Realism outweighs budget in indie genre

Mumblecore's the focus of summer school at Facets

You can draw a straight line connecting Andrew Bujalski, director of the low-key 2002 indie "Funny Ha Ha," to Lena Dunham, premium cable provocateur.

Otherwise known as the show that launched a thousand think pieces, Dunham's HBO series "Girls" arrived as the inevitable outgrowth of nearly a decade of micro-budget filmmaking from Bujalski and others. Many of the show's themes — percolating in a fog of post-collegiate ennui and awkward relationships — first turned up in Dunham's film, 2010's "Tiny Furniture." The Bujalski influence is hard to ignore. "Funny Ha Ha" was the "movie that made me want to make a movie," she told the New York Times last year. "I felt like I was spying. I didn't know you were allowed to take a conversation that feels stilted and people are saying what they mean but sort of not."

That's a pretty decent distillation of the mumblecore ethos, even if most filmmakers who fall into this category detest the word itself. "My goal is to deconstruct the term, see what really makes these filmmakers tick and look at how they've influenced the mainstream," said Matt Fagerholm, who has put together "Beyond Mumblecore: The DIY Generation," a six-week screening and discussion series taking place Mondays at Facets under the cinema's film school banner.

The first film on tap is 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" (July 15) which isn't typically lumped in with mumblecore. And yet it has many of the same qualities we associate with the genre, particularly the low-fi docurealism (sometimes intentional, sometimes just a lack of filmmaking technique), largely improvised dialogue and the sense that its young 20-something protagonists are awash in uncertainty about their lives.

"It's shot in a way that feels completely genuine," Fagerholm said. "The actors — and this is something that's very mumblecore — were involved in the creation of the story itself. So much of that film is spontaneous and improvised, and there's more of a real sense of suspense and tension than if it had been a normal Hollywood scripted narrative."

"The Blair Witch Project" made $250 million worldwide, which sets it apart from the other films on Fagerholm's lineup — none of which made more than a couple hundred thousand dollars but were influential nonetheless — including 2005's "Kissing on the Mouth," the sexually explicit first-time effort from Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who kept a journal posted on the film's web site: "We let our guard down and took our clothes off in an effort to accurately represent the struggle of young people, people our age, to gain distance from their parents and find love with each other," he wrote. "It was important to us to present realistic images of ourselves, as we are frustrated with the current representations of our generation."

An entire genre of micro-budget films has emerged since, a good number of which are unwatchable. In fairness, the same is true of many big-budget studio films. "It's much harder for inept filmmaking to hide" when it comes to mumblecore, as Fagerholm put it, and his upcoming course seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff. Here's a funny thing about that cringey mumblecore shorthand: As much as everyone hates the designation, no one has come up with an alternative that has stuck. "I'm kind of allergic to the term," Fagerholm told me. "I feel like it's been used to dismiss these films rather than really understand what they're all about."

He's right. But there is something to the word's origins. At a 10th anniversary screening of "Funny Ha Ha" that Dunham hosted with Bujalski, even she admitted to having trouble hearing some of the film's dialogue. "I think that's really indicative of how much we were kind of in our own world," he replied. "Like, it didn't bother me to make a movie where 80 percent of people couldn't understand the last line of the movie."

"Funny Ha Ha" is on Fagerholm's lineup, as is Dunham's "Tiny Furniture"; Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (a comedy that pushes at the limits of bromance); and "Tiger Tail in Blue" (about the complications of being young and newly married) from yet another Chicago filmmaker, Frank V. Ross, who will take part in the post-show discussion.

"I thought this would be a great class for this particular summer since Joe has 'Drinking Buddies' coming out," Fagerholm said. "Drinking Buddies" (which was shot in Chicago last summer) is Swanberg's first foray into the mainstream with household-name actors. It opens in theaters next month starring Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston as 30-somethings grappling with romantic uncertainties, craft beers in hand.

Of the filmmakers Fagerholm spotlights, Bujalski's career has been among the least mainstream; his latest film, "Computer Chess," is a story of computer nerds circa 1980 and was shot on retro black and white video. It won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, awarded to the best film about science or technology. It opens in limited release this month.

Facets has three other courses on offer this summer as well, including "Gene Kelly and the Evolution of Cine-dance" (Tuesdays); "Nostalgia For Nothing: The 'Bad' 1950s in American Cinema, 1970-Present" (Wednesdays); and the aptly titled "Walk and Talk of Aaron Sorkin" (Thursdays). The Sorkin series is particularly well-timed; Season 2 of his polarizing HBO series "The Newsroom" begins July 14.

"The use of the walk-and-talk by Sorkin always happens in the workplace," said Christina Wright, who is running the Sorkin class. "Whether it's the White House, a courtroom, a newsroom or an office, there is no time to relax."

Over six weeks she will be screening and analyzing "A Few Good Men" (the film that put Sorkin on the map), "Malice," "The Social Network," "Moneyball," "Charlie Wilson's War" and "The American President," the last of which "came out during the Clinton administration," Wright notes, "and addresses, particularly through the Michael J. Fox character, the question: How much of the president's personal life does the American public have a right to know?"

Facets Film School runs July 15-Aug. 19. The fee is $125 per six-week course ($80 for Facets members). Go to facets.org.

Tapeheads

Despite the ease of streaming, there remains a devoted subset of film fans who prefer to watch movies on VHS. Directors Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic sought out many of them for their documentary "Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector," which is perhaps too wedded to the talking-head format to really grab the imagination. But a quote right at the film's start seems to get at the guiding philosophy driving so many collectors: "It's sort of like how some people feel compelled to volunteer at animal shelters and save poor little kitty cats. I felt compelled to go to thrift stores and save those poor little VHS tapes." It screens Tuesday at Lincoln Hall as part of its 3-Penny Was Here series. Go to lincolnhallchicago.com.

Cannes winner

School of the Art Institute film student Anahita Ghazvinizadeh (a native of Tehran) won first prize in the short film competition at Cannes this year for her work "Needle," which was shot in Chicago last summer. Reviewing it at Cannes Tribune film critic Michael Phillips called it a "sharp, nearly perfect 21-minute movie about a 6th-grade girl caught in a tug of war between divorced parents." It screens at Facets Wednesday followed by a discussion with Ghazvinizadeh. Go to facets.org.

Cinema alfresco

Northwestern University's free outdoor summer screenings begin this week with 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph" (Wednesday) followed by the 50th anniversary of "The Pink Panther" (July 17), "The Impossible" (July 24) and "Sixteen Candles" (July 31). Films begin around 9 p.m. on the east lawn of Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive. In the event of rain, films will screen at the McCormick Auditorium. Lawn chairs, blankets, food and beverages allowed. (You might want to pack bug spray, as well.) Through Aug. 14. Go to norris.northwestern.edu/csi/programming/summer-cinema.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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