MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

South by Southwest by Northeast, or, Mumblecore Must Die

Sometimes I really love the direction that movie distribution is going in. With movie theaters becoming less and less of a place I’d like to visit because of rude crowds, rising ticket prices and sticky floors, I enjoy having the option of watching something at home. With HD becoming more of a standard and the prices for screens dropping, we are losing a lot less of the “experience” of movie-going by staying home and popping a DVD into our Blu-Ray player and watching it on our HD screens. I love having the option of watching a film in the comfort of my apartment.

So I’ve really been loving what IFC has been doing with many of their new releases, making them available for on-demand viewing at the same time they hit theaters, allowing folks in outlying areas the option of watching a smaller movie without having to scour for an arthouse hundreds of miles away. And now with South by Southwest here, IFC On-Demand is offering the option of watching a handful of movies playing and premiering at SXSW. You can literally have a film festival at home.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on copies of most of the films and, list most film festivals, the results were hit and miss. So I want to talk about a hit and a miss – in that order.

Three Blind Mice (Dir. Matthew Newton)

This was the last film I watched of the entire bunch because the logline was the least appealing to me: Three young Navy officers hit Sydney for one last night on land before being shipped over to the Gulf to fight. Sam has been mistreated at sea and is going AWOL, Dean has a fiancé and the future in-laws to meet, and Harry just loves playing cards. Throughout the night the boys lose each other, find themselves, and along the way discover courage, friendship and redemption.

That logline reads like a story I’ve seen told before, but the actual film is so much more because it’s infused with heart and soul and it is far from the film you might anticipate. Truly, the film is about five different ones, including a Before Sunrise type of romance in Sam’s story that works extraordinarily well in no small part due to the charms of a young actress namedGracie Otto whose warmth and vitality jumps out from the moment she comes on-screen. In most situations in movies where one character immediately falls head over heels for another, it can be difficult to see what caused this, but we have no doubt as to why Sam (underplayed well by Ewen Leslie) would fall for her.

At the heart of the story, though, is the relationship between three guys who don’t seem like they’d get along too well if they didn’t have the Australian Navy in common. Sam is a well-meaning guy who lets his passivity take hold, Dean is the by-the-book innocent who might be a little too by-the-book, and then there’s Harry (played by the film’s writer-director Matthew Newton) who provides the bulk of the film’s comedy. But even the character of Harry is not the typical movie “wild-guy,” he’s got a depth and a heart to him that makes him winning instead of annoying.

There is a very strong anti-war message at work here, but it’s not something that is easy to pick up on until it has already passed you by. In a way, it’s a “message” movie that has been disguised as a buddy comedy and it’s done with such ease when you might come expect something a bit blunter from a neophyte filmmaker. And what makes Newton a filmmaker to watch is the way he is able to switch tones subtly and the way he makes us empathize with each of the characters throughout the night. By the time we get to a climactic dinner table scene that reveals a different layer to an oft-mentioned incident that occurred before the movie starts, our feelings are so wrapped up in each of the characters that we can understand the perspective of each.

Of all the movies that you can rent from IFC-on-Demand, this is the one I would most highly recommend.

Alexander the Last (Dir. Joe Swanberg) Or: Mumblecore Must Die!

I really need to get something off my chest: I hate Mumblecore!

Wow, I feel much better now. You see, it actually seems as if I’m in the minority on this because films like Humpday and now Alexander the Last are, much to my great surprise, being lauded by critics. Not just critics, but ones that I respect a great deal. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, David Denby praises Alexander the Last and filmmaker Joe Swanberg and goes as far as to compare him to the great Eric Rohmer (and Jeffrey Wellsactually compared him to Antonioni).

Now, I’ll get to that infuriating Rohmer comment in a moment, but first I’d like to talk about how strange it is that Denby relates to these films more than I do. Denby makes it a point in his article to say that mumblecore films are basically about 25-year-old, intermittently emplyed college-educated individuals who talk a lot. Wait a second, that’s me! I’m a 25-year-old, intermittently employed college-educated individual that talks a lot! So, it strikes me as a bit odd that someone who is twice my age would praise how “real” those films are, going so far as to say, “The movies tell stories but they’re also a kind of lyrical documentary of American stasis and inarticulateness.”

If these are supposed to be films – and I’m talking about movies like Alexander the Last, Mutual Appreciation, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Funny Ha-Ha – that are “documenting” people essentially like me, then let me just say this: they don’t get it. Just because these films are made by young people does not mean that they understand young people; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that young people are probably the least well-equipped individuals to make films about young people. The navel-gazing in these films are off the charts and I don’t even know if the filmmakers understand how pathetic they make our generation look.

So, as I mentioned earlier, Swanberg has been compared to Eric Rohmer and Antonioni, two filmmakers I love and he doesn’t hold a candle to either (but really, who does?). He isn’t adept at language the way Rohmer is and I think if Antonioni came back to life and saw the shaky digital camcorder work that is being compared to his beautiful compositions, he would kill himself. Each shot in an Antonioni film is a work of art, each line in a Rohmer film is a poem, but more importantly everything they have put on screen matters and has been thought through. Conversely, Swanberg’s films don’t say anything and look as if no effort has been put into them. Rohmer made films about young people even when he was approaching his 80s and he never looked down upon them, always treated them with the same care as he would an adult, while the young Swanberg seems to have contempt for his own generation, flippantly treating his young characters as nothing but self-absorbed whiners.

Alexander the Last is ostensibly about a young woman (Jess Weixler of Teeth) who has carnal longings for her studly co-star in a play while her husband is away touring with his band. The logline makes it sound kind of interesting, doesn’t it? But the filmmaker takes a fascinating premise and infuses it with needless quirks and long pauses and disjointed editing. Instead of just telling the story, the film wants to pad its short running time with contrivances and affectations and scenes of sisters singing a strange song for no explainable reason. In other words, not a whole lot happens in the film and that’s fine; after all, not a whole lot happens in some of the best Gus Van Sant or Antonioni films. But the difference is that those filmmakers have infused their film with meaning, each movement of the camera evoking something deep within us, using music or sunlight in a way that makes us feel something. Swanberg’s modus operandi seems to be for us to feel nothing for the characters or the story.

Swanberg made a niche for himself as an artist who doesn’t create art; rather, he puts shaky images on a screen with a half-hearted story and allows the “scholars” to intuit things about his films that just aren’t there. Fans of these films seem to be mistaking a lack of plot, character or style for profundity. I would urge everyone who thinks there’s something deep being said in Swanberg’s films to watch them side by side with a Rohmer film like, say, La Collectioneuse and see how Rohmer draws us into a misanthrope’s life and how the conversations have a natural rhythm to them without the affectation that mumblecore films have. In particular, watch the difference in the filmmaker’s mise-en-scene and how one film feels like J.D. Salinger while the other one feels like Tucker Max.

In Denby’s article – which is actually a great read – he talks about the difference between mumblecore and French New Wave filmmakers like Godard, whose young people wanted to be gangsters, saying that “Mumblecore disdains flamboyance; its reigning mood is diffidence.” Well, the fact that Jean-Paul Belmondo wanted to be a gangster is what made Breathlessinteresting, because it had a point and a subtext. Denby also talks about how the subject of mumblecore films is youth. So, let me get this straight: what mumblecore filmmakers want to say about our youth is that we are youthful? They are films about youth with no particular, larger issue to speak of? Gee, thanks for that Mumblecore!

It’s also a bit disappointing that these mumblecore directors seem to have this desire to eschew all things technical about movies; forgetting framing a beautiful shot or actually “acting.” Instead, let’s take this camcorder and jump up and down with it, forget about the lighting and let the actors just be themselves. There used to be a desire for filmmakers to at least learn their craft, now they are eschewing the craft of filmmaking altogether. Even when Godard was making his most esoteric films that tried more and more to remove the contrivances from film, he at least knew the rules before he broke them.

I’m sure Joe Swanberg and other Mumblecore filmmakers are great guys, but they are giving my generation a bad name. We don’t all whine this much (except of course about filmmakers like them, as evidenced by this column) and some of us can see past our own navel. I’m a big proponent of talented people picking up a camera and trying to make a movie, I think it is admirable and brave, but you also have to have something to say.

And that, my friends, is really my big issue with most of the Mumblecore crew; they don’t really seem to have anything to say and seem to think that just because they picked up that camera, it will have meaning. There is nothing profound about wanting to turn the camera on yourself because you think your life is incredibly fascinating; it’s the cinematic equivalent of Twitter.

– Noah Forrest
March 16, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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