Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in "Hannah Takes the Stairs" (2007), directed by Joe Swanberg.
Reading wave after wave of writing about the Millennial generation and the so-called "mumblecore" movement, you would be forgiven for thinking the commentators had somehow mistaken movies for real life.
The language used to describe both this loose collection of American independents and the generation they supposedly depict sometimes seems interchangeable. Amy Taubin's acerbic take
on director Joe Swanberg -- "smug and blatantly lazy" -- would be at home in Joel Stein's recent Time Magazine cover story
(behind paywall), which called Millennials "lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow." How a small group of emerging filmmakers came to be treated as the stand-in for an entire generation of young people deserves explanation, but first things first: this interpretation is grossly, absurdly, mind-blowingly wrong. "Mumblecore" and "Millennial" don't mean the same thing. Here are five reasons why.1. There's No Such Thing As "Mumblecore"
For a fleeting moment between 2005 and 2007, years which witnessed the release of "Mutual Appreciation" (Andrew Bujalski, 2005), "The Puffy Chair" (Jay and Mark Duplass, 2005), "Dance Party USA" (Aaron Katz, 2006), and "Hannah Takes the Stairs" (Swanberg, 2007), one might have deployed the word mumblecore without scare quotes.
Coined by Bujalski's sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, the term -- which nearly every major figure in the movement has since disavowed -- originally referred to the films' awkward, half-finished dialogue and poor sound quality. Call me unsophisticated, but as tongue-in-cheek shorthand for the rough affinities among this early body of films, I think "mumblecore" works. It nods at their low budgets, rambling narratives, handheld camerawork, and improvisational affect, but it is also appropriately skeptical. "Mumblecore," deployed with the requisite irony, is a built-in insult, and often a well-deserved one.
But "mumblecore" was never just one thing, even at the beginning. Tonally, Katz's pained sensitivity and Swanberg's sexual frankness barely merit inclusion in the same category. The caddish teenage protagonist (Cole Pensinger) of "Dance Party, USA" discovers a crime he's committed even as he's admitting to it; the flaky twenty-something protagonist (Greta Gerwig) of "Hannah Takes the Stairs" can scarcely stand to discover anything. "I had other worries," she says near the end of the film. "But now all I'm worried about is my play." 2. We're Not All Lena Dunham
If the pundits who write about "Millennials" are to be believed, nearly everyone under 30 in this country is white, straight, artsy, and wandering more or less jobless through the big city. (Note to Joel Stein: we're not.)
This confusion might be called "The Lena Dunham Effect," though the creator of "Girls" is only its most recent icon. Dunham's style resembles Bujalski's or Swanberg's, from the essayistic narrative structure to her prominent on-screen roles. Working from two problematic assumptions -- that Hannah Horvath is a thinly veiled Lena Dunham, and that young people will only watch what they identify with -- commentators have used Hannah's (admittedly grating) approach to life as evidence of a generational malaise.
Bullshit. A "Millennial" is in fact any person born between 1983 and 2000, no matter their race, sexual orientation, temperament, occupation, or living situation. The low-hanging fruit of these films' worst excesses only serves, to poach Taubin's line, the smug and blatantly lazy notion that growing up with "helicopter parents" and an Internet connection turned us into self-aggrandizing freaks with no empathy, no politics, and no work ethic.