I was idly browsing Wikipedia the other day, because I have that kind of time, and I came across a term that I had never heard before: mumblecore. I admit I was a bit perturbed at first; it was a completely foreign concept, and I consider it a point of pride to stay abreast of most developments in film. In an effort to remedy my ignorance, I quickly read on. Wikipedia offers this strict, technical definition:
“Mumblecore is a subgenre of American independent film, characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue. The term mumblegore has been used to describe films mixing mumblecore and horror gore.”
The article goes on to list a few of the more notable filmmakers that are involved in the movement, including Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Marc Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, and Ry Russo-Young.
Although there are exceptions to every rule, it seems as though there are a few demonstrable elements, which together constitute a legitimate mumblecore movie: a small budget (generally under $10 million), a heavy emphasis on improvisation, realistic-sounding dialogue, plots concerning the lives of characters who are usually young and single (often in their twenties or thirties), and sometimes, but not always, a limited soundtrack.
Though it’s a bit difficult to nail down exactly where and how mumblecore originated, many proponents of the genre suggest that it was born from a desire to depart from the tired and cliché plot structures, specifically designed to attain mass appeal, that are common in bigger-budget Hollywood productions. Some mumblecore filmmakers profess to draw inspiration from the works of French New-Wave director Éric Rohmer, perhaps most famous for films like My Night At Maude’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), and The Green Ray (1986).
Rohmer’s technique and narrative style tends to focus primarily on the thoughts of the characters, rather than their actions. His characters were generally young and well-educated, and often engaged in long, meandering conversations with one other, concerning topics as eclectic as philosophy, relationships, and the ideal vacation spot. Rohmer disliked the close-up, as he believed it was disingenuous and non-representative of how people actually see one another. He likewise omitted the use of non-diegetic music (i.e. soundtracks), considering it a violation of the fourth wall.
The reliance on ‘realism’ and the emphasis on exclusively diegetic storytelling were ideals that mumblecore filmmakers eagerly adopted, having understandably grown disillusioned with the bloated, creatively shallow studio mechanism.
While most fans of mumblecore cite Rohmer as a chief influence, there still seems to be a bit of a debate among mumblecore diehards concerning the emergence of the first ‘true’ mumblecore film. Some point to Claudia Weill’s somewhat obscure 1978 film Girlfriends as the unofficial beginning of mumblecore, while others suggest that Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan is a more likely candidate, despite its being a big-budget production. Even director Richard Linklater, though generally not considered part of the mumblecore movement, nonetheless made meaningful contributions to the stylistic leanings of the genre with his films Slacker (1991), and Before Sunrise (1995).
There is one man, however, whose name is buried deep within the annals and sacred texts of mumblecore, and is revered above all others as “the Godfather of mumblecore.” That man is Andrew Bujalski, and his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha is popularly considered the legitimate vanguard of mumblecore proper.
Apart from the popular “comedy-drama” plot format, there have been a number of forays into the broader genre of horror, with varying degrees of success. Adam Wingard’s 2013 home-invasion horror flick You’re Next remains a pretty popular entry in the mumblegore sub-sub-genre, though I remember having some mixed opinions about it at the time, and the horror compilations V/H/S and V/H/S 2 are likewise part of the mumblegore stable, but I’m personally not a fan of either. Ti West’s 2009 cult flick House of the Devil comes a bit closer to the sweet spot, but still has some pretty serious pacing issues, and seems to have trouble telling the difference between atmospheric tension and just having nothing happen for forty-five minutes. And that’s not to say that horror and mumblecore don’t mix, but the fact is that creating effective horror is a delicate and subtle science, and it takes more than a camcorder and a couple of improvised lines to make it work.
I’ll admit it—I haven’t seen a ton of mumblecore movies in my time, but I have seen enough to know that I can wholeheartedly respect the intention, even if the execution remains a little hit-and-miss. I did, however, have the good fortune to see Aaron Katz’s mystery film Cold Weather (2011), which I can heartily recommend, as well as Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010).
In my opinion, an important thing to keep in mind while watching a mumblecore movie is that the filmmakers are often trying to bring across a feeling of helplessness or confusion, while the agency of the characters to improve their respective situations are often limited. The films can admittedly be a bit disheartening towards the beginning, I know, but I would recommend that the viewer power through it, as it often transpires that beneath the characteristic bleakness, there often lurks a certain lighthearted silliness and childlike sense of abandon, almost as if to say, “maybe things aren’t great now, and maybe they won’t even be okay by the end of this movie. But we’re all still alive and kicking around—and that’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?”