Humpday (2009) – No Pretty, No Mercy

While I am happy to join the chorus of disapproval surrounding the state of British universities, I cannot help but feel that there was something inevitable about the current wave of cuts and restructurings.  The problem is that, while there has been a massive expansion in higher and post-graduate education, much of this expansion was founded on a lie, the lie that you can teach someone to be insightful. Universities are brilliant at immersing you in a subject and teaching you to produce papers that look like the sort of things that academics should produce, but they cannot teach you to look at a phenomenon and say something truly original.  You cannot teach originality because you cannot teach creativity and you cannot teach creativity because you cannot teach insight.  Nowhere are the products of this lie more obvious than in contemporary film.

As Peter Biskind points out in the excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), people seldom attended film school in the 1970s.  Film schools existed but they held no status, carried no cachet and (most importantly) provided no guarantee whatsoever that any of their students would ever get to sit behind a camera and shout ‘Action’. Forty years later and film schools not only provide universities with a welcome source of income, they also provide the creative industries with a steady supply of competent individuals who are more than ready to step behind a camera and produce adverts, music videos and films on demand. Film schools train aspiring directors by helping them to deconstruct and replicate the techniques that made great films what they are. Because film schools are so popular and because they are so well attended, contemporary film boasts levels of technical sophistication that would humble the filmmakers of previous generations. Unfortunately, while film schools do a brilliant job of teaching people how to make a film, they cannot teach them how to make good and insightful art.  Because of this, the explosion of film school students has lead not to a generation of great directors but to a generation of skilled imitators.

In Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), David Bordwell masterfully deconstructs the techniques used in what he calls ‘Art-Cinema Narration’.  This form of narration involves the use of extended silences, gaps in narration and expressionistic visual composition that shed light on the characters’ inner states.  While these techniques may once have been radical and ‘difficult’, they are now as familiar to cinema-going audiences as the strictures of any populist genre.  Because these techniques are familiar, they can be adopted in order to lend a work an ‘art house sensibility’.  The textbook example of this sort of affection is Matthew Weiner’s period TV drama Mad Men.  As Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his piece in the New York Review of Books, Mad Men is effectively a soap opera.  However, because the series adopts many of the narrative tropes and techniques common to art house film, we assume that it is as intelligent and insightful as the art house films that pioneered these sorts of narrative techniques.  Because Mad Men’s plotlines are never resolved, we think the series is as smart as L’Avventura. Because Don Draper’s internal state is only ever alluded to in an elliptical fashion, we think the series is as smart as Last Year in Marienbad.  Films such as Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009) and Mike Mills’ Beginners are also excellent examples of works that look intellectually substantial but in fact have very little to say. Clearly, techniques developed in order to help filmmakers shed light on a new set of issues are now used to evade the responsibilities of coherent thought and genuine insight. What was shocking is now familiar.  What was revolutionary is now consolatory. When technical expertise carries more weight than genuine insight mere competence becomes downright heroic.  Mumblecore is a cinematic movement that finds virtue  and strength in technical mediocrity.

Mumblecore films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather (2010) are made on ultra-low budgets with minimal production values, largely non-professional actors and scripts that allow for a good deal of on-set improvisation.  Stripped of complex camera movements, lighting effects and art-house narrative techniques, Mumblecore films stress relationships over plot in such a way that the emotional and psychological meat of the film has no place to hide.  Mumblecore films are all about character and relationships and their power derives from a complete commitment to exploring these things in forensic detail. No handwaving. No distractions. No bullshit.  Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is brilliant in its unflinching commitment to the weakness and complexity of its characters.

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Cold Weather (2010) – The Eyes of the Sensitive Observer

Cold Weather is an experiment that does not quite work but which is all the more beautiful for its failure.

Aaron Katz is one of several young American filmmakers to be tarred with the Mumblecore brush. Neither a genre nor a movement, ‘Mumblecore’ refers to one of those rare and beautiful moments when a group of creative artists with similar tastes and interests come together and begin to learn from each other’s methods and respond to each other’s ideas thereby creating a series of works with a similar set of aesthetic priorities. While these aesthetics are still evolving, it is possible to see in the work of such directors as Andrew Bujalsky (2002’s Funny Ha Ha), Lynn Shelton (2009’s Humpday) and the Duplass brothers (2008’s Baghead) the development of a cinematic style that has been heavily influenced by the films of John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Maurice Pialat.

Mumblecore films tend to be made with small budgets, small crews and small casts composed of largely non-professional actors working from and improvising around a more or less pre-written script. The non-professional nature of the actors and the improvisational aspects of the dialogue along with the tendency to frame character development in such a way that the audience has to draw its own inferences about the characters means that Mumblecore films frequently feel remarkably rough, realistic, unpolished and spontaneous. Mumblecore films invariably feel as though they simply ‘happen’; a stylistic tic also that owes quite a lot to the tendency to use 20-something actors and unglamorous settings that make it look as though the films might have been made in the director’s spare time.

 Cold Weather is an attempt to move Mumblecore outside of its comfort zone by taking the aesthetics of spontaneous authenticity and fusing them with those of a cinematic genre that is defined by its careful plotting and its use of directorial technique to create a sense of tension. While this Mumblecore thriller never feels like more than the sum of its parts, it is difficult not to love a film that so perfectly understands the allure of a good mystery.

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