When NBC’s version of The Office became the biggest comedy in television a few years ago, it became apparent that the awkward moment as a comic device or motif had finally made it. It was acceptable to have one of those moments that make us feel incredibly embarrassed for the characters and but also comfortable enough to laugh. Though the awkward moment wasn’t new to comedy – in fact, it’s always been there – maybe we had finally come to the point where we were willing to relate, willing to have unpleasant emotions as a trade off for something that was both funny and smart.
Roughly parallel to the awkward moment finding a place in popular comedy, an independent film movement called “mumblecore” began to surface. It too relied on awkward moments between characters, but this time it was for dramatic purposes, to affect “reality”. These films generally feature twenty-somethings played by non-professional actors, living in small apartments, and fumbling around in their love lives. If “mumblecore” characters feel awkward, it’s because they are lost at sea, if you will. They don’t know what they want to do with their lives, and they don’t know how to form coherent sentence structures in conversation because they’re too busy saying “like” every other word. These films also often feature atrocious digital, hand-held camera work that lacks both purpose and aesthetic value. Some “mumblecore” films are good; some are bad. The intent, of course, is to create a sense that these characters and their environment are more “real” than what we see in the average movie. Most movie characters are articulate, and fluid in their actions; “mumblecore” characters are not. In a way this does create the illusion that “mumblecore” characters are more believable, but it’s helpful to remember that everything on the screen is a construction. With the construction of aimless twenty-somethings comes a lot of ambiguity. With “mumblecore”, ambiguity becomes almost a mantra, an end that has no meaning other than the implicit suggestion that the world is not made up of clearly defined situations.
If there were only a few of these movies out there, we might be able to say that this or that director was interested in exploring a certain environment or personality type. But, there are many “mumblecore” films – Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, LOL, Quiet City, The Puffy Chair, Hanna Takes the Stairs, Baghead, and more. “Mumblecore” is something of a nepotistic movement where everybody works on each other’s movies; acting, directing, writing, etc. This is a core group of people who are vested in aesthetic concerns and beliefs about what constitutes reality in cinematic form. It’s been going on strong for over ten years now. This is not an isolated incident. But it might be fruitful to ask where it all leads. The essence of reality, at least as it is applied to friendships and romantic relationships, is awkwardness. There pretty much nothing else in these relationships. Every relationship is characterized by fumbling conversations and inadequately defined parameters.
If “mumblecore” or “awkward moment” movies are closer to reality than other films (something that is up for debate), what do they tell us about reality? Are relationships among generation Y (or X or whatever letter we’ve assigned to them these days) really this strained? Do we learn anything from these films? Are we supposed to? To try and answer this question, let’s turn to Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl (2009). I use this film, because the camera work is clean when compared to most “mumblecore” titles. I work under the assumption that bad camera work has no immediate relation to realism. This trips many viewers up, because we know that our personal perception of events in reality is not as slickly ordered as movie cinematography. We subconsciously believe that once stripped of gloss, cinematography comes closer to representing a truer way of perceiving. (This is the negative impact of Italian Neo-Realism). If we do not perceive events with gloss, when is the last time you had a conversation with someone where your immediate environment seemed to be moving around at all times? When was the last time that you looked at a room and found its texture grainy? In The Exploding Girl, Bradley Rust Gray at least has the decency to couch his characters in a generally pleasing visual aesthetic.
The Exploding Girl focuses on two characters; Ivy a soft-spoken epileptic girl, and Al, her totally awkward friend. They are on a school break in Brooklyn. Al’s parents, confused about when he would be home for break, have rented his room out and he has no place to stay. This simple set-up gets him to stay with Ivy and her mother during the break. Without anything better for them to do, we watch Ivy and Al hang out; they chill in the park, they go to parties, and they eat pizza. And while they don’t spend every waking moment with each other, we can sense that their friendship is taking on new tones. In the middle of the break, Ivy is dumped by her boyfriend, who is off somewhere else, over the phone. Al admits that he’s attracted to Ivy and by the end of the film we see that the attraction is mutual.
Though The Exploding Girl does not follow every convention of the “mumblecore” movement, it does feature incredibly awkward characters. Al is the type of guy who doesn’t want to impose himself on anyone, but he’s also has a needy side, which means that he’s always an imposition. When he needs a place to stay, he goes to Ivy’s place, but doesn’t ring the bell; instead, he gives her a call and implies that he needs a place to stay so that she’ll have to be the one who invites him. When he confesses to Ivy that he is attracted to her, he almost immediately apologizes. He seems to be smart, but he is also incredibly inarticulate. You can see the gears turning in his head every time he talks. Though Ivy is an epileptic, she’s in control of herself even in her most emotionally volatile moments. She’s also smart, but only a little more articulate than her friend.
Nothing much happens in The Exploding Girl. The dramatic arc is low, because both characters spend most of their time hiding feelings and thoughts, which keeps us from getting any sort of insight into how they really tick. Even when those feelings and thoughts do come out, they barely break through the surface. The dramatic tension of the film comes through the stilted conversations that don’t seem to begin, end, or go anywhere in between. Even the final resolution, when they hold hands on the way back to school in the back of a car, is ambiguous to the point of being sweet but meaningless. Are they really together? Have they worked through their problems? The Exploding Girl is a little like portraiture, then; it’s unmoving, almost a captured moment in time.
This scenario could be interesting, but Bradley Rust Gray is either a lazy writer or deliberately obtuse. The Exploding Girlfails, because Gray, intent on ambiguity, withholds a lot of pivotal information throughout the duration of the film, leading the viewer to not know where people are in relation to one another, or to understand why they might be acting and reacting the way that they are. The lynchpin is that we never know if Ivy tells Al that she’s been dumped. We see that she’s upset and we see Al confess his attraction to her, but we don’t know the appropriateness level of his confession, because we don’t know his knowledge level. What he’s doing could be either totally out of line or perfectly understandable, depending on what he knows. Perhaps it is because the dramatic and formal choices are related too directly to the character types. But are these people really that ambiguous, or is Gray forcing ambiguity on an otherwise clear situation? How does one explore characters who are in constant limbo?
Is it reality? If so, do we even want this experience in a movie? Wouldn’t it be easier, and mor meaningful, to have awkward moments with real friends? Though it’s usually a criticism that I wouldn’t go in for, these characters, like so many of their “mumblecore” counterparts, are flat. Ambiguity for its own sake can only be compelling up to a point. To watch a movie that is character driven and be given the sense that we know nothing about them other than that we know nothing about them is dissatisfying. Beyond that, they’re annoying to be with. They’re college students, but seem to have the verbal capacity of a Jr. High drop-out. If no point is being made, or if no relationship is going to be explored in a serious way, why bother? I’m sure I could find some semi-literate, verbally inept college students to hang out with in real life. At least then I’d be building a real relationship with someone.
I like the idea of “mumblecore”. The dichotomy between what we experience in the real world and what we see at the movies can create incredible conflict for those of us that watch and love movies a great deal. It’s admirable, then, to want to show something that is true and honest. Stripping away perceived artificialities can lead to illuminating experiences. Look at the work of John Cassavetes in such great films as Shadows and A Woman Under the Influence, or look at the brief career of Errol Morris with Little Fugitive and Lovers and Lollipops. These films create experiences that have dramatic impact and resonance. They do not always define their relationships in terms of conflict, but ambiguity is not forced upon them. We can sense character development and arc when we watch these films. Movies like The Exploding Girl, however, are stagnant. They are content to merely avoid common clichés and conventions that we see in most films. Ironically, they have created their own set of conventions and clichés that are as predictable as the average summer blockbuster. Like most “mumblecore” titles, The Exploding Girl is unwilling to dig into its characters. We are supposed to simply observe. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to look at.