Moving Pictures
Sep 27, 2021, 06:27AM

Mutual Labor in Mumblecore

Mumblecore, Joe Swanberg, and Build the Wall (2020).

Build the wall   joe and kent copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

It’s not immediately clear that Build the Wall was filmed back in the fall of 2019. Kent Osborne lives in a relatively isolated property, filling his day with monotonous routines and working over Zoom calls. Joe Swanberg and co. smelled something that was already simmering. Released for free last August on Vimeo and NoBudge—a streaming service highlighting microbudget filmmaking founded by fellow mumblecore alumnus Kentucker Audley—Build the Wall is a return to form for Swanberg. It’s fitting that the greatest soldier of the DIY trenches returned to the consumer grade digital camera at the end of what Richard Brody marked “the decade of mumblecore.” Build the Wall is both a bookend and a view forward. But to understand the decade that Swanberg left behind, one must first understand the one he came from: the 2000s.

None of them set out to start a movement. Initially, the filmmakers who’d be lumped in together as “mumblecore” were just a disparate group of artists exploring new possibilities with almost no money. The larger independent film industry lacked space for them to even break through.

Something happened in 2005 when film programmers started putting these kind of DIY films on their rosters. SXSW housed the heart of the group: their 2005 lineup included the debut of both Swanberg (Kissing on the Mouth) and the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair) in the “Emerging Visions” competition, and Andrew Bujalski’s second feature (Mutual Appreciation). In an interview with IndieWire that year, Bujalski mentioned that his sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, dubbed these “performance-based films by young quasi-idealists” as “mumblecore,” likely in honor of their messy, Altmanesque audio. But even 16 years ago, Bujalski insisted that grouping these films together was reductive: “If it is a movement, I’m sure I’ll want to get out of it and do something else.” It wasn’t until 2007 that the “movement” was crystallized through a cinematic act of self-mythologizing paired with an outside acceptance and elevation of the films beyond festival oddities.

Even though it often falters in execution compared to his other mumblecore movies, Hannah Takes the Stairs is in many ways the quintessential Swanberg film: an ensemble cast revolving around a young woman changing over the course of three relationships, along with the quirky twentysomethings at her TV writing gig. Starring filmmakers Bujalski, Ry Russo-Young, Mark Duplass, Todd Rohal, and Kris Rey (Swanberg’s then-girlfriend and now ex-wife), along with Swanberg’s Ice Cream Floats bandmate Tipper Newton, Ivan Alberston, Kent Osborne, and, in her first leading role, Greta Gerwig (she previously debuted in voiceover and photos in Swanberg’s 2006 film LOL). Swanberg stayed behind the camera, and Kevin Bewersdorf, a high school friend of Swanberg’s, composed the music and manned sound. It was a collaborative project that simultaneously invents the group and later acts as evidence of it: Hannah Takes the Stairs is the mumblecore film.

That August, IFC Center presented a retrospective entitled “The New Talkies: Generation DIY,” featuring films by Swanberg, Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers, Kentucker Audley, Aaron Katz, and Frank V. Ross. The two-week retrospective brought critical examination to the group, with write-ups in Brooklyn Rail, Film Comment, and The New York Times. Dennis Lim, in his Times piece, properly defined mumblecore as, “More a loose collective or even a state of mind than an actual aesthetic movement,” and that the association most casual viewers have with the “genre” as, “[concerning] itself with the mundane vacillations of post-collegiate existence.” And while Lim’s latter observation would stick, the former about the “loose collective” wouldn’t, and even films coming out now are described as “mumblecore” long after that particular group disolved.

But even when it was “happening,” they weren’t always making mumblecore. By the 2010s, practically all of its members were established in the indie industry that previously didn’t have room for them. They abandoned DIY aesthetics for moderately higher budgets, full crews, and occasionally, true star power. Swanberg was the only one  who continued to “hold out” (he made six features in 2010, many of which were shot in a week or less), but by 2012 he’d also be in Hollywood shooting movies with “real” movie stars and RED cameras, and eventually securing a Netflix deal. Speaking to NoBudge around Build the Wall’s premiere, Swanberg reflected on his recent stint with the establishment, that he could see the “writing on the wall” about imminent instability, and that reliable financiers would soon dry up. After Jane Adams showed him some photos of Kent’s new place in Vermont and said it’d be a good place to make a movie, Swanberg’s DIY instinct kicked back in and they all hopped on a plane.

Build the Wall begins with a familiar setup: an unexpected delivery. We see a pile of rocks in the bed of a trailer, climbing high in the Green Mountains, and eventually arriving at Kent's. He remembers a drunken conversation with Kev (Bewersdorf), who told him he’s going to build him a wall for his 50th birthday. The problem is his “friend” Sarah (Adams) is visiting from LA. He wants to sleep with her, but he’s incapable of communicating it properly. He wasn’t sure how the weekend would go before, but now he’s even less sure with the addition of a guy doing construction in the yard.

They’re all looking older, and have checked out in one way or another—what had once been a style obsessed with aloof youth and an emerging, more positive era of the internet has given way to the problems of “old people.” Kent, the successful animation writer and cartoonist, has left LA for the woods, growing shoulder-length hair and a bit of a beard. Jane’s hair has grayed, and it’s been almost a decade since the Tony-winner lamented being an aging actress in Swanberg’s Silver Bullets. Kev, the musician and Internet artist who at one point abandoned the web altogether, has given up drinking and devoted himself to his new craft: stone masonry.

The politically-charged title is an intentional misdirection, a joke that emphasizes the full irony of the phrase—closer to Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (“Good fences make good neighbors''), as Richard Brody notes in his review. Swanberg abandons the phrase’s xenophobic Trump-era connotations, instead seeing the possibility of community building through collective labor and the potential for a wall as a structural barrier rather than personal one—not unlike his filmmaking ethos. At first it might seem a little out of character for Swanberg, who often avoids being topically political. Back in 2007, he told Filmmaker Magazine, “I don’t feel like I have anything to say right now about the Iraq War… the stories of my life and my friends’ lives are the ones I can tell most completely.” That doesn’t make his films apolitical—his characters usually are trying to say something about the times they live in (notably, the main group in Hannah Takes the Stairs are working on a comedy/satire show called Bush League)—but Swanberg would rather reveal the world he sees through the people themselves rather than what they talk about.

These films about pretentious twentysomethings who can’t stop talking aren’t really about the content of their conversations. Maybe that’s where a lot of misdirected ire against mumblecore comes from: audiences focus on what the characters are saying instead of how they say it and what it reveals about them. Are they masking insecurities with their words? Not reading between the lines in this case would be to miss the movie entirely.

Build the Wall is also a play on Swanberg’s earlier collaboration Uncle Kent, a film where Osborne plays a version of himself with a female friend he kind-of-maybe likes staying at his place for the weekend. As many critics have pointed out about Swanberg’s films at the time, Uncle Kent is a story about “sex in the internet age,” and a certain kind of loneliness that comes with it. The will-they-won’t-they of Uncle Kent comes entirely from what they aren’t saying—even their frank conversations about sex or masturbation show that they’re still not addressing whether or not they want to have sex. It ends as a tragedy of communication, of people who are drawn to each other because they think they can speak openly and honestly, but without the protective veil of the Internet, they’re unable to express feelings about the person right in front of them. Everyone leaves worse off than where they started.

It could be argued that all of Swanberg’s projects are part of an ongoing examination on his own life and the lives of his friends, and there’s an aging process that’s going to happen as the same faces return in similar roles. While avoiding direct sequels (as he points out in Todd Rohal’s bizarro Uncle Kent 2), Swanberg’s films have always been fascinated with tracking peoples’ slow changes over time: from following Hannah through three relationships in Hannah Takes the Stairs, to the epic, interwoven narratives of his Netflix show Easy (Lindsay Zoladz, for The Ringer, described it as a kind of “mumblecore Dekalog”). For Swanberg, Uncle Kent was a rediscovery of his love of filmmaking after the drawn-out production of Silver Bullets; it’s notable that Swanberg returned to Uncle Kent’s characters after his comfortable tenure at Netflix. While there are budgetary advantages to DIY filmmaking, it also highlights collaboration, breaks down the walls built up by larger film sets, which can be oppressive and demeaning workplaces for all but a lucky few. The humanity in Swanberg’s DIY production style shines into the films themselves. Making a movie, like building a supporting wall, requires mutual labor.

In Build the Wall, the wall itself is a meaningful gift with an aesthetic purpose, one meant to rebuild and fortify friendship. The wall can’t be built with just one person—Kev has all the know-how and craftsmanship, but he can’t lift every stone himself. The wall’s not a dividing line: it's a foundation that elevates the soil behind it. Again, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Swanberg finds optimism in that ironic statement, where mutual labor can work to dismantle one’s emotional walls in place of a communal foundation.

There’s a small conflict near the film’s end that causes Kent and Sarah to briefly go their separate ways. Kent retreats into his laborious routines and Sarah gets interested in Kev’s wall and the community growing around it. It’s the moment where differences in Kent and Kev’s labor are starkest—while Kent labors for something from someone, Kev labors for someone. One is solitary and ultimately alienating because it has no foundation, while the other builds solidarity. And even though Kent may find comfort in routine, Kev finds actualization. For him, building the wall is an act of meditation, involving a deep contemplation of the land, physical strength, and patience. He’s got a proprietary set of tools, an eye for different kinds of stones, a dog for good humor, and a necklace of fermented sausages to “connect to the strength of [his] ancestors.” He expected a friend-building exercise between him and Kent, but with Kent trying to get laid, Kev recruits some locals. Slowly, more and more people from around town start showing up to get rocks from the brook or help lay heavier stones. Kent sees this invitation of people as a violation of space. At one point, one helper even unexpectedly interrupts a romantic skinny dip between Kent and Sarah.

Soon after the wall goes up between her and Kent, Sarah gets invested in the growing communal activity of building Kev’s wall, helping where she can and starting to enjoy the party that’s forming. It is, after all, Kent’s birthday. But Kent retreats further, laboring in isolation. As Kev’s crew turns into a celebration with pizza, beer, and kids running around, Kent’s off in the woods chain-sawing a tree to impress Sarah. While he wheelbarrows logbits by himself, the community helps each other carry the buckets of fill. Kent holds out alone as long as he can, refusing to join the party because he’s off building the fire for it. They tell him Kev is insistent and he comes up and joins so they can lay the final stone together. When he finally gives in, the community accepts him immediately: he’s the man of the day and it’s his wall they’ve all built together. Kent and Kev lift the stone into place together, Kent hugs Sarah, and it cuts to a title card: “A film by: Joe Swanberg, Jane Adams, Kevin Bewersdorf, Kent Osborne.”

Swanberg has always been an intensely collaborative filmmaker, but as he went “mainstream” and his budgets ballooned, there was a loss of collaborative ability as crews grow from the dozens to the hundreds. Build the Wall’s DIY production isn’t limiting for Swanberg—it’s liberating. Even when DIY filmmakers have turned toward a prosumer mentality, with modern DSLRs emulating the “look” and “feel” of top-grade movie equipment, Swanberg doesn’t strive for high fidelity but clarity, in composition and form. Perhaps it’s a product of the era when he became a filmmaker, when digital tech just couldn’t reach that same definition and depth as those of the professionals. Now, young filmmakers are expected to push their projects towards technical parity with the industry. The rough edges of DIY are no longer favorable (except maybe in the found footage genre, which could be a reason so many students and starters reach for it). Swanberg’s at the center of mumblecore not just because of his centrality in the social group, but because of his genuine belief in the DIY practice and aesthetic as not just a means but an end. So when they dropped their Sony Handycam in a creek on the last day of shooting Build the Wall, no problem: they’ll just finish it on Jane Adam’s iPhone.

Released in the summer of 2020, Build the Wall and Swanberg’s return to DIY filmmaking feels prophetic. Even though he could feel a bad wind blowing in the industry, he admits that he couldn’t have imagined what an extreme mess we’ve found ourselves in. But in that NoBudge interview, he points out that this style of filmmaking is now one of the most safe and sustainable methods that filmmakers could be engaging with anywhere. There was a brief moment where directors like Mati Diop or Jia Zhangke released their own DIY “COVID movies,” filmed with no crews while navigating lockdown (the former channeling Chantal Akerman, a vital thread as well to Build the Wall, perhaps lending it some “COVID-quality”), but it wasn’t long before big productions were back underway. “Traveling with the pack” not only creates a materially dangerous situation in the COVID era, but it also sustains a broader homogeneity in the industry—the very homogeneity that Swanberg and the DIY scene once rebelled against, one that Swanberg is back attacking.

Build the Wall is a great film on its own merits, but it stands even stronger as a testament to the kinds of films that could be made, that anyone could make. It’s a declaration of independence from the independent film industry, a call to action to all filmmakers everywhere that we can still pick up a camera and make cinema out of the world right around us, with the people right around us—there’s an alternative to Hollywood.

Most in the industry still resist this idea and pass it on to the young. The popular narrative of the “director” is built around the auteurist concept of the director-as-commander, ordering a vast army of specialized technicians to realize the great leader’s vision. In that narrative the DIYers, the scrappy collaborators, and the renegade filmmakers have a fault in their lack of resources, and the discussion of their actual work is always incidental to the “real” cinema of high capital. It’s not true in the same way that it’s not true that you need mortar or concrete to build a retaining wall: all you need is a little technique, some discipline, a scrounging eye, and a good group of people. Build the Wall is evidence of that truth, and affirms Swanberg’s position not only as a cornerstone of modern American cinema but as an active champion of its possibilities.


Register or Login to leave a comment