Escape into Smaller Problems: Why Mumblecore Failed

When I first got to college in the fall of 2007, the IFC Center in Manhattan was having a retrospective of “Mumblecore” films. The previous 10 years had yielded a crop of low key, low budget character studies centered around the theoretical concerns of a Ray Carney who had yet to go off the deep end and burn all of his bridges through compulsive lying and hoarding, a process I ended up playing an active role in expediting. That’s another story.

In 2007 however, for a young person not reconciled with the America he was living in, deeply disinterested with the mediocre cultural productions of the oughts, unfamiliar with the frameworks disavowing capitalism more rooted in political science than in film criticism, it was exciting. Here was this charismatic individual saying, my paraphrase: “It’s not you, it is the culture. This is nonsense. We are chasing money around to the detriment of what matters. There is the possibility of transcendence in art. And art and money are naturally at odds. And you don’t really need the money to make the art.” And, more importantly, he’d respond to blind e-mails from a disgruntled high school student.

I went to see Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs, maybe one or two others. They were all very slow. None of them had any strong displays of emotion except the extremely abrupt and unconvincing boyfriend-girlfriend spat that ends Puffy Chair. This was especially interesting given the extremely obvious debts to John Cassavetes, whose work revolves around the emotional dynamism of dysfunction among emotionally intuitive people; in some ways what Mumblecore became was the anti-Cassavetes except for its disinterest in directly discussing politics. The lack of emotional peaks and valleys resonated in a big way for the culture if not for me. At the time I was hopeful it was paving the way for more challenging cinema and the possibility of distribution without having to work your way up from Steven Spielberg’s mail room or whatever my relatives thought I wanted to do because I said I liked movies. The things that draw my attention looking back at these films now is how they prefigured urban hipster culture; their traffic in malaise to the detriment of anger, and the fact I can’t remember seeing a not white person in any of them.

Carney would say this was a response to the mawkish emotional manipulation that had dominated commercial cinema and much of the “branded” “indie” scene (Miramax, Fox Searchlight stuff.) In some respects it probably was. However, it took off in the culture as a way of avoiding discomfort in favor of smaller discomfort; what gained traction was the genre’s capacity for insularity and myopic focal point. In a time of increasingly international problems like the world market crash that occurred not too long after I attended that retrospective and the increasing acceptance that climate change was real and probably going to wipe out the species unless capitalism as we knew it was repudiated and replaced immediately, Mumblecore looks more like a movement that was always on the defensive. Mumblecore was eventually absorbed into the sitcom because they both were effective vehicles toward the same cultural function-the creation of an escape from larger problems into bite-sized imaginary ones.

Mumblecore went from something that thought it was opposing the toxicity of the culture to being a huge influence on how sitcoms were shot and edited; the seeming “rawness” of the non-professional actors has been codified into the “riff” of so many Judd Apatow productions.* Budget cutting necessities became ways for large studios to save money. Pop and “indie” intertwined into a disappointingly monotonous something much the way it did when any meaningful distinction between “alternative music” and the shit on the radio did. The excitement of a completely wild avant-garde has been ceded to thousands of Youtube channels who’ve been more bold, daring and transgressive than the studied crowd they replaced specifically because they have no desire or interest in being considered artists; many of them might just be mentally ill; either way it’s a big bunch of stuff operating under the radar and breaking down the supposedly “correct” ways of making moving pictures. I have spent far more time in the past year watching things in the vein of “man in rural area microwaves smaller microwave in bigger microwave and just tapes the smaller one melting” than anything that’s been released as a Movie with a capital M. You can move freely in those circles. The question of “legitimacy” is completely circumvented and you see that the filmmaker is almost always more interesting in how they’re naive and unaware; that’s when they unwittingly show you the real secrets.

The old cliche story of the tribe that thought the camera would steal a photographed subject’s soul in fact doesn’t differ that much from the Judeo-Christian fall narrative wherein Eve discovers intellectual abstraction (ironically enough through symbolic, abstract means, eating the apple) and finds themselves removed from God. That aesthetic realism works on quantum rather than Newtonian principles has been evident for millennia; the works shape reality by observing it; it can’t simply observe reality. Mumblecore, in retrospect, should probably be seen as one of the last times “realism” attempted to present itself earnestly and the lack of fanciful material in the films, now removed from its origins as budgetary necessity, seem more analogous to the rash of 20th century clinical psychology experiments that are just as rewardingly (maybe more rewardingly) read as performance art pieces done in rooms carefully controlled to account for outside “interference” than any sort of noble instinct.

Mumblecore failed to counter the culture and was consumed because it was ultimately an act of retreat rather than offense. In failing to confront the fact that much of what we perceive as reality is the noise of our minds filling in details prematurely or wandering off or lost in fantasies, in failing to engage with the political in any substantial way, it lost the zeitgeist. In the biggest irony of all, its considered anti-formalism was revealed by the further, more intense proliferation of cheap cameras to be as rigidly formal as anything going. And unsurprisingly, the major players besides Bujalski as far as I can tell have all ended up working in TV.

*I can’t actually hate on Judd Apatow that much regardless of how I feel about the movies. When the shit went down with Ray Carney stealing Mark Rappaport’s film masters, Apatow was the only Hollywood guy who retweeted our petition.