Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Puffy Chair, mumblecore, and more...

I finally saw this film recently after hearing intriguing things after its run at Sundance in '05. Written/Directed/Produced by the Duplass brothers who are part of the famed "mumblecore" movement or group of indie filmmakers out there doing some interesting low budget Cassavettes type stuff. (For some reason that name really makes me cringe. "They" also refer to it as bedhead cinema, slackavettes, and mumblecorps - more on them later.)

Puffy Chair is more than just a charming digital feature shot with non actors and no real story. Why? Well, for one... there is a story. I don't know how much of it was scripted but the Duplass Brothers were able to strike that balance between indie improv naturalism and engaging plot. Of course sometimes with these kinds of films the point is to reject the need for "engaging plot" and to instead focus on the emotions and interactions of characters. That certainly is the focus here as well, but we're also given the safety net of an unconventional road trip story with a clear goal for the protagonist (for those of you into that kind of thing).

But the thing that got me about this film was the way the story allows itself to be unpredictable (not as in unpredictable for shock value or trying to be different). Road trip movies tend to have the obligatory wandering and finding of self or developing of relationships. Eventually the road trip wanderings become predictable and we find ourselves waiting for the next pit stop and the next wise stranger. The Duplass' instead take a note from Truffaut's and PTA's ability to mix a variety of emotional tones and unconventional plot developments to create scenarios where the audience can be watching something that feels totally natural yet they have no clue what is coming next. Then it comes and it feels just right somehow.

It seems the tendency with a lot of well-intentioned films is to rely too much on the ironic plot turns that have become convention to the "indie" film genre. Not to say those films aren't good or interesting. But there is a difference between correctly executing the conventions of your genre (I'm using "indie" as a genre here), and using those conventions to vault you to something new and unexpected and often more honest and real.

The characters in Puffy Chair begin as comfortable, recognizable stereotypes of 20 something hip kids but soon become more than that as they refuse to remain in that realm of stereotype and become tinged with the troubling darkness of reality. The anger of the protagonist begins to settle in as a bit disturbing and that funny new-age brother becomes the real brother or friend who you're just fed up with because of his total disregard for social conventions and civility. But the change is done oh so subtly. Mostly because they allow it to work in us. The Duplass' let us settle in to our voyeuristic comfort zones while we wait for the story to unravel . At the same time they refuse to allow sympathy to color their choices for their characters. The result is a unique pseudo-resolution of plot and emotional undercurrent that feels "just right somehow" (see above).

More on mumblecore:

The apparent need to group these films together comes from the style (cassavettes-like, do it yourself esthetic embraced by the filmmakers), themes, and the interesting fact that they seem to have emerged at the same time and at the same festivals (SXSW and Sundance mostly). It also helps that the filmmakers have embraced their new wave clique and collaborate on projects. Here's an attempt at a mumblecore family tree.

I've really only seen three of the featured films in the so called movement (unless you follow the above mentioned family tree which spuriously links "George Washington" and "The Great World of Sound" through composer David Wingo). "Funny Ha Ha", "Mutual Appreciation," and "The Puffy Chair" (plus some silly shorts by the Duplass Brothers). I've liked what I've seen so far but I'm sure I'll be disappointed at some point. The thing I find with these types of films is that they are high risk/high reward (which I like - it's more exciting). Even within the same film. Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" can be at times excruciatingly boring and uneventful and then almost in the same instant extremely exciting for its "so real it's real" interactions.

The films tend to feature a lack of conventional story while centering around the mundane wanderings and relationships of white, college graduates. Sounds fun right? It actually is...well some of the time.

It's interesting to note that Bujalski studied doc filmmaking at Harvard with the intent to shoot narrative features as docs - and it shows. His films feel like cinema verite in the pure voyeuristic sense. But it's not that he's just documenting his life and calling it a movie but rather he's putting normal people in front of the camera and having them interact normally. The result, although "normal," is abnormal and unique (for what we're used to in film anyway). Even Cassavette's stuff carries a dramatic or actorly tone - probably because they were all actors. Bujalski's side character (Mitchell) in Funny Ha Ha is ridiculously real. A realness that is all at once funny, annoying, engaging, and even inspiring in a weird way. It's just so disarmingly honest that there is no way to believe that his nervous awkwardness is not for real.

Skeptics may have trouble getting past the apparent pretentiousness and indulgence featured and I can understand that sentiment but if you look beyond the rough edges and earnest intentions you'll find something nice and different.

- sorry for all the hyperlinks. i got carried away.