Though it may seem unfair at first, let’s pick up Joe Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” heft it in our grips for a moment, and then use it to beat this thing called “mumblecore” to a pulp. Implicitly a kind of low-budge, ultra-spontaneous, all-HDV answer to the glossy fatuousness of current American film, mumblecore has a number of inherent problems (the least of which is its inherited moniker; using “-core” as a suffix in this way has no meaning). The fad’s general strategy naturally lit shaky-cam coverage of semi-inarticulate twentysomethings with bedhead speaking entirely in casual small talk and having or ruining relationships is easy to peg as narcissistic and lazy, if you’re not finely attuned to the genre’s nonchalant sense of cool. But more than that, mumblecore movies strive for an interpersonal intimacy they never achieve, because intimacy requires skill, real acting and visual wisdom, not merely amateurishness. In the pursuit of realism, mumblecore characters spend enormous amounts of time amusing themselves in variously immature ways, the upshot of which is less realistic than, well, immature. No one is actually witty, sex isn’t on anyone’s mind, and everyone, even when they’re being goofy, is tediously earnest.
Is it even a movement? Is anyone outside of the ticket buyers at a handful of smallish American film festivals passionate about these movies, and if not, why are they getting so much press? Still, any cost-benefit analysis of the genre must admit that flowers do arise out of the sludge, and in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” it’s the title character, as conceived by Swanberg’s ensemble and defined by Greta Gerwig’s performance. Hannah is a lovely-but-not-too-lovely production assistant at some kind of small-time production company, sharing an office with two geeky writers (Kent Osborne and Andrew Bujalski). Swanberg’s story merely follows her as she bounces from an unemployed boyfriend through relationships with her officemates, but Hannah herself is a fascinating concoction: she’s sweet and thoughtful, but at a loss in her own life, a little dull (and painfully aware of it), never the smartest person in the room and hardly at grips with what she wants out of a man. Gerwig has a dazzlingly guileless smile and big startled eyes (she’s more than a little DeGeneres-esque), and she imbues Hannah with an essential insecurity that remains mostly hidden as in real life, you detect the weakness and uncertainty by way of the defenses propped up to cover them. Watch Gerwig’s hands Hannah never knows where to put them. Organically, a clear sense of Hannah’s situation dawns: she can’t articulate her frustration, but she’s condemned to play second fiddle to every man she knows, because though she’s beautiful, she’s not creative or dynamic enough to dominate them. You don’t go to Swanberg’s movie because the cast is a veritable who’s who of mumblecore filmmakers (all of whom get screenplay credit as improvisers), or because it’s the genre entry the industry [including IFC.com’s sister company IFC First Take] thought would break through to the mainstream. You go for Hannah.
Another sort of ultra-indie phenom, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual program “The World According to Shorts” (eight years and running) simply makes the world’s festivals’ commercially unviable short films available on the big screen for New Yorkers, and now a sampling has been packaged on DVD. Appropriately, it’s a mixed bag: I thought Daniel Askill’s digital trickery “We Have Decided Not to Die” (2004) was crashingly pretentious, but Hans Petter Moland’s “United We Stand” (2002), a deadpan Norwegian comedy about old men and quicksand, was refreshing and sharp. Hugo Maza’s “La Perra” (2002) a Chilean bourgeois farce may be obvious, but Adam Guzinski’s “Antichrist” (2002) fiercely and mysteriously limns a landscape of feral children self-destructing in a post-industrial wilderness, and it’s mesmerizing. Best of all is Andreas Hykade’s “Ring of Fire” (2000), a German-made gout of black and white vaginal psychedelia that riffs on the Western’s clichÃ©s and the aura of Johnny Cash just as it suggests the impact of a new mind-altering substance you didn’t know you took.
[Photos: “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” IFC First Take, 2007; “United We Stand,” New Yorker, 2008]
“Hannah Takes the Stairs” (Genius Products) and “The World According to Shorts” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.