The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Mumblecore and Four Eyed Monsters

In terms of Andrew Bujalski, the subject of my last post, one significant change that has occurred in the meantime has been the fact that his work has become associated with a number of other regionally-based young indie filmmakers, now generally referred to by the term “mumblecore.”

There’s a diagram that charts the various connections of this group on  Cinephiliac, and even David Gordon Green turns up as a cousin in the familiy tree. (I wonder whether that also makes Terrence Malick a cousin once-removed. I did notice that both settlers and naturals seem to mumble their dialogue in The New World, making it nearly impossible to decipher.) Other than the two films by Bujalski, Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair (2005), and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005), most mumbelecore films have not been available through the usual commercial channels. Instead they can be purchased directly through the filmmakers’ Web sites, or some of the smaller Web-based companies such as Austin’s B-Side Entertainment (bside.com), which distributes Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005).

Andrew Grant, the film critic who runs the popular film blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater and Aaron Hillis of Cinephiliac have also created a new DVD distribution company, Benten Films, whose first release (available shortly) will be Swanberg’s LOL (2006). Mumblecore is very much a Web and festival-circuit phenomenon, which has been able to gain surprising traction outside of regular commercial distribution channels. Several of the films have had limited theatrical runs.

In any event, there have been two recent articles on mumblecore that deserve mention here. There’s a rather lengthy one by Alicia Van Couvering entitled “What I Meant to Say” in the Spring 2007 issue of Filmmaker. And a second by Andrea Hubert recently has appeared in The Guardian, causing SXSW’s Matt Dentler, the biggest promoter of the movement, to write: “In the UK, The Guardian has decided to hop on the ‘mumblecore’ bandwagon, with a recent feature introducing the American indie film movement to the Brits. It’s really cool that they chose to do this article, especially considering that most of these films have never officially screened in the UK.”

Besides Bujalski’sFunny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), the only other films I’ve seen from this group are Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair, Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006), Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, and Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005). Alicia Van Couvering writes in her Filmmaker piece: “If we were going to generalize, we might say that generally these films are severely naturalistic portraits of the life and loves of artistic twentysomethings. The genre’s ultra-casual, low-fi style has been simmering for the last decade, made possible by the accessibility of DV and inspired as much by reality shows and YouTube confessionals as by earlier American independent cinema.”

Based on what I’ve seen, broad generalizations are indeed difficult to make about a number of these films, which are clearly as different from each other as they are similar. Rohal seems to be mining territory similar to David Gordon Green, while Swanberg seems more influenced by cinema vérité and reality TV. The Duplass brothers appear to be more interested in creating dramatic arcs than the others, while Crumley and Buice employ an art-school aesthetic and elements that derive from digital media. There are other differences as well. Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth includes lots of graphic sex, Four Eyed Monsters talks a lot about sex, but depicts it sparingly and poetically, while Bujalski’s two films are remarkably chaste by comparison.

Mumblecore films are a manifestation of the current twentysomething youth culture, much like the works that dealt with the beats (Ron Rice), or punks (Beth and Scott B), or slackers (Richard Linklater) previously. So there’s that. Even Aaron Hillis’s desire to chart the interconnections of these filmmakers on Cinephiliac comes from the impulse behind social networking on MySpace or Facebook or even on Amazon.com, where even putting books you have no intention of buying on a wish list becomes a form of identity and camaraderie for cyberspace friends. This is a clearly a generation obsessed with personal relationships, and how people connect to each other, which is reflected in these films.

Van Couvering quotes Swanberg as indicating that personal relationships are really the only subjects he feels qualified in addressing. He insists: “I don’t feel I have anything to say right now about the Iraq War.” Of course, an obvious question might be: Why not? His remark seems puzzling for someone who cites Dziga Vertov as one his major influences. On the other hand, Hubert quotes Mark Duplass as conceding, “Sometimes I see films like ours and I think ‘Fuck off, dude, there’s a war going on, who cares about your relationship?’”

Hubert’s article on mumblecore in The Guardian begins: “The ‘mumblecore’ movement has been credited with reviving the US indie film scene.” Frankly, I think that remains to be seen at this point. Hubert also concludes her piece by indicating that “Jay and Mark Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski now make money writing for big studios, which goes directly into financing their own projects.” She further quotes Bujalski as conceding that he might someday make a studio movie and remarking, “It would be good to turn naturalism into a crowd pleaser.” Despite this, Hubert still insists of mumblecore that “these guys are the real indie deal.”

There is no question that the studios always have their eye on the youth market, which is why they scout major film programs in search of young talent, much like the major art galleries in New York and Los Angeles have been raiding MFA programs. In the case of Bujalski and mumblecore, this has the potential threat of turning their alternative aspirations into mere industry calling cards, which is something we have witnessed before. I should mention that Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters can be viewed for free this week as part of a special promotion for Spout.com, an online film and video community. For every person who signs up for the Web site’s free service, Buice and Crumley will receive $1.00, up to a maximum of $100,000. Touting the free screening of Four Eyed Monsters as the first feature to be shown on YouTube, Spout claims the subsidy is for Buice and Crumley’s next film project, while the two filmmakers indicate it will be used to retire credit-card debt on the last one. Buice and Crumley have proven themselves to be extremely adept at exploiting the social-networking possibilities of the Web as a marketing and self-distribution tool for low-budget indie films.

I highly recommend Four Eyed Monsters, which is easily the most formally inventive of the mumblecore films I’ve seen. Four Eyed Monsters deftly mixes autobiography with fiction in telling the trials and tributions of a love affair spawned by Internet dating. Played by the two pasty-faced filmmakers, Buice and Crumley play two artists who decide to turn their budding relationship into a Fluxus-inspired performance piece – a potpourri of emails, hand-written notes, photographs, drawings, animation, and videos. Their lovemaking is depicted through a montage of shots: a flock of pigeons taking flights from a rooftop, black moving clouds, fragments of their naked bodies, shadows being cast on a building, and a shot of pigeons eventually landing.

Crumley’s monastic desire to avoid talking provides one major obstacle in the story, but the possibility that he’s contracted a sexually transmitted disease from Susan takes up pretty much the entire middle act, and includes a hilarious rotoscoped sequence involving Crumley’s experience with a doctor at a free clinic. The complication is drawn out by the fact that Buice has left New York City for an artist residency at Studio Vermont (a place that sounds as crazy as Wrenwood in Todd Haynes’s Safe), and the test results take a couple of weeks.

The two eventually get back together, but not without additional issues; the result turns out to be the film, the ending of which is deliberately left open for purposes of serialization. In terms of their more free-form style of visual storytelling, Buice and Crumley have a natural instinct for what’s important and when to cut, which turns out to be frequently – something that differentiates their work from the extended-take realism of other mumblecore films.

The film has already made $16,059 from its YouTube screening, and can be viewed directly on the Four Eyed Monsters Web site.

Postscript: The special promotion has been extended through August 15.

Posted 12 June, 2007