Chances are, if you're reading this site, you've heard of the word "mumblecore." You may have even used it in a sentence – as in, "What's with all these mumblecore films at SXSW?" It's a term that's been kicking around for a few years, used by anyone but those who would be called mumblecore to describe a brand of American indie film with particular hallmarks: low budgets, improvised dialogue, twentysomethings talking at length about life and sometimes love, and non-professional actors (or those who just act like it). It seems reductive, but you know a mumblecore film when you see it.
Last week, the New York Times poured attention on what was dubbed "Planet Mumblecore" – a socially connected sphere of indie filmmaking where any small budgeted independent film of a certain type seemingly earned the label. A new class of so-called mumblecore filmmakers posed for a cheeky group photo in designer duds ("Eric Kutner, the co-director of 'The Snake,' wears a John Varvatos leather jacket"), including Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), Alex Holdridge (In Search of a Midnight Kiss), Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair), and Adam Goldstein (The Snake). Fine, fine. Independent filmmakers all.
But halfway down the page came the really interesting stuff. The movement's brightest stars – Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, and Andrew Bujalski – declined to participate in the mumblecore tea party. Why?
"For our photo shoot, Swanberg did not want to be shot with the Humpday cast, as he feels they've become mainstream. Greta Gerwig, who is perhaps the first break-out female star of the movement, canceled our shoot at the last moment because she is currently starring in a Noah Baumbach film and mumblecore is in her past. And Bujalski flatly refused to participate. Vague reasons were given, but it became clear that he does not want to be categorized or made part of this club." – "Core Values," Lynn Hirschberg
The reluctance among filmmakers to embrace the mumblecore mantle has been evident for years. (Andrew Bujalski, who did not give comment to the New York Times article, called it "a little reductive and silly" when it was coined back in 2005.) But as the founding members of the original movement move on to greater success and – heaven forbid – mainstream careers, what does the categorization even mean anymore, even with a younger generation supposedly taking their place on Planet Mumblecore? Is it something to be embraced, or a tired label that no longer fits - that is, if it was ever even appropriate? I put the question to a few filmmakers and journalists myself: is "mumblecore" a dirty word?
For starters, the very idea of mumblecore may have been more accurate back when there were only a few films and filmmakers in the genre. Film critic Kim Voynar shared her definition of the movement with me. "Originally, I think mumblecore meant these films that were low budget and character-focused, made by twentysomething filmmakers who, I think, were trying to set out to show you could make a low budget film focused on story that didn't have to have special effects and razzle dazzle," she explained. "They tried to show in a cinema verite way that you could make a story about people's lives that was interesting."
Fast forward to 2009, when lumping more disparate filmmakers into the same group based on a few identifying factors feels less and less accurate. "Lynn Shelton makes a very different movie than Joe Swanberg," said reporter and film columnist Melanie Addington, who also serves as media coordinator for the Oxford Film Festival. "The only connecting thing is that they're all young filmmakers in their twenties who focused on character driven films – and they all went to SXSW."
The community surely exists, as evidenced by Cinephiliac's 2007 illustrated guide to the mumblecore family tree. And from a practical standpoint, the idea of an army of up-and-comers forging their own path in cinema, digital cameras in hand, is a testament to the kind of can-do creativity and dedication to making movies within constraints that independent film has always relied on.
Jennifer Maas produced Humpday, which features mumblecore vet Mark Duplass and is named alongside the aforementioned new class in the New York Times piece. "Twenty years ago, most people couldn't really make four or five features over the course of three years before hitting their stride," she told Cinematical. "It was just too expensive and too time consuming. If you didn't produce a work of genius on your first or second go, nobody was going to continue to sink money into you. These filmmakers made their movies, formed a loose community over a few years at smaller regional film festivals, and have really been able to influence each other in positive ways and to each come into their own."
But how do mumblecore filmmakers feel about being called, well, mumblecore filmmakers? Humpday director Lynn Shelton accepts it begrudgingly as a helpful, if uncomfortable, association. "We all recognize that being labeled under any kind of "movement" moniker is likely to get our smaller than average films more attention than they might otherwise garner on an individual basis," Shelton said, "and therefore feel grateful to some degree or other for that attention -- as well as feel somewhat guilty for all of our friends who don't seem to have been lucky enough to be grouped thusly."
However, she adds, "I don't know of a single filmmaker who proudly proclaims themselves to be 'Mumblecore.'And I don't think it's because we have problems being associated with this particular group of loosely connectible folks. We're all friends, after all, and big boosters of each others' work, [but] we just hate the word itself." (Perhaps ironically, Voynar and Addington argue that films like Shelton's Humpday and Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy aren't actually mumblecore films.)
Meanwhile Joe Swanberg, the de facto emblem of the mumblecore community, couldn't be reached for comment. In an interview in Chris Gore's Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, he said this of his involvement in the genre:
"This all started at SXSW in 2005. The term "mumblecore" was a joke that the sound mixer of Mutual Appreciation came up with to categorize that film, KOTM (Kissing on the Mouth), The Puffy Chair, and Four Eyed Monsters. People around the festival were talking about the similarities between those four films and Andrew Bujalski made the mistake of using the word "mumblecore" in an interview. For some reason that name stuck, and none of us has been able to shake it since then. It has been really positive insofar as the films have all received more attention as a group than they would have individually, but it has also resulted in a backlash and a dismissive tone from a lot of critics.
To set the record straight, none of us knew each other before SXSW 2005. I had emailed with Andrew a few times, because I had seen his previous film, but I met the Duplass brothers and Aaron and Susan in Austin. There was no movement, or any master plan. It was just a coincidence of a few filmmakers in different parts of the country all making films about themselves and their friends. I met Frank Ross a few months later, and the following year at SXSW I met Aaron Katz and all of us were making films in our own style before we even knew the others existed."
Chime in with your thoughts on "mumblecore," its players, and the New York Times article below.