Oct 21, 2008

"Mumblecore" reconsidered: On Nights and Weekends

By Lena Duham

Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig received mixed notices upon the release of their new film Nights and Weekends, a tense chamber drama about a dying long distance love affair (it opened Oct. 12th at the IFC center in New York and is now, for a limited time, available via IFC’s on- demand channel.) This exercise in low-budget naturalism is Swanberg’s fourth feature film and his first co-directing effort with Gerwig, who took indie hearts and minds hostage in Swanberg’s previous picture, Hannah Takes the Stairs. Although enjoy seems like an inappropriate word to apply to such a churning work, Nights and Weekends left me satisfied and quite moved by the naked (no pun intended) performances at its center. What follows is not an account of my complex and enriching experience as a viewer, but an examination of the biases the film has working against it, especially as it relates to the genre coined “Mumblecore.”

The "Mumblecore" backlash was inevitable. All movements (and mini-movements) come equipped with an expiration date and, just as expected, the M-word is now so uncouth that the Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton refused to utter it until the end of his review, when he critiqued Nights and Weekends for its allegiance to “the mumblecore playpen.” Pinkerton seemed to question the film’s right to life, asking “[why did] this relationship deserve a monument? Would the world be poorer if [Swanberg and Gerwig’s] pillow talk disappeared, un-noted, into the ether?” This strikes me as the well-read equivalent of the maddening Youtube commenter refrain “this is 1 minute and 40 seconds of my life I will never get back. Epic fail!”

It seems a switch has flipped in the high-brow critical consciousness and what was once considered fresh and lifelike (improvised dialogue, frank depictions of sexuality and aimlessness) has become mundane and out of date, especially when packaged as "Mumblecore". But to critique “Mumblecore” (and I agree, the name is irksome) as a passing fad that amuses only middle-class hipsters is to dismiss their larger merits. These lo-fi films finally grabbed the bull by the horns and utilized easy-access video culture as a way to catapult themselves into the cinematic dialogue. Even the entries into the “Mumblecore” canon that are shot on film benefited from the fact that Youtube has conditioned us to watch the boredom of authentic young people on screen without flinching. The kind critical reception of these early "Mumblecore" films lent a legitimacy to low-budget, non-escapist works that were previously without a home to call their own.

Which brings me back to my qualms with the reviews of Nights and Weekends in both The New York Times and The Village Voice. These papers previously applauded the freshness and bravery of early “Mumblecore” works but dismissed Nights and Weekends as a navel-gazing party for two, but for alarmingly similar reasons. The Times’ Nathan Lee said “[the film] simultaneously plays like a critique of the mumblecore ethos and an especially obnoxious example of its whimsical tics and insouciant solipsism. Are the filmmakers exposing the insufferable coyness of urban hipsters or merely embodying it?” These reviews declined to look at the film as an entry into Swanberg’s growing, subtly diverse body of work. Indeed, to look at Nights and Weekends as a nail in the coffin for this type of filmmaking is to misunderestimate its intentions entirely. Swanberg and Gerwig are prepping their audience for a change from the sun-drenched summer fun of the oddly giddy Hannah. The final scenes of Nights and Weekends take on a Lynchian quality as they unfold in a blue-lit hotel room somewhere in the big city.

On the surface, Swanberg and Gerwig tell a straight forward story about young love crashing and burning. Yet, despite the “likes” and “ums” and real-people bodies, there is a deep mystery to this movie. As the relationship between its leads deteriorates, the film begins to feel like an allegory for the creation and loss of an artistic connection. This perception could be aided by recent interviews with the directors, who openly discuss the challenges of their own collaboration. But even without the Cliff’s Notes that these interviews provide, we get the sense we’re not just saying goodbye to an imagined relationship. We are, in fact, bidding farewell to a specific breed of film. Not only the films of Gerwig and Swanberg, but the films that their films they allowed others to make.

In his 2007 review of Hannah Takes the Stairs, the New York Times’ Matt Zoller Seitz noted that “[the film] plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things.” Right idea, wrong movie. It is fact Nights and Weekends that acts as a sobering goodbye to a certain kind of aimless romantic relationship and the certain kind of movie that chronicles it. The film points the way toward a set of more adult concerns. Let’s hope the honesty remains at our next destination.