That a bunch of slovenly, misshapen movies (not necessarily a pejorative) has come to be so closely grouped together, so quickly and forcefully, speaks to the intense need of the current independent film community to feel part of and champion something in the American independent landscape. With filmmaker support groups dying out and increasingly scarce funding rubbing up against the exploding availability of high quality, reasonably priced video cameras and projection systems, and calcified distribution channels giving way to newer models, it’s an exciting, and uncertain, time to be making or releasing films—and writing about them. The young critics, young distributors, and young filmmakers of America haven’t had their moment yet, that instance where they stood up and reclaimed the notion of “independent” from a half-decade gone wrong and the general sense in the—to be honest—limited sphere protecting and fostering these movies seems to be simple: This might be it. A utopian instant of passion, artmaking, cheap beer, and a little bit of commerce overlapping; read the faces in the circa 1980s Telluride Film Film Festival softball team photo wedged in Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes and you’ll find a similar story. Are these folks our new Spike Lees, Jim Jarmuschs, or Hal Hartleys? Or are we all just getting carried away?
Loudmouthed John Cassavetes booster Ray Carney has been an early champion of this stuff, claiming a similar artistic lineage between one of America’s greatest filmmakers and a bunch of youthful overachievers (at 26 years of age, Swanberg has already completed three films, shot another and put out a twelve-episode web series; Katz, also 26, is halfway to lapping his visual inspiration’s four-film oeuvre). Here’s a clear instance in which the excitement over a bunch of filmmakers working together and producing work (and lots of it) that vibrates off of similar themes has won out over reason and historical context. No mumblecore movie that I’ve seen yet has truly reached out for anything beyond arm’s length, aside perhaps LOL and Funny Ha Ha which come within striking distance of the cascading meanings that we expect of great cinema. (Quiet City’s lovely meditations on the cityscape nudge it in this direction; The Puffy Chair feels bigger, but in a more traditional recent Amerindie manner) Cassavetes decimated the industry model he’d worked within for over a decade with his very first film, and continually collapsed categories over the course of his small body of work. Mumblecore may be reading his blueprint, but that same humming energy is missing. My greatest fear for all of these filmmakers is that they’ll never reach similarly—for genre, for period setting, for a tripod—thus limiting the possibilities of their art. There’s a nagging sense with many of these films that in their creators’ rush to produce feature-length works, and thus ensure the possibility of nationwide visibility, a disservice has been done to the material. (Would Quiet City have been even stronger at 45 minutes?) By gambling that exercises that might be stunningly ambitious in the context of a senior film seminar will float in the theatrical marketplace, this group’s won fairly big so far, but their future is far from clear.