Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Humpday and the value of mumblecore

Perhaps I'm biased because it is a product of Seattle, but Lynn Shelton's most recent film, Humpday, is the best example I have seen of the so-called and fledgling mumblecore genre so far. It has a focus and forward moment that no other film of its ilk has yet exhibited.
For those who don't know, the basic tenants of mumblecore are thus: ultra-low budget with an equally low-fi visual aesthetic. There is usually no script, but rather a list of outlined scenes that the actors improvise and rehearse their way through, to mixed results. Plot and character wise, almost all films in the genre focus on over-educated 20-somethings meandering aimlessly through life, often played by the filmmakers themselves. It all comes off as a little self-indulgent.
The goal of having the actors completely improvise their scenes is to pump up the authenticity and verisimilitude, but more often than not the players end up stating the subtext of the scene out loud, and it unfolds more like a therapy session than a riveting piece of drama or hilarious piece of comedy. I appreciate the intent behind this method; we need truth and originality in cinema where ever we can get it. But it takes a steady and precise directorial hand to pull off the right balance between truth and drama. Luckily, Seattle native Lynn Shelton has that hand.
Shelton's third and most recent film, 2009 Sundance darling Humpday, is very good, but not without its flaws. The camera work is inexcusably sloppy, and a few of the scenes do fall victim to the boring therapy rut mentioned above. But these are outweighed by the film's enjoyable traits. Shelton may not yet be a master of beautiful images (which is required to be a great filmmaker), but her skill with actors is approaching genius. In Humpday more than almost any other film, we get a sense that we are flies on the wall; this story is not being presented to or performed for us. We just happen to be there to see these events transpire. The characters speak the way real people do (sometimes to a maddeningly mundane degree), and there is an overriding aura of genuine spontaneity. It is a pure and sometimes exhilarating joy to see things unfold.
As alluded to, one problem with the film (and indeed all of mumblecore) is the lack of attention paid to creating deliberate, compelling, and well composed images. Cinema is, above all else, a visual medium. Writing and acting are indeed important elements, but they are only the skeleton upon which to place the images, the meat of cinema. By ignoring this, Shelton and her mumblecore comrades are forgetting why films are important and what makes them live. Humpday is a good idea for a film, but it doesn't really do anything that couldn't be accomplished by a stage play.
I think mumblecore has valuable things to offer, but it will never rise to great cinematic heights as long as the images are neglected. We are still waiting for a film that harnesses the methods of mumblecore to tell a compelling, unusual story in a film powered by beautiful images.