Thursday, June 17, 2010

Modern Maestros: Andrew Bujalski

Robert here, back with more of my series on great contemporary directors. This week we're going to call it the "hear me out" edition or the "please don't shun me" edition. Bringing up this director doesn't usually yield very positive results. However I will note that I'll only be discussing Bujalski here and not any supposed "movement" that he is a part of (as I've not seen any other films from that "movement"). And I hope you'll give the man and his work some consideration. Next week we will return to the realm of the almost universally beloved.

Maestro: Andrew Bujalski
Known For: Super-independent movies about aimless ordinary people.
Influences: Cassavetes is a big one. Jarmusch and Linklater too.
Masterpieces: I'm not dumb enough to suggest that Bujalski's had a masterpiece when a while back I declared that Christopher Nolan didn't.
Disasters: None
Better than you remember: Probably all of them if, like many you're not a fan.
Box Office: Mutual Appreciation actually made more than $100 thousand
Favorite Actor: With three movies under his belt he's got a couple actors like Justin Rice and Kate Dollenmayer who've been in two. And himself, whose starred in two.

There is a belief that the purpose of art is to reveal some truth, intellectual or emotional, about the world. Many different kinds of film can do this. A bombastic musical like Moulin Rouge can do it. A dramatic Douglas Sirk weepie can do it. An epic like Doctor Zhivago can do it. Naturally, it follows that a film whose ambition is to replicate reality as closely as possible can stumble up on truth (though it's not a guarantee). Historically many directors from Rossellini to Cassavetes to Kiarostami have had, as their goal, the replication of ordinary reality. It's in that school where Bujalski falls. The difference is that the aforementioned directors usually feature ordinary reality running up against extraordinary circumstances (a rebellion, a breakdown, a suicide). Bujalski's films are more subtle, let's say. His protagonists, if you can call them even that, meander through post-college indecision and indirection in search of some elusive neo-Bohemian existence. It may not be particularly exciting, but it's reality.

I admit, it may be because I belong to the generation in question that I find myself interested in the relatively new concept of post-grad wandering. It may be because I know so many like Bujalski's characters that I'm so intrigued by and unwilling to judge them. One consistent criticism of Bujalski is that his films feature middle-class white people who have only themselves to blame for their woes and do little to evoke our sympathy. There's nothing particularly invalid about that critique, although if you rid the world of all stories of self-destructive middle-class white people you'd lose a lot of quality art (including one famous Danish prince). Bujalski isn't interested particularly interested in painting his characters in a positive light, or a negative one, or giving simple answers to questions about the generation of which they are a part. And even though very little transpires, I find myself occasionally enjoying their company and intrigued by their lives. Their lack of action is a direct result of a generation coddled and raised as entitled suggested a friend of mine at the two characters in Mutual Appreciation who discover their mutual attraction and do nothing about it. Perhaps, though I wonder if popular TV and cinema has so conditioned us to expect dramatic gestures that we fail to realize how hesitation and uncertainty are how we all more commonly react in real life.

Digging his friend's wife and doing nothing about it.

Another frequent criticism of Bujalski is his dialogue; like nails on a chalkboard it is to some people. If you're not familiar with it, it's intentionally plagued by the same indirection as the action in his films. Characters' conversations are often pointless and the actors themselves commonly (what's the right word...) mumble and stutter and trip over their own words. Unsurprisingly I'd suggest that this more closely represents how people actually talk, a fact we don't often recognize because most of the conversations we observe take place in highly structured, rehearsed TV shows and movies (and we're too busy participating in our own conversations to really observe their qualities and cadences). That this style of dialogue is grating to many viewers is understandable but to me it's also a bit admirable. It reminds me of a time when indie cinema wasn't as confined to formula as it is today (the quirky comedy, the gritty crime film, the miserablist drama). It was a time when independent filmmakers believed that their films should be daring, not because of content (sex, violence, of which Bujalski films have little) but because of form. The meandering plots and scripts of Bujalski films are so dedicated to recreating the painful flatness of reality it leaves some viewers viscerally frustrated.

For some it's simply too much. To them, reality is filled with enough reality. Cinema need not be explosions and car chases, but it must be filled with something more exciting than day-to-day existence. But to me it's nothing short of exciting watching a director still able to find rules to break and presenting us with complex realities and complex people. To anyone looking for an entrance to Bujalksi, his latest Beeswax is perhaps his best, presenting it's characters with some real, yet dependably subtle, life-changing circumstances. It's a progression that's welcome for Bujalski (I say comforted that he'll probably never come close to a traditional dramatic conflict) and I eagerly anticipate his next film and his next and a career that's shaping up to be very promising indeed.


badmotherfucker said...

I'd never heard of Bujalski till now. This was an excellent post and he's definitely going on my must-watch list because of it.

A random discussion topic: What other directors would you guys say incite as much anger for doing the same things (aimless characters, meandering plots)?

Antonioni is one of my favorites who seems to attract hatred for just that reason. Not to mention Godard's Contempt.


as usual a fine article. I haven't seen any of his films but unlike you i have seen some of the other films from the "supposed movement" as you put it.

but i heard you out as requested and i hope others did too.

badmother-- doesn't sofia coppola get flack for this? i'm trying to think of other examples. it's actually somethign i love about 70s movies. sometimes they don't seem worried about WHAT PLOT THING IS NEXT and instead just let you get to know amazing amazing characters. I'm thinking of Hal Ashby i guess though i don't know that those characters are aimless... i just was thinking of him is all.

where am i i have no idea what i'm talking about help... SOMEONE TAKE THIS TRAIN OF THOUGHT FROM ME

badmotherfucker said...

Ha-ha! Didn't mean to lose you there, Nathaniel. :D But, yeah... I definitely see your point regarding Coppola, Ashby and especially the 70s. What a great decade for American masterpieces.

Volvagia said...

You may be thinking more of Cassavetes than Ashby. Ashby's characters had small aims, (tend the garden, have sex with these women, get this kid to his sentencing and, my personal favourite: Stage my own death.) What goal does Mabel Longetti have? I'm not sure even she would know the answer.

Jeff C said...

Your comment about having a particular reaction to Bujalski due to your own age and cultural environment is, I think, spot on. I've always couched my praise for Bujalski's films with the disclaimer "I have no idea how a 70 year old man in West Virginia who worked in a coal mine all his life would react to this film, but as a early 80s born, middle-class, college educated white person living in a cosmopolitan urban American environment I enjoy it." It remains to be seen if Bujalski is able to touch on anything truly universal about the human condition in his films and thus become more than a niche filmmaker.


Jeff -- sometimes i wonder if there is anything truly universal anymore -- that's not about childhood i mean.

it seems that everything is niche now. Even the blockbusters are so narrowly focused (what do teenage boys like? GO!) now.

Robert said...

I think the idea, as always, is to focus on something niche that is symbolic of a more universal truth.

I'm not poor, Italian, a father, or unemployed, but I can still relate to The Bicycle Thief (not the best example though to counter Nathaniel's argument that modern universality is dead)

But I think Bujalski is getting there with Beeswax, in which his characters have to face life-altering decisions more than in his other films. And the subtle fear and avoidance with which they face them feels like it's close to something universal.