Monday, 29 August 2011

Like, Slack ... er, films ...

- Got any plans for today?

-I have got a bit of a project actually, I’m going to be as inactive as I can in order to really get into the psyche of someone who’s say, I dunno, unemployed, not just vocationally but cerebrally, to see if the predicament of enforced passivity actually exhausts itself, you know; does inactivity breed laziness?

- Oh, right, are you gonna write an article about it?

- Nah I can’t be bothered.

Such is the wit of Jessica Hynes and Simon Pegg in Spaced (episode ‘Help’ 2001), summing up in one exchange the apathy of the slacker in the millennial generation. In this particular episode, the inactive Daisy (Hynes) is berated for her passive attitude by her flatmate, Tim (Pegg) and landlord Marsha (Julia Deakin), eventually bated into going running with the latter, in an hilarious demonstration of competitiveness. In contrast to Daisy’s inertia, Tim and best friend Mike (Nick Frost) embark on an action-packed adventure to retrieve a caricatured portrait of the man about to assess Tim’s suitability to work for DarkStar Comics.

Pegg, Hynes and director Edgar Wright’s portrayal of the twenty-something adrift in post millennium London is a brilliant example of a generation. A g

eneration post Gen-X, (Gen-Y?) no longer simply stepping back from their aimless lives and viewing them through the mediation of the video camera and reality TV as seen in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994) or Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) – literally seeing not doing. This generation is so steeped in pop culture, demonstrable via the ubiquitous screen: TV, laptops, mobile phone

s, cinema, that every moment of their lives is not simply an instant unto itself, but viewed as reference to some film, or game, or pop song, Just as Mike imagines breaking into the offices of Tim’s would-be boss as a scene from The Matrix, or a heroic save by Brian (Mark Heap) is accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven and Daisy’s recollection of a netball match back in high school is narrated as a series of comic-book frames accompanied by the theme from TV’s Grange Hill.

Spaced can be considered a commentary of what could ostensibly be called the sub-genre of the Slacker film, despite being TV. It sits at a mid-point between the cool passivity of Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980) in which apathetic Allie wanders around Manhattan, dances to Charlie Parker and ignores his girlfriend and the so called Mumblecore movement that emerged in the past ten years, with such titles as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). In the latter movement the term slacker is taken to a whole new level in which so loose is the aesthetic that the presence of a script would be unthinkable.

Perhaps the epitome of this genre is Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker. Structured as a relay-race of interweaving encounters with the (mostly) twenty-something inhabitants of Austin, Texas, Slacker combines meandering mini-narratives with snapshots of philosophical, political and artistic opinions, all delivered in a typically earnest and impassioned style. Whereas Linklater’s style was criticised for this earnestness – the idealism of talking big and seemingly doing very little, seen again in later work such as Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995) and Waking Life (2001) - the mumblecore movement is slack for reasons other than the inactivity of its protagonists. Most cite Funny Ha Ha as the earliest and best example of the classic characteristics of the decade’s work in low-fi filmmaking. Characters played by non-actor friends of the writer/director, location shooting, loose framing, no script thereby leading to an overwhelming presence of hesitating interjections in the dialogue, e.g. “So, like, what do want to do?” “I, er, [sigh], don’t know, er, how ‘bout you?” and so forth. It is in the dialogue that mumblecore (the clue’s in the name) differs so greatly to the work of Linklater and his contemporaries Crowe and Kevin Smith who were so highly praised for their work as screenwriters, capturing the concerns and articulations of their generation.

In Funny Ha Ha, central character Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a recent graduate, wanders through a series of encounters with her peers, losing a job here, kissing her friends’ boyfriend there, and making to-do lists that will most likely never be accomplished. She is slack in every sense of the word. Non-committal, passive when confronted with her failings, apathetic about which image to be tattooed with, literally shutting down, unwilling to engage in conversation even, seemingly unable to articulate her feelings. Whilst watching this pathetic display of inertia I wondered whether the characters name was a reference to the Hitchcock film of the same, in which Tippi Hedren in the title role, is ‘broken’ by Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland, who considers that Marnie needs to be made passive and agreeable in order to function in society as a woman. The perspective in Funny Ha Ha is not a particularly female one, as the pool of people floating around Marnie all talk and act as though ideas and opinions are not worth having.

It is exactly this excruciating mundanity that has garnered praise for the mumblecore movement. Critics rarely demonstrate whole-hearted enthusiasm for the work of Bujalski, Swanberg, Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers, but note warmly, for example that ‘Bujalski's improv approach is gracefully married with a style that is not overly-dramatic, and therefore seems just a hair short of pure documentary’ (Robert Koeller, Variety, 2003). Mumblecore, (a term the filmmakers now dislike) can be at best be seen as being like life, if your life involves being a partially employed, twenty-something graduate living in semi-poverty. The argument against these films being in the slacker genre is the hardworking attitude of the filmmakers, as Andrea Hubert noted in The Guardian back in 2007, ‘In five years, they have produced a total of 14 self-financed films between them’ now Mark and Jay Duplass work with the likes of John C. Riley and Marisa Tomei (Cyrus, 2010), where they transferring their improvisational directorial style to extract comedy from the super-awkwardness of the concerns of middle-aged singles.

For my own part, I have little patience for the so-called realism on display in Bujalski’s work. I liked Joe Swanberg’s Night’s and Weekends (2008), if only for the sweetness of Gerwig’s performance (seen recently playing alongside Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, another wandering protagonist film). Wah Do Dem (2009) directed by Ben Chase and Sam Fleischner is a more successful portrait of a slacker, as musician Max (Sean Bones), recently dumped by his girlfriend finds himself literally alone and adrift on a cruise to Jamaica. The film almost loses itself to pointless repetition and an unlikeable central character, but is saved when this slack-jawed slacker gets his comeuppance for being arrogant enough to assume that the worst had already happened to him.

Whereas the mumblecore movement exposes the myth that doing little and having few responsibilities is cool and funny - as seen in the work of Linklater, Jarmusch, Smith, Crowe and of course Pegg, Hynes and Wright, it is exactly because of this that I find it so unengageing. Slackers are at their most entertaining when thrust into action against their base desires, as seen in Greg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007), in which Anna Faris’s Jane eats her flatmates hash cupcakes and has to replace them, and pay back her dealer by 3pm. Even Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008) managed to be intermittently hilarious for it depiction of stoner’s thrust into an action film.

The idea here being, and in of course Spaced and Wright’s most recent Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010) that the inactive only relate to action in a mediated form. The characters only become active in their being removed from such action, i.e. un-real and within a fantasy/pop culture world. Inaction is moderated by a world they cannot in reality inhabit, unlike in mumblecore, where being and doing nothing are the only course, and that’s just plain dull.

For a nice little parody of mumblecore click here