In 2013, the idea that “mumblecore” is over has finally been accepted with the near-simultaneous theatrical release of Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” and the VOD release of Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” which hits theaters next month. When Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” emerged in 2002, “Sundance movies” were the innocuously quirky, modestly-budgeted norm, which didn’t make for a clear new narrative about American indies. Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” and its direct descendants provided an easily parsable network of pricklier movies whose relationship to each other was clear both stylistically and in the number of overlapping people acting in or otherwise collaborating on others’ work. Here’s a look at some of the principle filmmakers from that group and where they are now.
“Funny Ha Ha’ marked the first time I’d seen passive-aggressive conversations in which all involved have the paramount goal of not hurting each others’ feelings captured with such devastating precision. This awkwardness may be Bujalski’s most influential signature: without “Funny Ha Ha,” Lena Dunham might not exist. But pigeonholing the movie as a zeitgeist time capsule suggests Bujalski’s big achievement is making a smarter “Reality Bites” rather than a fully realized social comedy of tepid manners. “Funny Ha Ha” and Bujalski’s 2005 “Mutual Appreciation” function as indexes of the many ways in which a specific peer group (post-collegiate, white, comfortable with and actively pursuing life with minimal financial resources) can fail to communicate with each other. 2009’s “Beeswax” had more fully evolved adults struggling to understand the civil lawsuit process, a novel but illuminating topic.
His new film “Computer Chess” is bracingly weird, exchanging the fully-scripted awkwardness of his previous work for largely improvised group interactions and meditations from the early ’80s on how technology would change our lives. On first pass, it’s almost unfathomably strange, but repeat viewings yield a thematically tight, densely parsable movie in which the glitches caused by a 1969 Portapak video camera visually illustrate how computers and other technologies meant to be passive tools end up actively deciding for us what we can and want to do.
Swanberg cranked out twelve features between 2006 and 2012 centered on sexual confusion and dissatisfied relationships mediated/exacerbated by technology, beginning with “Kissing On The Mouth” (conceived in part as a corrective response to the buttoned-up passive-aggression of “Funny Ha Ha”). After early films in which the zoom button was grievously overused, Swanberg settled down visually and started carefully framing his shots; the results can sometimes be striking; the first third of 2009’s “Alexander The Last” is actively pretty, something I never thought I’d say of a Swanberg film.
Where Bujalski’s first three films were rigorously scripted, Swanberg’s movies are derived from extensive improvisation; your response to them will be dependent on how productive you find watching inexperienced performers trying to act natural by speaking with lots of padding and filler. His internet-centric angle can result in instant time capsules — 2011’s “Uncle Kent” has a lot of ChatRoulette action, already making it a bit of a relic. His new “Drinking Buddies” has neither sex nor technological action, and the actors (name-ish stars like Olivia Wilde, a first) seem lost in a series of generic one-on-one confrontations lacking Swanberg’s demographic specificity and credibility.
The Duplass Brothers
2005’s “The Puffy Chair” was a jockier gloss on “Funny Ha Ha”‘s conversational awkwardness, while Jay and Mark Duplass’ 2008 follow-up “Baghead” was an unwieldy but mostly intriguing blend of micro-budget filmmaking mechanics satire and self-aware “Scream”-esque laughs. Mark and Jay Duplass’ subsequent dramedies (“Cyus,” “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon”) are wearisome variants of stories about arrested adolescent males goaded into tentative self-actualization through broadly comic awkward social interactions and the patient prodding of weary women. The best thing to come out of the sibling duo’s lapsed promise is Mark’s emergence as a reliable, always welcome character actor seemingly everywhere from FX’s “The League” to “Zero Dark Thirty.” The duo is currently developing a new series for HBO.
Memphis native and recent Brooklyn transplant Kentucker Audley 2007’s “Team Picture” is a deceptively low-impact but precisely calibrated slice of aimless hanging out in a very specific semi-urban milieu. 2010’s “Holy Land” (which you can and should watch in full on YouTube) is even punchier, morphing from a fragmented W.-era summer road trip into a “David Holzman’s Diary” interlude where the actor flees the shoot, interrupting the narrative —which then resumes as if nothing’s happened. Audley also runs NoBudge.com, his curated streaming platform for micro-budget films he approves of and said in an email he’s also working on “a new site that will expand our coverage to crowdfunding campaigns, web videos/series, and news from the true indie world.”
Frank V. Ross
I only caught up with Frank V. Ross by his fifth feature, 2010’s sorely overlooked “Audrey The Trainwreck” —the mumblecore equivalent of the volatile mood-swings and unexpected provocations of “Punch-Drunk Love.” 2012’s “Tiger Tail In Blue” is less overtly eccentric, a rare movie about people who spend the majority of their time either at an unrewarding job (waiting, in this case) or drinking to unwind afterwards. The opening titles come 55 minutes into the movie, a typical indication of Ross’ refreshing willingness to mess with expectations even (almost exclusively) on the smallest but still disruptive levels. A regular presence in Swanberg’s films, for my money Ross has way more to offer than his regular collaborator.
2006’s “Dance Party, USA” tackled rape and youth mating rituals in a commendably unflappable way, totally avoiding the terrain of Larry Clark-ish panic or prurience, while the next year’s “Quiet City” was an NYC “Before Sunrise” with a more annoying central couple. 2010’s “Cold Weather” was a whole other creature from either, an overtly scripted comedy about professionally unmoored twentysomethings that without warning suddenly becomes a surprisingly non-shambling detective story. Katz hasn’t made another film yet, though hopefully he’ll re-emerge eventually.
Like Duplass, Greta Gerwig’s crossed over to a wider audience regularly. 2010’s “Greenberg” provided a near leading-lady showcase after she had worked with Swanberg and the Duplasses (she took a directing credit with Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends,” which brought her to the attention of Noah Baumbach). After that, there were some unremarkable detours (playing Russell Brand’s girlfriend in the remake of “Arthur,” a stint in Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love”) followed by her triumphant mastery of Whit Stillman’s idiosyncratically stylized dialogue and flights of verbal fancy in 2011’s “Damsels In Distress.” An actress once noted for flustered indecision and panicked grins of humiliation has mastered disciplined artifice, even while finding new variations on a signature persona (most notably in “Frances Ha,” which she co-wrote).