Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: The Andrew Bujalski Filmography

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 21, 2010

Hey–it’s been too long, I know. There’s been family crises and NBA/NHL playoffs and other stuff that gives me too much of an excuse not to write more. But you guys have been giving me really good stuff to write about recently, and I do appreciate that. Over the course of the next week I’m going to knock off a whole bunch of the requests, and hopefully try to sprinkle in one or two originals as well. I can’t go every day on this blog like I used to, but I shouldn’t be missing whole weeks at a time. Hope you can forgive and forget, and continue to give me great shit to work with. Speaking of which…

Longtime friend of the blog Garret writes:

I just watched “Beeswax,” the predictably very good new Andrew Bujalski film that starting making the rounds last year and became available on DVD a few weeks ago. I know you’re a fan of this guy and understand why his films are treasures of American independent cinema. What I’m getting at is that the Intensities tribute to Andrew Bujalski’s filmography is long overdue. Consider it.

I am most certainly a fan, and am glad that you gave me the necessary motivation to finally watch Beeswax, which I’d been putting off watching, as I put off watching all movies that aren’t shown in multiplexes for months on end or appear on my parents’ endless stream of pay movie channels the few weeks I stay there each year. Consider it considered.

The first Bujalski movie I watched was Mutual Appreciation. I saw it in the theaters with my friend and a couple of girls he knew. I can’t recall ever having my mind blown by a movie like that–at the very least, it was the first time I could actually feel my brain squirming uncomfortably at what I was seeing and hearing. Usually when one testifies about a revelatory experience, it’s the tale of experiencing something that they’d never experienced. In the case of Mutual Appreciation, my shock and awe was at experiencing something that I actually experienced just about every day of my life, but in the context of watching a film instead of, well, living. One of the girls I saw it with didn’t care much for it–“I could’ve just hung out with my friends for two hours instead,” she explained. She was right, probably, but to me, that was sort of the whole point.

The main thing for me with Bujalski’s movies–Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax–is that they’re probably the only movies I’ve ever seen where not only do I not feel like I’m watching a movie, but the people involved in it don’t even seem to realize that they’re making a movie. As writer/director/two-thirds-of-the-time actor, Bujalski pulls off one of the most impressive feats that an artist can do with his work–he disappears completely. At no point in his movies can you feel his pervasive influence, guiding, instructing, sermonizing. It’s always funny to me to read critics attempt to write plot summaries or analyses of his movies, or to see the posters the poor PR people try to come up with to pitch them, because they invariably come up with something that bears little to no resemblance to the flicks I remember watching. You can’t summarize a movie like Funny Ha Ha, because to try to summarize it would imply that there was a cohesive larger framework in mind to begin with, and the whole reason these movies are as compelling as they are is how little they seem to care about being built off any such governing principle.

Now if you’re reading this, and you’ve never seen a second of these movies before…well, I’m impressed you made it this far, because I probably wouldn’t have. If someone was trying to get me to see a movie and used the fact that it basically had no plot and lacked any conventional cinematic trappings as its selling point, there’s about a 99.2% chance I’d stay home and watch Bandits on Comedy Central instead. We go to movies for a reason, and generally speaking, that reason is to hopefully experience something more exciting than an equivalent amount of time actually spent living life would have been. To cut away all the stuff that separates the cinematic realm from going about one’s regular day’s business is basically a move in the complete wrong direction, and one that should by logic make Andrew Bujalski’s movies insufferably boring and almost insultingly pointless.

But to watch these movies makes you think that maybe you’re just not giving everyday life enough credit. Bujalski’s movies don’t really have plots, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have stories–they’re just the stories of people living a particular time of their life, and that’s more interesting and compelling than you’d think. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that as a white, mid-upper-class, marginally directionless post-grad, the stories are closer to mine than they might be for others.) I don’t know if it’s possible to watch Funny Ha Ha without falling at least a little bit in love with Marnie, because as you follow her through all these subtle moments of fantastic significance–the confusion and humiliation of a rejected pass, the uncomfortable interview with a family friend/potential employer, the quiet bonding moment of helping a shitfaced friend into bed–you feel her living them as you re-live them yourself. It’s a pure emotional and intellectual connection that gets you so involved with the main character, you wonder why more movies don’t try it out.

It’s probably a whole lot harder than it looks, though. After watching his movies for the first time, most people assume–as I certainly did–that they had to be mostly unscripted, primarily borne out of some combination of improvisational dialogue and spontaneous filming. Shocked was I to discover that the dialogue, with its stutters, hesitations, overlapping voices and frequently sub-ideal word choices, was apparently somewhat rigidly scripted by Bujalski, with little input coming from the actors themselves. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense that this would be the better way to do it–as much of a natural flow as might come out of two actors free-versing with each other, it also forces them to think a little too much about their performances, to be too conscious of the fact that acting is going on. If you’re not just going to film people’s lives without them knowing it, thus ensuring the genuineness, you may as well not take any chances with your actors screwing it up by giving them too much leeway.

It’s also probably extremely hard to resist the temptation to movie them up just a little. A good demonstration of this is Hannah Takes the Stairs, part of the so-called “mumblecore” movement which was co-written but not directed by Bujalski. You can see his influence on it, certainly (partly because he has a major role in it, though you keep forgetting that it’s actually him), but it’s also clearly not his flick–there’s too much purpose to it. You watch a scene in it, and you think “Oh, of course, this is the scene where the two characters hook up,” or “Oh, this is the scene that shows how one of the characters is too focused on his job, and that’s why his relationship with his girlfriend is getting strained.” Scenes in Bujalski’s movies have a point, but that doesn’t become clear until you actually watch them, and even then, they won’t give you any unfair insight as to what the upcoming scene’s deal is going to be. There’s no cheating to be had with them.

If all this sounds completely unappealing to you, I still don’t blame you, and all I can say is to watch one of the movies. Five minutes in, it should be pretty clear whether your reaction to them is going to be more like mine, or more like that of the girl I watched Mutual Appreciation with. If it is like mine, though, it might completely (or at least partially and irrevocably) change the way you look at indie cinema. Just prepare to have your brain hurt a little bit at first.

(Oh, and because you gave special mention to having recently seen it–I liked Beeswax, but not as much as the first two. The characters weren’t as compelling, there was a lack of memorably funny parts, and there just weren’t as many scenes that I really connected with. Still, there were moments–Merrill making a bad joke about Lauren’s dead first boyfriend and Jeannie’s reflexively horrified reaction, AC stoned-talking with Lauren about a song always making her cry and her grilling him about what precisely that means, Jeannie’s simultaneously amused, insulted and thoroughly perplexed reaction to the “Da Boss” shirt that Michael made her–that were singularly and predictably sublime. Also, I liked that the Bieritz-approved “Starlight” was randomly in one scene, and I was totally fascinated by the weird mouth-agape expression that Jeannie and Lauren both made throughout the movie, as well as Jeannie’s strange hair color streak and anomalously muscular upper body).

6 Responses to “Friday Request Line: The Andrew Bujalski Filmography”

  1. vadim said

    AWESOME. Andrew Bujalski is my life: I’ve interviewed him after the release of every film, so three times now (the last time I even got paid). I had much the same reaction you did to Mutual Appreciation with Funny Ha Ha, which I saw when Bujalski was basically touring the movie himself. (In Austin, it was projected in an ad hoc theater at the back of a coffee shop.) When I found out Mutual Appreciation was first going to screen in New York for one night at Anthology, I booked my plane tickets around it. Etc. This is a big deal to me. Beeswax I like more than you, but it also feels a little like a transitional film; he’s going for Whit Stillman a little more (the jokes are much more overly edited and timed here).

    Bujalski “co-wrote” Hannah insofar as Swanberg movies (until recently anyway) were basically made up on the spot. The whole “mumblecore” tag is basically over and annoyed all the filmmakers, but Swanberg imo is the most over-hyped. However, Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA is awesome; it’s like a Larry Clark movie about kids without the prurience. He has a movie coming out later this year called Cold Weather I suspect you’ll love; it’s a really smart, well-made crowd-pleasing comedy that’s not cute at all but is probably the funniest movie this year. Also, Kentucker Audley’s Team Picture is a nice southern slacker comedy (62 minutes!).

  2. Keith said

    Glad to have you back! Hope the family crises are working themselves out. Hate to add to the backlog of requests, but I’d love to see what you do with an absurdly random song selection 🙂

    Boy Krazy – That’s What Love Can Do
    Ja Rule – Murder Reigns
    Oak Ridge Boys – Elvira
    Laibach – Life is Life

  3. Garret said

    Calling Swanberg “over-hyped” is generous. It’s hard for me to not wince at the idea of Andrew Bujalski being thought of as somehow not being head and shoulders above pretty much anything else that gets called “mumblecore,” seeing that he is responsible for some of the most uniquely enjoyable movie viewing experiences of my life while a guy like Swanberg leans more towards the uniquely unbearable side of things, IMO. The reason AB’s work is great is because, like so much art that I love, the lines between how the audience deciphers its naturalism vs. absolute control of its creator are blurred to such a brilliant effect. And he has this totally impressive grasp on how to channel a vast knowledge of the film medium and the history and possibilities of it into his own filmmaking. There’s none of that in Swanberg’s work and really nothing for me to grab onto except “this is what happens when some 20-30somethings in the 21st century get a hold of digital video cameras and decide to amateurishly throw some shit together on the spot inspired by their terribly uninteresting lives without making any of it entertaining or engaging at all.” The worlds and characters in a Bujalski film, however, are effective because they are so meticulously crafted, even if they seem to simply be reflections of reality. The man himself has even said that he likes the painstaking time consumption of working with film over digital media because it has a more “deliberate” quality. And what are the greatest films if not deliberate, only made possible by incredible focus and determination, not to mention a familiarity with knowing just how to navigate and utilize the many dimensions of the subject matter? For an artist’s work to embody that quality while essentially leading a “scene” that is known for films that seem like they required less effort than usual to make… well, that’s quite an achievement, I think.

  4. vadim said

    Yeah, the illusion of effortlessness in Bujalski’s work is key. (Garret, are you familiar with the Bishop Allen song “Eve of Destruction”? There’s a shout-out to “getting weird with the Buj” in there.) But in Swanberg’s defense, I’ve only seen two of his movies and Alexander The Last — at least the first half, before it degenerates into sex scenes and nothingness — is overtly stylized and a big leap forward for him, suggesting actual attention to, you know, lighting and framing.

  5. Garret said

    Ha, don’t know that song. I did have a moment while browsing through vinyl at a record store yesterday where I stumbled across a Bishop Allen LP, though. Any encounter with that band makes me silently chuckle.

    I’ve also seen only two Swanberg films (his first two, which are unquestionably shit), but I am curious about the Bujalski contributions to Hannah and also his last two, as you’re not the first to suggest that they represent some semblance of improvement.

    I’ll definitely make a note of seeking out Aaron Katz’s work. And “Beeswax as transitional film” is likely accurate, as AB pitched an idea for a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy a while back (can’t wait to see how this plays out) so whenever that gets off the ground the direction of his work will become a whole lot clearer… and to way more people.

  6. Erick said

    Ha I don’t remember that song, but also don’t question that I approved it at one point. I’ll add to your backlog as well…

    Sagittarius – Hotel Indiscreet
    Boney M – Rasputin
    The Monroes – What Do All the People Know
    Primitive Radio Gods – Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand

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