The most talked-about American indie scene of late is the memorably named "mumblecore" movement, a brand of homemade cinema that's emerged in the past half decade. Mumblecore movies tend to be culturally and geographically specific, examining the post-grad lives of urban, educated, twentysomething white characters in a style that's almost uniformly naturalistic and reluctant to force drama into the everyday situations that are the films' focus. The characters — often played by the filmmakers — tend to be fumbling artists or barely employed wanderers — diffident, awkward, prone to embarrassment.
Two of the genre's more prominent works — Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs and Aaron Katz' Quiet City — screen this weekend at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Though mumblecore is thought of as a New York scene, Hannah Takes the Stairs is set in Chicago and, recently, films from far-flung locales, including Memphis in the form of Kentucker Audley's Team Picture, have been included in the mumblecore discussion.
As improvised American indies, mumblecore movies are often compared to the work of New York indie-film pioneer John Cassavetes, but the tone and feel of these films isn't reminiscent of the emotional tumult of Cassavetes films as much as a less intellectual, less ambitious, less movie-mad American update of the French new-wave movies of the '60s.
Like the French new wave, the mumblecore scene is made up of a loose cohort of filmmakers. Andrew Bujalski, whose Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha are the genre's signature works, is a key on-screen player in Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, while Swanberg makes an on-screen appearance in Quiet City.
Hannah Takes the Stairs is something like a dawdling indie-rock cover of Jules & Jim (or a dawdling, white-bread remake of She's Gotta Have It). The protagonist breaks up with a slacker boyfriend, indulges in an office romance, and then another. In her big breakdown, she confesses to suffering from "chronic dissatisfaction."
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its use of nudity as suggestive of intimacy rather than titillation, with most of its skin flashed in nonsexual situations in bathrooms. The film opens with Hannah showering with one boyfriend. It ends, charmingly, with her taking a bath with a new boyfriend while both play the trumpet, badly.
Engaging, if somewhat less impressive, Quiet City fits comfortably into the familiar, romantic "City as Plaything" subgenre, which runs from silent-era masterpiece L'Atalante to the Judy Garland classic The Clock to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. Quiet City, in which a young woman from Atlanta travels to Brooklyn to look for a friend and instead spends a day with a young man she meets on the subway, is considerably less ambitious than those films, constricting its view of New York life to cramped apartments, diners, and art galleries.
Mumblecore at the Museum
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
$5 for members, $7 for nonmembers
Quiet City: Thursday, March 6th, 7:30 p.m.
Hannah Takes the Stairs: Sunday, March 9th, 2 p.m.