Naturalism In Performance

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Very few newly released films break the mould of existing movie genres, and rarely do new film movements have momentum to warrant the creation of a new subgenre. Mumblecore is a relatively new and unknown subgenre that has critics and historians arguing if the movement is likely to continue or dwindle. A subgenre of independent film, mumblecore has been watched by audiences longer than we think and has featured actors that filmgoers have come to love. Moving towards the digital and more cost effective way of filmmaking, mumblecore appears to be a successful go-to genre for films to appeal to when screening the everyday stories of middle-class white people in their 20s.

Characterised by low budget production values and commonly featuring amateur actors, this new subgenre focuses on naturalism in performance and dialogue, usually involving improvisation. These films also depart from standard narrative structures and favour character development over action. Woody Allen’s Manhattan – despite being a high budget film, which is rare for mumblecore films – is the first known example of this subgenre. However, unlike other mumblecore films, the protagonist changes their worldview at the conclusion of the film. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Richard Linklater’s popular Before Sunrise were two other films that use many of the techniques that have since influenced mumblecore filmmaking.

In a film world inundated with drama and high comedy, mumblecore delivered a breath of fresh air when Andrew Bujalski’s debut hit Funny Ha Ha hit cinemas in 2002. Audiences were finally able to relate to passive aggressive conversations between friends and witness the awkwardness of everyday situations come alive on screen.

Following a slew of other films, mumblecore has increasingly occupied cinema screens with 2007’s Hannah Takes The Stairs, featuring future mumblecore signature actors Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski and Mark Duplass, the 2009 hit Breaking Upwards, a romantic comedy that avoided the classic Hollywood film methods, and the now popular Tiny Furniture from 2010 which was written, directed and starred Lena Dunham.

Tiny Furniture in particular is a film that embodies many of the stereotypical aspects of mumblecore films. Dunham, who is now the star and creator of trendy television series Girls, cast her own mother Laurie Simmons and her sister Grace Dunham as the mother and sister of the protagonist. This focus on her life and the search for personal happiness is also echoed in Girls, a series focusing on a bunch of affluent young white people who try to balance their artistic wishes with their career and personal lives.

Mumblecore has slowly moved into the limelight of film and been accepted into more mainstream cinema. 2011’s Your Sister’s Sister, starred Emily Blunt, an actress involved in high budget comedies and dramas, which highlighted the movement’s rise in popularity in Hollywood and with audiences. Safety Not Guaranteed, released in 2012, was mumblecore foraying into the world of modestly budgeted, comedy science fiction films. 2013 also included high budget mumblecore films including Frances Ha and Drinking Buddies, which have been adored by fans internationally. These higher budget films, however, have attracted negative feedback from critics claiming that they lack demographic specificity and credibility.

Mumblecore’s lo-fi American films have made small waves in the film world yet have been criticised for being simply a revolution only in the sense of something going round and round with little discernible progress. This hasn’t been helped with directors doubting if this movement existed at all, with Bujalski commenting “[Mumblecore] doesn’t mean anything to me”.

However what directors and film critics are not recognising is that mumblecore can and will exist as long as amateur filmmakers exist too. Not every filmmaker has a million dollar budget, a star and an anthology of production assistants, but many do have a camera, friends and stories they will tell regardless of the subgenre existing or not.

Originally published in BULL Magazine, July 28, 2014. 

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