Now and Then: Five Reasons ‘Mumblecore’ and ‘Millennial’ Don’t Mean the Same Thing

Now and Then: Five Reasons 'Mumblecore' and 'Millennial' Don't Mean the Same Thing
Now and Then: Five Reasons 'Mumblecore' and 'Millennial' Don't Mean the Same Thing

Reading wave after wave of writing about the Millennial generation and the so-called “mumblecore” movement, you would be forgiven for thinking the commentators had somehow mistaken movies for real life.

The language used to describe both this loose collection of American independents and the generation they supposedly depict sometimes seems interchangeable. Amy Taubin’s acerbic take on director Joe Swanberg — “smug and blatantly lazy” — would be at home in Joel Stein’s recent Time Magazine cover story (behind paywall), which called Millennials “lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow.” How a small group of emerging filmmakers came to be treated as the stand-in for an entire generation of young people deserves explanation, but first things first: this interpretation is grossly, absurdly, mind-blowingly wrong. “Mumblecore” and “Millennial” don’t mean the same thing. Here are five reasons why.

1. There’s No Such Thing As “Mumblecore”

For a fleeting moment between 2005 and 2007, years which witnessed the release of “Mutual Appreciation” (Andrew Bujalski, 2005), “The Puffy Chair” (Jay and Mark Duplass, 2005), “Dance Party USA” (Aaron Katz, 2006), and “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (Swanberg, 2007), one might have deployed the word mumblecore without scare quotes.

Coined by Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, the term — which nearly every major figure in the movement has since disavowed — originally referred to the films’ awkward, half-finished dialogue and poor sound quality. Call me unsophisticated, but as tongue-in-cheek shorthand for the rough affinities among this early body of films, I think “mumblecore” works. It nods at their low budgets, rambling narratives, handheld camerawork, and improvisational affect, but it is also appropriately skeptical. “Mumblecore,” deployed with the requisite irony, is a built-in insult, and often a well-deserved one. 

But “mumblecore” was never just one thing, even at the beginning. Tonally, Katz’s pained sensitivity and Swanberg’s sexual frankness barely merit inclusion in the same category. The caddish teenage protagonist (Cole Pensinger) of “Dance Party, USA” discovers a crime he’s committed even as he’s admitting to it; the flaky twenty-something protagonist (Greta Gerwig) of “Hannah Takes the Stairs” can scarcely stand to discover anything. “I had other worries,” she says near the end of the film. “But now all I’m worried about is my play.”

2. We’re Not All Lena Dunham 

If the pundits who write about “Millennials” are to be believed, nearly everyone under 30 in this country is white, straight, artsy, and wandering more or less jobless through the big city. (Note to Joel Stein: we’re not.)

This confusion might be called “The Lena Dunham Effect,” though the creator of “Girls” is only its most recent icon. Dunham’s style resembles Bujalski’s or Swanberg’s, from the essayistic narrative structure to her prominent on-screen roles. Working from two problematic assumptions — that Hannah Horvath is a thinly veiled Lena Dunham, and that young people will only watch what they identify with — commentators have used Hannah’s (admittedly grating) approach to life as evidence of a generational malaise. 

Bullshit. A “Millennial” is in fact any person born between 1983 and 2000, no matter their race, sexual orientation, temperament, occupation, or living situation. The low-hanging fruit of these films’ worst excesses only serves, to poach Taubin’s line, the smug and blatantly lazy notion that growing up with “helicopter parents” and an Internet connection turned us into self-aggrandizing freaks with no empathy, no politics, and no work ethic.

3. Realism Is Not Reality

The movies subsumed under the “mumblecore” label do themselves few favors on this count. Collectively, their aesthetic and narrative choices aspire to a level of realism nearly indistinguishable from the real.

But most recent “What’s Wrong With Millennials?” stories pay little heed to the distinction, offering along with questionable scientific data a host of anecdotal evidence seemingly plucked from the annals of “mumblecore.” However improvisational, collaborative, or low-fi, these films are fictions. Their imagery is purposeful — an idea of youthful ennui rather than the thing itself. To put it simply, we do not all spend the day lolling in bed like 19th-century invalids. 

4. We Didn’t Anoint “Mumblecore” the Voice of Our Generation. You Did.

As Amy Taubin recognized, “the flurry of festival hype and blogosphere branding” that ushered “mumblecore” into the public square distracted observers of the phenomenon from a key piece of data: the box office numbers. In the age of the Internet long tail, theatrical receipts are an imperfect barometer of popularity, but the failure of even the most successful “mumblecore” feature — Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” (2009), which grossed about $400,000 — to become a breakout hit is striking.

Money is not synonymous with quality. (My favorite film in the “mumblecore” universe, and possibly the most influential single movie of this century so far, is Bujalski’s 2002 debut, “Funny Ha Ha.” It grossed $77,000.) But in making a claim for the movement’s influence on the Millennial generation, it would do to investigate whether the Millennial generation is actually watching. By and large, it seems that we are not.

5. We’re Not So Different From You, After All

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s latest collaboration, the sleek, winsome “Frances Ha” (now in theaters), is only a kissing cousin to “mumblecore.” It draws equal inspiration from the French New Wave and Woody Allen’s classic pair of New York love stories, “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Manhattan” (1979). Indeed, the film’s allusions to the cinema’s more distant past provide a potent reminder that the frightening, joyous experience of being young, single, and bohemian, as in Truffaut’s World War I-era “Jules et Jim” (1962), has not changed as much as some commentators would like us to think.

“Frances Ha,” better than any “Milennials” essay you’re likely to read, suggests that seeing “mumblecore” or “Millennials” as more self-absorbed, difficult, or directionless than their respective forebears is a problem of perspective. The film successfully crystallizes modern almost-adulthood because it refuses to make Frances the voice of her generation. Like Hannah Horvath in “Girls,” Frances is only “a voice of a generation,” and that’s just fine. 

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