The 1O Commandments of Mumblecore
Backstory: So, I’m actually a big fan of the Dogme95 film movement. The Celebration rocked my cinematic world. Similarly, some of the low-budget Cassavetes-ish movies oft-dubbed “Mumblecore” strike me with merit and occasionally even “cohones grande”… They break a mold that needs breaking, from time to time. And I’ve had the great pleasure of working with the Duplass brothers, who are often called “mumblecore with a plot.” Which, I think, is kinda needed. Plot, that is. But call me old-fashioned.
In fact, after the last few SXSWs, I was very frustrated with the rest of Mumblecore. I decided maybe someone needed to stop and give the other Mumble folks some kind of list. Like maybe the 10 rules of Dogme95 actually helped guide those filmmakers toward something good rather than something insipid. Even though those rules actually mandated limitations — no lights, hand-held, etc — these were all designed to get the technical out of the way of the story, and indirectly out of the way of the performance. (But note, they still assumed there was a story.) I’m honestly not sure some of the Mumble movies aren’t just a camera accidentally left on somewhere. Not being technical doesn’t mean never calling “cut.” Nor does it mean just turning on the camera and seeing what story evolves along the way. In case one does.
Having scenes “feel real” is admirable and important to any filmmaking. But 99.9% of reality does not make good cinema. Most of reality is boring as hell. If we truly wanted to see reality, we’d look in a mirror, not at the silver screen.
Anyway, my attempt at writing Ten reasonable “Commandments” for Mumblecore quickly degraded into the following rant. I originally got so frustrated by the fourth commandment, I gave up in a huff. But I recently found my chicken-scratched rant among some papers and found it kinda funny, so I finished the list, re-ordered it, and now I’m sharing it with you all…
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF MUMBLECORE
1. THOU SHALT NOT pad a 12-minute short into a 76-minute feature film. Yes, 76 minutes is rather short for a feature, so I suppose you expect me to thank you for not extending out your piece of shit to 90 minutes, but if you only have a 12-minute idea, that 76 minutes feels like 176 minutes. It’s called editing. We want to feel like we’re “in” the film, but not trapped there! I know you think it’s all about finding the “real” in the scene, but if I wanted to spend 20 minutes walking through a park, I’d go fucking walk in a park! — not go see a movie! I swear, when you die you will “burn in hell” by being strapped down Clockwork Orange-style and be forced to watch paint dry for all eternity. Or you deserve to anyway. For making me feel the same way.
2. THOU SHALT NOT hold a static scene once all actors have left frame, as if you forgot to turn the camera off. We might call 1-2 seconds “dramatic pause.” If you do this for 3 seconds, it’s annoying. Five, stupid. Ten or more and I will hunt you down and shove an editor up your ass.
3. THOU SHALT NOT allow dialogue that doesn’t sound real. I mean that’s the whole point in your stupid experiment, isn’t it? Who says: “I came for the hat…that is mine.”? No one says that. Scripted or improvised, I don’t care. But if your actor stumbles into some broken dialogue that does not sound natural, don’t think that’s a happy accident. Take two, please. Please.
4. THOU SHALT NOT attempt “single take magic.” A 12-minute “single take” shot from the back seat of your car without seeing your actor’s faces is neither interesting nor technically impressive. It certainly isn’t Children of Men. More impressive would be to see you stop at Home Depot for a $5 halogen lamp.
5. THOU SHALT try to hold the camera reasonably steady. If you want to make people sick, stick to the content of your stupid movie. It’s nauseating enough. Fuck, call me and I’ll loan you a goddamn tripod.
6. THOU SHALT call “cut.” If something isn’t working, change it. You are the director, even if you happen to be pretending you’re just a cameraman, or a fly on the wall, or whatever the fuck you think you are. Give the thing some direction. Don’t just hope something interesting or good will randomly happen. Something interesting or good is just as likely to fly out of your butt.
7. THOU SHALT have a script. An outline at least. Please, just a fucking Post-it Note for christsake. Anything!
8. THOU SHALT NOT document a weekend with your friends and hope to edit it into a film later. And if you do edit it into a film later, thou shalt not submit it to any fucking film festivals! If anyone other than those same friends you videotaped thinks it is “interesting,” they are just being nice.
9. THOU SHALT NOT film yourself naked just so the movie will somehow attract an audience desperate to see your junk. Leave that to porn actors; they’re much better looking than you. Showing your lame genitalia does not make you a brilliant actor. (Proof of the genius kind: “We Are Naked.” Sadly, the joke’s on you.) Nudity has its place in film. When it is a natural and practically invisible happening in the story, and not the whole reason for the scene. Nudity also has its place in porn. Do not try to confuse the two. (Though “I have come for the hat that is mine” might actually work in a porno.) Finally, as a corollary to this rule: trimming one’s pubes is neither sexy nor a valid reason for a scene in a movie. Unless the pubes kill someone later in the film. That might make an interesting twist.
10. THOU SHALT make a movie about something. “About nothing” only works on Seinfeld. And no, friends getting together to hang out is not “something.” It’s a whole lot of stupid nothing.