January 4, 2014
As film genres go, mumblecore is as independent and obscure a label as it gets. Consider this post a guide to that film movement, which sometimes gets thrown about by the would-be hipster/film connoisseur.
Former SXSW producer Matt Dentler championed many of these films, which all characteristically had conversation-driven plots that often meandered and were not necessarily enunciated as best they could by the mostly amateur actors involved (Hollywood Reporter: How To Speak Mumblecore). It loosely describes some independent films that came about in the mid-2000s. The label, though, is not an accepted genre; filmmakers do not acknowledge it and some film critics hate it. In 2007, Amy Taubin, a member of the New York Critics film circle, famously once stated mumblecore “has had its fifteen minutes.” However, in order to appreciate many of indie cinema’s current working filmmakers, one should not disregard their roots in this oft-maligned but key and even sometimes entertaining moment in independent American cinema.
All these films are dominated by talking. The plots are somewhat simple and acting is natural. Often, actors improvise dialogue. The term “actors” roughly describes the people in the films, as they are not necessarily actors by trade but mutual friends. The cast is then an amalgam of lesser-known people that have some sort of quick shorthand among each other. The films, shot with very small budgets, made the rounds at film festivals. Some were better than others.
It is safe to say that the wave of mumblecore films has ended, leaving a few good films behind and creating a crop of directors that have since created some great films with larger budgets. If anything, one can celebrate the movement as a training ground for the likes of Andrew Bujalski, who, last year, gave us the amazing Computer Chess (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), and the very talented Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in one of the best movies last year, Frances Ha.
The characters in mumblecore films all seem stuck in a state of arrested development, partly imposed by a lack of economic opportunities but also self-imposed, as these twenty-somethings are marred by self-doubt, fear of commitment and what seems to be a prolonged adolescence. The films in this genre certainly capture the zeitgeist of being young and middle class in early 2000s America, and therefore, the self-conscious, distant, hesitant young characters in mumblecore ring true to life.
This attitude has recently been criticized by people like clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who called for twenty-somethings to reclaim their coming of age rather than continue to postpone it during a recent TED Talk. While Jay is right in stating that the decisions we make early on determine much of our lives, this very idea may be one of the contributing factors to indecisiveness, which is so aptly depicted in many mumblecore movies. Young people bombarded with competing messages on success, relationships and an obsession with being happy all the time boil under these pressures to the point that some may wish to avoid moving forward altogether. To me, it also portrays characters ill-equipped with disappointment-coping mechanisms and faced with too many choices, all of which are loaded with meaning and fate. Mumblecore should therefore be celebrated for its honest depiction of neo-slacker generational malaise that’s all too real in current American society.
Although this post does not exhaustively cover all the many movies attributed to this scene, I do wish to offer some highlights. Outlined above are several of the most salient players in the scene. The information in the infographic is not meant to be all-encompassing, rather the works listed pertain to the mumblecore movement. Some of the names and faces will look familiar, as these directors have recently been making great films with bigger budgets and trade actors. The Duplass brothers most notably have broken into mainstream TV with the likes of “The League” and “The Mindy Kaling Project.” Rather than outliving its “15 minutes,” mumblecore was a short-lived movement that— as does adolescence— must come to an end. Below is a list of my favorite films in the genre. All titles titles link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.
Short list: Some mumblecore films to watch
Mutual Appreciation (2005)
At the core of this film is a relationship between Lawrence and Ellie. They profess their love to each other, but the camera reveals uneasiness with settling into the relationship. Every awkward pause is long and full of meaning. The writing is smart and witty. Not a date movie but one to watch if you’re interested in the quintessential mumblecore film.
Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)
A Joe Swanberg film, Hannah Takes the Stairs follows Hannah and her relationship with men. Hannah falls for her office mates one after another while in a relationship that quickly goes sour. Greta Gerwig’s performance here is a revelation, a sweet characterization of trying to find love while finding yourself.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)
One of the best movies I’ve seen on sibling rivalry, ever. Aptly directed by the Duplass brothers, the “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” is a sort-of “Olympics” developed by two brothers when they were young. Alas, as it happens with epic childhood battles, the score was never settled, fanning the flames of an already heavy competitiveness into adulthood. The brothers meet again in all their middle-aged glory to try and settle that unresolved score.
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
It is the first film attributed to this genre. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is a story about Marnie, a recent college grad who is not quite sure what comes next in her life. She is shy, smart and unsure. There’s a lot of comedy involved, as the film depicts passive-aggressive behavior combined with the unaffected sweetness portrayed by Marnie. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a recent college grad, I highly recommend it.
The other day, I ran a review of one of only a few films I have seen this year that I would already consider among the best of 2013: Frances Ha. It’s also one of those movies worth re-watching during its theatrical run, which began on Friday. But between writing the review and fretting about other writing assignments, I decided to squeeze in one more project: talk to the filmmakers behind the movie. When I inquired, it would turn out the studio, IFC Films, had been lining up phone interviews for the near future with the film’s star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. A few pitches later, and I found myself second in line for a 15-minute chat with her. “Miami New Times” took the feature piece I wrote as a result. You can read it by jumping through the logo for “Cultist,” the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog; here’s a the link:
Of course, I am always left with extra bits of my conversations with my subjects, so here are some outtakes that cover how she and Frances Ha director/co-writer Noah Baumbach started writing the film, her feelings about being one of the pioneers of the mumblecore film scene and a little exchange about Whit Stillman, who directed her in Damsels In Distress, and was one of my more recent subjects (A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’).
Hans Morgenstern: Is it accurate to say that you and Noah began writing this script when he sent you some emails asking you about your generation after you had completed Greenberg [their previous film together; Read the review here: Greenberg: The Great Projector]?
Greta Gerwig: He emailed me, and he asked me if I wanted to write something together that I could play and that he would direct. And that was the first interaction. Then I sent him a list of ideas that I had, which weren’t specifically about my generation. They were just character ideas, moments, small exchanges of dialogues or scenes or something I thought could go into a movie and some of those made it into the final movie and it was about three pages long, and he liked it. He added to it, and we just started writing scenes, and that was really how it began and how it developed. Most of it was written apart, in terms of the actual writing. It was sort of scene by scene, and we switched them off, but it was a slow process. It was about a year, and then, once we had a script, we did it as perfect as we could get it. Then we went figuring out how to shoot it.
You had your start in some of the indiest of indie films, which even frustrated some art film critics. I remember ["Film Comment" critic] Amy Taubin said she hated mumblecore (“Mumblecore: All Talk? Pros and Cons of the Much-Hyped Neo-Indie Movemenr”)
(Giggles) Yeah, she did not like it, but we’re friends now.
Did she revisit her analysis of those films at all?
No, I think she still hates those films, but she likes Frances, so she’s come around, I guess. But I think she still hates those films, which is totally fine. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.
My wife likes them, but I too don’t care for them, I have to admit.
That’s the thing about this, you’ll never make anything that will get a hundred percent approval, as much as you might want it (laughs).
Then you worked with Ti West and Noah. Did you feel you were on another sort of playing field with these directors?
It definitely felt like … it was such an interesting process of how I got to have the career I have, and I’m so grateful to all these different people at different moments I worked with who’ve taken me on as an actor and really taught me a lot. I feel very lucky. I would say the biggest difference is that when I was doing movies with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, they were so improvisation heavy, the Duplass brothers a little less so than Joe, but those movies, I was almost writing while I was speaking, I was figuring out what the scenes should be and then executing them while I was playing with scenes and that was actually great because it felt really free, and it felt like I got to work out a lot of ideas, and see how things played and almost experiment on camera, but then with Ti and with Noah and with Woody Allen and with Whit Stillman and Arthur and all the other films that I did since, as soon as I had a script-script, that was the departure and executing jokes and getting rhythms perfect, really find the art in the structure, and I think I really— at this point— I enjoy that a lot more. It’s not that I’ll never do the other thing again. It’s just I feel like I really did it for a while, and I just kinda wore thin on it, and I feel like, right now, as a writer, I like to make things as perfect as they can be, working with great writing, and as a viewer I like to see great actors execute great writing, but that might change for me. I might step back from that later and feel I like another thing, but I feel like one of the nice things of getting to do this for a while is I feel like I passed through a phase of my artistic interest, and I’m not as interested in that anymore.
I recently had a nice long lunch with Whit Stillman when he was in Miami.
Oh, I love Whit!
We had a fantastic couple of hours where we discussed my mixed review of “Damsels” which I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for over time.
Yeah, he’s great. He reads every single review, so I’m sure he read yours (laughs). He’s very, very engaged with his own critics, which I think it totally suits him. He’s good at that.
* * *
Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach. IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. It arrives in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray. Late next month, it will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.
Director Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.
Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.
With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.
Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.
More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.
Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.
As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.
The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.
Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come). Update 2: Frances Ha will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, July 5. Update 3: Frances Ha finally arrives in Broward County thanks to the Cinema Paradiso starting Friday, July 12. Update 4: Frances Ha has also made its way to O Cinema beginning Thursday, July 4.
In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.
In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.
I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.
With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.
After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.
Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:
Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.
Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.
But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?
Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.
But is distraction really the cure for their problems?
Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. So I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.
Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…
How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?
It was a press screening at a cinema.
Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?
Rene was there.
Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.
We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?
Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.
Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.
And she just saw it this past week?
A few weeks ago.
Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?
Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.
What’s Bonsai like?
Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, and he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).
Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.
Yeah, I tend to get that.
Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).
I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.
Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],
he’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls…
We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.
It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.
That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. I love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.
But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?
Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.
Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?
It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?
I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.
No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.
A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’
May 6, 2013
During the couple of times I met with film director Whit Stillman at this past Miami International Film Festival, something has bothered me about how to present our meetings. He told me he hates those stories concerned with details about what the subject orders at a meal or what he/she chooses to wear. That’s fine. I could care less about that stuff myself. But what I found charming about this man when we met at the Italian restaurant around the corner of one of the screening venues on Miami Beach following one of his jury meetings, was his suggestion that we make the meal a “Dutch treat,” as he did not want to influence me. “That wouldn’t be ethical,” he said. I had never heard anyone use the original, full term of “going Dutch” until that moment. We agreed on a salad to start the meal and when the waitress asked if we wanted the salad with the entrée, which we literally split, Stillman said, “Well, isn’t the salad supposed to come first?” He wasn’t being a dick. He wanted the right experience. He did not want to rush this experience because when does a director have a chance to pick the brain of a critic who panned his last film, Damsels in Distress? (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding).
We first met a few nights earlier, as noted in an early post covering one day in my week at the Miami International Film Festival (Underwhelming films but overwhelming schmoozing on Day 3 of MIFF). I was sitting with actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallström at a bar during an after-party of Hallström’s career achievement screening. I had interviewed him for “the Miami Herald” ahead of this event (read the article). Stillman came over and introduced himself to Hallström, who seemed to have no idea who the man saying he was an independent filmmaker was. I felt compelled to jump in and sing the praises for Stillman’s work. I then introduced myself as a film critic to Stillman, and he asked me if I had ever panned one of his films. I said, “Well… the last one,” and he made an exaggerated taken aback gesture. I quickly informed him that I am still a fan and quite interested in his work and suggested a meal one day since he was at the festival all the way through as a juror for the Knight Ibero-American Competition. I was impressed that he agreed, and he shared his email so we might coordinate.
I think it says a lot about this director’s humble nature to sit with this local writer/film critic to learn as much about me and my experience with film in general rather than get one-sided and defensive about his work. We turned out having a nice, leisurely lunch that final Friday afternoon of the MIFF. He asked about the title of my blog (I got it from something director Kelly Reichardt had written about filmmaking) and he took down my recommendation to check out Chloë Sevigny’s surreal work in Olivier Assay’s Demonlover. He really wanted to understand where I came from as much as explain where he was coming from with his last film, and it was an interesting two-way conversation. After the lunch, which I did not document, as I wanted it as a warm-up for our talk about Damsels, we walked over to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. If you have listened to his commentary on the Damsels blu-ray, as I did before our meeting, you already know Stillman’s preference for Dunkin coffee over the dark roast hyped by a famous competing chain.
It was there, with pop radio blasting out classic hits by Michael Jackson and the like that I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, and we got to the review I so brazenly titled “Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding.” We spoke about some of the statements I made about his movie, the stylized world of Damsels, how the two leads are left more open to interpretation than Stillman might have liked and how technology dates movies. Here is a transcription of the first half of our half-hour chat, slightly trimmed for clarity and cohesion. We began with my lead:
Hans Morgenstern: So I put in the article “either A) I have grown too old and cynical…”
Whit Stillman: Oh, yeah, I was going to say A (laughs).
Of course, it has to be my first choice, because of course you haven’t lost your knack for smart writing, which was option B.
But you don’t think Millennials are too dumb to speak the same language as the generation before them, which was C?
I didn’t quite get that point. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t quite get it.
So, let’s go back to the ‘90s, think Richard Linklater. That was another very smart peer of yours during the rise of ‘ 90s indie film. I came of age in college watching these films. So when I think of those characters, I feel they seem as intelligent as I had felt, whereas the characters in Damsels don’t seem as bright.
Well, I do think they’re bright, except the ones who are dumb. You go with what you love, and I love Fitzgerald and Salinger as writers, but I also love the comedy of Will Ferrell and the comedy of Animal House. What the people at the Dublin Film Festival said about the film, which is really on, is that it’s Jane Austen meets Animal House, and that’s combining things you like. So, yes, some characters are dumb, but I hope it ends up being intelligent with the line of jokes with the guy and the colors, and the rainbow and all that. But I think that Violet is as intelligent a character as we had in previous films. I mean, I felt that where we went astray… there’s certain things that are flaws as far as audience comprehension or acceptance, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily say that they are intrinsic, sort of aesthetic flaws in the film. It just means that the acceptance of the film is going to be limited on the short term, but over the long term, it might make the film more interesting for people to see it a second time or chance on it again. Because, as far as entertainment terms, I probably blundered by having the first five minutes of the film. Because, the way it’s introduced, a lot of people think these three girls are probably the mean girls, well dressed, all the sort of things we associate with being superficial people, and then there’s this girl who’s nice, the sweet character. They think she’s supposed to be the character we judge the others by. I didn’t realize how strong that would be. Because I thought that we made it pretty clear early on that it’s really about Violet [Greta Gerwig]. So I don’t see Violet as a freak. I see her as someone very appealing and, through her point of view, very interesting. And Lily [Analeigh Tipton] is sort of subverted because Lily was supposed to be a real knockout but kinda cold and superficial, and then all the guys like her. But Violet’s way better and more interesting but doesn’t have those killer looks that Lily’s supposed to have. But then, an actress comes in to audition, and she’s very good and very real, and it’s really good, what she’s doing, but it’s not really what it’s supposed to do. But I feel that my idea is a little bit clichéd, having this easily identifiable negative character and to have it less easy to identify her as a negative character, who’d make the film better and more interesting. But it just throws so many people for a loop.
It happens late in the film, as well.
They constantly see the film as being Lily’s film, not Violet’s film. They still have an uncomfortable time to find that line.
And the actress who played Lily, did you see her on “America’s Next Top Model”?
No. I didn’t see anyone. I might have seen Aubrey Plaza in something before. Maybe I crossed paths with her visually. But it’s all through casting. I mean, yes, once I knew she was good, I went back and looked at “America’s Next Top Model” and that kind of stuff.
So you never even knew she aspired to be a model?
She’s not a model, and that’s a good thing.
I mean, she was never a model. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, writer, actress who got a gig on a reality show playing someone who was trying to be a model, but she’s not a model.
I mean, the good thing is that I didn’t have the prejudice of her being a model. I just saw her as an actress, and then I heard everyone liked her on “America’s Next Top Model.” Had you been aware of her in that?
I can’t remember anyone on that show because they all look alike, slender young women.
I know that the wife and daughter of the lead investor were very excited that it was Analeigh that they liked.
So, for you, it’s really all about Greta Gerwig’s character.
It’s really all about Violet. We had many alternate titles. One was going to be the Ultra Violets, but that would have sort have been misleading, or the Violet Ultras because they’re sort of ultras, those girls.
Sure. Talk about ultra, like Rose’s revelation at the end where she says she talks with a British accent because she just came from London.
I mean the film’s not supposed to be a retro, joking film. It’s the idea that if there are things in the past that we liked, we can bring them back. We can re-create them, and we can build a future with the elements that we like in the past. It’s sort of like when a bird makes its nest, it takes little elements it likes and puts its nest together with those elements. So, in our future, rather than thinking of anything new and having new things that’s never been done before, why not take some things that seem nice from the past, like, let’s say, a style of dressing or a style of music or a style of dancing, and let’s [recuperate] that. I mean, the Renaissance was about, after the dark centuries, looking back at classicism of Greece and Rome and, see, what is this great culture, how can we bring it back? So I think there’s a bit of that in our society. I think, at the same time, there’s been technological progress and material progress and many good things in life and the Internet and cool things like that. There’s also been loss, so you see films from the ‘30s and it seems to me like a higher culture. It seems like these people are more civilized. We’ve lost a lot, but we don’t have to lose it because people are more intelligent and aspirational and have good qualities. And reality is totally checked at the door, so people shouldn’t be judging [Damsels] based on any vérité. There was a French filmmaker who did this film where at the end all these young people come and take over the house, and they’re running all around … and I found it a very cliché version of the youth of today. A lot of the industry films, it’s kind of a cliché, but really there are all kinds of types and none of my daughters are like the cliché version of what today’s youth are like.
So they’re not always texting on the phone?
No, no. I have one daughter who’s immune to all that. I mean, we did have more contemporary signifiers, originally, in the film, but you cut out a scene that has it, and therefore it’s no longer in it, so we do have a cell phone in the film, and we do have her [Violet] saying, people don’t write by hand anymore. But also I’ve seen a lot of films where they’re using whatever the technology of the day is and everything, and it gets very boring, very quickly. It’s all about whatever the latest thing is.
Yeah, it seems kind of conscious.
In Spanish films, the classic scene is someone comes in to their apartment and plays the answering machine and listens to the message on the answering machine, or we have a close-up of the answering machine leaving a message, and that is like tedious cinema. I think now we can do the same sort of thing. It’ll just be some boring thing in the future. Like now, who uses answering machines?
Yeah, and it sort of automatically dates your film. It’s not good in the long run.
Yeah, it’s sort of stupid dating. And also, all the sort of dumb action films, even if they’re good movies and they’re fun to watch, they have tons of stuff with the camera on the computer screen as the person is subverting the terrorists. Like, what is it? The Mission Impossible stuff, so you have the good people typing away at their computer screens, and you have the evil people typing away at their laptops (laughs).
Yeah, and how interesting is that going to be 10 years from now, and how much will it turn the film into some campy joke for future generations?
I did have Adam Brody writing his essay “the Decline of Decadence” on my laptop, but it got cut.
It may have been interesting if he were on a typewriter.
I’m not gonna go there. I’m not sentimental about technology, so that whole thing about people who have to use their manual typewriter.
That was my dad.
I’m not gonna go back to that. But the problem is once the technology goes out, it’s real hard to find. And occasionally to address an envelope or a short letter it would be probably much easier to write on a typewriter, a good IBM Selectric would be good to have now (laughs).
* * *
Our conversation continues here:
In the 15 or so years since Whit Stillman wrote and directed a movie I have either A) grown too old and cynical B) he has lost his knack for writing smart, ironic dialogue or C) he thinks Millennials are too dumb to speak as smart as Gen Xers. His return to the big screen, Damsels in Distress, has its moments but does not feel as sure-footed as his earlier films, like Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994).
The film opens with Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) picking out new friend Lily (Analeigh Tipton) from a batch of transfer students to their college, Seven Oaks. Though one might assume this is Stillman’s take on Mean Girls or Heathers, it soon becomes apparent these women only act out of an honest sincerity. The preppy East Coast college where most of the action unfolds seems to exist in some alternate universe where the average IQ of humanity lands a few notches lower than that of the movie’s audience. There is simply no room in these kids’ brains for hidden agendas. Seven Oaks is a privileged school where most students look like something out of a J. Crew or Ralph Lauren ad, yet some are too ignorant to know the colors of the rainbow.
The film has a sense of unfolding in today’s age of Internet social networking and text messages. Early in Damsels in Distress, when the girls take Lily to her first frat party, Violent hears the nineties-era dance song “Another Night” and exclaims, “Ooo, an oldie but a goodie.” She also cherishes a hand-written note from an ex in which he scrawled: “Out for brewskies back in a gif,” misspelling “jiff.” She says no one takes the time to write hand-written notes anymore.*
Still, there is a dark side to Seven Oaks. The school seems to have a high suicide rate among its students. The education department in particular seems notorious for suicide attempts. Thankfully, those majoring in education seem too dumb to realize a leap from the top of a two-story building only leaves them maimed. Enter Violet and her friends who run the Suicide Prevention Center. Their therapy? Tap dancing. The three girls only want to help their peers. They attend frat parties to intervene and keep frat boys happy by talking and dancing with them.
Violet in particular has a passion for dancing, and Gerwig embraces her character with particular delight. Her goal in life is to start a dance craze called the Sambola. After her premiere Sambola event fails for lack of attendance, Violet stays cheery and shrugs it off, saying it’s like the Myth of Sisyphus. Heather notes, “The important thing to remember is that he was mythical.” There are some hilarious moments of this naïveté run amok. Heather’s boyfriend Thor (Billy Magnussen) is in college to finally learn the colors. It turns out he is the product of parents seeking to create an overachiever. Heather explains that his parents had him skip preschool, which means he missed learning the colors. “You think knowing the colors is so important!” he yells in frustration to a fellow brother. It’s truly an over-the-top, hyper dumbing down that seems unreal but skewers the new generation of the so-called entitled because the parents of these kids told them “you can be anything you want to be.”
This is a world far removed from Stillman’s earlier films of privileged, naïve people who at least offered eloquent thoughts on the difficulty of maneuvering through social constructs. Some either rebelled against them or tried to squeeze into them. In Damsels we have only one questioning soul in the form of Lily, who seems to just go with the flow. Early in the film, Lily seems to short-circuit Heather’s brain after Lily explains to her new friends that her ex-boyfriend Xavier (Hugo Becker) spells his name with an X and not a Z. “That’s impossible,” huffs Heather, arguing that the only way it could be spelled is with a Z because of the mark Zorro left in the movies. Lily tries to argue her side, but Violet steps in and humors Heather’s argument by making up the existence of a rival, less popularly known Xorro who left his mark with an X. When that seems to calm Heather, Lily accepts it.
Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.
Stillman maintains his skills for the witty dialogue that made him an exciting voice in the nineties era of American indie film, but it lacks the robust meatiness of those earlier films. If this is social commentary, the degree to which the friends accommodate ignorance is frightening and superficial. This condescending perspective feels a bit of a cop-out for Stillman. There is no real resolution in the end or lesson learned, much less transcendence (unless you consider a dance number that explains the Sambola transcendental). In fact, Stillman ends the film with a few footnotes refuting some of the falsehoods these characters take to heart. In the world of Damsels, ignorance is bliss and bliss can only be found through the false safety of ignorance.
*Underneath that, the notion that jiff is short for jiffy may just be lost among these characters. Ironically, the word’s origin is listed as unknown, according to Miriam Webster’s dictionary. Maybe Stillman is skewering the ignorance of society in general?
Damsels In Distress is rated PG-13 and runs 99 minutes. Though it has already opened in select theaters in the US, the film now finally opens in select South Florida theaters on April 27, including the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale, the Regal Delray 18 in Delray Beach, the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and the Sunrise 11 in Sunrise. Update: Damsels will also play at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on June 27 (tickets).
March 24, 2010
With Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach sharpens his usual focus on the greedy tics of self-absorbed protagonists by pointing his camera on nothing less than a formerly institutionalized misanthrope, probably his most extremely dysfunctional character to date. But the title character is something much more than a self-centered egoist who hates people. He re-directs the hatred he has for himself into disdain for the behaviors of not only what he perceives are the common masses but the actions of those that love him. Baumbach and his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, craft a masterful script to form Greenberg, and Ben Stiller does an amazing, patient job at bringing this character to life.
Greenberg is a carpenter with an attitude fueled by a passion for letters of complaint to companies like Starbucks and American Airlines and wistful memories from the 80s of playing in a new wave/post-punk trio that nearly signed a major label deal. But the only real talent he has is finding something to complain about in every situation he stumbles into, especially with those he thinks he knows. His letters are nothing compared to the anger he throws on those closest to him.
After supposedly being released from a mental hospital, Greenberg, a New York transplant, finds himself house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. While Greenberg’s brother heads off to enjoy Vietnam with his wife and kids, Greenberg is left to tend to the family dog, who has grown weak with an autoimmune disorder (Greenberg at one point worries about catching the dog’s illness, but it’s as if the dog actually caught it from him). In the meantime, he takes advantage of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer in her mid 20s with a weak self-esteem. Despite his crude manner of canceling a date with her at a bar to instead split her only bottle of beer at her place, she accepts his advances for a brief sexual encounter that ends as abruptly as it had begun, doing nothing for either one of them.
As their relationship turns on but mostly off, the care of the dog seems to provide the only glue that can hold them together. Greenberg also spends much of his time catching up with his former band mate and longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a soft-spoken man whose 10-year marriage with the mother of his only son has begun to unravel. Greenberg is more happy about the marriage’s dissolution than he is about signs Ivan can work it out. During a dinner out with Ivan and Florence, Greenberg suddenly shuts down an attempt by Ivan to celebrate Greenberg’s 40th birthday by having the waiters bring over a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” with a tantrum. These two characters’ generous attempts to show Greenberg some affection coupled with their own sorry states provide the perfect foils for Greenberg, whose weak anger could find no more comfortable place (there are some brief moments when Greenberg tries to confront strangers to sad but funny ineffectiveness).
Stiller’s performance is nothing short of brave because you can bet lots of people will come to this movie expecting the buffoonery that helped get him the popularity he currently enjoys. But this movie is no Dodge Ball or Tropic Thunder. The last time Stiller did something this low-key was in Reality Bites, though the Greenberg character is probably as ugly as the one in Permanent Midnight, a hardcore tragic drama of a man’s rise and fall in the world of writing a sitcom for TV, based on the true story of the writer behind “ALF.” That film remains one of his least popular.
In Greenberg, Stiller captures his character’s complex as much with his pauses and silences as with his harsh opinions. At Greenberg’s low-key 40th birthday celebration, when Ivan says, “Youth is wasted on the young,” Greenberg responds by saying, “I’d go further,” while staring down at his menu. “I’d say life is wasted on … people.”
I was hoping this to be a laugh-a-minute, though self-deprecating film like the Squid and the Whale, but Baumbach has taken the self-deprecation to a whole new level, along the lines of Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg is a dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self than anyone else around him. Greenberg is a walking pile of hang-ups that he constantly projects on others. What he hates about people is what he hates about himself. Throughout the movie, Greenberg meets people who have moved on and grown up, while Greenberg seems to delight in his therapist’s analysis of his issues. Toward the end of the movie, he attempts to bond with Florence telling her, “My shrinks says, I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because it felt like I didn’t ever really live it in the first place.” Again, his attempts to bond with others turns to himself.
The movie culminates with a drug-fueled party, where Greenberg finally gets a look in the mirror per se, as scores of young people surround him, and it’s literally an unrecognizable, lifeless creature floating in his brother’s pool with a single eye staring back at him. From here on, he can either choose to run further from himself and his life or dive in and start to finally live. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote, “This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries. One must live with time or die with it, or else elude the greater life.” Baumbach offers no clear answers as to whether this lump of wounded humanity has learned to take personal responsibility for maintaining a relationship. The audience can only hope that Greenberg’s choice at the end of the movie to not run away from his developing sense of self is but the start of something remotely caring of others.
In the end, Greenberg proves itself as one of those rare character studies that keeps you hooked with interest thanks to a strongly drawn out and naturally played unstable protagonist (reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s under-appreciated Punch Drunk Love). Stiller’s subtle acting is a refreshing change from his usual shrill, over-the-top clowns. Credit is also due to the supporting work by Gerwig and Ifans, who play people with more subtle hang-ups, yet know how to live in their skin with just enough comfort. Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but it shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior.
Greenberg is rated ‘R’ and opens in wide release on Friday, March 26.