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"Youthquake:" Denby Does Mumblecore

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire March 9, 2009 at 5:42AM

With SXSW kicking off later this week, featuring new films by Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Kris Swanberg, and Ry Russo-Young, filmmakers and audiences alike will be hearing that dreaded "m-word" once again. The movement got another boost today in the latest issue of The New Yorker.
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With SXSW kicking off later this week, featuring new films by Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Kris Swanberg, and Ry Russo-Young, filmmakers and audiences alike will be hearing that dreaded "m-word" once again. The movement got another boost today in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

"You’re about twenty-five years old, and you’re no more than, shall we say, intermittently employed, so you spend a great deal of time talking with friends about trivial things or about love affairs that ended or never quite happened; and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you fall into bed, or almost fall into bed and just enjoy the flirtation, with someone in the group," The New Yorker's David Denby wrote in his new article on Mumblecore movies. "This chatty sitting around, with sex occasionally added, is not the sole subject of 'mumblecore,' a recent genre of micro-budget independent movies, but it’s a dominant one. 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. Neither rebels nor bohemians, they remain stuck in a limbo of semi-genteel, moderately hip poverty, though some of the films end with a lurch into the working world. The actors (almost always nonprofessionals) rarely say what they mean; a lot of the time, they don’t know what they mean. The movies tell stories but they’re also a kind of lyrical documentary of American stasis and inarticulateness."

Denby obviously isn't the first to discuss "mumblecore." In 2007, Dennis Lim wrote an article in The New York Times, noting: "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."

But even in 2007, "mumblecore" had been around for some time. Andrew Bujalski's 2002 film "Funny Ha Ha" is generally regarded as the first mumblecore film, while the style was allegedly named in 2005 (when, as Denby notes, sound mixer Eric Masunaga, "having a drink at a bar during the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), in Austin, used the term to describe an independent film he had worked on. The sobriquet stuck, even though the filmmakers dislike it.")

Type in "mumblecore" on indieWIRE and you'll find articles dating back to 2005: An interview with Bujalski on "Ha Ha"; a video featuring Joe Swanberg discussing "Hannah Takes The Stairs" and the idea of "mumblecore"; a piece centering around the IFC Center's 2007 mumblecore-centered event, "Generation DIY: The New Talkies"; a dispatch from last year's SXSW announcing an IFC deal with Swanberg.

While Denby's discussion certainly seems quite dated (Spout suggested "circulating wariness" on the genre over a year ago), his general acclaim for the genre remains interesting. "When the material is emotionally raw, and the nonprofessional actors show some strength," he says, "mumblecore delivers insights that Hollywood can’t come close to."

With regard to one mumblecore director in particular - Swanberg, whose upcoming SXSW premiere "Alexander The Last" is Denby's eventual focus - film critic Glenn Kenny recently disagreed, causing an outpouring of angry commenters from both sides of the fence. Similar reaction occurred in a recent indieWIRE dispatch from the Berlianle, where Shane Danielsen trashed Andrew Bujalski's latest, "Beeswax."

So whatever your opinion on Swanberg or Bujalski or "mumblecore" as a whole, its undeniably interesting to watch the blogosphere intermittently erupt one way or the other. Denby's piece has already brought upon a blogged response via Filmmaker magazine. "Channelling Margaret Mead, Denby forages through some of the familiar discussions of the m-word before the piece reveals itself to be a long wind-up to a brief discussion of Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last, which will be premiering at SXSW this weekend and then going immediately to IFC On Demand." Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay says. You can be sure the comments section will be a few dozen pages long by the time "Alexander The Last" premieres.

This article is related to: Features