I just wrote a bit of a screed in response to this article on mumblecore in the New York Times, which a friend of mine recently sent me. Here it is, slightly edited for context:
First and foremost, let’s remember that “mumblecore” is, as most such tags are, a post-hoc appellation given by critics as way of taxonomizing art. Like many such art “movements,” the filmmakers associated with this tag do not necessarily identify with it. For instance: Andrew Bujalski, the so-called grandfather of the movement, refused to participate in the linked article.
Second, I should say that I am only vaguely familiar with the Duplass Brothers, Lynn Shelton and Andrew Bujalski’s work — so I’m certainly no expert. I found The Puffy Chair (Duplass Brothers) to be as boring and predictable as any Hollywood fare, primarily because it hewed so closely to the three-act structure. My Effortless Brilliance (Shelton) was significantly more interesting to me, though riddled with long stretches of boring non-moments. And Mutual Appreciation (Bujalski) remains one of my favorite films from the past decade. I could not stop laughing all the way through it, and many of the strange, almost surreal scenes have stuck with me. I literally told someone at the time: this is The Graduate of my generation.
In the last decade, we’ve seen a surge in so-called “awkward comedy” across all media. From Curb Your Enthusiasm, to The Office, to every other d#mn commercial on TV: the uncomfortable silence is the new laugh track. And, frankly, it’s getting boring. As a teacher of mine liked to say, “Everyone in Hollywood wants to be number two.” (insert scatological joke here)
But it’s not getting boring because techniques like long pauses and underplaying are used to comedic effect — it’s getting boring because it uses those techniques to tell the same bad jokes. That was exactly my problem with The Puffy Chair: it hid a tired old tale beneath a lo-fi veneer. But just because a device is overused, or used badly, doesn’t mean it’s not worth using.
I think Bujalski is a great storyteller, and I think lumping him together with a group of less-talented filmmakers simply because they share a stylistic sensibility is not fair. But I encourage you to see the film and decide for yourself (Note: I thought his freshman effort, Funny Ha Ha, was not nearly as good; probably because he was also acting in it).
My final point is a technical one, but worth noting. Bujalski shoots on 16mm film, while Shelton/Duplass/Swanberg et al shoot on DV or HD. The latter is HUGELY cheaper to shoot with, and allows you to do endless takes. So you have plenty of time to “make it up as you go” and improvise, while shooting on film offers no such luxury. We can debate endlessly the value of spontaneity in art; however, my argument is simply that these filmmakers are not using the same approach, as implied in the article.
In other news, I recently became friendly with a one-time writer for the (now defunct!) soap opera As The World Turns. He is equally interested in/dubious about mumblecore, and quite talented. He’s currently promoting his new webseries, SpeedieDate.com. If you want a good example of downplaying and long silences used to comedic effect (without rehashing stale material), it’s a great place to start.