Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Mean It's Like I Don't Know What

Over the weekend, I saw my first Mumblecore movie: Funny Ha-Ha.  I've seen films by Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, Francois Truffaut, and other New Wave/cinema verite auteurs, but nothing I've come across in the past quite prepared me for this.  In description, the film sounds simple enough: it tells the story of a young woman named Marnie, who works as a temp (later she becomes a professor's assistant); she's attracted to one guy, makes out with another who's attached to her friend, and goes on a few dates with a third.  In the beginning, she drinks too much -- then she stops.  We learn that she wants to play chess and spend more time outside, because she makes a to-do list. 

But Funny Ha-Ha is a bizarre cinematic experience, for one primary reason: not only is this movie nearly devoid of meaningful action, it's also nearly devoid of meaningful information.  There are no telling details here.  While a film like Clockwatchers (for example) also tells the story of a lonely temp to whom nothing much happens, that picture fetishizes certain images, endowing them with power and meaning: a green plastic monkey, the clock of the title.  The office setting there, though drab and depressing, is depicted memorably, almost as a character in the film: rearranging the temps' desks becomes an act of betrayal.  With the exception of one scene where Marnie finds a packet of birth control pills in a potential boyfriend's desk, though, the characters in Funny Ha-Ha hardly interact with their settings or the objects within them.  Scenes are vaguely grounded in apartments or on the street or in other interchangable locales; the camera rarely, if ever, hones in on anything besides a person's face.  We never get a sense of the relationships between the characters, their shared history, or their individual backgrounds.  Even the actors' physicality is nonspecific, fidgety, and vague.

All of this probably sounds like criticism.  But in fact I thought Funny Ha-Ha was beautiful and fascinating and deeply, compellingly strange, and for me it raises an interesting question about storytelling.  The popular wisdom seems to be that, if the viewer/reader is confused, he will get bored and abandon whatever story he's watching or reading.  But often, when a film or book refuses to directly offer the elements of conventional narrative – character motivation, for example, or exposition – I find myself seeking those out, almost desperately, from whatever material is available.  When one character in Funny Ha-Ha suddenly and inexplicably gets married (off-screen, of course), I project onto his situation all kinds of possible explanations: maybe his new wife guilted him into it?  Maybe there was some practical reason – health insurance, a green card?  Or maybe his attraction to Marnie has frightened him?  Far from boring me, puzzling over this question draws me deeper into the film than many plausible explanations could.

Though the characters in Funny Ha-Ha are unguarded, awkward, and vulnerable, the experience of watching the film is far from intimate.  On the contrary, the viewer becomes a voyeur.  We don't know these people.  These scenes have not been prepared for us.  We rifle through them, as Marnie rifles through the materials on her would-be lover's desk, piecing together a story from whatever clues we can find.

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