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The Great Divide: Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation”

The Great Divide: Andrew Bujalski's "Mutual Appreciation"

Is Andrew Bujalski the cinematic voice of a mumbling, inarticulate, moderately employable generation, or a talentless student filmmaker who’s managed to spin a single badly done trick into an honest-to-goodness moviemaking career? There’s not much I can say, and most certainly nothing in “Mutual Appreciation” itself, that would constitute a definitive answer. Unlike other scrappy micro-budget filmmakers who capitalized on indie success to turn out bigger-money abortions like Darren Aronofsky or Kevin Smith, Bujalski resolutely stuck to his guns and produced another shoestring work mired in, or consistent with (depending on your take), the concerns of “Funny Ha Ha“: youthful idleness, the difficulties of articulacy, the constant tension in relationships between the superficial and meaningful. There’s really nothing in “Mutual Appreciation” that reasonably constitutes as an expansion on “Funny Ha Ha,” unless one counts the decision to shoot in cruddy 16mm B&W as opposed to cruddy 16mm color as a notable progression.

About the unlikeliest, most unassuming critical flashpoint imaginable, Andrew Bujalski somehow sparked an immediate and testy divide amongst the Reverse Shot critics when his rumpled first film, “Funny Ha Ha,” hit theaters last year after years with no distribution but a solid underground following. Michael Koresky called it “an extraordinarily resigned document of twentysomething angst…remarkable for its sheer lack of angst. There’s nary a grandiose statement to be found, just the gradual accruing of behavioral tics and daily routine, all of which add up to something wholly serene and becalming.” Meanwhile, Nick Pinkerton said: “Why do I hate ‘Funny Ha Ha’ so, so much? Some defenders have as much as suggested it’s because it ‘hits too close too home.’ But I don’t think this can apply here; neither myself nor anyone I know is anywhere near as dull as the dramatis personae in ‘Funny Ha Ha’ — I had the feeling when watching it of being trapped in one of those college parties that made me want to make a 180 turn on as soon as I walked through the door.”

“Mutual Appreciation” relocates Bujalski’s familiar shambolic aesthetic and motley assortment of more or less loosely connected characters from the outskirts of Boston to everyone’s favorite geographical punchline: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Alan (Justin Rice), sporting the overdetermined dishevel of the elusive hipster, has just fled Beantown after the dissolution of his band, the Bumblebees (sigh), and his most recent relationship, and the film nearly immediately establishes the central concerns at play in his life: His first New York gig is in only a few days’ time and he’s lacking a drummer, and, worse, he’s short on funds and lives under regular, uncomfortable reminder of this from his surprisingly understanding, yet understandably concerned father. He spends time hanging out and drinking with old buddy Lawrence (Bujalski, as in “Funny Ha Ha” the most compelling character and performer) and his girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift), briefly and passively romances a local radio DJ (Seung-Min Lee), and generally meanders his way through a procession of dirty kitchens, dumpy living rooms, and tantalizingly familiar (to its target audience) street corners as the narrative progresses in fits and starts alongside him.

With all the discussion of the “gig,” one could be forgiven for being surprised that it’s over by about halfway through the film (Alan, unsurprisingly, traffics in that strain of utterly undistinguished indie pap that provides ready fodder for daily mp3 blogs). It’s followed by a lengthy sojourn in an apartment owned by a friend of Alan’s father, a former record industry exec played as ambiguously douchey by “Decasia” filmmaker Bill Morrison, which marks something of a turning point in the film. After a drunk-dial to the ex, Alan stumbles through a tipsy encounter with transvestitism presided over by a trio of Brooklyn sirens (or are they meant to be the Weird Sisters?) before collapsing into the second half of the film, wherein a host of small, incidental pre-gig encounters with Ellie freely cascade past the point of moderate flirtation into acknowledgement of mutual attraction and to the verge of romantic involvement. Throughout this, Lawrence gradually recedes into the background, roped into performing in a ridiculous theater piece (the surest sign yet of Bujalski’s awareness of the pomposity inherent in his milieu) and attending an ex-girlfriend’s wedding, though it’s obvious from his growing anxiety that he’s fully aware he may be losing Ellie.

Pinkerton, forgive me, but somehow “Mutual Appreciation”‘s central narrative mechanism reminds me of nothing so much as Eric Rohmer’s bittersweet “Love in the Afternoon.” Something about their structures, how the relationship that seems most central to each film — respectively Frederic and Chloe, Alan and Ellie — reveals itself to be the least important of the romantic triangle feels familiar, and calculated, but in the manner of a filmmaker trying to make a grander point, not push buttons blindly. Bujalski’s a poor man’s Rohmer to be sure, but this is, in my book, better than a host of Kevin Smiths or similarly untalented indie hacks. There will surely be ongoing debates over the merits of his continued focus on the dead moments of the late twenties and his employment of an aesthetic that so effectively mirrors these interstitial encounters–don’t we want our youth romanticized for us in art as eventful and meaningful even as we watch mundane drudgery slowly chip it away in life? But in Bujalski’s hands we can at least be sure of a few things: a refreshing lack of condescension, a handful of honestly surprising and funny bits (“Mutual Appreciation” features a particularly raunchy piece of left-field comedy), and a continuing attempt to access that DIY spirit so long absent from the majority of films that come bearing the “indie” imprimatur.

Justin Rice and Rachel Clift in a scene from Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation.” Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

In many ways it’s largely beside the point to compare “Mutual Appreciation” to “Funny Ha Ha” — neither apple’s fallen far from the tree, and both exist in a space so removed from the norm that I’m grateful for their singularity. For the record: “Funny Ha Ha” hangs together better overall, but I appreciate “Mutual Appreciation”‘s attempts to stretch, as meager as they may be. (Should have dropped the performance footage, and fifteen minutes though.) Bujalski remains, for me, a filmmaker more than worthy of support. He’s made two small and certainly precious films, but I’ve a hunch that he’ll soon be finding grander, more ingenious ways of working within the bounds of his intentionally tiny canvases.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]

Take 2
By Nick Pinkerton

“Mutual Appreciation” is an apt title for Andrew Bujalksi’s second feature; the relationship that the young filmmaker has formed with eager-to-be-with-it critics and his small, partisan audience recalls Melody Maker’s barbed description of the early-Nineties London shoegaze movement: “The Scene that Celebrates Itself.” This tie-in with indie rock isn’t tossed off; Bujalski, casting members of the banal guitar pop band Bishop Allen in both of his features, shooting in low-fi 16mm, and filling his films with slouchy liberal arts grads, deliberately courts the same quarterlifer crowd that anesthetize their cubicled lives with white earbud injections of Ben Gibbard‘s self-melodramatizing (the girlish lowercase cursive on the “Mutual Appreciation” poster is straight off a Postal Service EP). Giving due credit: Bujalski deserves admiration for whatever success he’s had in opening up the elusive twentysomething crowd to filmmaking that is, regardless of its qualities, at odds with the mainstream idiom, and his grassroots ethos is admirable; grading intent over content, I like him tremendously.

But: the usual line in praising Bujalski is to mention his “truthfulness” — this based on his film’s sloppy compositions, spontaneous-seeming dialogues, and characters’ tendencies to punctuate conversation with deeply-felt pauses. In fact, the self-conscious over-significance of these dreaded lulls seems like the anxiety of unaccustomed performers nervous about wasting film, falling awkwardly between actual conversation and, say, the excrutiating stylization of Mike Leigh‘s “Bleak Moments.” I know that this isn’t “the truth,” also, because I have rarely spent 110 minutes with people — in life or on-screen — where I’ve laughed as little as I have in the company of Bujalski’s players; his films are atrocious with comedy. The other stock compliment is that Bujalski’s work displays a keen understanding of character; in fact there is a flattening sameness to the principle parts in these movies — shy, sexless, inept conversationalists — that gives little indication of the variety of human life (Bujalski’s bit players fare better; “Funny Ha Ha”‘s unkindly used starlet Kate Dollenmayer, demoted to a peripheral part here, is casually charming.)

This isn’t it, but I think Bujalski has an interesting movie about sexual confusion/ masculine passivity/ impotence somewhere in him — I’ve rarely felt inclined to call a work of art “dickless,” but “Mutual Appreciation” fits the bill. An absurd scene where a roomful of drunken girls doll up our protagonist in eyeshade, and a subplot surrounding Bujalski’s character rehearsing a monologue written by and for a woman, imply that he’s aware of his subject but hasn’t quite found the tack to approach it. One of the director’s loudest advocates, Ray Carney, has spoken of Bujalski’s work as predicting a new movement; I hope that this is true, though only in that a lot of would-be filmmakers will look at “Mutual Appreciation” and think, “I could do better than this.” Certainly Bujalski, whose artistic baby steps have been so prematurely applauded, could benefit from such a thought.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and writes on film for Stop Smiling.]

Justin Rice and Pamela Corkey in a scene from Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation.” Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Take 3
By Michael Koresky

That “independent spirit” you hear spoken of ad nauseum in pre-program spots at the Angelika, Landmark theatres, and whichever local art-house near you playing “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Illusionist,” believe it or not, actually does still exist. And miraculously sometimes it breaks free from the latest New Filmmakers or Video Festivals that spring up like dandelions. How movies starring Steve Carrell, Greg Kinnear, or Edward Norton can still be defined independent must be a question Andrew Bujalski poses to amuse himself; his first film, “Funny Ha Ha,” and his latest, “Mutual Appreciation,” both of which hit theaters long after they began to accrue underground followings, are self-consciously grubby, stammering, 16mm mini-movies whose idea of “star power” is putting the various members of the indie pop band Bishop Allen in main roles. As easy as it may be to pick apart Bujalski’s forthrightly ramshackle, I-don’t-care aesthetic, there’s a remarkable gravity to the resolutely earthbound images it conveys. I found it doubtful that Bujalski’s films would have acquired such a sizable fanbase if they were so truly careless in their construction — the old bit of wishful thinking that says a film “speaks to a generation” here would have to be adjusted to “speaks to a sequestered subset of a generation”; i.e., those twentysomething postgrads who would like to believe that they’re eking out an urban bohemia through disconnection. Whether you believe this community truly exists or is just a construct, depends on how you define yourself and perhaps who you hang out with.

The lack of articulation that seemed so benignly amateur in “Funny Ha Ha” seems more studied and posed this time around, and the goofy charm of Kate Dollenmayer is severely missed, with lead Justin Rice’s mannerisms just slightly more calculated (naturally, he’s more of a regular performer than Dollenmayer). The more Bujalski continues along this track of artistic nonchalance the more it will seem like a put-on; for now, though, his films remain somehow lovely and bewildering. “Mutual Appreciation” truly does feel different from anything else out there, regardless of whether its technique seems somehow like film school leftovers. Considering the experimental exuberance of so much student filmmaking, this can be refreshing when compared to all the prefab stuff we’ve been seeing in 2006. And much like “Funny Ha Ha” took a sly turn in bringing front-and-center the bittersweet non-romance enacted by Dollenmayer and Bujalski, “Mutual Appreciation” finally hangs up its guitar and blithely watches a love triangle blossom. It’s a credit to Bujalski that although there seems to be a lack of drama in the unfolding of this trio’s neuroses, you never doubt that he knows it’s there all the same, and feels it.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Interview and Film Comment.]

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