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Simple Honest Stories: Mumblecore’s Place in Film History

The everlasting battle between spectacle and sincerity

“The cavalry isn’t coming.” 

In this quote from his 2015 keynote speech at South by Southwest, Mark Duplass reestablished the role of indie cinema in the larger context of filmmaking. The cavalry in his speech was a studio system that was rapidly retreating from supporting indie films in favor of big-budget opulent pictures like Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Revenant. Duplass meant that no one was going to open the door for small, honest stories. He then urged fledgling filmmakers in the audience to make $3 short films, $1,000 feature films, to cast their friends and let them improvise. In short, Duplass wants filmmakers to use what they have to say what they want. 

Mark Duplass delivers his keynote speech at SXSW 2015.

This attitude is at the heart of Mumblecore, the cinematic movement of the visionaries like Andrew Bujalski, Jay and Mark Duplass, Joe Swanberg and others. Mumblecore was built out of frustration, desperation, and the desire to create without rules and it gave us classics like the Duplass’ The Puffy Chair, Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, and Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth. These works, with their largely unprofessional actors and low production values, inspire fresh voices who seek to join this new wave of intimate storytellers.

But the wave isn’t new. This tide has come in and out of cinema history for ages. Cinema has always been a delicate dance between outrageous spectacle and human storytelling. A glance at Wikipedia shows that, since its invention, the film camera has been a place for impossible dreams like Georges Méliès Trip to the Moon, alongside small moments like James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell and moments on a city street. Alongside the Fritz Lang’s 1927 triumphant sci-fi epic Metropolis was the intimacy of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Film has always been a home to the grand and the small, constantly playing off each other to create new, interesting stories. 

Lamberto Maggiorani speaks to his son, Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thieves (1948).

It is in that tradition that we find film movements like Mumblecore as the latest artistic response from directors and filmmakers to a cinema gone blood simple on superheroes, explosions, and all the sights they can see. While there’s something undeniably unique about the cinematic style of Mumblecore. Their works share a common DNA with a long tradition of various cinematic movements throughout the medium’s history that reaches across the Atlantic.

Italian Neorealism

The instinct of filmmakers to formalize their desire to do it themselves became a movement most evidently in post-war Italy. Rather than rally against an industry bloated by success, the filmmakers of 1940s Italy united against a film industry crippled by war and creatively crippled by fascism. With Mussolini’s death, Italy broke its ties with Germany and strove to create new creative expressions of Italian identity. This resulted in a cinematic focus on Italy’s poor with stories about their lives, shot where they live, and, frequently, starring themselves. 

Just like Mumblecore, these filmmakers were thirsting for a way to claim space. Bold filmmakers like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini were reinventing Italian cinema and exporting classics that would set the standard for motion picture storytelling. It is out of this desperation that we get brilliance like Rossellini’s Bicycle Thieves, in which an entire family’s livelihood depends on recovering a stolen bike. The entire moral quandary of a nation in desperate poverty distilled into two wheels stolen from people who need them. It is also how we get Shoeshine, a story similarly focused on poverty and the law, this time borne out of two young shoeshine boys struggling to get the money together to buy a horse. It’s no coincidence that these stories focus on people tethered to their unfortunate circumstances, trying to recover the means to move. In Mumblecore, characters struggle to find their place with each other. In Italian Neorealism, they struggle to find their place in the world.

French New Wave

As the ’40s gave way to the ’50s, the story of bold filmmakers taking back their artistic expression migrated to France. Whereas Italian Neorealism concerned itself with the small stories of the downtrodden, the documentary style of the films spoke more to the reality of Italian, post-war life rather than as an extension of the filmmakers themselves. French New Wave, founded by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others, put artistic vision and stylistic expression back at the forefront of filmmaking. 

Jean-Pierre Léaud sits in class in The 400 Blows (1959)

As Truffaut and his colleagues contemplated cinema as critics in the early ’50s, they developed a set of concepts that would later be distilled into what we now know as auteur theory. This concept simply states that films should be considered in the context of their directors, that each filmmaker is the “author” of their own film and, subliminally or otherwise, inserted their own personality into them. 

It is in this spirit that Truffaut created the classic, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age classic The 400 Blows that chronicled Truffaut and his friends’ journey through an unyielding school system and a childhood of petty theft and revolt through the invented story of Antoine Doinel, a dissatisfied dreamer and hellraiser growing up in Paris. Jean-Luc Godard contributed his own classic to the tradition with Breathless, a film chronicling the exploits ambling criminal and his lover that was praised for its bold visual approach and use of jump cuts.

Mumblecore takes this principle back and reasserts the filmmaker’s importance in the work. The mammoth four-quadrant pictures from big studios have to appeal to everybody and, more often than not, are made by a committee of creatives that can make the director-as-authors feel too edited to really take ownership of their movies. French New Wave films responded to the tendency in post-war French cinema to regress into more classic French dramas and formulaic films. They eschewed greater resources and gravitated towards the freedom and greater ownership of their own stories. Actors, much like in Italian Neorealism and Mumblecore, are encouraged to improvise to find the story with the filmmaker in the spirit of artistic collaboration. 

Dogme 95

When the pendulum swung back again and the studio system became cautious and too interested in playing it safe, filmmakers, once again bounced back with a commitment to simple stories and authenticity. This time, however, it would be more combative and directly pointed towards the studios themselves. The answer came from Europe again, from Denmark with a new cinematic movement known as Dogme 95. Developed by filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme 95 committed its acolytes to rules the creators called “Vows of Chastity.”

From the Dogme 95 chapter of Technology and Culture, the Film Reader edited by Andrew Utterson, the vows are as follows:

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

These rules alienate the story of any film from the story about the film. By removing special effects and the director’s ego, the films become isolated experiences and realistic depictions of human drama. The decision to scorn genre furthers the ideas of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave by divorcing film stories not just from existing national tradition, but also from any canonical history that genre automatically asserts. Horror movies are forever compared to other horror movies, and those comparisons remove us from the immediacy of the stories in front of us. While an interesting and idealistic set of principles, the Vows of Chastity were almost immediately broken in small ways by even their founders. Despite not completely adhering to the rules, the spirit of Dogme 95 gave us exceptional films from Vinterberg and Von Trier including the former’s astounding family drama The Celebration

Henning Moritzen and Birthe Neumann enjoy an uncomfortable dinner in The Celebration (1998)

Filmmaking, by and large, is about the manipulation of the moving image to tell stories, and the limitations of that manipulation didn’t ultimately serve the filmmakers’ intentions for the stories they want to tell. Mumblecore approached filmmaking with a more realistic sensibility and chose to stay away from special effects more for budgetary reasons than ideological principles.

Home again

And we are back where we started. Mumblecore and the grounded honest stories of now told by ambitious, realistic self-starters responding to their own oppositional studio system. As Disney continues to gobble up franchises and audiences, the little guys cannot wait for checks from Hollywood to finance their dreams.

“The cavalry isn’t coming.” 

So, like the Italian boys in Shoeshine, the filmmakers of today must cobble together what little they have and buy their own horse and be their own cavalry. They must tell their own personal stories as they did in Italy, France, and Denmark before them, carrying on the rich tradition of cinema’s underdogs telling stories about the human heart and the ground we all walk on while Iron Man and the Avengers fire off their loud, shining rockets overhead.


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Written by Gus Wood

Gus is a horror critic and fanatic with a passion for giallo, animal attack films, and Vincent Price. When he was a kid, he had to leave a stage production of A Christmas Carol because it was too scary, now look at him. He can't wait to hear your Top 5 Horror Movies.

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