The Influences on Mumblecore

March 22, 1995,
Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle conference, Paris, France.

The who’s who of cinema is gathered together to celebrate the first century of the motion picture. They are also to discuss the future of cinema. Where will it go from here? Who will lead it?
Lars Von Trier (at this time most famous for Europa) is asked to speak about what comes next. Instead of the type of optimistic rallying cry one might expect, Von Trier distributes hundreds of red leaflets, announcing the birth of the Dogme 95 movement.

dogme-95

Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity

March 11-19, 2005,
South By Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas, USA.

For the first time, Kissing on the Mouth (Joe Swanberg), Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski), and the Puffy Chair (Mark and Jay Duplass) are screened together. Over the next decade and more, they, along with Frank V Ross, Lynn Shelton, Aaron Katz and many others, will forge the legacy of the Mumblecore generation.

duplass

Jay and Mark Duplass at SXSW

Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg entered the conference in Paris in 1995 to make a difference, to save cinema with their new experimental way of filmmaking. As for the Mumblecore group, the story goes that one night at a bar, Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga coined the term mumblecore, due to the fact it was difficult to hear what the actors were saying half the time as they mumbled so much. Bujalski would soon use it in an interview, apologising for that use later. Swanberg once spoke of how the term was an “obnoxious name nobody liked” and that it was “supposed to be a joke.” Mumblecore was not organised like Dogme 95 but still it has subsequently been viewed as a movement. There is no way to speak of the individual films without reference to this group that basically fell into being. So, Dogme 95 was intentional, Mumblecore happened purely by accident. That is not to say one is important and the other is not.

In many ways the two are greatly similar. They both have these legendary births, ten years apart – a specific moment in time when the movement was born. More integrally, they share many values. It would not be surprising to find Dogme 95’s Manifesto or Vow of Chastity in the bookshelf of Bujalski or Duplass. This “propaganda” highlights rules of filmmaking that many Mumblecore films follow. The importance of low production values in particular with a bare, basic, untouched look is shared by both. Compare The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg with Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth or LOL. Despite the greatly different subject matter, the shooting techniques are noticeably similar. They share this use of everyday locations without great preparation beforehand, and the use of handheld video cameras.

The purpose is of course different: The Danish masters were attempting to “purify” filmmaking, by stripping away special effects and other modifications in postproduction. For them it was a cleansing of the palette. Bujalski, Duplass et al, chose to make movies on a shoestring budget with only a plot synopsis, a few friends and a video camera in places they already owned, because that was the only way they could. It wasn’t about making a particular statement per se, but about how they were able to make movies, which would in turn shine a light on their own generation.

dogme-inline-1

Dogme #1: The Celebration (1998)

This particular approach to filmmaking was itself born of the period in which they began making movies. The early 2000’s saw the explosion of the internet and a great jump in technological advancements in general. The average twenty-something could now afford to buy (or hire) a handheld video camera. This seemingly insignificant fact played a huge part in the birth of Mumblecore. Unlike every other generation before them, the filmmaking generation coming of age in the noughties were in the privileged position of being able to make a film without big money or the directing hand of Hollywood. And not only that, but put it out into the world. Obviously it was only beginning then. Now we see the full impact, with the popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, and the downloading of digital movies. Mumblecore directors rode the very first wave of tech advancement, adding their own entrepreneurial spirit and the DIY ethic that has slowly seeped into everyday society since the punks in the 70s, to make the movies they wanted to make. For all the influences that can be cited, the timing of the movement and the developments that were taking place in the world outside Austin, Texas, must be seen as playing a huge part in Mumblecore’s creation.

Obviously there were others though who influenced the style of the filmmakers. They have been called The New Talkies for their focus on naturalistic dialogue instead of great action set pieces or special effects. This can be traced back all the way to the French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. Eric Rohmer for example was known in part for his love of dialogue – his protagonists often being greatly articulate. On the face of it, it is easy to argue that the comparison reflects unfavourably on the French, but perhaps that is too naive a view. The French directors were iconoclastic, and like Dogme 95, they were fighting back against the cinema at the time (period pieces were their biggest gripe). What they wanted to focus on was contemporary life – the issues faced by the many. It was quick filming, shot documentary style. The Mumblecore movement may seem like a bunch of slackers walking and talking in front of a camera, but it too is about looking into a very particular period in people’s lives. Mumblecore mines the real life trials and tribulations of men and women in their twenties and early thirties. The questions of uncertainty, success, failure, love, sex that many face are addressed. It may not be as dramatic or piercing, and it may not last as long in the memory as Dogme or the New Wave, but it’s just as clear.

breathless

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960)

Some may look further back into history at the experimental films of the pre- and particularly post-war American avant garde to find influences on the Mumblecore generation. Take for example arguably the most famous experimental movie of the time – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). It is slow, confusing and follows a circular plot for fourteen minutes. That is a way many would describe Mumblecore.
In all seriousness perhaps there is a link to be found. Manhatta (1921) is a ten minute short which simply celebrates the city of Manhattan. These experimental films are less concerned with structure and narrative as they are with moods and emotions. They work outside the usually accepted boundaries of what a film should be. Mumblecore does this also, admittedly to a lesser extent, but it still negates these traditional aspects – narrative, script, lighting, effects – instead providing something much more unconventional. Possibly the best example is Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966). It is divisive like the work of Swanberg or Duplass (and it is just as notoriously difficult to find a copy of too). It focuses on the lives of young women living in the Chelsea Hotel, and it is shot split-screen and is over three hours in length. Whilst it is more self-indulgent art than Mumblecore is, it has many of the same principal qualities of everyday tales focusing on everyday people being used as the loosely strung plot.
What is also interesting is that the experimental directors from the 1930s and 40s were  the first students of the new film schools in America, and thus their work as a whole is representative of a new generation taking the reins and molding film into a different shape, just like the members of Dogme 95 and the French New Wave, and now Generation Y Mumblecore directors are doing too.

Around the mid-century there was another European group who influenced the Mumblecore generation just as much, that being the Italian Neo-realists. Again they are indicative of their time, as they took a deep look at the troubles they faced – Post WWII after the fall of Mussolini’s government. The Italian Neo-realists took their cameras to the streets and tried to film real people in order to find a type of realism not seen in generic cinema, that could properly represent the struggles of the poverty stricken working class. Again Mumblecore does not carry such a political message but it’s attempts at realism are drawn directly from their Italian forebearers.

manhatta

Manhatta (1921)

It would be wrong not to flip the history pages forward though and praise the work of the independent filmmakers of the later twentieth century. Mumblecore directors are also called Slackevettes by some, and rightly so, considering the great debt they owe to the work of John Cassavetes. He also worked mainly with friends, promising them money from profit rather than up-front payment – a classic independent film trope that the Mumblecore generation continued. Cassavetes wasn’t interested in making industry movies, he preferred the freedom a self-funded film would allow him. Cassavetes work was not as improvised as some would believe but whilst there was a script available the actors were given free reign over how they wished to act the scenes, hence the naturalistic dialogue.
Speaking of which, another major influence, in fact such a huge influence that some have even claimed his work is the beginning of Mumblecore, is that of Richard Linklater. The Texan director’s movies have always focused on character and emotion over narrative, and many focus on the issues of being certain ages (Dazed and Confused: High School; Everybody Wants Some!!: College; Slacker: Post-Grad; Before Sunrise: Twenties; Before Sunset: Thirties; Before Midnight: Forties; Boyhood: Everything!). Like Swanberg and other Gen Y directors, Linklater also writes his films along with his cast members, particularly the Before Trilogy. This allows natural dialogue to flow.
There are other 90s directors who deserve a nod too including Kevin Smith, directing his friends in the shop in which he worked for Clerks and of course Noah Baumbach for Kicking and Screaming.

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Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004)

 

Mumblecore is not a sub genre that will be long into the future analysed, but perhaps it should be, as a continuation and adaptation of long-held independent film traditions. Today, we still analyse the likes of Warhol, Vinterberg, Von Trier and Eric Rohmer, and recognise their importance in essentially subverting expectations of what a film is “supposed” to represent. The Mumblecore directors do the exact same thing (although they are the least-committed and softest of these “rogues”), and like all these generations before them, they represent a specific moment in time, when DIY ethic and technology blended allowing twenty-somethings confused and perhaps lost in this ever-changing world to make films about twenty-somethings being confused and perhaps lost in this ever-changing world.

 

 

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