Academic publishing is slow. Everybody knows that. So it should come as no surprise that only now is my article on mumblecore, titled “Joe Swanberg, Intimacy and the Digital Aesthetic,” coming out in the latest issue of Cinema Journal.
2011 a strange time for an article on mumblecore, since it is now “over.” I wrote the article, which focuses on Joe Swanberg’s LOL (2006), in 2008, several months after The New York Times, encouraged by IFC, started fawning over it.
By now, many of mumblecore’s bigger names have moved on or more matured, though a full account is complicated by the fact that there’s no clear answer on who was or was not under its umbrella. Sill, the likes of Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Lynn Shelton and Kelly Reichardt now have promising careers and are associated with increasingly buzzy projects. And micro-budget filmmaking has taken interesting turns, from Lena Dunham’s dark, satirical Tiny Furniture to Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones’ Breaking Upwards.
What was mumblecore? Many of its formal characteristics were side effects of the rise of digital filmmaking — because of cost — and rarely true artistic statements about the state of cinema. I argue in my article that mumblecore has to be placed in a broader media context, one which includes blogs, live webcams and early YouTube videos — back when YouTube was a collection of low-res vlogs. Other contexts, from reality television and Dogme 95, could also be relevant.
If you take away that context — the period from 2004-2007 when web video was on the rise and when cell phones were just starting to become cameras — you lose a lot of what was significant about the collection of films.
As the beginnings of lonelygirl15 showed us, people were genuinely questioning what digital culture meant, what was “real.” I was working at the Washington Post in 2005 and it was a big deal when, during the London bombing, the Post published a cell phone image on its front page. Now every disaster comes with calls from newspapers for readers to send in photos.
My point is mumblecore died because it was only “new” because everything was new. Now web video is a real industry, and its production values rival that of many mainstream projects. Digital cameras are cheap and even more sophisticated, and with little effort a quality image is easy to produce (though sound remains an issue for indies, so there’s that). Cell phones shoot in HD. All that grainy pseudo-realism and feigned malaise about the ever-worsening postcollegiate job market seems woefully quaint in retrospect.
This is not to say mumblecore wasn’t meaningful. Far from it. LOL remains a subtle investigation of digital culture, among the best to date, and I chose it as a case study because it explicitly grappled with questions of realism. It might look postmodern, with all its strange interludes and affectless acting, but it was actually a searing critique of loneliness a digital world. Swanberg was preoccupied with how human connections form, dissolve or fail to materialize, and he was pretty insightful about it.
Swanberg has stayed admirably committed to independent production, despite the fact that it’s never made him much money. While Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers get more press, Swanberg has remained relevant for his continued work creating content across platforms and sticking true to realism. Young American Bodies, distributed on IFC.com, is now a classic web series, and Swanberg is still making features.
There’s still a lot to be written about mumblecore, and some of it is happening. I know scholar Geoff King has a book in the works that explores aspects of the movement, and he pays particularly close attention to Four-Eyed Monsters (2005), a seminal film creatively distributed across platforms I wish I’d spent more time analyzing.
But as video production and distribution technologies have improved, mumblecore has lost its novelty. Micro-budget realism will live on, and occasionally become popular. But the mumblecore style will no longer be new; it can’t compete.
Now the media marketplace demands more ambitious storytelling at lower costs, and the buzziest projects look more like Plot Device (2011), Panic Attack (2009), and Alive in Joburg (2005). Mumblecore was a quieter movement from a simpler time when competition was low and digitally produced realism a sight to behold.