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Andrew Bujalski Talks Computer Chess

“When Beeswax came out in 2009, I felt like there was a sense in the world of, ‘Well, that’s another one of the same from him,'” writer-director Andrew Bujalski says by telephone. “That frustrated me. I wanted to shake everybody by the collar and say, ‘No, can’t you see that it’s completely different?’ And now that everybody’s saying that Computer Chess is completely different from anything I’ve done before, I want to shake them all by the collar and say, ‘No, no, can’t you see it’s the same?'”

The 36-year-old Boston native is speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, about his new film, which opens July 17 at Film Forum after well-received festival screenings at Sundance and Berlin. The early 1980s-set movie, sprung from “the deepest, darkest depths” of Bujalski’s subconscious, unfolds over the course of a weekend-long conference where computer programmers, technicians, academics, and corporate representatives gather at a hotel to witness new developments in artificial intelligence through the form of program-aided chess games. Many of the pasty male attendees grow unnerved by the neighboring presence of a smilingly sexual co-ed Encounter group. Then, as the weekend continues, reality short-circuits: Cats inexplicably invade elevators, people fall into movement loops, and a computer asks for the definitions of “soul” and “love.”

At first Computer Chess seems different from Bujalski’s previous works. Like his second film, Mutual Appreciation (2005)—whose lo-fi, dialogue-driven love triangle between bourgeois young Americans helped unofficially crown Bujalski king of the film movement that came to be called “mumblecore”—his fourth feature unfolds in black-and-white. Yet unlike the naturalistic, 16mm look of Mutual or of Bujalski’s two-color character studies (Funny Ha Ha [2002] and Beeswax), Computer Chess plays out in flat, blurry video whose streaking, trick-laden imagery creates a ghosting effect. Throughout, the film’s shape-shifting gives it the sense of not only being about the recent past, but of being embedded in it.

A closer look reveals that Computer Chess‘s warped period indulgence (“There was no imperative to be tasteful here”) fits consistently into Bujalski’s career. As in the past, he left his generally new-to-film actors largely responsible for creating their characters. With his first three films Bujalski pulled “a pretty specific trick” of writing scripts with relatively unknown lead actors in mind, then working with them and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky to shape the films around their performances. Bujalski says he demanded not perfection—”An actor who tries to always be perfect is probably going to be a disaster”—but autonomy, never feeling satisfied until they were behaving freely.

This time the ensemble interacts with a distinct leading actor: technology. The film was shot with antiquated Sony AVC-3260 video cameras—to Bujalski’s knowledge, the first time that they have been used to film an entire feature—and characters are seen holding such cameras onscreen. The way Bujalski, Grunsky, and their crew experimented with Computer Chess‘s look (“The crazier the ideas we were throwing at each other, the better”) echo the work of the film’s technician characters to discover the capacities of their tools’ artificial intelligence; their mutual inability to predict the results of their efforts follow the difficulties that all Bujalski’s protagonists face in understanding how other live beings think and behave.

“I’ve always told stories about how people do and don’t relate to each other,” Bujalski says. Computer Chess, like his earlier films, is a movie in which people search for the formulas for building successful relationships while looking for others to help them crack the codes. His earlier characters struggling to put their feelings into words have led to techies using computers to stab at defining emotions. Bujalski says that he identifies with the character of Computer Chess‘s youngest, most naive programmer, played by the actor Patrick Riester (“To some extent I am or was that kid”), who, in dealing with computers as well as with the Encounter group, sees both his mind and heart challenged. Bujalski finds free will mysterious, elusive, and attractive. “I don’t know what drives people,” he says. “But I’ve always been more interested in the questions than in the answers.”

He has been asking himself more questions since his first child was born the year before Computer Chess‘s filming commenced. Bujalski compares his own situation to that of his mother, a visual artist who voluntarily drifted into more stable career pursuits after his birth. “As I’ve had to think more pragmatically about how to pay the mortgage each month, I’ve thought, ‘Well, God, maybe I could walk away from filmmaking,'” he says. “But I don’t want to walk away yet. I feel like I’m still messed up enough to fuel the necessary ego to stand on a soapbox and demand to be heard. The creation gets more challenging, but the desire is still there.”

He pauses, then adds, “So, yeah, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on around here.”

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Computer Chess Is the Funniest and Headiest American Indie of the Year

In Andrew Bujalski’s admirable, vaunted 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha, the microbudget auteur and occasional actor’s nervous temp, Mitchell, ineffectually attempts to seduce an aloof young lady over a bedroom chess match. As if pawns themselves, dependably obeying the established rules of conduct, the characters in Bujalski’s films are consistently—um, yeah, like—passive, awkward, and inarticulate. Yet that chessboard is a coincidence, not foreshadowing, as neither that first film nor Bujalski’s equally subdued, shaggily droll 16mm quasi-vérité ambles through post-collegiate ennui (2005’s Mutual Appreciation and 2009’s Beeswax, both slack in ambition but still baby steps forward) could have anticipated the profound leap of Computer Chess.

So far the funniest, headiest, most playfully eccentric American indie of the year, Bujalski’s perceptive avant-garde comedy—set circa 1980 with an Anytown, America’s worth of terrible mustaches and embarrassing pants—teases out unanswered existential and behavioral questions about mankind’s curious obsession with artificial intelligence and automation. (Shouldn’t some interactions remain analog, including games of chess?)

Fitting to the period, Bujalski’s regular cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, offers the cruddiest, security-grade monochrome image conceivable from a vintage video tube-camera that predates the PortaPak. A fascinating but hardly beautiful look, this low-contrast gray smeariness is prone to artifacting, light leaks, and tracking glitches (though sometimes cheated in post-production as amusing, almost sentient “special defects”). That’s less an arthouse stunt than a legitimately evocative, nostalgic patina. Remember when the future seemed a casual climb to utopian invention, not the doomsday vortex we now race toward?

“This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic game. I don’t know how many ways I can say it,” stammers arrogant chess wizard Pat Henderson (the onscreen egghead that film critic Gerald Peary was born to play), hosting a weekend tournament at a nondescript hotel convention. Among the influx of tucked-in, white-collared conquista-dorks ready to affably battle each other—or rather, each other’s not-yet-portable mainframes—one winner’s software will face off against Henderson on the final day.

Ostensibly through the lens of a roving cameraman seen documenting the event, we meet psychologist and programmer Martin Beuscher (Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins), who can’t fathom why his state-of-the-art upgrade plays counterintuitively against nonhuman opponents; his skittish junior partner, Peter Bishton (Austin-based editor Patrick Riester), who never quite finds his romantic footing with the competition’s much-ballyhooed “first-ever woman,” Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz, another Austin-based editor); and a portly British techie named Les Carbray (real-life software developer James Curry), who prepares at the bar: “A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.” Even the nerds who are essentially featured extras add distinctive nuttiness to the ensemble, like the programmer named Luke whose computer is also called Luke, as is his software.

The scene-stealing wild card, however, is freeloading freelancer Michael Papageorge (Funny Ha Ha‘s Myles Paige), a blowhard entrant who will disrupt just about everyone else throughout the weekend while looking for a place to lay his head each night. Wandering, sometimes dancing through the drab halls—along with a multiplying population of stray cats that improbably suggests the rise of the Internet itself—Papageorge’s interpersonal skirmishes with his rivals have higher dramatic stakes than the tournament. He deals with game organizers, some philosophical pot-smokers, and a cryptically appearing prostitute who must have escaped from David Lynch’s oeuvre.

There is no third-act “who will win?” underdog tension because this isn’t a sports movie. If anything, the bigger fight is “who will get the conference room?” between the gamers and a couples-therapy seminar led by an African guru whose New Age registrants re-enact births and molest loaves of bread as if Theatre of the Absurd performers. The film’s keystone, in turn, is a disconcertingly waggish scene in which two of the therapy-seekers (veteran Austin actors Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) bring back to their room young Peter, shyly unaware that he’s about to be uncomfortably propositioned; the logical and the spiritual have locked horns.

Such minor-key moments are when Computer Chess reveals its markings as a Bujalski film, when the friction between characters is delicately charged by miscommunication and graceless responses, often well-intentioned. The improvisational feel might read as haphazard to some, but Bujalski’s script and seemingly paradoxical stylizations are actually quite formal (the deliriously clipped editing and intermittently out-of-sync dialogue are calculated decisions, not human errors—get it?), including a deceptively not-so-random blip of color that subverts the sudden-vibrancy effect of a Wings of Desire or Schindler’s List by showing an even simpler past than the one we’ve already been watching with contemporary eyes. In past interviews, Bujalski has labeled himself a contrarian, which seems valid to say of a dramatist who finds catharsis in what’s not being said, plainness in obtuse tech jargon, and tender optimism in the historical run-up to technophobia. This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic film. I don’t know how many ways I can say it.

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Andrew Bujalski Grows Up with Beeswax

Though no one’s idea of an action film, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax feels less charmingly aimless than its radically slight precursors Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2006). Have Bujalski’s feckless characters joined the workaday world? As its title suggests, Beeswax has a mild buzz of business—and busy-ness.

Set in Austin, world capital of mumblecore—the low-tech, perf-driven, young person’s movement presaged by Funny Ha Ha—this loose, low-key, unaccountably fascinating movie has no particular sense of place. There are few establishing shots—Bujalski’s setups are dictated mainly by his characters’ relationships, most crucially that of the thirtyish twins played by actual twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher.

Beeswax was inspired by the Hatchers, whom Bujalski has known for a decade, and their on-screen interaction (slightly infantile, a touch tense) imbues even the most ordinary activities with a strong behavioral subtext. So does Tilly’s being in a wheelchair. Each is introduced doing her thing: Tilly’s Jeannie first appears at work—gliding through Storyville, the funky but capacious thrift-store-cum-boutique she co-owns with the enigmatic Amanda, a seldom-seen friend from who she has become estranged. Bujalski’s camera admires Jeannie’s purposeful maneuvers, straightening the Storyville stock while training the employee Amanda has unexpectedly hired. Cut to Maggie’s Lauren, cheerfully waking up and then breaking up with her current boyfriend.

Whereas harried Jeannie always has lots on her mind, happy Lauren can’t keep a thought in her head—a dialectic most sweetly played out when the sisters collaborate on a photo shoot. Another key scene has the pair at lunch: After watching the super-competent Jeannie handle an emergency at the store over the phone, Lauren manages to leave her wallet at the restaurant.

What, Bujalski wonders, are the ties that bind? And when is something none of your beeswax? Afraid that Amanda is planning to sue her, Jeannie reaches out for legal support—reestablishing contact with an old boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who is studying for the bar. Improbable as it sounds in this understated world, Beeswax is a movie about people in crisis. Set at a low simmer, the plot thickens when Lauren is offered a job—in Nairobi. An almost cruelly abrupt ending simultaneously reinforces and undermines the movie’s artfully served slice of life.

Following the smash success of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and The New Yorker‘s catch-up report on the “mumblecore genre,” Beeswax marks the year’s third triumph for the little movement that could—and also its passing into the Amerindie mainstream. Where Shelton both satirizes and exploits mumblecore’s straight white boys’ club and David Denby’s fretful appreciation (can micro-budget movies survive?) chases a horse long since left the barn, Beeswax exemplifies post-mumble maturity. The movie is not only semi-documentary, but also casually thoughtful (or at least self-reflexive)—working with friends is what Bujalski does in creating his own particular Storyville.

Bujalski has always been good at making closeness feel exotic, and awkwardness seem natural. And though there’s nothing labored about Beeswax, it gives the impression of something being worked out—even while it’s happening. Calculated spontaneity is this talented director’s greatest gift. Merrill marvels when a witticism falls flat: “In my mind, it sounded so different.” The director might express the same self-absorbed wonder, watching his superficially ordinary and suggestively strange film take form.

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HEYANewfest

That BAMcinématek’s inaugural 16-day festival looks to bring in something other than the mortuary crowds of Manhattan moviegoers is obvious in its lineup. This big-tent affair accommodates four overnight marathons, including All Night Bong (yes, really) and Before They Were Scientologists, in which a frolicsome Travolta can be seen attempting to shatter the fourth wall with his package in Staying Alive. Each is accompanied by a dance party.

Youth is also well-represented in the 18-film premier selection, the most extreme example of which is What’s On Your Plate?, in which two New York City 11-year-olds recite drilled-in lessons about the preferability of organic, sustainable, locally grown blah, blah, blah. Feeding nigh seven billion is apparently so easy that even a preteen can get it—one of their mothers, however, handles directing duties. If the karmic justice of youthful rebellion still works, they’ll grow up scarfing ribs and voting Republican.

From progressive pageantry to regressive grown-ups: Jody Lee Lipes’s Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same trains “Ooh, cinematography” framing on multimedia stuntman Enright during the countdown to his gallery debut, as he stages petulant crack-ups with his girlfriend over rent and his inability to access “the madness” that fuels his shock visions. Lipes has the raw material here for a comedy classic about the reduction of the arts to an ATM for dysfunctional exhibitionists—”People pay to see this shit!” squeals the mouse-suited galpal, after Brock defecates on camera—but the sentimental wrap-up belies any such reading. This should be viewed back-to-back with Hamid Rahmanian’s very human The Glass House, which profiles attendees of a school/support program for abused young women in Tehran, and shows what real self-possession in the face of actual problems looks like.

For a great ode to fucking shit up, bypass Enright’s pretense for the fire-starting, tantrum-improv You Won’t Miss Me, made with commitment and absorbing sympathy by director Ry Russo-Young and star Stella Schnabel (an art-world scion, playing an open-bar debauchee who never seems to work, but makes rent). Schnabel’s Shelly is an easy lay, intense enough to spook you the morning after, but not commitably crazy, spending her twenties hungover at auditions after swapping chlamydia with any Williamsbeard scrub in a bad band. Miss Me gets its milieu’s bathroom-sex stink and, in scenes like the sudden slash of insults between Shelly and a girlfriend on a spoiled weekend trip, has a pure 180-proof burn.

Russo-Young has been affiliated with the unassuming lowercase-title crowd formerly known as mumblecore, but I’m betting she’s too much of a live one to settle for critics’ “modest” and “wryly observed” backpats. Miss Me is the most successful, but hardly the only, study in repining youth here. There’s Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl—unfortunately, inaccurately titled—and Dia Sokol’s Sorry, Thanks, with Wiley Wiggins and Andrew Bujalski, whose Beeswax is also on the schedule. Bujalski’s scavenging of throwaway conversation remains a Magic Eye painting, in which fans and prolix critics seem to see something I don’t. The creak of Schnabel’s voice is one standout in a chorus of individuals; Bujalski’s approach to ensemble acting is attenuating his whole cast to a level plane of congested passive-aggressive limpidity.

Big Fan is the directorial debut of Robert Siegel, The Wrestler scribe and former Onion editor. Its the story of a Giants superfan, a logorrhea of Staten Island working-class grotesques, which accordingly plays like one of those “Area Man . . .” headlines on the banality of everyday life, pathetic without being very insightful. Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New, also dealing in stalled mid-life, is more ambitious and frustrating, matching a married-with-kids carpenter’s plangent inner monologues on homeownership and waning expectations to midday-empty East Bay houses. Strange and New deals in a workaday stoicism better represented in life than in movies, with performances recognizably lived-in—especially Rigo Chacon Jr. and Luis Saguar—even if they don’t quite interplay.

Among imports, Scottish comic Armando Iannucci’s handheld-hectic, profane In the Loop is good for a larf. A flying circus of backstage political damage control and deal-making skips between London and D.C. in the buildup to a vote on an Iraq-esque invasion. The good one-liners, between which there’s some downtime, are mostly courtesy of Peter Capaldi’s apoplectic director of communications. It’s most sure-footed on the municipal level—everything involving Steve Coogan’s disgruntled constituent is gold—though destined for inordinate praise for its big subject and correct politics.

Finally, a buffet of repertory programming includes guest curation by Arnaud Desplechin, introducing two films unified through their delicate self-contextualization in film history, style-augmented passion, and scene-stealing wallpaper: The Royal Tenenbaums and François Truffaut’s 1969 suspenser Mississippi Mermaid. In the latter, Catherine Deneuve is a mail-order bride of an uncertain past, delivered to remote Reunion Island and tobacco fortune heir Jean-Paul Belmondo. The lovers-on-the-lam picturesque that follows—from a Cornell Woolrich story, homaging Gun Crazy—is easily Truffaut’s most successful engagement with American genre, good enough to make you wish these kids nowadays would start jocking Hitchcock again.

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Less Bumbling: The Meta-Mumbling of Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last

Two blond sisters, their faces inches apart, exchange mock wedding vows in bright sunlight; when they get to the man-and-wife part, they slip knotted-up dandelion rings onto one another’s fingers. Alexander the Last’s opening scene will strike a dispiritingly familiar note in those who’ve seen Joe Swanberg’s previous Nights and Weekends or Hannah Takes the Stairs (or, for that matter, anything by his buddy, Andrew Bujalski): More whimsical rehearsal for grownup life? Really?

Like those flicks, Alexander the Last is an eminently post-graduate, no-budget ensemble flick about fidelity issues and low-grade sexual tension. Alex (Jess Weixler) and Hellen (Amy Seimetz) are two reasonably well-employed sisters—Alex is an actress; Hellen takes pictures—with studio apartments. Alex shares hers with husband Elliot (Justin Rice), a musician successful enough to tour and leave her home alone; Hellen makes due with a strategic array of lovers, readily summoned by text-message. A love rectangle develops. Alex finds herself drawn to a studly actor, Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), with whom she’s working and who, in verité slacker style, crashes on her couch while Elliot is on the road. In self-defense, she passes him off on to her sister—a decision that merely brings yet one more horny, inconstant player into the picture. Elliot returns to a distracted wife and a beefcake-y dude languorously playing the ukulele in his kitchen.

Probably the most meta mumblecore movie yet, Alexander the Last plays at times like Swanberg’s ironic acknowledgement of the think pieces even now being written about him. “I think we should just, uh, pay attention to where there are question marks,” says the frustrated writer of Alex’s play, as the actors onstage mercilessly swallow the end of their lines. And, in presumable defense of his decision, in Kissing on the Mouth, to show himself ejaculating onto a helpless shower wall, Swanberg has the play’s director ask, earnestly, “How do you fake sex?” while attempting to choreograph a theatrical consummation scene for Alex and Jamie.

Not that everyone doesn’t take their shirt off anyway, eventually. In one startling scene, Swanberg cuts between Alex and Jamie awkwardly rehearsing simulated intercourse and Hellen and Jamie engaging enthusiastically in the real thing. In a set-piece far more formally inventive and emotionally succinct than practically anything this director has produced to date, the psychosexual dynamics that are usually merely passive-aggressively hinted at in the Slackavettes universe are instead neatly, vividly rendered. When, after rehearsal, Alex tells her director “I’m very exhausted trying to love my husband,” it feels like an inarticulate, childish fragment from a different movie entirely.

Elliot comes home toting a digital camera full of pizza boxes he photographed while on tour and, in a merciful act of filmmaking, Alex could give a fuck—Swanberg, in Alexander the Last, seems to have finally skated past cute. The married couple reconciles quietly, but convincingly, as do Alex and her sister, mostly because they all decide, toward the end of the movie, up-talk and creative-arts jobs notwithstanding, to become what they inarguably already are: adults.

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Joe Sawnberg and Greta Gerwig Attempt To Tell the Truth in Nights and Weekends

Nights and Weekends telescopes a year-and-a-half relationship into a sampler of chats, spats, and screws. James and Mattie are two kids in their mid-twenties, just feeling out the world; they’re played by the film’s co-directors, Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig. James you could imagine a few years prior, anonymously sitting on a dryer in a Midwestern basement, watching a friend’s band go through the motions. He’s blurry and blandsome, only his impish smile suggesting a capacity for deceit. Mattie talks with a coy, slurry drawl (pharmaceutical?), switching between boundless self-regard and self-hate.

For all the emotional flagellation they indulge in, it doesn’t seem that theirs is one of the great romances. The towering adversity they face is living in different cities—no A Farewell to Arms, this. “We danced a whole song with the rhythm off,” concludes one of Mattie’s non sequitur anecdotes late in the film, which should set the metaphor alarm wailing on anyone who’s ever been inside a creative-writing workshop.

Swanberg and Gerwig, along with a cadre of young filmmakers working along parallel lines (we’ll call it postgraduate naturalism—the accepted nickname is too stupid to repeat), show a heightened interest in acute cases of masculine passivity and passive aggressivity. As in Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski—who collaborated on Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs—the leading man winds up wearing lipstick at one point, though Nights goes one better, with James bullied into sex.

Looking beyond the squirmy exhibitionism, let’s allow that the filmmakers’ project is basically a good one: trying to create situations that dial up elusive, little-seen emotional frequencies (a/k/a The Truth) and catch them on camera. When James describes his instinctive sense that he’s sometimes wearing his father’s facial expressions, it isolates the kind of obscure feelings that screenwriters don’t often dig around for. And maybe these movies provide something relatable to some kids for whom “arthouse” fare might otherwise seem as antique and irrelevant as ballet—anyone who frequents the repertory circuit can tell you that audiences aren’t getting any younger.

But this packaging of facile recognition as The Truth can be awfully close to flattery, reinforcing a ghettoized and meager idea of reality. It is difficult viewing, as we’re told The Truth should be. Mattie and James are often unlikable: vain, petty, needy, petulant, tedious. The standard explanation is that this is life and people are really like this . . . but of course we are not talking about life—which is chaos at best—but art, a matter of selection. Why then, one may well wonder, did this relationship deserve a monument? Would the world be poorer if their pillow talk disappeared, un-noted, into the ether? The two discuss feelings and fears a great deal; not so much art, sport, pop, politics, philosophy. It’s an effective reminder of why most of us discuss those things constantly—it’s smotheringly boring not to.

Very often, the “rawness” here seems like an inability to distinguish the essential from the banal (or elevate the banal to the essential). A good eye might help, but Swanberg and Gerwig’s filmmaking is stubbornly disheveled. Like Mattie’s fussed-over bedhead, Nights‘ pretense of anti-style is a decision in itself. Watch Gerwig crunching potato chips through a scene, begging a viewer to notice how real it all is—it’s as affectedly casual as any of the “everyday business” in a Charles Schwab commercial. First encountered in laundry-day dress-down, James and Mattie later are seen tenuously adjusting to the outfits of adulthood. This is the point where (I give up) mumblecore’s I-don’t-want-to-grow-up aesthetic still wavers, afraid to articulate itself; these kids fear tripods like most twentysomethings fear neckties.

Swanberg and Gerwig cavalierly flash tits and dong, but until they take a real risk—range out of their diaries, stop obfuscating with underachiever strategies—they’ll never be worthy of their alleged antecedents. I refer the reader to Pete Bagge’s Buddy Bradley comics, perfect field recordings of hipster drift, or the lacerating film autobiography of Maurice Pialat, who could’ve eaten the whole goddamn mumblecore playpen in one bite.

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It’s Mumblecore!

First, the 16mm New Wave; then the super-8 No Wave; and now, an American film movement, based on DV, with a name that might belong to one of Harry Potter’s friends: It’s Mumblecore!

Not much movie magic here: A recent college grad casually breaks up with her boyfriend, has a brief office affair, and then embarks upon another. At one point, she goes on location to the beach; in the big emotional scene, she tearfully confesses suffering from “chronic dissatisfaction.” Hannah Takes the Stairs, the third feature by 26-year-old Joe Swanberg, is something like the Mumblecore equivalent Gone With the Wind.

Swanberg’s film gets a theatrical run, starting Wednesday, August 22 as part of the IFC Center’s two-week festival of micro-indie New Talkies (a/k/a Generation DIY, a/k/a Cine Slackavetes, a/k/a MySpace Neo-Realism, a/k/a Mumblecore), a movement which coalesced two years ago when Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (a response, he’s said, to Bujalski’s 2002 Funny Ha Ha), and the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair premiered at South by Southwest; over the next 18 months, these home-made, low-key comedy-dramas of 20-something angst, along with related films like Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA (a comedy-drama about teen-something angst), began turning up in New York (mainly at the Two Boots Pioneer), while critical fave Funny Ha Ha achieved something like cult status.

Funny Ha Ha established the template. Set in a post-graduate milieu, it drew heavily on Bujalski’s college confreres, using nonprofessionals to portray a small galaxy of awkwardly diffident young people—the most obnoxious loser played by the filmmaker. While following Bujalski’s lead in constructing narrative and characterization out of constant chatter and a succession of uninflected moments, subsequent Mumblecormedies eschewed 16mm for DV, became even more doc-like (most are half shot in close-up), and presented themselves as collectively-scripted enterprises with cast and crew often identical. According to Swanberg, everyone shared the same Chicago apartment during the making of Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Typically running a compact 80 minutes, these movies are disarmingly pragmatic, full of abrupt cuts and choppy inserts. Acting is mainly a coping mechanism. The characters in Hannah alternate between unconscious and self-conscious and that’s the charm. Embarrassment rules: In one typical interaction, Hannah (Greta Gerwig) contrives to have her ostensive boss (the ever-creepy Bujalski) come up to her cramped apartment where, squeezed in with her roommate on the couch, she fixes him with her pale hazel eyes and asks, “Do you think I’m doing OK at work?”

Thriving on the modest truth of clumsy mishaps and incoherent riffs, fueled by a combination of narcissism and diffidence, Mumblecore reflects sensibilities formed by The Real World (our life is a movie) and Seinfeld (constant discourse), as well as The Blair Witch Project (DIY plus Internet). Of course, Mumblecorps members prefer to cite Dogma or Gus Van Sant, who cast his upcoming mega-Mumble Paranoid Park through MySpace. That the filmmakers often appear on screen gives their movies a psychodramatic edge. In his youthful Flesh of Morning, Stan Brakhage made a self-starring poem on masturbation; half a century later in Kissing on the Mouth, Swanberg presents himself ejaculating in the shower and brazenly flirts with porn. Kissing opens with its heroine (Kate Winterich) and her ex-boyfriend engaged in startlingly naturalistic intercourse—the movie’s premise is her inability to give up these afternoon trysts, much to the discomfort of an adoring male roommate (Swanberg).

The denizens of Mumblecordia are often failed musicians or would-be writers. Joblessness is rife. Hannah refers to her boyfriend’s newly unemployed status as “the step-up of him pursuing nothing.” Without apparent work or ambition (other than to appear in this movie), Kissing’s protagonist is the quintessential Swanberg character. In his 2006, largely-improvised follow-up, LOL, three guys are more involved with various cyber-relations than with any human at hand.

Swanberg maps a system based on cell phones, instant messaging, websites (with Kissing’s Winterich self-reflexively playing an internet sex symbol) and YouTube, to suggest a virtual world more compelling than the real one. Reviewing LOL sympathetically last summer in the New York Times, Nathan Lee noted that “the impact of technology on social relations has received subtler analysis elsewhere (see the films of David Cronenberg.)” True enough, but Swanberg’s satire might be better appreciated as a critique of the fanboy fantasy world celebrated by Judd Apatow.

Mumblecore is demographically self-contained. Straight, white, middle class. The movies suggest college, without the course load. There are almost no grown-ups—which is to say anyone over 30. One exception is The Puffy Chair, a road movie in which the foundering Josh (played by co-director Mark Duplass) sets off with his needy girlfriend (played by Duplass’s eventual wife, Kathryn Aselton) to present his dad with an eBay purchased simulacrum of a La-Z-Boy recliner he once enjoyed. Their casually ludicrous misadventures, most involving two-dimensional authority figures, are compounded once Josh’s neo-hippie brother joins the expedition that, in essence, strips the upholstery off the couple’s comfy, dysfunctional relationship.

Whether breaking up or hooking up, Mumblecordians spend much time pondering what to do and say. One of Hannah’s most dramatic scenes has the protag and her boyfriend (Mark Duplass) wondering whether they should make love but not knowing what to do instead. As if to underline the pervasive fog of ambivalence, the centerpiece of Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA, made when the director was 24, is a July 4th fete where no one’s dancing. For most characters, it appears to be the summer between high school and college although this is never discussed.

Katz’s fondness for the almost oxymoron can be seen in the title of his 2007 Quiet City. Sweeter than Dance Party, USA, it concerns a young woman who visits New York (swell, naturally shaky camera work on the subway) who fortuitously meets a guy (unemployed, natch) in a cavernous IND station. Because she’s stranded, they spend a lot of time hanging out together. There’s a funny discussion of wine as it’s consumed from metal mugs, but this is no Before Sunrise; the meet-cute is something more behavioral. Katz is less interested in wit than shifting emotional states and his concern is contagious. As in Hannah or The Puffy Chair, tension is less a function of narrative than a perpetual state of being.

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.

These movies may be self-absorbed—but what else could a self-portrait be? Hannah is writing a play about Kant and Newton as 13-year-old boys, which could be how Swanberg views himself and his peers. The least to be said for Bujalski, Swanberg, Katz et al is that they are confronting the conditions of their lives, including making their movies. It’s impossible to predict how the Mumblecorps will mature but, given their immersion in the moment, I suspect that the films they’ve made will age very well.

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Colloquial Williamsburg

Andrew Bujalski has produced only a pair of micro-budget 16mm features since 2002—but it’s taken this narrow-casting, thirtyish Harvard grad only those two features to stake out a particular territory as well as a fan base.

Bujalski’s first production, set in a post-graduate milieu, drew heavily on his college confreres, using nonprofessionals to portray a small galaxy of awkwardly diffident young people—the most obnoxious loser played by the filmmaker himself. The film, which won Bujalski an Independent Spirit award, was titled Funny Ha Ha precisely because it wasn’t. Or, rather, wasn’t exactly. (Funny, that is.)

Gently persistent in its ironies, Funny Ha Ha managed to be both charmingly lackadaisical and annoyingly smug; Mutual Appreciation, which Bujalski shot in grainy black-and-white in hipster Brooklyn (and is self-distributing), is even more so. The movie opens with a couple sprawled out on a mattress . . . talking. Ellie (Rachel Clift), a thin girl with retro-bobbed hair, is mumbling something about being a tired vegetarian; Alan (Justin Rice) is mainly grinning a big-faced smirk.

Bujalski’s characters don’t suggest types so much as behaviorial nebulae whose interactions are soft, tentative collisions (or, perhaps, mutual appreciations). Just as Ellie and Alan’s conversation drifts to a halt, her live-in boyfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) returns home from grad school and flounces down between them. No orgies today though. Sex in Bujalski-land is typically represented as an exploratory kiss that leads to little more than universal confusion—as Ellie will later explain in a poignant scene wherein the kiss itself never actually happens.

So what does? Variety‘s reviewer nailed the format: Bujalski turns a John Cassavetes camera on an Eric Rohmer talkfest, except that the camera is more relaxed and the actors less animated. Alan, it develops, is a rock star—or at least one who, newly arrived in New York, aspires to the success enjoyed by the actor who plays him. (Rice is founder of the indie-rock band Bishop Allen; his cohort Christian Rudder appeared in Funny Ha Ha.) Interviewed by a flirtatious left-dial DJ (Seung-Min Lee), Alan is next seen at her place, explaining that his band drifted apart and he really needs a drummer.

Bujalski’s most avant-garde device is simply cutting from scene to scene, letting the temporal ellipses fall where they might: Alan and the DJ are having dinner when she climbs onto his lap and we deduce that it all has something to do with her drum-playing brother. In a parallel development, Lawrence has been asked—by a friend of one of his students—to participate, as part of an all-male cast, in a staged reading of women’s oral histories. He doesn’t really say yes but he’s unable to say no.

Unaccountably intriguing, these activities build to a series of deadpan dramatic set pieces: Alan’s triumphantly credible performance at Northsix is rewarded with two excruciating post-gig parties. His attempt to disengage himself from his demi-consort at one gathering is followed by a creepy-ha-ha run-in with a trio of bewigged witches at a Williamsburg soiree where he’s the only other guest.

Youth-film protagonists typically act as if they’re living in a movie. Bujalski’s appear to be trapped between parentheses. More fascinating than his borderline tiresome characters is Bujalski’s knack for constructing narrative and characterization out of a smartly edited array of seemingly improvised performances and an apparently aimless succession of uninflected moments. (Within the story, his characters can try to figure out if they really had a “moment.”)

As filmmaking, Mutual Appreciation is too stringent to be self-indulgent. Disdaining glamour, Bujalski thrives on the modest truth of clumsy mishaps and incoherent riffs. Cambridge has a long history of experimental documentary-based filmmaking, from cinema vérité pioneer Ricky Leacock and ethno-romantic Robert Gardner through Ed Pincus’s diaries and Ross McElwee’s first-person essays to confessional Super-8 comedians like Joe Gibbons and Anne Robertson. Bujalski extends the tradition. His characters are certain mainly in their uncertainty. His movies feel most authentic when his actors seem most acutely aware of their inauthenticity.

There’s a philosophical paradox at the heart of the filmmaker’s enterprise. As wistful Ellie tells embarrassed Alan, “Reality would be nice to talk about.” Isn’t that the truth.

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‘The Puffy Chair’

Josh (Mark Duplass) is a confused fuckup whose indie-rock career is dead. But despite his aura of shaggy-dog doofusness, Josh’s girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton), remains attracted to him and wants to join him on a road trip to deliver a La-Z-Boy recliner to his father. But their relationship may be on the skids. Enter Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh’s sanctimonious nature-boy brother, who joins them in the van for a fraught journey from innocence to experience. It may not seem like much, but The Puffy Chair works. Duplass and his brother Jay have written a script that’s bold in its simplicity. Like Funny Ha Ha, Andrew Bujalski’s casually raw 2002 faux–cinema vérité indie about a bunch of shiftless twentysomethings, The Puffy Chair uses simple, unadorned dialogue and intimate, off-the-cuff performances to get at the underlying issues. It’s three people trying to figure out themselves and their lives, trying to get what they want without knowing what they want, or what they have. The ingenious ending wakes us from a dream in which we had unknowingly become complicit.

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Adventures of a Desultory Twentysomething

Most of the ha-has in Funny Ha Ha are not exactly funny: Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature is foremost a squirming comedy of recognition. This Boston ultra-indie—which Bujalski wrote, directed, edited, and co-starred in—slouches through the blurry limbo of post-collegiate existence, a period at once ephemeral and cruelly decisive. It opens with 23-year-old heroine Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) stumbling into a tattoo parlor, where the proprietor refuses to ink her because she’s plastered. This movie about the fear of the permanent—and the barely conscious, unwittingly reckless processes behind life-altering decisions—might be subtitled “The Possibly Indelible Adventures of a Desultory Twentysomething.” Structured around non-event and inaction, Funny Ha Ha recalls Jamie Thraves’s 2000 British indie The Low Down, a neglected mini-masterpiece of quarter-life malaise. Bujalski’s film likewise thrums with ambivalent dread—underlying the characters’ inert indecision is a reluctance to let the rest of their lives begin, not least for fear that it might prove an undifferentiated haze. The final scene is as close to perfection as any Amerindie has come in recent memory—in a single reaction of Marnie’s, we see a small but definite shift in perspective; abruptly, Bujalski stops the film, as if there’s nothing more to say. It’s a wonderful parting shot for a movie that locates the momentous in the mundane.