So close to real life, it's barely a movie.
Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)
I have a painter friend who hates when someone looks at a painting and praisingly says: "It looks just like a picture!" Their enthusiasm is misplaced. If value comes from how close an art form can replicate reality, then the whole artistic process is moot. I get the argument. Why then– when we are so very aware of artifice and mediation– do we praise a film for being more genuine the closer it hits on an uncomfortable reality? Mumblecore, an early 2000s indie-filmmaking movement, has been trashed up and down the block. Despite its criticisms, mumblecore really tapped into the narcissistic need to see ourselves– naked, awkward, and incoherent– onscreen. You may think it pretentious or lazy craft, but its influence is undeniable. Plus, there's something kind of important going on thematically here.
First, let's talk about what we mean by "mumblecore" (a word which seems apt and onomatopoeic to me). Mumblecore refers to a low-budget, naturalistic style of filmmaking usually featuring amateur acting within improvised scenes. Here's an example from the pantheon, Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007):
Despite what had to be a continuity nightmare, there's something here that is both self-reverential and wildly compelling. Films like this one and others by Swanberg–Bujalski's debut, Funny Haha (2002). the Duplass brothers' The Puffy Chair (2005), and anything else touched by Greta Gerwig in the aughts– all have an incestuous quality. These filmmakers were friends. So, by necessity, they all worked on each other's projects, lending influence, blurring the line between director/writer/actor. Due to this, the deciding feature of mumblecore is that it does away with pretense. The process of creating dictates the creation itself. Do these films stand up to critical scrutiny? No. Nor were they made to. But, there's an unapologetically messy symbiosis here too.
Nights and Weekends (2008)
"What happens in the fictional world of the film," confesses Gerwig, "is symbolically aligned with what was actually going on in our lives." She's talking about co-creating Nights and Weekends (2008) with Joe Swanberg. Since the film itself is a kind of peephole, let us risk peering through: Swanberg and Gerwig were dating and used their relationship as fodder. In fact, while together, they made the first half of the film about a "happy" couple. Then, after breaking up and living separately for a year, the pair decided to annex the story with an embarrassed and heartbreaking attempt to reanimate the body of their relationship. Thus, the infamously stilted sexual encounter near the close of the film. Gerwig's comment on this sex scene is actually very evocative of the viewing experience:
There's a big difference being naked [on film] and being naked and someone is touching you. It's terribly... in some ways it's traumatizing, [..] because your brain is doing so many movements. This is not happening; it's fictional. But, it's happening! Someone is touching me. There's so many things firing. You want to make it real. But, then as a person, it's not real. It's incredibly complicated and weird and it alienates you from your own body.
Watching a mumblecore film is a lot like what Gerwig described: it's traumatizing. It's traumatizing in the sense that we are forced to look at ourselves without the trappings of good lighting, makeup, or artful composition. There I am, red-faced and trying to cum. Why would we not only tolerate but enjoy such masochism?
An important distinction must be made: It is not actuality that we crave. It's this universe that exists just to left where you are fooled into belief. It happens from a concentrated moment. Because reality is the experiential relationship of our past, present and future selves reacting to physical laws, it's thrilling to be presented with something that pantomimes this experience. We're still being fooled. It's still artifice. Mumblecore just found the quickest route to this universe. We just want to be fooled better.
Funny Haha (2002)
"It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on."