Did Mumblecore Really Happen? by David Bax
This morning, I mentioned to a friend that I had seen Jonathan Blitstein’s Let Them Chirp Awhile last night. His response was, “Oh, right, isn’t that a mumblecore movie?” I didn’t know how to answer him. It’s definitely a low-budget indie about aimless twenty-something white hipsters who talk a lot more than they act. But it didn’t feel like mumblecore to me and I couldn’t decide why.
Was it because it was so funny? Well, no, Andrew Buljaski’s films are funny. Was it because the filmmaker was clearly more mature than his characters and therefore able to put them in the perspective they deserve? No, Aaron Katz’s films have always been honest about their characters. Perhaps it was the fanciful toying with conventions that gave the film a postmodern bent, making it feel more like a “movie.” Again, mumblecore has done that before. What is The Puffy Chair but a riff on the standard road movie?
At the end of my pondering, I was left to wonder if I even knew what mumblecore was at all. I couldn’t think of a way to describe it in a way that was unique to the available subset of films. Any criteria (apart from, say, fashion) failed to distinguish mumblecore from pre-existing terms like neo-realism, naturalism, or Cassavetes-esque. That last one might not be a pre-existing term.
So now I’m struggling with the question of whether mumblecore ever really existed in the first place. How can something be a movement worth separating and naming if it brings nothing new to film? That’s not to say that some of these aren’t very good films. It’s just that, as a group, they likely won’t have any real impact in the future. They might be notable for their similarity and the fact that a lot of them were made in the same few years but no one will be truly influenced by them because their own influences are far too prominent and obvious. Even generations from now, young filmmakers will know Cassevetes before they know mumblecore.
While the best of these films will live on simply by virtue of being very good films, the movement, insofar as it existed at all, will be a footnote.