Ten years ago, the Boston-based writer-director Andrew Bujalski released his début feature, Funny Ha Ha. This was the first entry in a filmmaking movement that would later become known as “mumblecore,” so named for the way the films’ twentysomething characters converse with one another (i.e., almost inaudibly). Aside from their heavily improvised—and therefore naturalistic—dialogue, what’s most instantly noticeable about mumblecore films is the way they’re shot: on inexpensive, hand-held digital cameras. The characters who populate these films—who have traditionally been portrayed by the filmmaker’s friends and relatives, if not also the filmmaker(s) themselves—lazily drift in and out of workaday settings, have inchoate arguments about nothing, and whine to each other about their love lives—or, more often, the desperate lack thereof. None of the characters really seems to have a job to go to, and they’re almost all white.
The appellation “Slackavetes,” an idiomatic perception by critics of a Cassavetes-like visual style in the post-grunge ‘slacker’ era, didn’t quite stick. Richard Linklater’s début feature, Slacker—which was made in 1991 and wanders around the director’s native Austin, Texas flittering from location to location, seemingly at random, ‘interviewing’ characters—gave the era’s apparently aimless youth one of their more prominent labels. Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X, which also came out in 1991, gave them a firmer, more scientific-sounding name—a sociological descriptor that fit neatly alongside “baby-boomers” and “the Lost Generation.” Linklater’s film was released more than a decade before Funny Ha Ha, so while the Cassavetes appellation was apt, the tacking-on of ‘slacker,’ almost always used pejoratively, didn’t seem right.
Although it is now said to have kick-started mumblecore, Bujalski’s work, interestingly, breaks with some of the movement’s aforementioned informal diktats. Even the most recent of his three features to date, Beeswax (2008), was shot on 16mm film-stock. He also sticks fairly strongly to his scripts—side-stepping the potential time-wasting pitfalls of improvisation—and relies less on friends and relatives as actors, preferring, in some cases, to cast trained (semi-)professionals. The majority of mumblecore movies have been set in and around Brooklyn, but Bujalski worked in Massachusetts and—more in line with the Slacker label and ethos—in Austin. The writer-director Barry Jenkins’ first film Medicine for Melancholy (2007) also breaks with the rest of the movement in its locale and in that it starred black actors. The film was set in San Francisco; Wyatt Cenac—who is probably best known as a correspondent for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show—plays its protagonist.
These traits—the settings, the camerawork, the almost blinding ‘whiteness,’ the unscripted, almost blissfully aloof nature—probably bring to mind the work of it-girl Lena Dunham. There are, however, some notable differences in the way she operates. Mumblecore is often (derisively) described as a ‘hipster’ movement; movies about (and by, and for) affluent, aimless young post-collegiate people living, in many cases, from trust-funds. The same criticism has, sometimes unreasonably, been levelled at Dunham’s work.
Tiny Furniture (2010), her breakthrough second feature, certainly felt like a mumblecore picture, at least at first glance: she had written from her own experience as a liberal-arts graduate coming home to her mother’s New York apartment, acutely depressed and wary of an uncertain future. Yet if you examine the film’s script—and particularly the writing in Girls, her smash-hit follow-up sitcom for HBO—you begin to see that her characters are too written, in line with television-comedy conventions, to have come out of the mumblecore tradition, with its freewheeling dialogue and unplanned shooting-schedules. If there is any improvisation in her work, it takes place around a writing table—not on-set. Moreover, as the television critic Matt Zoller Seitz and others have noted, her cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes (who also shot Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene) uses the frame—especially in Tiny Furniture, with its 2.35 ratio—in an almost classical manner, marking a distinct break with mumblecore aesthetics, wherein haphazard framing is all but a necessary requirement toward establishing a sense of realism.
The work of Aaron Katz—who has, in Dance Party, USA (2006), Quiet City (2007), and the Holmsian detective story Cold Weather (2011), made three of mumblecore’s most artful, worthwhile films—shows precisely how Dunham’s commitment to a kind of formalism marks her departure from the movement’s norms. Katz’s characters are comparatively too unsure of themselves, too incoherent—in short, too ‘real.’ Their endearing inability to articulate what they mean to say is at odds with Dunham’s characters’ clean, structured lines. Witness, for example, the quick-witted wise-cracking of Girls’ Adam, whose scripted one-liners are comedic high-points in most of the first season’s episodes. This is not to imply that Katz’s films are unfunny, but merely that their humour derives from everyday situations and true awkwardness, rather than composited anecdotes cribbed from half-remembered party-conversations. What’s more, Katz’s work is different on a formal level: though it often settles on terrifically-composed scenes, Katz’s camera seems almost on an equal (i.e., intimate) emotional plane with his characters, rather than a vehicle, carefully piloted at a remove, for delivering story arcs, as Dunham (necessarily) uses it.
The Polanskian genre pictures of Ti West—The House of the Devil (2009), and its 2011 follow-up The Innkeepers—aren’t strictly mumblecore, but they did introduce a new phenomenon to the movement: the mumblecore-star. Greta Gerwig first appeared on-screen in LOL (2006), an early feature by the most prolific of mumblecore filmmakers, Joe Swanberg. (He directed seven features in 2011 alone.) Gerwig—who, with Swanberg, co-wrote two of his more enjoyable and accomplished pictures, Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), and Nights and Weekends (2008), the latter of which she also co-directed—has become an indie-film darling. She’s risen to prominence in the last few years through a variety of small parts in bland multiplex fodder (No Strings Attached; Arthur) and substantial roles in art-house fare such as Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg—which was, for my money, the best film of 2010. Most recently, Gerwig has co-written Baumbach’s warmly received new picture, Frances Ha, in which she appears alongside Girls’ Adam Driver. She recently starred in Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years, Damsels in Distress, and she’s made two other pictures this year: Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, and the spritely looking indie rom-com Lola Versus.
Some mumblecore movies don’t seek to create stars, but instead employ established actors. Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007) is an outlier, of sorts: the film starred Scoot McNairy, an actor who was only vaguely recognized at the time, but should, with the impending release of Andrew Dominik’s masterwork Killing Them Softly, become much more widely known. This brings us, in a roundabout way, to Jay and Mark Duplass, whose use of familiar actors is unusual in mumblecore. The New-Orleans-born brothers have directed some five films together since The Puffy Chair in 2005, all of them comedies. Mark also appears in most of their films, and, like Gerwig, is himself a rising star. He had a cameo in Greenberg, is at the centre of a TV sitcom called The League, and appears in five films this year, among them the brilliant time-travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed (alongside Aubrey Plaza), and Kathryn Bigelow’s hotly anticipated Osama Bin Laden movie, Zero Dark Thirty. The brothers’ most visible effort to date, Cyrus (2010), with its incorporation of actors recognised by art-house and even mainstream crowds (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei), cemented what might be seen as a new phase in mumblecore—one in which critical respect and a credibility with audiences are garnered through the use of ‘name’ actors.
All of which is a lengthy preface to introducing Lynn Shelton, an actress-turned-filmmaker who first appeared in Swanberg’s Nights and Weekends in 2009, and has a bit part in Safety Not Guaranteed. Her new film as director, Your Sister’s Sister—which, like her behind-the-camera début of a few years ago, Humpday, features Mark Duplass in the role of the protagonist—eschews some tropes and features central to the movement while retaining select others. It has dialogue improvised around a loosely scripted outline, and makes wonderful use of intimate hand-held camerawork. (This creates, at film’s core, a naturalistic, invitingly confessional mood.) Where Shelton’s new picture differs from the bulk of mumblecore to date is in its casting and setting. The film is set in Seattle, and, as it did for Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, the Pacific Northwest provides Shelton the opportunity to observe some wonderfully calming scenery. The narrative, which begins with a humorous outburst at a memorial service, is driven by a depressed thirtysomething man’s quest for a little peace and quiet. His name is Jack, and he’s played by Duplass.
The British actress Emily Blunt, in the character of Jack’s ‘BFF’ Iris, happily retains her natural English lilt—allowing her to settle more comfortably into her character. (The instances in which Blunt puts on an American accent, however well, to my mind often result in a slightly detached-seeming or aloof performance.) Iris sends the strung-out Jack to her family’s ‘getaway’ cabin for some “alone time.” When he gets there, though, he finds her sister Hannah (the wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married), who’s already there to get some rest and relaxation of her own. Jack and Hannah’s initial conversations, and in fact the film as a whole, come to settle on the hitherto-undiscusssed romantic relationship between Iris and Jack (hence the circuitous title)—although Hannah’s position as an unexpected third wheel does figure prominently.
Shelton, whose technical proficiency behind the camera has progressed markedly since Humpday, brings some nice touches to proceedings: handsome establishing shots which last a beat longer or shorter than we expect; a deft comprehension, in editing and coverage, of the rhythms of her actors’ line deliveries and the nuances of their interactions; and the good sense to continue shooting some scenes longer than may have seemed necessary. This last decision reveals what might be the heart of mumblecore: the capturing of those incandescent in-between moments that are lost because the strictures of an ordinary film shoot don’t allow for the spontaneity that colours the best of the movement’s films.
In diverging from mumblecore traditions, and by discarding some of the movement’s less mature customs, Shelton has produced a thoroughly enjoyable indie comedy that is refreshingly distinct from the overly colourised, zeitgeisty forced quirk of what might be called the Fox Searchlight school of ‘Hollywood-indies.’ (They began, essentially, with Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, and have come to seem rote in their design; the latest among them, Ruby Sparks, is borderline unwatchable.) Your Sister’s Sister is witty and, at times, remarkably touching; its major downside is a third-act montage deployed with a heavy hand—but the fleeting ending, which requires something of an alertness to Shelton’s spur-of-the-moment framing, is sublime.