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Now and Then: Five Reasons 'Mumblecore' and 'Millennial' Don't Mean the Same Thing

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! June 13, 2013 at 1:44PM

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.
Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"
Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

3. Realism Is Not Reality

The movies subsumed under the "mumblecore" label do themselves few favors on this count. Collectively, their aesthetic and narrative choices aspire to a level of realism nearly indistinguishable from the real.

But most recent "What's Wrong With Millennials?" stories pay little heed to the distinction, offering along with questionable scientific data a host of anecdotal evidence seemingly plucked from the annals of "mumblecore." However improvisational, collaborative, or low-fi, these films are fictions. Their imagery is purposeful -- an idea of youthful ennui rather than the thing itself. To put it simply, we do not all spend the day lolling in bed like 19th-century invalids. 

4. We Didn't Anoint "Mumblecore" the Voice of Our Generation. You Did.

As Amy Taubin recognized, "the flurry of festival hype and blogosphere branding" that ushered "mumblecore" into the public square distracted observers of the phenomenon from a key piece of data: the box office numbers. In the age of the Internet long tail, theatrical receipts are an imperfect barometer of popularity, but the failure of even the most successful "mumblecore" feature -- Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (2009), which grossed about $400,000 -- to become a breakout hit is striking.

Money is not synonymous with quality. (My favorite film in the "mumblecore" universe, and possibly the most influential single movie of this century so far, is Bujalski's 2002 debut, "Funny Ha Ha." It grossed $77,000.) But in making a claim for the movement's influence on the Millennial generation, it would do to investigate whether the Millennial generation is actually watching. By and large, it seems that we are not.

5. We're Not So Different From You, After All

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's latest collaboration, the sleek, winsome "Frances Ha" (now in theaters), is only a kissing cousin to "mumblecore." It draws equal inspiration from the French New Wave and Woody Allen's classic pair of New York love stories, "Annie Hall" (1977) and "Manhattan" (1979). Indeed, the film's allusions to the cinema's more distant past provide a potent reminder that the frightening, joyous experience of being young, single, and bohemian, as in Truffaut's World War I-era "Jules et Jim" (1962), has not changed as much as some commentators would like us to think.

"Frances Ha," better than any "Milennials" essay you're likely to read, suggests that seeing "mumblecore" or "Millennials" as more self-absorbed, difficult, or directionless than their respective forebears is a problem of perspective. The film successfully crystallizes modern almost-adulthood because it refuses to make Frances the voice of her generation. Like Hannah Horvath in "Girls," Frances is only "a voice of a generation," and that's just fine. 

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, Genres, comedy, Independents

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.