Over the past three evenings, I watched “Tiny Furniture”, “Cyrus” and “Greenberg”. The first two are dyed-in-the-wool mumblecore movies, while the third is a mixture of conventional Hollywood story-telling with mumblecore elements, a sign of the movement’s growing influence. All three are pretty awful but raise important questions about art and society in a period of declining expectations. The genre reflects this, whatever the intentions of its admittedly shallow practitioners.
In my review of Beeswax, my first exposure to mumblecore, I cited the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman by way of introduction:
Mumblecore’s compulsive navel-gazing, paucity of external references, and narrow field of interest is not for every taste—as Sam Fuller told a French journalist who asked him about Rebel Without a Cause, “I hate these adolescents and their problems.” Like, who doesn’t—although, seeing these films, I regret no one was on hand to fashion art from the stoned blather or communal shenanigans of Viet-era twenty-somethings.
Hoberman also noted: “The denizens of Mumblecordia are often failed musicians or would-be writers. Joblessness is rife.” This is something that unites all three of the movies under consideration here.
Another feature of mumblecore is the reliance on digital cameras whose modest costs allow movies to be made on a D.I.Y. basis. It also allows direct DVD sales through the Internet, a medium essential both to distribution and publicity. That being said, both “Tiny Furniture” and “Cyrus” represent bids by their makers to tap into broader and obviously more lucrative markets. “Cyrus” stars John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei—three established actors—but it is directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass who are considered fathers of the genre.
From a technical standpoint, “Tiny Furniture” is fairly revolutionary since the entire movie was filmed with a Canon EOS 7D, a $1600 SLR camera rather than a camcorder. Of course, all digital cameras are capable of recording video and “Tiny Furniture” is on a par with any other low-budget movie that I have seen. It is too bad that the script—such as it is—and the “acting” can’t match the technique.
“Tiny Furniture” was written, directed by Lena Dunham, a 2008 graduate of Oberlin College who also plays the lead character Aura who has just graduated college. It also features her sister Grace Dunham who plays the character Nadine, Aura’s younger sister. To complete this virtual home movie, their real-life mother Laurie Simmons plays their mother Siri. The movie is shot in Laurie Simmon’s palatial Tribeca loft that contains her photography studio. Ms. Simmons specializes in shooting dollhouse figures in a style that shares Cindy Sherman’s sensibility. The movie’s title is a reference to her work as seen below:
Laurie Simmons is married to Carroll Dunham, a painter whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Would their daughter’s movie, the first she ever made, have gotten the financing and attention it has if she was not born into this family? The answer is obvious.
Aura has just returned to her mother’s loft in order to “veg out” after four years of college. With no obvious ambitions or ideals for that matter, her main interest is hanging out with friends, getting high and looking for a man. What makes her character somewhat exceptional is the fact that she is about 25 pounds overweight. Unlike Robert DeNiro putting on pounds to play Al Capone, Lena Dunham has been fat for a long time and even exploited this feature on a Youtube clip that went viral until she removed it. Here’s another example of her Youtube work that is in the Guggenheim Museum collection. Once again, I have to ask whether the museum would have given her a moment’s notice without her family ties. You will notice that the clip is obsessed with “making it” in the art world.
Throughout “Tiny Furniture”, Aura is seen in the most unflattering terms. She is told by her sister that she smells. When she tries to get something started with men, the results are degrading. One is a Youtube artist like her who is in town to have meetings with HBO (sheer fiction obviously). She invites him to crash at her mother’s loft and he makes a mess of the place while ignoring her advances, showing much more interest in a Woody Allen paperback. One assumes that Lena Dunham might have been paying homage to Allen in this tale of well-educated, narcissistic and privileged Manhattanites but Allen knew how to write comic dialog. The dialog in “Tiny Furniture” is “realistic” in the sense that it is exactly what some 23 years old might have to say to each other in real life, a subject that is not of intrinsic interest to me and most people looking for art or entertainment in exchange for an $11 admission ticket. As Sam Fuller put it, I hate these adolescents and their problems.
One other thing worth pointing out. On Ms. Dunham’s blog, there is a very long article about her going to Israel to appear at screenings of “Tiny Furniture”. There is not a single mention of Palestinian suffering, let alone the fact that there is a BDS movement. This young woman is apparently to swept up in her own career to notice that other people are being ethnically cleansed.
The eponymous Cyrus (Jonah Hill) is a 20 year old living with his mother Molly (Marisa Tomei) in Los Angeles. After she develops a relationship with John (John C. Reilly), a depressed divorcee, Cyrus does everything he can to subvert it. To describe their relationship as Oedipal would be the understatement of the year. In terms of creepiness, it is almost a comic version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. We should add that Hitchcock’s classic has more laughs.
John meets Molly at a party where he has been moping around trying to make some kind of connection with the opposite sex. After having one drink too many, he beings taking a piss in the shrubbery near the house and is caught in the act by Molly who somehow finds him attractive. Despite mumblecore’s stated claim to capture people in naturalistic situations, this strikes me not only as absurd but sexist.
With barely anything going for him and in a drunken stupor to boot, John manages to end up in bed with Molly. Before long, he meets her son Jonah, who is an aspiring New Age composer but mostly he appears to be a slacker like Aura, content to loll around in his mother’s home until something better comes along. Is there some connection between Jonah Hill’s corpulence and the character Aura’s? It would appear that mumblecore goes out of its way to draw out the most unattractive aspects of a character’s physical and psychological attributes in an attempt to subvert Hollywood conventions.
But what the genre does not understand is that our sympathy for a character has little to do with body size or personality tics. It has much more to do with moral stance that defines a character in relationship to society, something that could be of less interest to its practitioners. For example, in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, the main characters are always searching for a more genuine existence or to be true to themselves, even if this leads to comic setbacks as was the case of “Sullivan’s Travels”. Margaret Thatcher once said that society does not exist, only individuals. She seems to have anticipated mumblecore.
The “comedy” in “Cyrus” consists mainly of dialog between the characters that reflects their sad attempts to resolve the cringe-inducing triangle. Since there are disturbing psychological aspects to all this, the directors seem to be hedging the bets. If a critic says that a scene is not funny, the Duplass brothers can say that they didn’t mean it to be. At the climax of the film, Cyrus has an altercation in a bathroom with John while a wedding party is in progress. They tumble out of the bathroom and topple a serving table, drawing everybody’s amazed reaction. It has finally reached the point where Molly has to openly confront the reality of her son’s mental illness. I for one found the scene deeply disturbing and judged the directors to be guilty of cheap exploitation not much different than cable TV reality shows and the equally exploitative pseudo-documentary “Catfish”.
Although Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is twice the age of Cyrus, he acts like a twenty year old and is just as disturbed. After being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in a New York hospital, Greenberg goes out to Los Angeles to spend a few weeks at his wealthy brother’s house that represents a kind of womb for him, just as Aura’s mother’s loft and Cyrus’s mother’s house. All three characters enjoy living sheltered existences.
In his youth Greenberg was an aspiring rock musician but bad choices put his career on the rocks. At the age of 40, he makes a living as a carpenter and is clinically depressed just like John in “Cyrus”. For obvious reasons, mumblecore dotes on either repellent or fractured personalities. It is a cheap way of making “compelling” art. One imagines that most mumblecore directors would be utterly incapable of drawing out real drama from the lives of adult human beings.
His brother has a personal assistant named Florence who is in her early 20s. Not long after she meets Greenberg, she has sex with him. Her decision to go to bed with this depressed, hostile character is as inexplicable as Molly’s decision to take up with John almost immediately after catching him in the act of pissing in the shrubbery. If there is one thing that mumblecore has in common with traditional Hollywood movies, it is treating female characters in a sexist manner.
Florence is played by Greta Gerwig, who starred in the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead”. Although Gerwig is a beautiful woman, she is photographed without any makeup. You can see every blemish on her face in an obvious bid to subvert Hollywood convention just as much as Lena Dunham’s fleshy thighs. Mark Duplass has a cameo role in the movie, playing a member of Greenberg’s ill-fated rock-and-roll band. These connections to mumblehead regulars indicate that director Noah Baumbach felt some kind of affinity with the genre, even though his past work was more conventional.
The main connection with mumblecore, however, was the utter lack of any kind of plot or character development in the film. Mostly, it is content to have people sitting around making small talk focused on their narrow life-style and amatory choices, the assumption being that this kind of “naturalism” is sufficient to sustain an audience’s interest. If this were truly sufficient, I can’t understand why the conversations people have on their cell phones on the bus is so annoying to me.
Greenberg is one of the most repellent characters I have ever run into in a movie. You have to give credit where credit is due. Ben Stiller captures his creepiness as if he was born to play the role or perhaps because he was basically playing himself, the way that Lena Dunham did in “Tiny Furniture”. It is one of life’s mysteries.
One scene captures the character’s unpleasantness perfectly. Old friends have taken him to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate his 41st birthday, an event that has left him depressed as does just about everything. When the waiters bring out a small cake with a candle for dessert and begin singing happy birthday, he goes ballistic and yells at his friend, a former member of his band, “why don’t you go sit on my cock?” It has all the cringe-inducing qualities as the bathroom altercation in “Cyrus”.
Like Lena Dunham, the 41 year old director Noah Baumbach comes from a privileged background resting on its achievements in the arts. His father is novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and his mother is Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. For someone trying to crack into the film industry, such connections can’t hurt.
Before he made it in Hollywood, Baumbach directed short films for Saturday Night Live, a formerly amusing television show that adopted the same cringe-inducing sensibility as the movies discussed here long before mumblecore hit it big. In fact, SNL has been a spawning ground for “edgy” Hollywood directors for many years now, including Todd Solonz.
Not everybody has found Baumbach’s work deserving of the accolades heaped upon it in the pages of the New York Times and other middle-class taste-makers. My colleague Armond White of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) detests his work, as he does most commercial and indie film-making. Like me, his preferences are for films made long ago when screenwriters were more literate than they are today.
White’s reviews of Baumbach’s movies prior to “Greenberg” apparently drew the attention of his publicists who were instructed to disinvite him from a press screening, leading to a major controversy. Eventually Armond got around to seeing “Greenberg” and wrote an article that I thoroughly endorse:
While Allen’s Zelig poked fun at the absurdity of class and race envy, the mania to assimilate and fit in, Greenberg sentimentalizes the particular elitism of the moneyed and empowered class. Baumbach’s usual privileged settings (this time West Coast Hollywood-style) aren’t documented so much as preferred; just as Roger Greenberg’s bad manners and selfishness are coddled. Baumbach indulges rather than critiques Roger’s cruelty, revealing the same coterie inclination as Dart and Hoberman. Baumbach’s family drama differs from the upper-class comedies of Philip Barry or Whit Stillman through the desperately naked, social-climbing anxiety of its over-educated, morally shallow protagonist. They don’t have the class (in the old-fashioned sense) to show compassion toward others. That’s why Greenberg heroizes Roger’s arrogant bad behavior—Baumbach’s media friends surely recognize and enjoy the ugliness.
The interesting thing is that Armond blasted the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman in this piece as well. Hoberman taken up the cudgels against Armond as having a personal animosity toward Baumbach that colored his reviews. I have sort of the converse reaction. I started out hating the films and have now developed a personal animosity.
I should add that J. Hoberman’s politics are supposedly a lot closer to mine than Armond’s who has expressed a certain displeasure with leftist films in his reviews. I can’t say that I have ever discussed politics with him but in our one conversation at a press screening, I was pleased to discover that we had the same affinity for movies from the 1950s.
Hoberman, on the other hand, has had good things to say about socialism, particularly in his collection of essays “The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism”, something I have not read. However, there are very important political issues involved in the film industry today that transcend conventional ideological categories. We are basically witnessing a corruption of film art that is being facilitated by a cozy relationship between the production companies and critics that in many ways mimics that of Washington politicians and lobbyists. Critics all too often forget what their mission should be, feeling the need to get people into the seats as a kind of duty to commerce.
Armond White’s March 2010 article “Do Movie Critics Matter?” is the definitive take on this sordid relationship:
Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.