The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Greenberg

It was inevitable that if the young filmmakers associated with mumblecore couldn’t capitalize on the phenomenon at the box office someone else would. Films like The Puffy Chair (2006), Baghead (2008), and Humpday (2009) were all expected to become commercial successes, but all of them fizzled badly. Noah Baumbach, who somewhat surprisingly produced Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), shot his latest film Greenberg (2010) with mumblecore mainstays Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.

Just as John Schlesinger turned themes that Andy Warhol was exploring in My Hustler into the Academy-Award winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) with Jon Voight playing a male prostitute, so too has Focus Features’ Greenberg mined territory similar to mumblecore, while far exceeding the success of probably all of those films combined. Greenberg, in a limited theatrical release, has already grossed $3 million domestically. Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative in my analogy. Noah Baumbach is hardly John Schlesinger, and none of the mumblecore directors are in the same league as Andy Warhol. But the surprise here is less that Baumbach’s Greenberg is a modest commercial and critical hit than the fact that he has managed to turn Greta Gerwig into an overnight star.

A. O. Scott’s glowing article on Gerwig in the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago might have seemed over the top to many people. He writes: “Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. She seems to be embarked on a project, however piecemeal and modestly scaled, of redefining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.” Because acting is the one aspect of a film about which people most disagree, I’m pretty sure that The New York Times received a great deal of flack over this claim about Greta Gerwig.

There are several different types of film acting. “Star” acting aside, Hollywood acting, as embodied by someone like Meryl Streep, is the kind in which the artifice is completely evident in her performance. Every emotion is being telegraphed to us as viewers. In other words, when watching such performances, I’m always aware of exactly what the performer is doing – there’s never really a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the performance in question is judged precisely on recognizing the divide between actor and role. Did you really believe for a second that Jon Voight was a male hustler? Probably not, but mainstream viewers appreciated his characterization rather than its sense of realism.

Think of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in the scene where the Fowlers rip each other to shreds in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. That’s Hollywood acting, as we watch how the two veteran actors build their performances step by step. I’m not saying that what they are doing isn’t powerful or emotionally affecting – with artifice it is always a question of degree. In Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, there’s the scene where Mike (River Phoenix) tells Scott (Keanu Reeves) that he loves him as they sit by a campfire. The scene is painful and embarrassing to watch as a result of Mike’s vulnerability. River Phoenix doesn’t look at Reeves, wraps his arms around himself, assumes a fetal position, and rocks back and forth as he exposes his true feelings toward his friend. What I’ve just described is the artifice that Phoenix adds to a performance that is otherwise more naturalistic and more believable than that of Spacek and Wilkinson.

The last type of acting (of course I could break it down into any number of finer gradations) is naturalism. Non-professional performers, such as Cris Lankenau and Erin Fisher in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City would be examples. Warhol’s whole notion of the “superstar” was someone who plays herself or himself, which in some way represents the ideal of naturalism. It is interesting that A. O. Scott mentions two performances that I have raved about previously: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl. Those are professional actors who bring tremendous skill to their naturalistic roles in these films. Scott distinguishes the untrained performance of Gerwig by noting: “Part of her accomplishment is that most of the time she doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The transparency of her performances has less to do with exquisitely refined technique than with the apparent absence of any method.”

In assessing the earlier performances of Gerwig – and I’ve seen the films he references – in light of Greenberg, Scott later suggests that “you begin to intuit a degree of calculation and craft beneath the spontaneity and sincerity.” In other words, he acknowledges that Gerwig is “acting.” By the same token, it would be naïve to think that a Warhol superstar such as Edie Sedgwick isn’t acting or playing to the camera in such films as Kitchen, Poor Little Rich, Beauty # 2 Restaurant, Afternoon, Space, or Outer and Inner Space. Edie is very different in each, and in audio recordings Edie’s personality diverges even more from anything I’ve seen of her on screen. As Erving Goffman and others have made clear, all of us are engaged in a series of roles in negotiating and performing our lives.

Much of this is related to the issue of improvisation or structured improvisation, which has some bearing on naturalistic performances like those of Lankenau and Fisher in Quiet City or Gerwig’s previous work with Joe Swanberg in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends. Swanberg’s films don’t have actual scripts. When asked in an interview how Greenberg differs from her previous work, Gerwig mentions that the new film represents a change in scale. She adds: “And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it. But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.”

To her credit, Gerwig manages to hit every note in Baumbach’s Greenberg, a romantic comedy which features Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old misfit named Roger Greenberg who returns to Los Angeles to house sit for his rich brother, Phillip (Chris Messina). Phillip has just taken the family to Vietnam, leaving behind the family dog, Mahler, and their personal assistant, twenty-five-year-old Florence Marr (Gerwig). Florence explains to one of the kids that she and Mahler aren’t going on the trip because they’re “not family.” Although Florence runs the household, she’s not very assertive in asking to be paid promptly. She meets Roger when she stops by the house to pick up her pay check. In the meantime, Florence impulsively sleeps with a guy she’s met at some art event. She tells him, “I just got out of a long relationship.” He responds, “This isn’t a relationship.”

Roger has come back to LA from New York with a lot of heavy baggage involving his brother, former band members, Ivan (Rhys Ifans)and Eric Beller (Mark Duplass), and an old flame named Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares story credit with Baumbach), who now has a couple of kids. Just out of a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, Roger, a carpenter by trade, is preoccupied with writing letters to various companies about a litany of petty complaints. When Roger first meets his tall British friend, Ivan, he reads him one of his letters rather than engaging with him on a personal level. When they attend Eric Beller’s party, Greenberg literally sweats the whole time.

Roger and Florence become involved with each other almost immediately, even though Florence tries to slow things down after the fact. In the middle of it, she asks him, “Do you hear a train?” Florence, for all her competence, is full of self-doubts. She apologizes for her ugly bra and tells him, “I get kind of nerdy.” And, as if speaking for her generation, she also confesses, “I don’t read enough.” Roger, for his part, is pretty much impossible. He’s extremely neurotic, but in a mean-spirited (though funny) way. He goes down on Florence in a matter of seconds, but when he suspects she might have a cold sore on her lip, he runs off to the bathroom to investigate and decides to make a quick exit. When she gives him a flier announcing that she’s singing at a small club, he announces, “We probably shouldn’t do this again.”

After Mahler becomes ill with an autoimmune disease, Roger and Florence reconnect – Roger no longer drives – and he does show up to watch her sing. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Florence’s friend Gina (Merritt Wever) says knowingly, but Roger refuses her invitation to join Florence’s friends. When he gets together with Eric Beller, there’s still residual anger on Beller’s part over the fact that Roger torpedoed their band’s record contract years ago. As a result, Ivan developed a substance-abuse problem and now fixes computers, and poor Beller has been reduced to directing television. The friends are full of regrets involving the past. Ivan tells Roger at one point, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Roger answers, “I’d go further. Life is wasted on people.”

Roger spends much of the film venting about his life. At his birthday celebration at the restaurant, the waiters arrive with cake and candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” Roger startles everyone by shouting, “Sit on my dick, asshole.” The more reprehensible Greenberg behaves, the more Florence becomes enamored. She tells Roger she’s impressed by him, especially because he doesn’t seem pressured to be successful. She even says, “You can stay over. Wink. Wink.”  But when Florence tells him a silly story about her and a friend impersonating sluts with frat boys who videotaped them, Roger explodes and yells, “That’s the stupidest story I ever heard!” As he bolts out the door, he adds angrily, “What’s the point of that story?”

Roger, however, is still hung upon his old girlfriend Beth. He even calls her from his birthday celebration after inviting Florence to join him and Ivan. Roger tells her, “My dog is sick.” She responds, “My mom is sick.” But it’s a stalemate – he can’t imagine what that might actually mean for her. Roger manages to remember all sorts of small details about their earlier relationship, while it turns out that Beth has forgotten virtually everything. Their relationship obviously meant more to him than her – he’s been stewing over it all these years and wants to rekindle it. When Roger suggests that they should make a dinner date, Beth wisely refuses.

As Roger and Florence keep seeing each other, she comments on the fact that he likes old things. She then asks, “Do you think you could love me?” It is said in such a touching and heartfelt way that most men would melt on the spot, but Roger’s response is to ask her to stop calling him and to express a preference for someone older “who has low expectations about life.” He also psychoanalyzes her, managing to connect her behavior to being sexually molested. Florence at one point tells him, “You like me much more than you think you do.” Of course Roger does, but Greenberg is very much about a clash of generations. At a party later on, while Florence is temporarily out of the picture, Roger gets high and engages the college kids regarding their supposed differences. Roger calls them insensitive, and insists, “I’m freaked out by you kids.”

Baumbach’s risk in Greenberg is that not everyone will be amused by someone so angry. Coming to terms with adulthood and a life you never planned might not be easy, but everyone else his age but Roger has made the transition. On the other hand, Florence remains remarkably cheerful and upbeat despite her low-status job, a singing career that’s nowhere, her crush on a lunatic, and experiencing a traumatic event that she endures without complaint. Baumbach’s spin in Greenberg is putting these two different generational world views in conflict, which is also reflected in the acting styles. Ben Stiller is doing traditional comedy, while Gerwig excels at humorous naturalism. My guess is that most audience members will side with Florence, who’s quite likeable, rather than a self-absorbed character with an early mid-life crisis.

Critics have been proclaiming the death of mumblecore almost from the moment the term was coined by Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, in 2005. A. O Scott writes: “It will be interesting to see how far Ms. Gerwig can go and also whether the aesthetic she represents will continue to blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema.” He sees Baumbach’s Greenberg as suggesting “an intriguing transgenerational entente.” A more cynical view might call this a form of cooptation.

Postcript:

Since posting the above entry on Greenberg, I re-watched Hannah Takes the Stairs in order to take another look at Greta Gerwig’s performance. Joe Swanberg’s film is about a young woman, Hannah (Gerwig), who gets involved in multiple relationships over the course of a summer in Chicago. Why? We aren’t sure, nor is Hannah, other than the fact that she’s young and confused – a bit like Florence. Hannah dumps her current boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass), who has quit his job, when she’s realizes she’s unhappy in the relationship. The reasons given are that she resents the fact that Mike is funnier than her and that he doesn’t even know the names of her sisters. Hannah drifts into another fling with her office mate Paul (Andrew Bujalski). He’s supposed to be a hot new writer, but, as in his own Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski plays a nerdy intellectual. Hannah soon tires of Paul as well, presumably because he’s not really there for her.

Hannah finally winds up with another co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne). When he confesses to her that he’s on anti-depressants, Hannah has a meltdown. Although much of the film feels as scattered as the characters, this scene with Hannah is the one where her acting talent is most obvious. Hannah tells Matt, “I tend to leave destruction in my wake.” When Matt asks her how things are going with Paul, she stares out the window rather than at him and suddenly begins to cry. The camera stays very close to her. Hannah talks about using him. Matt tells her he doesn’t even know what she’s sad about. Hannah responds, “I don’t know. I just feel like I’m seeking too many people out.” She talks about the manic nature of having crushes on people and her regrets after acting on those impulses. Four and a half minutes later, Matt unlaces her black sneakers and the two begin kissing. Hannah realizes that she’s using her looks and sexiness to cause other people pain, but she nevertheless feels helpless to do anything about it.

I went back to Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film in The New York Times from August 22, 2007. In the context of the mumblecore/ DIY film festival at the IFC Center at the time, he writes:

“For devotees of recent D.I.Y. moviemaking, “Hannah” will evoke melancholy feelings, and not just because the heroine finds (probably temporary) bliss without seriously examining her preconceptions. Mr. Bujalski is writing a movie for Paramount; Mr. Duplass and his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass, are writing and directing features for Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television series to NBC; Mr. Swanberg and Ms. Gerwig are already finishing a new movie, and are so talented that they may not have to scrounge for financing for the next one. In light of all this, “Hannah” plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things. Mr. Swanberg’s third movie is a graduation photo in motion: D.I.Y., class of ’07.”

For the record, Swanberg and Gerwig’s Nights and Weekends (2008) – the film to which Seitz is alluding – grossed a total of $5,000 at the box office worldwide (Hannah Takes the Stairs did $25,000). Andrew Bujalski subsequently made Beeswax (2009), a film which I consider one of the best indie films of last year. Despite generally favorable reviews, it made considerably less money than either of his previous two self-released films.

Mark and Jay Duplass’s Baghead, which was distributed by Sony Classics, grossed $140,000, but Mark Duplass also appeared as the lead actor in Lynn Shelton’s more commercially successful Humpday ($428,000) and now, of course, he has a smaller role in Greenberg. But the Duplass brothers’ latest film Cyrus (2010), which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features name actors and is backed by the marketing muscle of Fox Searchlight. It appears to be their real bid to break into the mainstream. I’m basing this on watching the trailer and the Variety review. We’ll know for sure when Cyrus opens theatrically this July.

Posted 10 April, 2010