Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Funny Ha Ha

Friday, March 27, 2009

Funny Ha Ha

Not sure what to expect, I was presented with a pleasant surprise in Funny Ha Ha. Actually, that's too light a term, implying a kind of trivial but enjoyable experience. Funny Ha Ha is one of the best films of the decade, and as such it transcends its reputation as the "root" of mumblecore. Watching the movie, it's clear that writer/director/editor Andrew Bujalski did not set out to start a movement, but rather to capture something, an ineffable flavor of post-college life. Funny Ha Ha rings strange bells in 2009, seven years after it was released. I'm sorry, but I can't quite think of 2002, the year I graduated high school and entered college, a year after 9/11, a year before Iraq, as "the past." Yet seven years is a long time - for example, '95 was seven years before '02 and think of the distance between those dates. At times, Funny Ha Ha reveals this distance, but part of its unfamiliarity may have to due with its own idiosyncrasies, as well as the peculiar position it's been put in, as progenitor to a still-growing trend.

Let me lay out these idiosyncrasies for you. Firstly, and quite importantly, Funny Ha Ha is shot on film. And not just any film, but 16 mm, with all its connotations of underground work, with the seams of cinema visible on every image, with the grain, contrast, and other consequent textural elements. This aesthetic is decidedly old-school and as such, markedly different in its effect from the uber-video LOL. There's almost a nostalgic sensibility on display, a dim recall of Cassavetes, filtered through a generation several times removed and seemingly less aware than its late forefather.

The milieu is also a bit of a throwback. While LOL assiduously cultivates a viral sensibility, and an overt (and to some, offputting) sense of the "now," Funny Ha Ha is closer in spirit to the 90s, to a more lo-fi brand of slackers, less safely ensconced in its own techno-bubble, and hence more raw, more emotionally bruised, with a quavering sensitivity. Before I explore this aspect more closely, I'd like to take a wider, more objective view of this phenomenon.

In fashion and language as much as in their (lack of) technological aptitude, the characters of Funny Ha Ha feel closer to the grungey, rustic slackers of Generation X than the quasi-hipsters Joe Swanberg presented onscreen three years later. The sarcasm is more bemused and the humor warmer and less snarky, the clothes seemingly thrown on in early-morning haste with a hung-over disregard for appearance, the computers cumbersome desktops in ugly little offices instead of nifty laptops wielded in crowded urban apartments, while basketball and chess are the games of choice - no video game consoles in sight.

Without that virtual escape, the characters of Funny Ha Ha seem more emotionally aware, their experiences more raw than those on display in LOL. In fact the film, with its awkward (and analog) conversations, its dimly-lit off-campus housing, its constant concern with the alternation between work and partying, hooking up and nascent marriage, cultivates a mood of quiet desperation, if not depression. The movie deftly and effectively captures a mood of melancholy, not of an especially romantic vintage, but also neither acerbic nor empty - it feels deeply-rooted, yet slightly displaced, the slow-burning, post-hangover, slightly delirious and depleting awareness you might find buzzing around in your head the night after a lot of drinking has been done.

There is a tired, forlorn quality to the proceedings, as if the characters are all lost, as if living is something of a struggle (this is not a sensation much on display in LOL). All of these emotions, though hinted at throughout the cast, are focalized in the film's protagonist, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) - which brings us to another quite important point. The central character of Funny Ha Ha is female, whereas the women, or rather the girls, of LOL are seen primarily through male eyes. But Bujalski not only does not objectify Marnie, he seems to identify with her, or at least to allow his audience to do so.

As she stumbles from humiliation to humiliation to minor elation, we get the sense that this movie exists inside her own head, fueled by the desperate retreat of the tipsy rush and the painful tug of her own insecurities and uncertainties. She has a tomboyish quality, but also a wounded air which is distinctively feminine; she tries to play with the boys but keeps getting (emotionally) bruised. We think they may be getting hurt too, but we are never really privy to their emotions - as she is not - and so we remain locked into her own implicit questioning: am I the only one so confused?

But lest she sound too mopey and myopic, let me also note her stoicism. Only through the succession of events and the privileged unguarded moments which Bujalski allows us do we glimpse her sadness. Though she's not especially good at concealing it, there is the sense of a real attempt there, an admirable defensiveness which attempts to conceal her tracks even as she creates new ones. The only person who really calls her out on this repressed depression is the socially awkward co-worker Mitchell (who is tellingly played by the director - something I vaguely suspected but only discovered this very moment). For his honesty, he's banished from the film - though we concur in his banishment; Marnie has shown him pity, trying to extend towards him a compassion she feels no one extends towards her, yet he can't catch up with even the bare minimum of self-control required to swim in her wake.

The scene between Marnie and Mitchell is the best in the film, proceeding with a dreadful, inevitable, fascinating logic, and carrying the definite flavor of a sort of reality, filtered through improvisation. Improv, with its naturalistic pushing of boundaries, sometimes comes off as seeming less assertive than real-life behavior, the actors asking questions more than people tend to in day-to-day relations. Aside from any aesthetic virtues in this method (and one could argue that this sort of behavior achieves a "higher" reality than reality itself), the approach is appropriate for Funny Ha Ha, with its constant push and withdrawal, its termitic burrowing, its uncertainties borne out in an aesthetic and emotional rawness.

Ultimately, one can discern the difference between Swanberg's techno-hipsters, involved with half-fabricated relationships and evasive immersions in escapism, and the uncertain slackers of Bujalski's early-decade college town by the titles of the films they appear in. "LOL" is a mask - a shorthand sobriquet used to convey good humor without extending even the bare minimum of emotional energy that actual laughter requires. "Funny Ha Ha" is by comparison a weak defense against emotional involvement, because it reminds one of the other type of "funny" - the alienated, the uncomfortable, the weird - exactly the sort of very human discomfort virtual conversation is supposed to efface. One types "LOL" effortlessly, while "Funny Ha Ha" wilts on the tongue.

12 comments:

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the review, Movieman. I've now ordered Funny Ha Ha on Netflix. Even though you make many interesting points, I'm still wondering why you consider this film one of the best of the decade. It definitely sounds like an auspicious beginning for mumblecore.

manwithoutastar said...

I saw Funny Ha Ha when it first came out in the UK in a little London cinema called the ICA. This, it may surprise you, was in I believe 2007, meaning that the film took a long time indeed crossing the Atlantic!

I did an end of year list that year of great films and it was just pipped to the post by I for India, and possibly Lynch's Inland Empire too.. Al great films.

I'm really glad you liked it, I also adored it at the time and have dipped into it since and still find it captivating. I think it is wonderfully written and directed, although I do think that the whole thing is held together by the central girl who gives such an incredibly believable performance of that kind of uncertain post-uni time in one's life.

I realised this after seeing Bujalski's second film which is ok, but falls down on the fact that performances are far less convincing. In some ways that film feels much more like a student project in that it seems a little more about fulfilling the filmmaker's ego e.g. showing his favourite band, who we assume are his 'mates', and getting them to perform. The guy from the band is not convincing really as an actor.. I think this was partly intended, to follow Cassavetes fascination with performance as an essential aspect of human nature, but doesn't get anywhere near to the subtleties of the big C's films on this subject.

Since you choose to feel no shame of hyperbole in claiming the greatness of this film I'd like to recommend another relatively forgotten film that I personally place as one of the very best films of this decade - Man Push Cart. See it if you possibly can!

MovieMan0283 said...

FilmDr, that can be explained by two things - one, this film is really quite good, primarily on the strength of as, manwithout observes, the central performance, but also on the naturalistic style of all the acting and the cinematography. Watching it, I generally forgot all about "mumblecore," instead seeing as an astute and poignant little story. But the other reason I would call this one of the best films of the decade (which doesn't necessarily mean it's a "great" film) is that this has been a pretty weak decade; I would argue, the cinema's weakest, at least in America. I also have yet to see many of the movies that WERE acclaimed.

Manwithout,

I don't think Funny Ha Ha actually got much play over here either. Interesting observation on Bujalski's other works. I did get the sense that could be a "first-time" movie, and that once the sense of discovery diminishes, there may not be as much to the movie as there initially seemed. But I thoroughly enjoyed this first viewing.

I have heard Man Push Cart was good and would like to see it.

James Hansen said...

Hmm. An interesting defense of the movie. I see where you're coming from with the praise, but I didn't really get into this film that much. I vastly preferred the b&w look and feel of MUTUAL APPRECIATION, but thats just me. I highly, highly endorse MAN PUSH CART and Bahrani's second feature CHOP SHOP. His new film just opened in New York...we'll see if he can go 3/3.

Manwithout- First time I've heard anyone else mention I FOR INDIA! A very nice and underrated doc.

MovieMan0283 said...

James, I just saw Mutual Appreciation and was really impressed (and manwithoutastar, I actually thought the guy from the band was pretty good). Whatever objections one can raise towards mumblecore as a whole, Bujalski is really a standout director. Funny Ha Ha & Mutual Appreciation are more alive than just about any other films I can think of from this decade. It isn't because of the subject matter, and only nominally because of the more easily defined aspects of the style - it's that he has a vision (even if its one his collaborators facilitate and add to - I'm not sure exactly how he works) and it comes through like gangbusters. You can make an great movie about pigeons shitting if you've got it, and I think Bujalski's got it. I really liked both these movies.

(I am planning to do a write-up on mumblecore in the next week or two, hopefully as my next post after the "great characters" list which is almost done, I promise...)

Linden Arden said...

In accordance with your current post (16 Days into July), I'm returning to this review from March in order to leave a comment/compliment that I was meaning to make at the time, but never really got around to it.

Being mostly allergic to the nature of hype (and especially when that hype seems to be coming from hipsters with an agenda to push) I was understandably quite apathetic about the whole mumblecore phenomenon. I'd seen Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth, which hadn't entirely convinced me of his supposed "Godard/Rohmer/Cassavetes of the 00's" style reputation, while another review of the film in question made it sound like the worst kind of post-Gen-X navel-gazing. It was only through your comments on this film (and on Swanberg's LOL) that I decided to put aside any misgivings and see the films on their own terms. And of course, I loved them.

What particularly impresses about this post is the comparison between the two films, and in particular the emphasis on the titles and how they describe the particular aesthetic approach of each film. Both disingenuous responses to something perceived to be amusing. So Funny Ha Ha, which is a throwback response, and one generally used by characters in close social situations, becomes LOL, an Internet shorthand expressing the emphasis on current technology and the inability of characters to relate to or understand one another. I haven't seen anyone else make this connection, or indeed, use it to perfectly describe the intentions of the mumblecore generation.

So, a not-so-short thanks here for convincing me to give these movies another chance. In truth, I actually prefer the follow-up film from each director (Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation and Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs), but I would have never progressed on to those features were it not for this particular piece of criticism.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well...Thanks, Linden - if no one else responds to my "challenge" (and I hope they will) this one made the effort worthwhile. Needless to say, I'm thrilled that my reviews led you to these films (and others) - obviously one hopes for this impact when writing, even if just on a blog.

I initially avoided mumblecore for many of the same reasons you list, though it was more apathy than antipathy. I was mildly interested in the idea of the "movement" but was very resistant to the whole vibe coming from the hype.

This year I finally looked into the "genre" and I liked a lot of what I saw. Like you, I prefer Hannah Takes the Stairs to LOL and though I still think Funny Ha Ha is Bujalski's best film, I may personally prefer Mutual Appreciation, for nostalgic reasons as much as anything else (I'm not a big New York lover, but this was the first film I've seen in over a year that made me want to go back to Brooklyn - not that my life was much like the laid-back, quasi bohemian milieu displayed onscreen). But I'm glad I saw LOL and Funny Ha Ha first, as much for their yin/yang effect as anything else. The jury's still out on Swanberg and I'm not sure if his work will hold up though some of it (not Kissing on the Mouth though) mad ea good first impression. Bujalski, I think, may be the best director of his generation and by far the standout of the mumblecore crowd.

I'd love to know if you've seen any other mumblecore films. Following this reviews, I watched all the films on Netflix which could even loosely qualify as mumblecore (I think I used a list form wikipedia). Let me know what you saw/how you liked it and I'll respond with my own thoughts on the films in question.

I had originally intended to do a big piece on this blog devoted to mumblecore, but I never got around to it and eventually the time for it passed. But I would definitely like to do capsules for all of them if this conversation continues.

And needless to say, if anyone else shows up here, please jump into the conversation. It's an ambitious idea given that this post is three months old, but I'd love if enough of a discussion could emerge to take the place of that long-abandoned mumblecore post.

To wit, the movies I Netflix'd following on the heels of LOL and Funny Ha Ha, in the order I saw them in April & May:

The Puffy Chair, Quiet City, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, Mutual Appreciation, Kissing on the Mouth, Dance Party USA, Orphans, Team Picture, The Guatemalan Handshake

I won't say too much about any of them for the moment, though I will say that The Guatemalan Handshake (which is much closer to Napoleon Dynamite by way of Harmony Korine than it is to any mumblecore film) was one of the few movies I ever rated on Netflix. It got a 1 (unfortunately the site does not allow ratings lower than that).

Linden Arden said...

Apologies for the late reply...

Regarding other mumblecore features: I've also seen The Puffy Chair, which wasn't in any way as bad as I'd been led to believe (in fact I quite enjoyed it), and Swanberg's Young American Bodies series, which I have mixed feelings about. On the whole it has some nice ideas and observations, but is technically quite amateurish and feels more like a sketch show than a series of consistent episodes. I can't image many people giving it the time of day if it didn't have Swanberg's name attached to it. Or perhaps I'm unfairly judging it on the criterion of a conventional television series, and not really grasping the whole notion of a "web-serial", and thus missing the point?

The ones I'm most looking forward to, if they qualify as mumblecore, are Baghead and Yeast, mostly because I think Greta Gerwig is a great actress. I think she was the contributing factor as to why I loved Hannah Takes the Stairs so much. It's interesting that her next two features are a low-budget schlock horror film and an appearance in the next Noah Baumbach film alongside Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

With this in mind, I think what's interesting about mumblecore at the moment is seeing how it will develop over the next two or three years. If I think back to the beginning of the decade, or beyond to the last real movement in American independent cinema, with characters like Wes Anderson, David O Russell, Harmony Korine and David Gordon Green etc, and then think of how their careers have developed, would it be a stretch to imagine Bujalski directing a Seth Rogen stoner comedy or Swanberg attempting animation?

Making these posts has been a good way of reminding me that I should probably blog something of my own on Mutual Appreciation and Hannah Takes the Stairs when I have little more time. The problem is, my reaction to those films was quite personal and immediate, and that's always hard (for me at least) to put into words.

But I think you should definitely attempt your mumblecore write-up at some point. With Bujalski's Beeswax set for release, now would be a good time before the bubble bursts; plus, it would be a good way of reminding readers of your own previous "m-core" related posts.

MovieMan0283 said...

Linden,

Thanks for jumping back in. Keep your eye on this space, as I will come back in the next day or two to delve further into mumblecore (in lieu of a larger mumblecore post, which I don't see happening at least here...maybe in my incarnation on the Boston Examiner site). For now, I've just finished a big piece of writing, so I don't really want to spend too much time discussing all the mumblecores I've seen, though I do want to tackle that eventually.

That postponement aside, let me address the rest of your comment. Unlike most of the other directors you mention, the current crop have literally come from nothing. While Green and Korine may have worked close to the no-budget level of the mumbles, few have done as much as far outside the citadels of the film industry, independent or otherwise. So whatever path they go down cannot, I think, be determined by examining past "movement." Also, these filmmakers are more closely linked than the others you discuss, which is why in my LOL review I could only think of Dogme as the most recent precursor.

I have not seen Young American Bodies. But I am quite intrigued by the Swanberg-Gerwig romance Nights and Weekends, which is still unavailable on Netflix. Something tells me it might be his best movie.

Did you see Quiet City or Dance Party U.S.A.? What do you think of Aaron Katz? Superficially, his work is the most appealing of the mumblers; it has a Zenlike calm and prettier visuals than most of his peers' work, but something about his films mildly irks me. I guess I'll have to flesh that out in my follow-up comment.

MovieMan0283 said...

I have not forgotten my promise to share my thoughts on the mumblecore films I saw. I will hopefully do so this weekend; anyone else is welcome to jump in with their own thoughts as well, now or then.

MovieMan0283 said...

As promised, here are my thoughts on the other mumblecore movies I've seen:

The Puffy Chair - I actually found this pretty funny; the Duplass brothers are charming and their lo-fi approach allows the work a lived-in quality that quirky comedies usually try but fail to attain. The pathos were also an interesting element; often forced but sometimes genuinely effective, as in the surprisingly anticlimactic ending.

Quiet City & Dance Party USA - Aaron Katz has an eye for lush urban visuals and a laconic but rolling sense of pace. Yet I don't really like his work as much as might be expected. He seems to be straining for lyricism, and the strain shows in his video images - pretty but seldom penetrating. Coupled with the earnest characterizations, his work gives me the sense of someone squinting really, really hard and can be a bit tiresome. Perhaps this is a personal problem; certainly on the surface his work is among the most "cinematic" of the mumblecorians. But he seems to be trying the hardest (or rather his trying shows) which mildly irks me for some reason.

Hannah Takes the Stairs - Probably my favorite Swanberg, though it does nothing to assuage my doubts about the auteur. It's more saturated in trendiness then his other movies, from the aggressively lo-fi titles to the accumulation of various other mumblecore directors in the cast. Gerwig is quite captivating; one could certainly call this a star-making turn, though she isn't exactly a star yet. She's something, though.

Baghead - One of the most low-budget of all these features, yet not REALLY a mumblecore film by many definitions - the actors and characters are mostly older, the film is more conventionally plot and (particularly) conceit-oriented, and not much interested in character reveals; it shows that the Duplass brothers are far closer to a mainstream (raunchy but conceptually clever comedy in their case) than most of their peers - even as their rough-hewn charm and extremely low budgets keep them "pure." I liked this movie though it showed strains - the end in particular was too stretched out. Some people hate it - it, along with The Puffy Chair, has some of the worst reviews I've ever seen on Netflix. But an acquaintance who was not the usual target audience for mumblecore watched it with friends, expecting something stupid, and was thoroughly surprised and entertained.

Mutual Appreciation - I discuss this in an above comment, but along with Funny Ha Ha it remains the untouched summit of mumblecore, if it can even be pinned down to such a narrow description. Luminous - the other mumblecore films make you feel like the directors are trying to get at something; Bujalski shows you what they are trying to get at.

Kissing on the Mouth - Didn't do much for me. Swanberg's most graphic film but not very erotic; the plot is rather dull and the pacing lags. Perhaps seemed an auspicious debut at the time, but it's been overshadowed by later work.

Orphans - Interesting, if a bit forced. Would perhaps be better if shot on film; certain effects fall flatter on video and Ry Russo Young's surrealism is intriguing but ultimately doensn't have much bite. Still, it's exciting to see young low-budget work stray off the "realistic" relationship territory and move into something more offbeat and cinematically adventurous. With its found footage and playmobiles, I should have connected more but ultimately it seemed more like a good idea than a successful execution. Still, as I said, intriguing. It will be interesting to see where the director - one of the few female mumblers (though again, this is a film that strains the definition of the "movement") - goes from here; her experimental riff on Psycho, a short film on the disc, is fun too.

MovieMan0283 said...

Team Picture - I quite liked this. It's the grungiest of all the pictures I Netflix'd - the least pictorial, its hero the most slackerish, the sound absolutely god-awful at times, but it's got a lot of charm. A passage with the main character and his sorta gal pal in Chicago is fascinating; I can't exactly put my finger on why. I liked this, raw and rough and messy as it was, much more than...

The Guatemalan Handshake, which is of course not a "mumblecore" movie in any meaningful - or even many non-meaningingful - sense of the word. But it was listed under the entry in wikipedia, I rented it, and I watched 45 minutes before I had to shut the excruciating dreck off. It has the best cinematography of any of these films (shot on 35 mm, it's visually miles ahead of most films by a young director) but it's aggressive quirk, and banal conception of the "offbeat" epitomize everything rancid about "indie" films in the 00s. Here are some things I wrote in the wake of watching that awful movie:

"an excessively forced collection of every 'quirky' indie cliche imaginable and plays like an ugly conglomeration of all the worst qualities of George Washington, Gummo, and Napoleon Dynamite with few to none of the virtues."

"I can understand how some reviews like Handshake, but to call it original? Have these people ever read an amateur screenplay or seen an "offbeat" student film before? I have, and I can assure you that Handshake falls squarely within the mainstream of desperate, reaching, random 'storytelling.' At this point in movie history, the script could have been written by a retro-decked-out computer."

By the way, the film does have its admirers. Filmbrain (a.k.a. Andrew Grant), a fellow blogger whose opinion I certainly respect, even picked the film up for distribution and vigorously promoted it. God knows why, but there you have it...