Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Qu'est que Mumblecore? (On Cyrus)

I don't have a great deal to say about Jay and Mark Duplass' Cyrus (2010), an engaging and funny if not very distinguished romantic comedy, but I am intrigued, sort of, by the way people are talking about it. The Duplass brothers' previous films, The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008), both unseen by me, were low-budget, low-fi "Mumblecore" movies, while this film, though resolutely low-budget and low-fi, features mainstream stars articulating clearly and is getting a much wider release (Ridley and Tony Scott are credited as executive producers). In his review of the film, Mike D'Angelo finds that the filmmakers don't seem to know whether they want to make an independent feature or go Hollywood, which begs the question: What exactly is the difference between an indie movie generally, and a Mumblecore film in particular, and most mainstream studio fare?

First of all, what is Mumblecore? According to Wikipedia, the term was coined by Eric Masunaga, a sound editor who's worked with Andrew Bujalski, to describe a small number of US directors whose handmade aesthetic helps to distinguish their work from the professional model of filmmaking associated with Hollywood and emulated by most independent features which turn up at the Sundance film festival (Frozen River [2008], Precious [2009], et al). A Mumblecore feature is shot on 16mm or video rather than 35mm, and the actors are more often friends of the director than experienced professionals. The brand takes its name from the tendency of the non-professional actors who appear in these films to mumble their lines, and most Mumblecore movies have their premiere at the South by Southwest Music Festival.

However, once you get past their homemade quality, a Mumblecore movie is anything but experimental. They rely on the same principles of story construction and continuity editing which have been the basis for commercial filmmaking for more than ninety years. The brand has even produced its own stars, with Greta Gerwig going on to appear in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (2010). (Mark Duplass also makes a cameo, and Baumbach served as producer on Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last [2009].) Contrary to what D'Angelo claims, it seems to me that, apart from Cyrus having an obviously low-budget look (which I guess is supposed to denote uncompromising artistry and realism), the Duplass brothers have transitioned rather seamlessly into professional filmmaking. In other words, Mumblecore isn't an attempt to break away from Hollywood so much as a means for aspiring directors like the Duplass brothers to get their foot in the door.

One might argue that in Cyrus, the protagonist, John (John C. Reilly), has the potential to alienate viewers. A desperate loser who evidently hasn't been on a date since his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), dumped him seven years ago (the film opens with Jamie walking in on him masturbating), John meets a woman, Molly (Marisa Tomei), at a party early in the film, and miraculously, she goes home with him at the end of the night. However, John begins to suspect that she's married because of the way she always leaves right away after intercourse, and one day, in stalker fashion, he decides to follow her home. Surely this is more characteristic of edgy indie fare than a safe Hollywood romantic comedy?

Actually, as David Bordwell argues in his book, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006), starting in the 1970s, screenwriting manuals began to place a much greater emphasis on having a flawed protagonist, which becomes the basis for an internal conflict between what the protagonist wants and what they need. As an example, Bordwell cites Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), in which the protagonist is a workaholic who learns to be a devoted father: He wants to succeed in the business world, but he needs to be a good dad. Ironically, although indie movies are often associated with character-driven stories (in contrast with action-orientated Hollywood features), the plot of Cyrus is all external conflict.

The story charts John's substitution of one brunette mother figure for another. (In the first sequence, Jamie shows up at his house to tell him she's getting remarried.) However, since John's stalkerish tendencies never pose a threat to his relationship with Molly, the only obstacle to his goal (that is, to make it work with Molly) is an external one--namely, Molly's grown son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who sets out to sabotage their relationship. (Cyrus' attachment to Molly is mirrored in John's attachment to Jamie, and the irritation it causes her fiancée.) In the end, the character who grows the most is actually Cyrus, who learns to be less selfish in his relationship with Molly.

The plot moves through the four stages outlined by Kristin Thompson as the basis of Hollywood storytelling: setup, complicating action, development, and climax (sometimes referred to, more vaguely, as three acts and a turning point). Upon falling in love with Molly, John discovers that she has a grown son (setup). Although Cyrus pretends to like him, John begins to suspect that Cyrus is out to sabotage his relationship with Molly when his sneakers mysteriously disappear (complicating action). After John discovers his shoes in a closet, it's all out war between the two men, although they try to hide their mutual enmity from Molly (development). Things boil to the surface at Jamie's wedding when Cyrus gets drunk (echoing John's behavior at the party where he first met Molly), and attacks John in the bathroom. In the scene where John first confronts Cyrus, he takes his sneakers down from the closet, and he shows them again to Molly when breaking up with her in order to explain how the situation with Cyrus has become intolerable. (In screenwriting jargon, the breakup is "the darkest hour," where everything looks bleak for the characters.) Finally, seeing how despondent Molly is without John, Cyrus goes to his apartment to beg him to take her back (climax).

Stylistically, the film bears many of the hallmarks of what Bordwell terms intensified continuity, which isn't a violation of continuity editing, but rather continuity on steroids. This aesthetic is characterized by the use of long and wide lenses, close framings (often of one person, or an over-the-shoulder angle), fast editing even in conversation scenes, constant camera movement (in Cyrus, some handheld shots are punctuated with sudden zoom ins), and insane redundancies (I counted no fewer than four nearly identical establishing shots of Molly's house). In the hands of a director like Baumbach or Spike Lee, these can be effective tools, but too often, as is the case here (not to mention every Christopher Nolan movie), it seems to encourage unimaginative staging and découpage.

Politically, the film is essentially conservative. The sole obstacle to John having a normal (heterosexual, monogamous) relationship with Molly is her abnormal (vaguely incestuous) relationship with Cyrus, whom as they say, has boundary issues. (When John spends the night at Molly's for the first time, she tells him that she and Cyrus always keep their bedroom doors open during the night.) To put it in the most Freudian terms possible, the first thing Molly notices about John is his "nice penis," and it's Cyrus realization that Molly needs John to love her in a way that he can't (i.e., with his penis) that brings about the happy ending.

So, what can an indie film do that a Hollywood film can't? D'Angelo associates indie films with subtle character studies, and mainstream fare with broad comedies, but as we've seen, that's an inaccurate generalization. Tom Ford's slick Hollywood feature A Single Man (2009) is as subtle and character-driven as a low-budget item like Cyrus is broad. There are, however, experimentally-inclined US commercial filmmakers, such as Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, Richard Linklater, and David Lynch, not to mention still more radical avant-gardists like Craig Baldwin, Ernie Gehr, and Michael Snow, and video artists like Gary Hill, Steve Reinke, and Bill Viola. Under the Mumblecore umbrella, there are those who are simply auditioning for a studio gig (like the Duplass brothers). But others, such as Bujalski, seem driven by a desire to see represented on film a segment of American life that's so far been ignored by the mainstream--although I wish that Bujalski's wholly apolitical films about the romantic entanglements of a bunch of boring white heterosexual hipsters, such as Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), were darker and edgier, like the Baumbach of Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg. In other words, Bujalski and the Duplass brothers could stand to learn a thing or two about flawed protagonists from the screenwriting manuals.

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