There’s a certain innate American spirit to the films of the mumblecore sub-genre — a set of films defined by a brand of naturalism that binds the acting, aesthetics and story. Often such stories feel observational, slow and stripped from the textbook of reality, focusing on the lives of young people struggling in everyday relationships. It is, however, a genre that feels inherently honest and contemporary, brought into fruition by the work of Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Aaron Katz and Noah Baumbach.
Influenced by filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, works belonging to the mumblecore genre often explore the lives of individuals who float around aimlessly in the urban jungles of modernity. One of the pioneers of mumblecore cinema, Andrew Bujalski said: “That’s one of the things I find exciting about cinema, in general — all art, really, but movies, in particular, are just extraordinary time machines. And when you’re building a time machine, you can’t be too conscious of what you’re doing. I mean, I wasn’t thinking, This’ll be a great portal for future citizens”.
Originating from the early 2000s, mumblecore was certainly a product of its time, germinating into life thanks to the emergence of good quality, inexpensive camera equipment that allowed filmmakers to create freely without the need for a large crew of people. They were, however, films that had grown from the very fabric of 20th-century filmmaking, inspired by low-budget films such as Woody Allen’s Manhatten, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Or, indeed consider the monumental impact of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 film movement, in which the medium was stripped back to its bare minimum, using natural light and simple camerawork.
Regardless, Andrew Bujalski’s directorial debut, Funny Ha Ha, is generally considered to be the first mumblecore film, eliciting a particular naturalism both in performance and dialogue with his use of non-professional actors. Bujalski’s film was also created on a low budget with filming taking place in real locations in Boston, Massachusetts. The first officially recognised film of the sub-genre, Funny Ha Ha helped set the precedent for films to come, featuring young characters engaging in romantic relationships, with each sharing an inability to fully articulate their dreams and ambitions.
Funny Ha Ha was later joined by some of the genre’s very best early films including The Puffy Chair, Mutual Appreciation and Dance Party USA, though the genre wouldn’t take flight until Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach took to the stage. Popularising the genre, Gerwig and Baumbach particularly helped to define the genre for the modern age, going on to create films that abide by the mumblecore ethos whilst revamping the visuals for easier consumer consumption. Frances Ha, directed by Baumbach and written by himself and Greta Gerwig, was the first of such films to truly penetrate into the mainstream earning several awards and nominations.
Look further, however, toward Baumbach’s later films, 2014s While We’re Young and even his Oscar-winning Marriage Story and you can see a similar trend. Whilst these films elicit a more bright, flashy, studio-led aesthetic, they are stories created on a moderately low budget featuring characters struggling through the difficulties of modern life, particularly in retrospect of their youth.
The Mumblecore movement has not gone away, it is the bedrock of American cinema that has party suffused itself into popular independent filmmaking.