David Bax over at Battleship Pretension has argued that the designation “mumblecore” doesn’t really mean anything—that it’s simply a catch-all term for a wide range of films that don’t have that much in common. I respectfully disagree; I think that the term is as useful as any genre distinction, insofar as it allows us to group films that share a basic set of conventions (minimalist plots about urban twenty- and thirty-somethings; a low-budget aesthetic; naturalistic acting). Like any genre, though, mumblecore’s parameters are sometimes loose. Is Miranda July’s new film The Future a mumblecore movie? It seems to have all of the right ingredients—a twee hipster couple, a cheerfully messy starter apartment, existential crises about adult responsibility—but adds July’s own particular brand of cloying whimsy. It’s a more sure-footed film than her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), especially in its first half, as the couple in question (played by July and Hamish Linklater) fret over the adoption of a sick cat and begin to worry that they’ve basically Facebook-ed away their adult lives. I like the premise, because it suggests a real willingness to deal with generational apathy, and with the crushing sense of frustration felt by those whose desire to make great things happen in the world has slowly been eaten away by banal jobs and niggling problems. July being July, though, she has to muddy this premise with cat voice-over (the feline equivalent of Beginners subtitling Ewan MacGregor’s dog’s thoughts), overly complicated parallel-universe gimmickry, etc. At the risk of sounding glib, I’m convinced that Miranda July’s films would benefit from being less…Miranda July-ey.
Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather (released earlier this year, now on DVD) is a better film, similar in that it takes a mumblecore premise (shlubby twentysomething guy moves into his sister’s Portland apartment, gets a blue-color job, hangs out platonically with ex-girlfriend) and throws cold water on it (he suddenly becomes embroiled in a mystery involving said ex-girlfriend and a suitcase full of money). There’s still a lot of aimless chatter and driving around in cars to low-fi indie music—too much, really to make this a must-see film. The genre play, however, is potentially interesting. The cinematography in this film is also, thankfully, several cuts above typical mumblecore fare (some of which, as Glenn Kenny has suggested, almost seems to want to look ugly). Katz gives us some truly beautiful panoramic exterior shots that are lovelier than anything we’ve seen from, say, Joe Swanberg. It’s a suggestion of where this genre might go—if it ever gets up the ambition.