About the word itself: Yes, it's an annoying label, coined as a late-night bar-grumble, adopted reflexively by a press that always functions better when something can be reduced to a neologism. And yes, it sucked for filmmakers who had to answer to it (or to people's perceptions of it). Nonetheless, it'd be silly to deny that so many filmmakers who work with/act for each other's films and circle the same demographic relentlessly don't have some commonalities. It's also equally stupid not to acknowledge that this was, at most, a five-year boom; all the instigators are now spiraling out into different directions.
John Cassavetes: Cassavetes has precisely zero relationship to "mumblecore," but he kept getting invoked; the link, presumably, was one of a new breakthrough in "screen realism," which is a) a misunderstanding of the oft-theatrical/operatic nature of Cassavetes' performances b) stupid. The key link — one I saw Dan Sallitt make somewhere or other — has to do with changing definitions of what constitutes "realism" on-screen.
David Gordon Green: Cited by Matt Dentler as the godfather of the genre, seeing as people in George Washington and All The Real Girls do, in fact, mumble a lot — but Green's a lush 35mm stylist, so the comparison really doesn't go anywhere very fast. It is true that DGG is a graduate of NCSA, which also produced people like Aaron Katz, but that doesn't really mean much. If Green is mumblecore, then so is Judd Apatow.
Personal history: I'm pretty sure Bujalski brought Funny Ha Ha to Austin in 2003, when he was taking it around the country personally; I saw it in the ad hoc screening room at the back of a coffee shop, which seems about right. Never before had I seen passive-aggressive non-communication depicted with such acuity. I was sold. Subsequently, I interviewed Bujalski after the release of all three of his movies.
Stylistic hallmarks: Bujalski's aesthetic is (up to this point) based solely upon the unusual fact that he actually uses film and grain, which he loves. As the instigator and so forth, Bujalski's films are the most opaque, even if they seem to have a clear surface. In Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, Bujalski sympathetically anatomizes failures of nerve and communication without excusing them. To say that they're about white post-collegiate grads drifting directionlessly through life is like saying Cassavetes movies are about raging alcoholics who yell a lot; it's a deliberately obtuse description. (To the extent that they're about the same group of people over and over, they're not self-congratulation; they're generationally specific variations on the same failures rather than celebration of same.) If Funny Ha Ha belies its title (it's a tough watch), both Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax are increasingly Stillman-esque comedies laying bare the unofficial rules of social interaction of a generation of kids trained to be polite and self-effacing as a response to an increasingly loud, boorish and self-congratulatory society. (And don't even start with the hipster crap. When he makes a movie about kids taking acid, hooking up in gay clubs and smoking out on rooftops under the heat of the Brooklyn sun, then we'll talk.)
Criticisms: Early booster Ray Carney has (reportedly) turned on Bujalski for failing to take the brave emotional chances and conflicts of Cassavetes, which I think is code for "this isn't realism if people aren't screaming/being emotionally brave." He should know better.
Personal history: I've seen LOL, Hannah Takes The Stairs and Alexander The Last. One time at a SXSW party he asked me if I'd seen his wife. Considering I'd never met either of them, that struck me as odd. I'm friendly with C. Mason Wells, his collaborator on LOL.
Stylistic hallmarks: Almost certainly the most divisive filmmaker of the cluster, Swanberg's films are the antidote for people who find Bujalski unrealistically neutered and sexless (which he's not, but some people seem incapable of crediting the reality of anything they haven't personally experienced). There are a lot of sex scenes in his work, and I personally find them fairly unproductive; some of them (like the cutting back and forth between rehearsal sex and the real thing in Alexander) are pretty much on the level of freshman creative writing class thinking.
Swanberg has been accused — justifiably — of complete visual indifference, though with Alexander he seems to have discovered framing, lighting, etc. His work up to now has been characterized by an absolute focus on performances (lots of erratic zooming in and out for emphasis) rather than visuals, to an extent that's kind of visually unprecedented for movies that receive distribution, are seen by people that aren't the filmmaker's friends, etc.
Criticisms: Besides that the movies look terrible and have too many sex scenes? That they privilege narcissism — which is kind of true. My favorite of the three films I've seen is LOL, a supremely accurate depiction of a group of people I absolutely recognize and would run a mile in tight shoes to avoid. There's, nonetheless, something hard to dismiss about his work; the sheer fact that it irritates (rather than just bores) me suggests something.
Personal history: I've met Aaron a few times while he lived in Brooklyn. He's an exceptionally quiet dude and I have exchanged maybe 150 words with him in my lifetime. Also I drunkenly geeked out on him after seeing Cold Weather. Also I'm friends with the good folks of Benten Films, who put his first two films out on DVD. Consider my critical objectivity fatally compromised.
Stylistic hallmarks: The unapologetically rarified aesthete of the group, Katz's movies rarely look less than stunning. Stylistically and thematically, they're all completely different creatures. Dance Party USA is sort of like a Larry Clark movie without the hypocritical mixture of puritanism and lechery: it dares to consider the fallout of a rape without losing its nerve. It's also sensitive about setting up spaces where teen boys and girls can talk among themselves; I generally think it's terrific. Quiet City is also a dazzling movie — the near avant-garde interludes, dreamily abstracting the passing subway view into creamy colors, lines and dots — but everyone in it frankly pisses me off. If you want to talk about a movie that's reflexively coy, inarticulate and asexual, well...yeah. But that's just me.
Cold Weather is a whole other beast, and a very good argument for why no one should ever use the word "mumblecore" in 2010: it could (and hopefully will) be a crossover hit. It's the kind of mainstream-ish comedy that could've been slipped under the radar in the late '70s/early '80s as an inexpensive studio film (by Joan Micklin Silver, say), and it's absolutely "written" in every sense of the word.
Criticisms: I'm pretty sure everyone likes this guy. Pass.
The Duplass Brothers
Personal history: I saw The Puffy Chair in Austin with a friend who's about as good-ol-boy/frat/blond/football booster as they come, a man who spent much of his time at NYU drinking straight whiskey and generating all of his income through sports betting. He had, as a matter of fact, dug Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation while intensely disliking all of the people in it (see, it's possible! This isn't just about circle jerk clique-ishness and self-congratulation), but noted after Puffy Chair "That was like Funny Ha Ha for my people." This was absolutely correct. I also ended up seeing Baghead in Austin; I have yet to see Cyrus.
Stylistic hallmarks: The Duplass brothers have a strong interest in maintaining a traditional three-act structure (or five, depending on how you feel about it); their films have openings, middles and resolutions, along with beats. Like Noah Baumbach — who edits the hell out of his work to cover, quite successfully, its relative structural conventionality — their handheld cameras, fondness for spontaneous, out-of-nowhere jokes and superficially roughshod surface covers this off. They're the most overtly jockish, which is a good thing; the word "dude" is probably abused in Puffy Chair as many times as "fuck" is in The Big Lebowski. What they're doing is tricky — Baghead is so meta about its genre-tweaking game it devours itself in the last twenty minutes — but insanely ambitious.
Criticisms: General sloppiness and inchoateness. YMMV.
Personal history: I interviewed Mr. Audley (nee Andrew Nenninger) for the release of Team Picture and met him at a few parties afterwards. He sent me his two latest films, and I really should sit down and watch them.
Stylistic hallmarks: Team Picture is supremely casual, a slacker comedy shot with an artlessness so deliberate it's almost, I dunno, Cukor-esque (better analogies welcome); if you think he's making a lazy movie about lazy people, you're not paying attention. I find it consistently hilarious. I don't really know what else to say, honestly; it's a pure comedy, unless you don't think it's funny. It is notable, I guess, that Team Picture is distinctively "southern" (i.e., based in Memphis) and proudly regional (it's kind of amazing how Bujalski has shot movies in three different cities while studiously avoiding showing any of the geography; he's more after a mental state of mind that can't be pinned down that easily).
Criticisms: Eh. Hold.
I'm not about to start talking about post-mumblecore stuff (Medicine For Melancholy, You Wont Miss Me et al.), mostly because a) they're so thematically/stylistically differentiated it should be obvious (and if you don't believe me, try to get your hands on Frank V. Ross' Audrey The Trainwreck, which cops a lot of moves from Desplechin and Assayas, which is some kind of Amerindie first) b) I'm getting tired. Hopefully I've demonstrated some stuff about the differences between this allegedly monolithic group of of filmmakers.
Three things to refute while I'm making my way out the door:
a) Where are the minorities? Look, I know we live in a post-racial, post-Obama world (note: I am not remotely serious), but this seems like a problem about how we don't live in a post-racial world. For serious.
b) It's always about whiny 20somethings. Well: OK, you fund their shit then. Do you honestly believe that this group of filmmakers are so solipsistic, so infinitely self-regressive they just want to produce the cinematic equivalent of roman-a-clefs indefinitely? Reading interviews with all of them will review an enviable cinephilia much better informed than their big-budget confreres; it's not like they're unaware of the possibilities. But: you want to make a movie. You have almost no money. You have friends who can work with you. I mean Come. On.
c) Only the people the movies are about can relate to the movies. Sure, and only waifish Marxist gamines watch '60s Godard.
[update: d.) "I don't get the point of mumblecore," tweeted friend of the blog and all-round good guy THE FUTURIST! And yet I know for a fact that he's expressed his appreciation for Mutual Appreciation and Dance Party USA, while disliking other "mumblecore" films. Point being it's like saying "I dislike Godard and Rivette; what's the point of the French New Wave?" Not even all the filmmakers like each other; you're not obligated to either.]