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Mumblecore. When I first encountered this word on the now defunct blog Cinematical, I wondered,  “What in the hipster hell could this be?” As I read through the article, I came to find out it represented a bunch of super low-budget films featuring no-name actors and talky, often improvised personal “scripts”. A sort of American Dogme 95 group without a madman like Von Trier to lead them. There was a core group of filmmakers that seemed to fall into this category – Andrew Bujalski, Jay & Mark Duplass, Joe Swanberg and Aaron Katz. This “movement” built on festival screenings and word of mouth has since spun off some of its originators into the more mainstream fare – Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home and actress Greta Gerwig who starred in Greenberg and To Rome with Love. However, one man has toed the line between leaving his mumblecore roots behind and moving into the mainstream and that’s Joe Swanberg. He was kind enough to screen a series of six films, 5 of his own, at the Indiana University Cinema last weekend under the banner of Cinema With No Excuses and give a lecture with collaborator, actress and director Amy Seimetz.

While I missed the bulk of the screenings in this series, I was able to attend the Jorgensen Lecture that Swanberg and Seimetz presented in addition to the screening of Alexander the Last, a film I had not seen before. I will admit that I’m not a huge mumblecore fan, nor a huge Swanberg fan. I thought Kissing on the Mouth was bad even for a first effort, both literal and figurative masturbation. Nights and Weekends was downright awful. But I really enjoyed Hannah Takes the Stairs, largely due to Greta Gerwig’s wonderful performance. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the lecture or the film.

The lecture was actually quite enjoyable. Both Swanberg and Seimetz were quite open about their processes in all forms of filmmaking as they have written, directed, edited, produced and acted in a number of different projects. I liked that Seimetz was open that while she enjoyed and preferred Swanberg’s improv-heavy, low-budget/low-pay approach that allows her to really explore her character (they’ve worked together on four projects), she did say that she liked getting a script, adhering to it and getting paid more as well. Swanberg made several references to his new film without naming it – it’s Drinking Buddies, which is starring Olivia Wilde, Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick, Office Space‘s Ron Livingston and horror wunderkind Ti West.

A conversation: (left) Joe Swanberg , (middle) Amy Seimetz , (right) IU Cinema director Jon Vickers – (photo courtesy of Barbara Ann O’Leary)

Swanberg said that bigger Hollywood stars are clamoring to do more personal projects, labors of love, to balance against their big-budget projects and that’s why we see the likes of John C. Reilly, Jason Segal, and Marisa Tomei in the films of former mumblecore royalty. No surprise here, but it’s nice to see that some of these actors have a conscience. When asked about TV and its prevalence for being hot right now, Swanberg was quick to dismiss it saying he was not impressed with many of the “it” shows on air right now, including the AMC juggernauts Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He believes that film is still where all of the possibilities, story-wise, lie. With more great technology available and digital video being cheaper to shoot with, he mentioned that this era of filmmaking we are in now mirrors the conditions of the New American Cinema of the late 1960’s and into the middle of the 1970s. Whether this is the case remains to be seen. With so many films like Battleship and Dark Shadows being produced on the regular and fewer and fewer films being produced by the big studios that don’t already have a built-in audience, originality seems at a standstill.

I found it very interesting that Alexander the Last was co-produced with writer-director Noah Baumbach. For those  who don’t know his work, Baumbach might be considered the father of sorts of the mumblecore filmmakers (with Whit Stillman likely their grandfather). Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (not the shitty Will Farrell soccer movie) might be the precursor to Swanberg’s work like his IFC web-series Young American Bodies although without the sex. AtL is typical Swanberg fare – follow around several twentysomethings as their relationships metamorphose for the good or the bad. AtL follows Alex (Jess Weixler – Teeth), Elliott (Bishop Allen frontman and frequent Andrew Bujalski collaborator Justin Rice – Mutual Appreciation), Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) and Alex’s sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz). The central storyline is Alex is married to Elliott, but when he leaves to go on tour with his band, she develops feelings for Jamie, whom she’s working with in play. When she feels that these feelings have gone too far, she pushes Jamie in the direction of Hellen, her sister. They begin dating/sleeping together, which keeps Jamie close to Alex who is able to vicariously live through her sister. However, when Hellen dumps Jamie, their otherwise very tight relationship becomes strained. This carries over into her marriage when Elliott returns from tour. She acts distant and refuses his physical advances. This film plays out as one might expect, and culminates in an interesting final shot which I think is one of the film’s better flourishes.

It’s one thing to consume films, think about them, talk about them with others leading to form and (possibly) change one’s opinions. It’s altogether better when the filmmakers are actually present to share with you their vision and process. This was a great opportunity to see how really personal, low-budget films are produced. Mr. Swanberg and Ms. Seimetz were very generous with their time in Bloomington and I wish them well in their future endeavors. It’s great to see that some folks in the film business haven’t sacrificed their integrity for big paychecks to make Stretch Armstrong: The Movie. (it’s coming folks…)