August 22, 2007

Mumblecore Inc.

How one festival and a new film series cornered the market on a "movement"

By S.T. VanAirsdale

(L-R) Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau in Quiet City, one of the featured selections of IFC Center's New Talkies: Generation DIY series (Photo: Aaron Katz)

Sometimes the stories write themselves: A few guys make a few movies; a bunch of festivals reject them. One event rolls the dice. Why not? The films are raw, different, even good. They do it again with some of the same filmmakers the next year, along with a few new ones who work along the same inexpensive DIY lines. Those filmmakers get to know each other, collaborate on some titles the fest groups together for year three. Everyone's a little older, more seasoned, more accomplished. Ready for the world.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

"I think a lot of people in the industry started thinking, 'Oh -- what's going on here?' " said Matt Dentler, producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival and one of the chief patrons -- and, perhaps, principal architects -- of the putative movement spotlighted in The New Talkies: Generation DIY, a two-week series launching tonight at IFC Center. The program features work by filmmakers Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Aaron Katz, Mark and Jay Duplass, Frank V. Ross and Kentucker Audley, none of whom are older than 30 and most of whom have contributed to each other's projects in varying capacities. The most collaborative of the bunch, Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, opens the series as the first of the group to receive mainstream theatrical distribution, through IFC First Take. Katz's second film, the self-distributed lost-in-Brooklyn saga Quiet City, enjoys a week-long run of its own starting Aug. 29.

Those bookends and everything between them wield a hearty critical following from their festival lifespans and limited theatrical stays since 2005. Over the last year, however, they have also acquired the mixed blessings of hype, corporate calculation and an unofficial brand -- "Mumblecore" -- that their practitioners loathe. IFC Center's promotional materials tout "an exciting new breed of American indie"; Dennis Lim's recent gush in The New York Times characterized the films as "the sole significant American indie film wave of the last 20 years to have emerged outside the ecosystem of the Sundance Film Festival."

One could argue it's a good problem to have. Not that that makes it any easier to contend with.

"I guess that what bugs me about this idea of a movement," Bujalski recently told The Reeler, "is that I feel like the things that these films all have in common are the least interesting things about them. It's the differences that make them interesting. You read the synopses -- 'These are films made cheaply about young white people talking to each other.' And of course it sounds excruciating. And there are plenty of films that fit that description that are excruciating. The things that make the films good are not that."

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Indeed, the halting, haunting post-college awkwardness of Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, the sublime cultural (and self-) critique of Swanberg's LOL and the transcendent character study of Quiet City share, at best, an actor or two and the improvisational, unapologetic embrace of their limitations. For all of the aesthetic overlaps deduced in features in The Times, The Voice, Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE and elsewhere (the most sincere survey yet is an emotional rather than intellectual one, the YouTube monologue How Mumblecore Saved My Life), the films collected in The New Talkies wield the texture and spirit of their moments in ways that defy simple categorization. They were largely shot on video and the filmmakers know each other. Hannah Takes the Stairs, which co-stars Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Orphans filmmaker Ry Russo-Young and The Guatemalan Handshake director Todd Rohal (now evidently included, despite his film's stylization, among Mumblecore taxonomies by association) among others, is the first of the films to join so many in Swanberg's cohort in one place onscreen.

"The media," Dentler said, "to a certain degree, couldn't help but say, 'What's going on here?' when some of the most unique American indies we're seeing right now on the festival circuit are coming from a bunch of friends, who A) none of them had received a conventional distribution deal, and B) they all live in separate parts of the country."

In the context of The New Talkies, of course, it's less the "festival circuit" than South by Southwest, sort of the Punxsutawney Phil of annual film fests, operating on an unwritten mandate to distance itself from its six-weeks-after-Sundance shadow. Dentler and his colleagues decided as early as 2001 they didn't want SXSW to be a sloppy-seconds stopover for distinguished indies out of Park City or Toronto. They leaned a little more on their experimental-cinema backgrounds, unearthing micro-budget Canadian fare like Blaine Thurier's uncompromising Low Self-Esteem Girl and Sean Garrity's largely improvised Inertia.

In 2005, the raw, frank sexuality and relationship drama of Swanberg's feature debut, Kissing on the Mouth, appealed to Dentler on similar terms. The film had been rejected by a number of festivals; Dentler gave it a premiere. (Funny Ha Ha and the Duplass brothers' The Puffy Chair were there as well, after premiering at the Woodstock and Sundance film festivals, respectively.) The polarization that followed has been documented fairly exhaustively elsewhere; let it suffice to say that Swanberg had a standing invitation to unveil his follow-up LOL in Austin in 2006. Where he ran into Katz, who was in attendance with his own debut, Dance Party USA.

Swanberg had already met Russo-Young at the Chicago International Film Festival, and introductions continued in 2006 with Rohal at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. He involved nearly all of his new colleagues in Hannah, which stars LOL alum Greta Gerwig as an enchanting, if disenchanted, young Chicagoan struggling with romance issues and other "chronic dissatisfaction." The group shot the trailers for SXSW 2007 while they were at it. ""I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, this sounds like kind of a powerhouse operation for this little movement,' " Dentler said. "I was also thinking the whole time, 'This'll probably mean something to like 20 people around the world, but it's kinda cool.' "

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs (Photo: IFC)

Swanberg submitted Hannah to Sundance '07; it was rejected. Dentler eventually slotted its SXSW premiere in a coveted Sunday night spot. It was the signifying event of the festival, which also boasted, among other titles, the premieres of Quiet City and the music doc Silver Jew, directed by Katz's fellow North Carolina film stalwart Michael Tully. On June 29, IFC Films announced it picked up Hannah for day-and-date distribution through its First Take arm; the film opens the IFC Center series today and is available for download from IFC on Demand.

Which is, if we're being honest, really where The New Talkies comes in.

"I think it was definitely part of the plan," said Ryan Werner, VP of marketing for IFC Films. "The whole idea was to generate a lot of press about this kind of filmmaking and these people to try to give Hannah a little bit of a boost. And I think it worked. The press this week has been great. I don't think, had we released the movie on its own, it would have generated quite as much stuff as it has; there are certain publications that are always playing catch-up that I knew would give this program a very big profile. And they basically did."

Keep in mind, of course, that Werner was among the Woodstock programmers who selected Funny Ha Ha for the 2004 festival. He likes and believes in these films, especially Hannah. But business is business, and even Swanberg shared Werner's philosophy in his own discussions with IFC -- specifically, that the series would provide the ultimate opportunity for those invested in what he called "the whole 'movement' idea" to assess its market yield. "I think a lot of people are going to come away from it thinking there's either something there or not something there," he told me. "Better to do it now then a year from now, or whenever. It's time to put the movies next to each other and compare and contrast. It's cool."

In more modest contexts, though, it's already been done. Harvard Film Archives curators Ray Carney and Ted Barron programmed LOL, Funny Ha Ha, Frank V. Ross's Quietly On By and pretty much everything by the Duplass brothers in last summer's New American Independent Cinema series. "These filmmakers represent a group of exciting voices that have invaded the national independent film scene and discovered innovative new means for distribution and promotion," the curators note on the series' Web site. A few months later in New York, the Pioneer Theater hosted the program Vloggers Unite! Primarily emphasizing the methods, diversity and implications of online video, the series featured 11 nights of LOL as its anchor, plus Swanberg's "indie soap opera" Young American Bodies, which IFC Center will revive Saturday. "(The programmers) are spotlighting the first video generation in the cutting-edge art form of entertaining bored people at work," Swanberg wrote in an Aug. 23, 2006, guest blog on The Reeler. "Prime time has shifted from 8 p.m to 9:30 a.m." (Another tech-conscious DIY enterprise called Four Eyed Monsters made its New York bow there nearly 18 months earlier.) In subsequent runs, the theater hosted engagements of Tully's gritty dramatic feature Cocaine Angel and former Pioneer projectionist Katz's Dance Party USA.

Today Katz works at IFC Center along with C. Mason Wells, a principal actor in and credited co-writer (with Swanberg and Kevin Bewersdorf) of LOL. He and Wells worked with the venue's general manager John Vanco and programs director Harris Dew to curate the New Talkies series (itself reconstituting the name applied to the avant-garde films of Yvonne Rainer and others back in 1981; a Los Angeles film series earlier this summer used it as well). The idea arose in conversation one night following an event at the theater. The Pioneer screenings were a tough sell, Katz told me; IFC Center is a "legitimizing force." I asked him what he thought happened in the past year that made the package viable for the theater. For starters, Katz replied, most of the participating filmmakers had made another movie.

Kate Dollenmayer as Marnie in Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (Photo: IFC)

"There's still interest in these films," he said. "I think that at first there was the suspicion, 'These are these films, and we're never going to see or hear from these guys again.' IFC has branded it and made the series theirs in a way, but when we were talking about it, it definitely felt like taking a risk. It wasn't clear, I guess, whether or not it would get attention from the press, and its still not clear if it's going to get attention from an audience or not."

Others sharing that apprehension include Andrew Grant and Aaron Hillis, old friends and established New York film writers (Grant runs the acclaimed blog Like Anna Karina's Sweater; Hillis is a contributing critic to Premiere, The Voice and this site). In addition to first-time filmmaker Hillis' own SXSW premiere Fish Kill Flea (co-directed with Brian Cassidy and Jennifer Loeber), the two have this year undertaken Benten Films, a boutique DVD label whose first four titles -- LOL, The Guatemalan Handshake, Dance Party USA and Quiet City -- all emerged from the Mumblecore/SXSW stable. Notably, the upstarts landed a distribution deal with Ryko, which opens their films to the same retail shelves as imprints ranging from the Criterion Collection to Genius Products, which distributes IFC titles.

The timing of the series couldn't be better for LOL's release Aug. 28, though they insist it's coincidental. "I don't think anything was so calculated, because we're still just going title by title," Hillis said. "I mean, we don't want to be pigeonholed as Mumblecore Distribution. We're doing what we're doing now, and we're still paying attention to it, and there may be some films that really speak to us. But for the most part we want to branch out and do more foreign releases."

Grant agreed, welcoming the publicity but bristling at the mainstream's recurring urge to generalize. "A lot of the recent press about Mumblecore is focused on 'made for 20-year-olds by 20-year-olds,' " he said. "I don't think that's the case. I'm 41, and I think these films are fantastic. I think they kind of transcend their little niche -- they're not a 'for hipsters only' kind of thing."

Regardless of how the IFC Center series unfolds in terms of box office, the DIY ethos and stylistic emphases have undoubtedly already had an impact on other directors. In an e-mail exchange last week, indieWIRE editor-in-chief and New School film history instructor Eugene Hernandez wrote me that discussions with some of his students revealed that "the existence of these so-called 'Mumblecore' movies has inspired young filmmakers and shown that there are alternative paths to making and distributing movies today."

Bujalski all but winced at the thought of a second wave. "It's an interesting phenomenon," he told me. "At some point, like Pinocchio, maybe the fake movement becomes real. I don't know." But Swanberg, now a seasoned veteran with a fourth feature in the can and an online "private-eye show" called Butterknife in development with Salon, is bracing himself.

"I feel like next year's film festival circuit will be full of a lot of synopses that have the word 'Mumblecore' in them -- written by the filmmakers, not by other people," Swanberg said. "Just based on e-mails I'm getting and conversations I'm having with people, I think that there will start to be imposters and people who are sort of interested in jumping into 'the group,' sort of regardless of the work involved or the movie that they're making. I don't know. I just feel bad for them. It would be like being one of those people who was a Tarantino rip-off in the '90s. It seems really lame to me to come after the fact and try to capitalize on something or hope to hitch yourself to something. But it's going to happen, definitely."

From the festival front lines in Austin, Matt Dentler has similar concerns. But while acknowledging the potential romance of the filmmakers' creative relationships to outsiders, he downplays the idea of a scene, movement or Mumble-anything rooted at SXSW. At the end of the day, he said, he's just a fan like everyone else.

"These are really good people, and I think that's why people are really attracted to the movement, and I think that's why people are so behind rooting for these guys," he said. "They are nice guys, and it would be great to see them finish first."

Comments (3)

Dear Aaron Katz:

You know I love you, and you know that I will always be your biggest fan. DANCE PARTY USA is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I meant and still mean every single compliment I have given it. That film is a very deep meditation on what constitutes independence: not only is it set on July 4th of a summer after many of its characters have graduated from high school or college, but the story also investigates the ways in which the characters can be or want to be independent of one another. Also, of course, in production method the film tests by example the borders of "independent film" as it has by now been refined into an almost classical definition through the example of name plate producers and distributors. DANCE PARTY USA is more than idle chatter because of your and your colleagues' own intelligence, modesty, subtlety, and resourcefulness, which I have been honored to see in my own experiences with you as a co-worker and perhaps as something of a friend. I look forward to your work flourishing for decades to come.

But I want to respond to your point about IFC being a "legitimizing force" as opposed to the Pioneer.

I understand the desire for "legitimacy" of one kind or another. But legitimacy talk often sounds more about money and class than anything else. And in a decidedly exclusive way: a way that mandates that only the rich and powerful can decree what "legitimately" qualifies as an artwork. It's like the Catholic Church. Certain people become unimpeachable gatekeepers to heaven: appease them, and you can ascend to the celestial castles.

I'm not convinced that is the best way to respond to art.

When we did the "Vloggers Unite!" program at the Pioneer, Forbes.com ran an online video report titled "Internet Video's Big Debut." (That report is no longer available online, or if it is, I can't find it.) To me the title conjured an image of Internet Video as an 18 year old girl, making her first appearance at an uptown ball attended by Opera, Theatre, Ballet, The Symphony, maybe The Cinema, where she might dance with Banking, Real Estate, Industry, and Publishing. Talking with the reporter as she worked on the story, I realized that was the story she had already written, and that she was simply looking for quotes to illustrate that story. I spoke about the virtues of Charlene Rule's work on ScratchVideo.TV, of the humor of TheBurg.TV, of the inventiveness of groups like ThePan.org (now defunct), and other topics. If memory serves, none of that was used in her final cut. She had consistently asked questions prompting me to say that with that program I was "legitimizing" online video. I didn't give her that quote, though she did get such a quote from others she interviewed.

As your quote suggests, the Pioneer doesn't "legitimize" anything. But to me, at least, that's because we don't need to. Artworks are made. They are legitimate as they are. Let's talk about them, analyze them, discuss them. But if an artwork doesn't appear in a certain context, that doesn't mean it's not "legitimate." Unless, I suppose, you want to follow the Catholic model of legitimacy. I might argue that the "Electra Elf and Fluffer" cable access / performance art video series is one of the most intelligent, hilarious, and scathingly satirical artworks being made today, and that decades from now art critics and historians and collectors will study (and buy) the work of Reverend Jen Miller the way today they study (and buy) the work of Basquiat. But my saying so has nothing to do with "legitimizing" Electra Elf or Reverend Jen. Instead I'm evaluating and responding to the work, and trying to give it a context with an audience. That is different than bestowing legitimacy.

As Alfonso Cuaron wrote in the Guardian last year, referencing Mexican filmmakers honored at the Oscars: "What I resent ... is the notion that the Oscars are somehow bestowing legitimacy on Mexican cinema. We don't need this legitimacy."

Maybe you feel you do need the "legitimacy" of IFC. Okay. Enjoy. They show some good stuff, and they certainly have more money and power than the Pioneer. I have friends there, and I'm not opposed to working on projects with them myself.

But keep in mind what you mean by "legitimacy." "Before Them, Films Were Just the Movies," proclaimed the headline to a recent A.O. Scott piece in the New York Times, a piece reflecting on the passing of Antonioni and Bergman and the "art film" / "art cinema" culture they represented. That headline is a common sentiment in the world of "art film," particularly in the development offices for film institutions. Such a sentiment is a slap against anyone who ever appreciated M, or The Great Train Robbery, or who found art (in a way that had nothing to do with class but instead with craftsmanship, connection to the audience, or historical geneaology) in any glorious success or disaster preceding the emergence of "art cinema." "Just the Movies" - the idea disenfranchises, and delegitimizes as art (or as film) anything that does not fit the cultural milieu and the stylistic characteristics of "art cinema."

Thank you very much, but if legitimacy means disavowing works I love and in which I and others find value, I'd rather be a bastard. As I suppose I am.


Ray Privett
Pioneer Theater

P.S. Cuaron's piece was earlier this year (February 5, 2007), not last year.

Congratulations to Mumblecore! Google me :-)}

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