LETHEM TALKS MUMBLECORE AND MORE AT SIFF

I’ve always connected with the work of Jonathan Lethem. I’m a fan of his novels and all, but I especially look at his criticism because his reference points are invariably the same as mine. We’re both big Philip K. Dick fans, he ended a novel (Fortress of Solitude) with an extended celebration of one of my favorite albums (Another Green World), and when he wrote an essay on his formative books and albums as a teenager, our lists were like dopplegangers. He also just wrote a book about Talking Heads Fear of Music, and his Promiscuous Materials project let independent filmmakers dramatize his work.

So, I was excited when he was asked to give the keynote speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We tried to get a transcript, but it’s only available now from Vimeo, which I’ve embedded below. And there’s a nice summary over at Wired Italy. Topics discussed include “the neotenous aesthetic,” mumblecore, Occupy Wall Street, and the relationship between technology and cinema.

Here he is on mumblecore, from Matteo Bittanti’s piece:

“Mumblecore is both an arresting and important genre”, Lethem argued before an audience that was scratching their heads in disbelief (actually, no, it was just me). The comment section for the typical mumblecore film on IMDB will likely include remarks like “This is like a John Cassavetes’ movies about boring dumb rich kids with shitty tastes and everything,” (“Real comment grabbed at random,” assured Lethem). “These fierce words encapsulate every piece of resistance against that grassroots movement otherwise known as mumblecore.” Like “queer” and “quacker”, the definition “mumblecore” derives from someone else’s scorn, thus openly derogatory, but, with an act of cultural transcoding, it was first appropriated by the scorned subculture and then subverted, until it became legitimized, so to speak. “Everything about these movies is embarrassing”. “The embarrassment has potential for reciprocity, with cinema itself and with us”. In fact, “It is embarrassing to embarrass others and it is embarrassing to witness embarrassment”. Therefore, mumblecore is really about “The ecstasy of embarrassment”.

Lethem confessed his obsession for the “mumblecore character”, the mumblecore type, a pantomime that he simply “Cannot stop watching”. He is not a fan of the “Shaky camera aesthetics [and the cellphone, and YouTube] which define the very essence of this art form”, a convention that he compared to “Writing in the present tense,”, itself “An abdication of formal tools the artist could cling to”. Nevertheless, he finds mumblecore absolutely fascinating, to the point that these films are “slightly rewiring” his synapses”, he said. Lethem auggested that “Andy Warhol, and not John Cassavetes, is the real father of the genre.” Both Warhol and the mumblecore directors, “Introduce characters that seem barely willing to perform. In both cases, the viewer’s attention floats in a medium of sporadic arousal”. According to Lethem, “a fictional scene in a movie is an inadvertent documentary of the actors’ lives”. “If there is one thing certain in 21st century art making, is that to present one’s vulnerabilities is to call forth the haters”. He added that, “Lately, it is typical to dismiss a generation’s prototypical artists by suggesting that their susceptibility to congenital pre-adolescence disqualifies their claims on our grown-up attention…. As if any of us can safely claim to be watching with ‘grown-up attention’”. “The counter-argument is that late techno-capitalism has made spoiled children of us all. Or at least, wants to.” “We gaze into the mumble. And the mumble gazes back at us”, he concluded. Interestingly, the demands of the mumblecoreans remind Lethem of the demands of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. In fact…