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.

Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992)

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms has always been one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it 9 times, twice on a Greyhound bus going across country from New York to Seattle. I’ve listened to two different audio book versions, twice. I’ve see the film made in 1932 with Adolph Menjou and Gary Cooper. I can quote long passages from the text from memory, especially the last 100 pages, which might be the greatest sustained, poetic narrative in American fiction.

Until I saw the “faux autobiography” Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, it never occurred to me that A Farewell to Arms had a gay subtext. Now that I’ve watched Mark Rappaport’s analysis of the 1957 film, which starred Rock Hudson as Lieutenant Henry, and Vittorio De Sica as Major Rinaldi, it seems obvious, almost as inevitable as the ending of a great mystery novel. Of course Rinaldi was nursing a homosexual crush on Lieutenant Henry. Of course their frat boy banter had a gay subtext. How could I have been so blind?

There are two explanations. The first one is that I’m a moron. While that’s certainly reasonable, and I’ve been called a moron many times over the course of my life, I think Mark Rappaport hits on a better one. Americans, especially straight American men, have taught themselves not to see the obvious. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, which stars Eric Farr, who, not incidentally, looks nothing like Rock Hudson, puts us squarely into the mind of a closeted gay man. We see the world as Rock Hudson, or any pre-Stonewall gay man, would have seen it. We examine Hudson’s films, the interaction between Hudson and his co-stars, looking for subtle clues that there might be something going on beneath the surface, learning the signals that closeted gay men used to send each other to indicate they were part of the same club.

Some actors, and their characters, are more deeply buried in the closet than others.

Even as a child, for example, I knew that there was a gay subtext to most of Tony Randall’s performances. That Randall himself was straight takes nothing away from the idea that the classic TV show The Odd Couple was about a gay couple. Looking at Rappaport’s fictionalized Rock Hudson go over one after another of his films with Randall as his co-star is an education about how gay men were represented on TV, and in the movies.

Then there were Hudson’s performances opposite more stereotypically “manly” actors.

It never would have occurred to me that Hudson probably saw the 1969 film The Undefeated as an opportunity to hit on, and simultaneously mock, the cartoonishly heterosexual John Wayne. Rappaport is such a close observer of Hudson’s films, the body language between their characters, the glances held just a bit too long, the double entendres, that he makes the buried subtext obvious. He lets us in on the jokes that Hudson played on his audiences, even as he hated himself for not coming out of the closet until the very end.

If it only stopped there, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies would be film criticism, not art. I think it goes further. I don’t know if the narration that Rappaport gives Eric Farr is based on anything Hudson actually wrote, or if it’s purely fictional. The effect, however, is to seduce the viewer, not only into looking for clues closeted gay men used to send one another, but into seeing the world as a gay man. The young Rock Hudson was so ridiculously good-looking, Rappaport’s film almost makes me sorry that I’m straight. No woman could have had that kind of godlike physical beauty, certainly not any of Hudson’s female co-stars.

Most importantly, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies conjures up the innocence of boyhood. Listening to Hudson talk about his early gay crush on the actor Jon Hall in the 1937 film The Hurricane, his initial motivation to become an actor, and then recount his disillusionment as Hall loses the beauty of his youth in his later films, is heartbreaking. What would we all be like, both gay and straight, if society didn’t warp us, didn’t make us feel ashamed of our sexuality at such an early age?

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Most film lovers are familiar with Jean Seberg. Her iconic look in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been imitated so many times that even people who have never heard her name are familiar with her work. But Seberg was more than just a blond pixie cut and a bad French accent. She was a progressive, even a revolutionary political activist. She was also the victim of one of the most vicious FBI smear campaigns in the history of Cointelpro.

Daniel Levine — the director of the new film American Plain Songs — briefly introduced us to the work of Mark Rapport last year. Rappaport, who’s almost completely unknown to the general public, but highly regarded among film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Roger Ebert, has made what might be the only documentary that does Jean Seberg justice as a political activist and feminist. His approach, an imaginary, “found” autobiography read by an actress who looks almost, but not quite like Jean Seberg, he not only rescues her from the movies. It rescues her from herself.

Mary Beth Hurt, like Jean Seberg, is a blond American “girl next door” with a pixie cut, and a flat, Midwestern accent. But, 50 years old in 1995, she lacks Seberg’s movie star glamor. Rappaport could have easily cast a more beautiful actress in the role. Chloe Sevigny in her Kids/Trees Lounge days looked remarkably like a rougher version of the young Jean Seberg. But Seberg as a plain, middle-aged woman – someone who looks like your English professor – is entirely Mark Rappaport’s point. Mary Beth Hurt is the real Jean Seberg, not the glamorized icon of the French New Wave. In Rappaport’s imagination, she becomes the woman she might have become had she not been destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover, and a series of abusive husbands.

In Mark Rappaport’s “found” diary, not quite history, yet not quite fiction, Seberg becomes a lost voice of the 1960s counter culture. She starts at age 17, when she was chosen by Otto Preminger to star in his film Saint Joan, not in spite of, but because of her lack of acting experience. Preminger wanted to cast an actress the same age as the real Joan of Arc, but what worked for Franco Zeffirelli in Romeo and Juliet fell flat for Otto Preminger. Seberg was terribly miscast as Joan. What’s more, as Seberg/Rappaport/Hurt make clear, realism isn’t always “realistic.” Sometimes it’s just distracting. The fact that Seberg was actually burned by the real fire Preminger set to consume the fictional Joan of Arc adds nothing to the story’s dramatic impact, as Rappaport makes clear when he juxtaposes images from Preminger’s clumsy film to Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of John of Arc.

Even worse, Seberg’s relationship with Preminger, who liked to bully young actresses, probably set the template for her marriage to Romain Gary, an abusive relationship that made her all the more vulnerable to the attacks by the FBI’s Cointelpro program. If Seberg was miscast, as Saint Joan, Seberg maintains, then it was because Joan, unlike Juliet, an ordinary teenage girl, was a woman of heroic stature. When she mentions Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two actresses who would have probably done better in the role, it’s more than just an offhanded suggestion. Instead, in a remarkable sequence, Mark Rappaport weaves the lives of Seberg, Redgrave, Fonda, three women dedicated to radical politics as well as film, into a single thread, making a familiar side of the 1960s even more familiar by re-imagining it from a novel perspective.

Indeed, instead of going into a detailed history of how J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Seberg after she became a supporter of the Black Panthers, Rappaport shows us that she was part of a larger trend. Redgrave was widely vilified in the 1970s for her support of Palestinian nationalism. Seberg herself was subjected to a Cointelpro campaign in a large part of the corporate press, especially those newspapers loyal to the FBI. When she bore a stillborn baby to Romain Gary, she actually displayed it in a glass coffin to prove that the father had been white, and not a member of the Black Panthers, as Hoover had convinced so many newspaper reporters.

But it was Jane Fonda who became the focus of the venom of the American right, a hatred that lasted right through the Bush administration, and probably still exists today. Rappaport’s parallel lives of Fonda and Seberg are richly detailed, uncovering connections between the two women we never quite realized existed. Fonda’s failed audition in the film Klute, for example, has her reading lines from Preminger’s Saint Joan. Had she read for the part? Fonda’s early role in Barbarella as an insatiable sex kitten was later echoed in a Romain Gary film starring Seberg, where Seberg’s character, unlike Barbarella, is a nymphomaniac who can’t achieve an orgasm. If Jane Fonda survived Cointelpro and the right-wing smear campaign, Jean, or rather Mark Rappaport, maintains, then it was largely because of her wealthy family and privileged upbringing. She had resources she could draw on that a middle-class girl from the Midwest didn’t.

Nevertheless, while she didn’t die at the age of 40, racked by the drug and alcohol addiction that came from J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta, Jane Fonda, in the end, backed down. Filming On Golden Pond with her father Henry Fonda, she issued an apology for her trip to North Vietnam. “Why?” Rappaport asks us, did Fonda apologize for her heroic opposition to the Vietnam War, and not for her role as a “bimbo” in Barbarella? The answer is obvious. We live in a culture that accepts women as bimbos, but not political activists. The FBI destroyed Jean Seberg because she stepped out of the role American conservatism demanded she play. They could handle her as a blond movie goddess. They couldn’t handle a woman who had supported racial justice in her teenage years – when she volunteered for the NAACP – and continued to support racial justice, and black nationalism, even after she became rich and famous.

Like the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys it’s best and brightest.

An Introduction to the Works of Mark Rappaport Pt. 2: Faux(to)biographies

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Last post we went over the early works of overt fiction, everything from Casual Relations through to Chain Letters, though I focused most explicitly on his first two films. The later works in the fiction period are also very good but continue to explore the themes and questions I feel like I expounded in my first piece. Does the fact I didn’t spend much time on The Scenic Route, Imposters, and Chain Letters mean you should skip them? No, by all means see them. See them multiple times; they’re the continuation of the earlier films and when dealing with something as new and unusual as these films, any further exegesis is a gift to be carefully studied and put into some relationship to the earlier works. The Scenic Route in particular is absolutely necessary, though I think I might have to brush off my copy again before I can say anything definitive on it.

So in this installment we’ll explore the second phase of Rappaport’s career-the fake auto-biographical films that started with the classic piece of film criticism Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, a film that despite its many technical issues (the sound desperately needs to get remixed if it’s ever rereleased-Mark I know you’re reading this) redefines the boundaries of both the single subject historical documentary and the film-as-film criticism, and offers incredibly useful reinterpretations to some of the major tenets of postmodern criticism. Like the rest of his films, it’s screamingly hilarious.

Through the novel technique of using an actor to play the deceased Hudson who then guides the audience through a collection of clips from Hudson’s films Rappaport brings seasoned viewers to uncomfortable problems of film criticism rapidly and with gleeful abandon. By positing that Hudson was expressing his closeted homosexuality in his choices as an actor, both in scripts and performance, the cinema so straitjacketed into misreadings of French auteur theory, is broken up into an almost inconceivable spectrum of subjectivity; reading film is no longer the bitter struggle with a jigsaw puzzle of images in hopes for the imperialist domination of the “final reading”, the “director’s intent”, a flag of interpretation to hoist up, a meat thermometer to stick in so as to have the satisfaction of saying “It’s done”, but an act of imagination with no possibility of triumph beyond hard to articulate resonances. That the actor playing Hudson looks little or nothing like him, a fact driven home repeatedly by his literally being posed next to pictures of the actual Hudson, works because it shows the intent is not to bring Hudson back to life in the creepy necrophile manner of so many bio-pics obsessed with the actor’s superficial resemblance to the deceased.

How much of self is social? How much of the social self is noticed even if it is? When taking the text on its own terms what sorts of rabbit holes might we stumble into? If trying to find the author (in this case Hudson) is a doomed task of endless supplements and uncomfortably off doubles must this be viewed with the bitter taste of having been betrayed by stories of the possibility of truth? Or can the lack of “truth”, of recovery of the dead, be seen on its own terms as a new aesthetic path defined by an almost unlimited potential?

Go watch some movies.

An Introduction to the Works of Mark Rappaport

I should mention that I’m friends with Rappaport. I helped him with his fight with Ray Carney and gave the push for him to publish his absolutely delightful book of fiction and essays The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much in the native English it was written in. I sought out his acquaintance because of the admiration for his work I express in this essay, and therefore I don’t feel there’s a conflict of interest. However, such connections should be noted.)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Mark Rappaport, though retired from making films, is still busy at work recombining images and impressions of films past in his photo collage work. Despite this, he is the very short list still for the greatest living American filmmaker because of the absolutely essential work he did, first in his early fictional narratives from 1974’s Casual Relations up through 1985’s Chain Letters, then in a second phase of fictional autobiographies of movie stars that have an utter lack of use for the tenets of realism that’s inspiring, especially seeing how they were made parallel to the dire trend in more commercial US cinema of “realist” (re: swearing and torture scenes) genre films that proliferated in the early 1990s.

Rappaport’s stance on the narrative and “psychological” shibboleths that loiter, tired but possessed with insidious powers of seduction, in the dire waiting room of the vast majority of American and world cinema collecting gilded dildos and money in a manner that inclines one to agree with the psychoanalytic tendency to trace the origins of such tendencies to the infant’s urge to play with feces, is revolutionary because it doesn’t violently reject such things in search of the real, but deflates them so they’re no longer gods to be venerated or scorned but half-remembered scraps in the junk pile ghost story of consciousness. While often screamingly funny, they’re just as often uncomfortable as listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Frequently in the same segment.

While his early shorts are amusing, especially Blue Movie, the best place to come to an appreciation of Rappaport’s distinctive style is his first feature Casual Relations, a collection of around 12 shorter meditations on the place of boredom, apathy, and in-between moments. It doesn’t have quite the same Jamesian complexity of his later narratives but is, as these sorts of things go, straightforward, hilarious, and more digestible. Casual Relations establishes Rappaport as perhaps the only American filmmaker to understand the artistic potentials and the specific textures of what’s been crudely dubbed “the postmodern condition”-he’ll use outdated stylistics for his own purposes and switch them out frequently and without concern for reveling in or directly and narrowly commenting on them-they’re language, and language is a tool that he’s free to use however he sees fit and established style something he can pick up or discard at whatever tempo he chooses. An especially memorable sequence superficially resembling Rashomon perhaps best sums up this peculiar film whose greatest asset is its lack of a center. A stabbing or shooting occurs, and we see it in various states of revision until it comes up against the void of meaninglessness and becomes more and more absurd. Pluralism isn’t the keyword but rather the emergence of something more sinister, more given to dangerous laughter, something more all-encompassing, a trap perhaps…it’s no accident the film ends with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” playing over a blank screen and then credits…

The later films tie their strands together in more complex ways than simply a shared theme make them more complex. It took me three failed runs through his later Local Color before I could allow myself to be ensnared in it’s internal logic, but on the third time it was sheer delight, dread and awe that the movies could do such things. The film, his third (I’ve yet to track down a copy of Mozart in Love though it’s now available on Fandor and I hope to review it here soon) is his masterpiece, though in a body of work this good that means it’s a split second finish. A story of incredible complexity and one of the only, maybe the only, besides Rappaport’s own The Scenic Route, film to take the innovations of the greatest post-war writers in prose, the Pynchons and Barthelmes and Gaddises, and employ them to film on the same level to and sometimes even surpass them. To recount the plot here would be to miss the point; the plot is so byzantine and winding that it seems so on purpose so as to force the viewer in being overwhelmed to let go and stop reading it the way they’ve always read films; as things with characters who have goals and represent eternal melodramatic forces. Nothing is so cut and dried here. Character isn’t a matter of surface level coherence but of self-contradiction, petty urges with unknown origins, layers of masks draped one over the other like thatch over a pit. Attempts have been made to imitate the power and unusual tone of this film in later films to such dire effect it would be insulting to Local Color to mention them here. Some of these attempts were by filmmakers I’m not even sure saw Local Color, maybe the impetus came to them half-digested in dreams. Such things happen…

This is getting long, so I’m going to split it up into two articles. In the second installment I hope to go over his later shorts and fictional documentaries/autobiographies.