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JANE, YOU IGNORANT SLUT!

by
in Filmmaking
on Sep 25, 2006


There’s a great point/counterpoint going on over at The Onion’s A.V. Club Blog having to do with whether or not Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (pictured) are the future of independent cinema. Or, actually, whether we should be scolded for not ensuring that they are considered as such.

First Scott Tobias’s original post, which is entitled “Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy and the Current State of American Independent Film.” An excerpt:

…If you care at all about American independent films, you’re required to see these movies…. Watching these movies in short succession was a pretty bracing experience for me, as was seeing Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha several years ago (Old Joy is the first Reichardt film I’ve seen, and I’m told that her feature River Of Grass and her shorts are equally stunning). And that’s not simply because I was being introduced to singular talents, either, but also because they drummed up some troubling questions about the state of American independent film in general. Such as: Why aren’t we seeing more independent films like these? Are there more Bujalskis and Reichardts in hiding somewhere? After the studios co-opted the independent movement with their specialty divisions (Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent Pictures, Focus Features, etc.), has the door completely closed for true independent films? Are directors who could be making low-key films such as Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy having to tailor their art in order to appeal to these studio divisions?

A reply by a poster dubbed Cougarfunderberg who says he “programs for a three-screen arthouse theater” kicks up the debate with a very long reply. Another excerpt:

To be clear: these films are not great. [The poster is talking about Bujalski’s two films here; he says he hasn’t seen Old Joy.] Would you really put either of these films on the level with something like Stranger than Paradise? Or even a film that time hasn’t been so kind to (but was huge in its day) like Return of the Secaucus Seven? Are you really going to say either of these films are as exciting, interesting, intelligent, emotionally textured or aesthetically valuable as Days of Being Wild? Because that’s how they’re being positioned. Maybe the Cassavetes comparisons are more apt, but are these films anywhere in the league with Husbands? To be more fair, are they on the level with an early Cassavetes like Shadows? Cassavetes isn’t even a favorite of mine, but it’s clear he’s playing on an entirely different level from Bujalski.

So, maybe these comparisons are unfair and they’re too much of a burden for these slight and personal films to bear, but that’s the load that’s being put on them: they are THE important new artworks to many serious film-lovers. I’ve been trying to think of the art films in the past few decades that have really mattered as both commercial and artistic force. And all of them have far more virtues (even if they all have significant flaws) than either Bujalski film: Eraserhead, My Dinner with Andre, She’s Gotta Have It, Stranger than Paradise, Sex Lies and Videotape, etc. That’s even disregarding for comparison all of the great films that were commercially insignificant, the films made after the rise of the mid-majors in the 90’s and international cinema altogether….

But my point in bringing up Stranger than Paradise and Shadows is not that things used to be better back in the good old days, but that Bujalski’s films aren’t in the same league artistically. Watching Funny Ha Ha you don’t get that sense of discovery that’s comes with experiencing an exciting new talent. She’s Gotta Have It announces a stunning (and hugely entertaining) new voice from an (at the time) cinematically under-represented group. Mutual Appreciation announces a more artsy variation on Kevin Smith.

Why I’m harping on it is this: there is no reason to expect an audience to particularly like Bujalski’s films. Most folks will leave them with a shrug. They’ll assume they don’t “get it” and that critics/academics see something in them that is invisible to the normal viewer. That’s why critical praise is such a dangerous force – over-praise is just as likely to hurt a film as help it (from backlash to indifference to future critical assessment)….

It’s not Little Miss Sunshine‘s fault that Mutual Appreciation is not so great. The audience that sees Little Miss will get exactly what they paid for. The audience for Mutual Appreciation will get the hollow receptacle of our fears about the current state of cinema as an artform. Sorry to go on for so long, but I am genuinely terrified about the future of film in general, as a business and as an artform. I don’t know that I even have a suggestion for a solution. I wish the solution to the continuing dearth of serious cinema was as simple as “they are good films no one is seeing and if you go see them, things will start to get better,” but that’s not the case here. I think in the long run urging people to see Mutual Appreciation, recommending it without serious reservation, presenting it as a significant achievement and true alternative to Little Miss Sunshine will hurt the cause of art cinema more than it will help it.

Another poster, George Camrose, comes to Bujalski’s defense:

I think Manohla Dargis’s Times review of MUTUAL hit the nail on the head by comapring AB’s work not to Casavettes (can we now downgrade that comparison to once specific, now overused and meaninglessly general buzzword status like “noir” “psychedelic” and “rockabilly”?) but to Jean Eustache, a similarly rigorous crafter of seemingly effortless, naturalistic stories of the young, the smart, and the vain. It’s a lot of work making a movie that hangs so loosely and so tightly together. I can’t wait to see what Bujalksi does next – a novel adaptation for Scott Rudin, I believe. Rudin’s supposedly one of the most test-screening happy, hands-on producers out there, so I hope it doesn’t end in tears.

The thread continues further, including another post by Cougarfunderberg who notes that Old Joy‘s great opening weekend at the Film Forum means that it will come to his theater when it expands to the suburbs next month so he can form his own opinion about it.

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