Talkies

“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.

“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.” — New Yorker critic David Denby in an essay about “this low-key but cheering [cinematic] movement” in the current issue.

40 thoughts on “Talkies

  1. I always hear references to this genre and I still don’t quite get it…somebody list a bunch of mumblecore movies for me, please…the ones they list on wikipedia are a bunch of films no one has ever heard of. I don’t quite get all the media hype for this genre. There were a bunch of indy films about aimless 20-somethings gabbing and screwing like 15 years ago, moreso than now it seems.

  2. Denby’s piece continues a recurring obsession among writers of his generation: to fit our existence within rigid categories, to segregate and congeal, to organize the world into separate, artificial tranches.

    Self-ordained “baby-boomers” cannot simply let the world exist in undefined form. They find comfort in “best of” lists, they discuss art in terms of cliched posturing. They affix labels where none are deserved, and expand anecdotal data into “social movements.” And they assign causation where none is deserved.

    And so Denby continues the tradition with this piece. Perhaps it’s his way of hanging on.

  3. “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.”

    Welcome to the American economy in the 21st century, David. You can look forward to joining the fray with the rest of us in “hip poverty” when The New Yorker decides your job isn’t essential.

  4. I guess my mistake was in thinking this movement, if it really is one, involved movies people had actually seen or even heard of.

  5. I think you can stop calling yourself a serious film fan if you haven’t even heard of The Puffy Chair, Funny Ha Ha or Hannah Takes the Stairs.

    And Jeff himself posted about In Search of a Midnight Kiss last summer.

    Medicine for Melancholy opened last month in Los Angeles to great rave from the LA Times.

  6. They’re mostly annoying films. I thought BAGHEAD was an interesting way to try and save mumblecore from itself … only to collapse under the awkward weight of heavy stares and handheld cameras beholding nothing of consequence.

  7. I’m exaggerating – I’ve heard of several of these movies, although I haven’t seen any of them. It’s just that the level of media attention seems disproportionate to the importance of the movement itself.

  8. Mumblecore: a genre of coming of age films for the current crop of child-adults who grow up after 25. Dinther: please write a New Yorker piece about aging boomers fitting life into boxes before they die.

  9. Rocchi: “‘Generation to Generation, nothing changes in Bohemia.” — Nic Cohn”

    I’ve heard another, attributed to Grace Paley (although I’ve never been able to prove it): “Art changes and people change but the avant garde always stays the same.”

    That said, I think Aaron Katz (“Dance Party USA,” “Quiet City”) is as gifted a visualist as there is right now. And I love the Duplass boys.

  10. Awful, awful movies which mostly amount to turning a video camera on your friends and hoping they say something mildly interesting.

    This “genre” gets revived every year at SXSW time since the SXSW film festival considers itself the primary pusher of this genre which has a lot of roots in Austin.

  11. Yuval,

    in part. While i believe what i described is true, it is somewhat overbroad to attribute this to all baby-boomers. and of crs people in other age groups do the same thing. So yeah, use of the word “baby-boomers” is ironic in that sense.

    still, the major media – now run by people of that generation – revel in this sort of over-simplification. Even the word “baby-boomer” did not achieve currency until people of that generation began to mythologize “the 60s” and tried to separate themselves from the ennui of the next decade.

  12. As president of Benten Films, distributor of Swanberg’s LOL and Katz’s DANCE PARTY, USA and QUIET CITY, I’d like to correct a misrepresentation in the Denby piece.

    Neither Andrew, Joe or Aaron are “shaking up distribution patterns”, nor are they hawking their movies themselves. Benten has released four mumblecore titles, all of which were given deluxe treatment. Though the films are certainly DIY, the DVD releases were not.

    There are plenty of filmmakers (mumblecore or otherwise) who are self-distributing, but every film from the aforementioned three have received proper distribution.

    Andrew Grant

    Benten Films

  13. Also, please, nobody should ever bring up the phrase “avant garde” when discussing these filmmakers, the putative movement, whatever. Joe Swanberg is precisely as avant garde as The Jonas Brothers, for one thing.

  14. I don’t know what to make of Andrew Grant’s response. I suppose the same argument could be made for any genre– horror is another example where films can be DIY, but professionally released. Does this mean “mumblecore” is an official genre as opposed to simple “drama”? Are there Dogma 95 rules for mumblecore?

    Waiting for Hollywood to jump on the “mumblecore” bandwagon and release some mainstream indie mumblecore films with Scarlett Johansson and other hot young stars– oh wait– they already have: “New York, I Love You.”

  15. I made it thru about a half-hour of The Puffy Chair — those characters were so annoying I wanted to kill myself.

    But I liked …Midnight Kiss and Medicine For Melancholy a lot — god bless IFC On Demand.

  16. Bujalski’s films are fantastic. It hurts to see something as genuine as FUNNY HA HA reduced to a goofily-monikered-genre entry. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. American indie filmmaking at its best.

  17. Dinther, let me clue you in on something. The majority of these “baby boomers” (ironic, zing!) are aware of the basic artificiality and constraints of things like “best of” lists, and, hell, some might even dislike/loathe them with a little more nuance than you (difficult I know). But they also have graduated past any masterbatory freshman zeal they might have felt in discovering and misunderstanding postmodernism.

    Suprisingly, as one progresses past delayed infancy, one realizes that the compromises of things like “best of” lists, and like, categorizing movies into genres and stuff, are a) not significant in the realm of sacrifice, personal or otherwise, and b) a function of the, like, crassness and soul-crushing problem of making an actual living.

    But then they’ve already sold out, haven’t they? And they clearly haven’t mastered the brazen mix of puritanical moral idealism and zen detachment at such a tender young age.

    By the way, for anyone other than Dinther, Mutual Appreciation is a decent film, though, as a 27 year old who used to live in Williamsburg (the mumblecore mecca), I feel deeply ashamed that self-reverential hip posturing has come to be the definitive genre of my generation. These movies capture a very small portion of what it means to be in your midtwenties. Where are our great filmmakers?

  18. Until this very moment I’d never heard of the term “mumblecore” either. Yay for learning about a sub-genre that never needed defining in the first place. Does Garden State qualify?

  19. Dinther, there is nothing new at all about the phenomenon of generalization; it is one of the most basic traits of the human mind. It is certainly a problematic tool, and the problems are worth bearing in mind; but no one could get through a day without using it.

  20. Eh, roquentin, apparently i struck a nerve with you. unfortunately it’s not the one that spawns coherent rhetoric. “sold out”? “delayed infancy”? i’m not sure what your point is, but i do think “masterbatory freshmen zeal” and “soul-crushing” are somewhat trite for someone of your age. you can do better.

    topbroker, i don’t necessarily disagree. i do notice it more from writers of that generation, however.

  21. Glenn Kenny: Never meant to suggest mumblecore/slackavettes was an ‘avant garde’; just heard an echo of a fondly-recollected adage in Rocchi’s post.

  22. Until this very moment I’d never heard of the term “mumblecore” either. Yay for learning about a sub-genre that never needed defining in the first place. Does Garden State qualify?

  23. Dinther:

    Every once in awhile, someone’s comments strike me as inane enough to warrant such an exorcism. It’s childish but at times cathartic.

    Thank you for the supportive comments. You are probably right to expect better of me, and I am glad that you know me well enough that you can catch my lapses. I assure you though, that the craftsman behind such gems as “separate, artificial tranches” and letting “the world exist in undefined form” and defining “art in terms of cliched posturing” would do well to take his own advice. I would also helpfully suggest that you pay attention to your subject…is it the writers themselves who both separate and congeal? Powerful imagery, either way.

    But then, I would estimate that you are in high school. Making my arguing with you feel shameful enough to make me think twice about my occasional dips into sarcastic mudslinging. (Not shameful enough that I couldn’t leave well enough alone apparently, but still.) Lesson learned I guess.

    Best to you.

  24. Aaron Katz is actually a really interesting director. His collaborative approach to moviemaking itself is echoed by his characters interactions and the content of his films.

    His newest film, Cold Weather, actually goes beyond these mumblecore conventions- it’s stylistically very similar to these other movies, but uses noir and mystery genre as a backdrop. Most of the complaints about mumblecore (that nothing happens) can be pretty much satisfied with this development.

    Sorry to do this, but I wrote a review using my interview with Aaron Katz. Check it out: http://bostonianonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/05/aaron-katzs-cold-weather.html

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