Academic journal article CineAction

A Cinema of Recession: Micro-Budgeting, Micro-Drama, and the "Mumblecore" Movement

Academic journal article CineAction

A Cinema of Recession: Micro-Budgeting, Micro-Drama, and the "Mumblecore" Movement

Article excerpt

Mumblecore appears to be the first significant movement of 21st century U.S. film, our delegate to the contemporary orientation in global art cinema towards what the New York Times' A.O. Scott has deemed "neo-neo realism." (1) Even more significantly, mumblecore models a viable alternative to struggling forms of "specialty" (art and independent) cinema production and distribution in American media markets. In the last decade, the theatrical market has grown increasingly dependent on high-concept, low-risk projects geared at teens and families. This industrial climate has proven both boon and hindrance to specialty cinema, for which new modes of distribution, promotion, and consumption sustain demand even as theatrical exhibition encounters constraint. Producers, sellers, critics, and audiences of specialty cinema within U.S. markets have adapted substantially over the past decade, developing strategies for survival in the wake of challenges from competitive media, changing consumption behaviors, and the economic crisis. Another New York Times film critic who has spilled a good deal of ink waxing ecstatic about mumblecore, Dennis Lim claims that the movement "signals a paradigm shift in how movies are made and how they find an audience." (2) With an eye to offering both an observational document and a discursive analysis of mumblecore's aesthetic con-gruity, promotion and distribution tactics, and reception histories through careful consideration of its origins, ontology, and evolution, I aim more broadly to illuminate how contemporary specialty cinema is adopting impressive strategies of survival.

Mumblecore's micro-budgeted minimalist aesthetic, localized D.I.Y. generative methods, and distinctively unpolished idiom actively resist both Hollywood's model of packaging, outsourcing, and merchandising, as well as recent American independent cinema's reliance on heartwarming quirkiness featuring star power working for scale. Exploiting digital technology and electronic culture while eschewing frontloading and other high-risk financing, mumblecore signals its pared-down production mode and heightened naturalism through its branding as an economical and authentic restorative fit for an era of recession and proactive citizenship. Facing a domestic market for specialty film dominated by feel-good "indies", audience-friendly imports, and commercial auteurs' clout, mumblecore has managed to gain cinephile acclaim and hipster credibility largely by accessing alternative forms of distribution. Yet the response to mumblecore by film scholars and critics ranges radically, from Robert Sickels' venerating "I would argue that they are at the forefront of a revolutionary technological movement that will undoubtedly have profound long term effects on the industry" to Amy Taubin's dismissive "never more than a flurry of festival hype and blogosphere branding." (3) As someone whose allegiances are firmly in the first camp, I freely concede this piece's intention in part as an appreciation of mumblecore. The critical contribution I wish to add to those already expressed by other enthusiasts concerns the three realms in which I consider mumblecore to have played a uniquely important role: in proving the viability of digital distribution, in rejuvenating U.S. art cinema's commercial appeal without sacrificing artistic or ethical integrity, and in offering an exceptionally honest and thoughtful consideration of contemporary American sexual mores.

Like film noir or Italian neo-realism, also terms popularized by critics, mumblecore's naming signals a reflective moment of self-recognition by its creators and consumers. The origins of the term are now lore: sound mixer Eric Masunaga jokingly devised the moniker to describe films he had worked on that were screening at 2005's South by Southwest (SxSW) Festival; it went viral when filmmaker Andrew Bujalski dropped it in an lndiewire.com interview soon after. While Bujalski and the other youthful directors lumped together renounce both the grouping and the term, calling it "reductive", "obnoxious", and "alienating" (4), the commercial advantage of having a searchable brand in today's Google-verse is indisputable. …

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