I’ve never been a fan of the term “Mumblecore,” but I think that may be because I’ve been mercifully unexposed to it. The Duplass brothers, for example, don’t mumble – they yell, argue and generally try to be funny. I’ve never seen a Joe Swanberg film, and have no immediate plans to. But I did see two films at AFI Fest, both of which involve semi-autobiographical characters on a trip who talk in low voices, and talk some more, en route to what may be a destination where something might happen, or not. I think they’re probably both Mumblecore, but they also serve as case studies in how to get this kind of thing right, or go terribly wrong. In the spirit of such classic cautionary takes as Goofus and Gallant, or any number of ironic faux-fifties instructional filmstrips, I give you the dos and don’ts of Mumblecore as embodied by The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On (do) and The International Sign for Choking (don’t).
-Do give your movie an entertainingly pointless and misleading title, so long as dialogue at some point in the movie explains what it means.
-Don’t make said title remind viewers of an uncomfortable, painful thing that they can easily envision.
-Do, if you cast yourself, play to your strengths. Are you beautiful and female? Great; that makes many audience members resentful and jealous. Keep that in mind and throw all your negative traits out there upfront. They’ll sympathize with you later.
-Don’t, if you cast yourself, make it look like an ego trip. Are you a whiny, nebbishy dork type? Then, tempting as it may be, never make yourself the romantic lead,make the movie about your own love life, or give yourself a sex scene. Woody Allen got away with it by being really, really funny. You’re not him.
-Do ultimately have a point, preferably one that reveals itself at the end, so we’re all, “A-ha! The apparently pointless dialogue was actually masking a deep-seated _________.” Like in The Brown Bunny, when [spoiler] we finally learn that all the brooding was because Vincent Gallo was pining for a BJ from a dead girl [end spoiler].
-Don’t make us read the online synopsis to have to figure out what that point was supposed to be.
-Do find great-looking locations. The American southwest is a prime one, especially since you can probably find awesome desert areas where nobody will check for permits. Make a movie like this look beautiful enough, and you can be the next Sofia Coppola (apart from the whole famous-dad-giving-you-a-hand-up thing).
-Don’t set your movie someplace potentially amazing, like Buenos Aires, and then keep most of the story (such as it is) indoors.
-Do make it feel honest. A tragi-comedy about scattering your dad’s ashes, dedicated to the memory of your dad, possibly even showing him in some footage, feels emotionally honest. A drama about getting laid while trying to track down an ex does not, even if it is based on something real.
-Don’t withhold too much information. We get it; you want to be artsy and perhaps think you can pull a Claire Denis, showing us only the scenes that happen between the important bits. But if you’re going to have a slow pace, give us something to help us feel that it’s worth sticking along for the ride.
Given how relatively easy these sorts of films are to make, I expect to be seeing plenty more in my life. Should you, dear reader, be the maker of such a film, please heed the advice above. And should you just be a viewer in the mood fora wonderfully shot piece of drama hinging on conversation, interaction and alienation, go see The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On rather than The International Sign for Choking.