low-fi production values and a stream of low-volume chatter often perceived as ineloquence. Hence the name: mumblecore."
By the time Rolling Stone's October 2007 "Hot Issue" hit the stands, "Mumblecore" was featured as the "Hot Genre".
The next wave of Mumblecore included new films by Bujalski, Swanberg, Ross and Audley as well as Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy", Lynn Shelton's "Humpday", Lawrence Michael Levine's "Gabi on the Roof in July", Azazel Jacobs' "Momma's Man", Ben Chace and Sam Fleishner's "Wah Do Dem" and Dia Sokol's "Sorry, Thanks".
With so many films now in the dialogue, the New Yorker was prepared to interpret:
"Mumblecore movies are made by buddies, casual and serious lovers, and networks of friends, and they're about college-educated men and women who aren't driven by ideas or by passions or even by a desire to make their way in the world. Youth is the subject of mumblecore and also the condition of its existence."
Out of the Youthquake rubble rises Lena Dunham.
24 years old and fresh off her SXSW-debuted film "Creative Nonfiction" the year before, Lena entered the 2010 SXSW Film Festival with "Tiny Furniture", a $65,000 observational commentary about her family, friends and existential self back home from college in Tribeca. Shot on the Canon EOS 7D, "Tiny Furniture" won the "Narrative Feature" award at SXSW and went on to gross almost $400K at the box office, with critics saying things like:
"'Manhattan', if it had been directed by Mariel Hemingway rather than by Woody Allen"
"With remarkable lack of vanity and a keen awareness of her characters' many flaws, Dunham has made a small-scale, modern answer to The Graduate..."
In 2012, AVC asked Lena: What were some movies and directors you looked at before you were making the film?
"In terms of making ('Tiny Furniture'), the thing that made me think, "Oh, I could make a movie, and I might have something to say that's worthy," [...] is Andrew Bujalski's movie 'Funny Ha Ha', which I just loved. I was so amazed he was getting away with what he was getting away with."
Mumblecore has caught some major waves, from digital video technology to the rise of indie film fests and social media, but the big one has to be Video On Demand. For films whose budgets are so small, and theatrical prospects so limited, having a cheap, accessible distribution platform is game-changing. For there was a time, not too long ago, when these kinds of films really struggled to be seen...
"When I think about VOD, I think about myself when I was in high school, and I lived in the suburbs of Chicago. So I was near enough to a major city that every once in a while, my friends and I could drive into the city and see an independent film in an art-house theater, but I wasn't so near that I could walk down the street and see a movie, and so, a few times a year, there was something that we were all excited enough about to kind of make the trip into the city, but for the most part, I was reading Filmmaker magazine and connecting with stuff, and I worked in a video store, so I was sort of aware of what was coming through.
But if I had had VOD back then, I really could've, as a young cinephile, participated in a bigger conversation. If the IFC and Magnolias would've been able back then to get me those movies, I would've happily paid the money to watch them on iTunes. But you know, it wasn't really an option back then."
In another interview he calls VOD a "rebirth of the video store":
"It's just a digital video store, now, but it's the same idea. In the '80s and '90s, when independent films became profitable, most of the stuff I saw... like, I didn't go see Bottle Rocket in the movie theater, I didn't see Swingers in the movie theater, I didn't go see Pulp Fiction in the movie theater - those were movies I watched on VHS for the first time, and that's how most of America saw those movies. So, we're just back at that place. It's not that the films don't have limited theatrical runs, still - it's that VOD has basically stepped into the dying footprint of the video store, and, for various reasons, people can watch movies at home a lot easier then getting in the car and going to the movie theater."
Indeed, we can.
In fact, you can watch Kentucker Audley's "Team Picture", "Open Five" and "Open Five 2", Joe Swanberg's "Marriage Material", Lena Dunham's "Creative Nonfiction", Josh Bernhard's "The Lionshare", Zach Weintraub's "The International Sign for Choking" and Ben Chace & Sam Fleischner's "Wah Do Dem" all for free, right now, thanks to YouTube and Vimeo; "All the Light in the Sky", "Beeswax" and all of Frank V. Ross and Zach Weintraub's movies if you subscribe to Fandor; "Drinking Buddies", "Happy Christmas", "Medicine for Melancholy", "Tiny Furniture" and "Your Sister's Sister" via Netflix instant streaming; and pretty much everything else through iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Netflix DVD.
Here's a Playlist for Mumblecore Films on Vimeo.
Behold the Critics:
"The modestly named 'mumblecore' movement is not an earthquake like the French New Wave, more of a trembling in the shrubbery."
"A collection of like-minded low-budget indie films about 20-somethings (usually white and pasty) trying to find their way in the world, 'mumblecore' calls to mind all the weakest tendencies in these movies - specifically, their ineffectual, rambling, mumbling meagerness. You can get a sense of how much people even within this so-called movement hate that label by how quickly they dismiss it in interviews. The reason's pretty obvious: 'Mumblecore' suggests the epitome of Hipster White People Problems, and who wants to be associated with that?"
"Mumblecore is the opposite of everything that's great about indie film. It's the laziest form of filmmaking. It's a bunch of middle class and upper class white kids whining about their ennui and their middle class white lives in front of a camera, without a script, without good actors. Here's what you need to make a mumblecore movie: a sense of entitlement, white skin, and Greta Gerwig, and that's it."
(These comments are excerpted from a Reddit "Truefilm" thread titled "The appeal of Mumblecore?" in which someone threw down the gauntlet: "I JUST. DON'T. GET IT. Can fans of the Mumblecore aesthetic please explain?")
"It just feels real.
When I go and see a Duplass movie and the characters feel real and the uncomfortable moments genuinely feel uncomfortable, it's really refreshing. It's like, "oh, shit, this movie is about real kinds of people, not just Hollywood character-types." When watching a movie and an awkward silence between two characters, who are talking about something relatively inconsequential, is 10 times more excruciating than watching someone's head getting blown off..."
"There are moments of beauty in so called "mulmbercore" films I like to call "kitchen table" moments because they remind me more than anything else in cinema of those late night conversations around the kitchen table where it doesn't so much matter what you're talking about because you're connecting with someone. There's a level of realism that can transcend story because the dialog and characters feel so real and true you know it's something that could never have been written."
"I love mumblecore. I like the naturalistic style. I find the characters endlessly relatable. For me- it's a mirror into my own life or the lives of people in ugggg...'my generation'."
"these are films in which we connect with the characters not due to some idiosyncratic quirk or flaw, but rather because they appear most human and normal. It may not add much drama to the medium, but its refreshing in how you connect in a more personal way"
"These kind of films make me feel comfortable and a bit melancholical in a way that polished production that actively aim to be "tearjerkers" don't.
Simple living, being in the moment, observing and experiencing rather than thrill-seeking and always wanting to have the best of everything. These are all core values in my existence, and I want to relive that pleasant feeling of late night discussions with friends, going on walks on my own and taking pleasure in doing mundane tasks."
"As its been said elsewhere in this thread, the goal is ultra-realism. The thing about films that we call realism is that they're often microcosmic representations of realism because they're primary focus is still narrative and plot to a certain extent. The kind of realism that "mumblecore" strives for is slices of realism that aren't very distilled.[...] I think I find this appealing because it differs so greatly from filmmaking conventions and reflect some of the conventions you find in literature... "
Film Critics say:
"It's hard to believe that it has been only a decade; it's a decade of revolution, in which an entire generation of independent filmmakers working with, parallel to, and in the same vein as Swanberg has transformed the very relationship between actor and director, has shifted the notion of performance."
"The cinema itself - the very idea of low-budget filmmaking - has become the art form that, better than any, embodies the ecstatic imperative of the self, the ambient turmoil of friends and family, the exhilaration of discovering the enduring artistic past, the intricacy of living in the media-saturated moment, and the eternal demand of inspired young people to make something happen. It is the novel and the music of the day..."
"Mumblecore's revolution, such as it is, forges a counter-cinema to circumvent the Hollywood hierarchy and all it represents: rampant commercialism, juvenile product, and (given multinational conglomerate ownership) human and environmental exploitation. That D.I.Y. culture has been resuscitated in this wintry economic climate is no coincidence, and mumblecore is merely one of its manifestations in the movement against excess waste, outsourced manufacturing, and deficit financing."
"There's now emerging another category of acting and, for that matter, of movie-making: the up-from-nowhere category. This is the virtually-no-budget independent cinema, made by a generation of actors and filmmakers who work with friends and family, often literally at home, filming events close to their lives, and who prove the existential immediacy of actors' connection with directors and with the camera by the nearly instant stardom that it has generated for such performers as Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Mark Duplass, Kentucker Audley, Alex Karpovsky, and Joe Swanberg, who, as a director, is the very engine of this new tradition."
"I've been writing about these films, with fascination, with enthusiasm - oh, why not say it: with love - from the moment I had a chance to see them..."
Oh why not say it: with love...