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No More Mutual Appreciation

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mutual Appreciation
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
(Goodbye Cruel Releasing)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

There’s little that the pop press likes more than an amiable little engine that could, whatever the medium. That in mind, it’s easy to explain the almost universal plaudits that surrounded the modest 2005 release of Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, a commonplace slip of a first feature (anyone who hyperventilated over it hasn’t been to film school recently enough). Bujalski’s “I think I can” determination, powered by an inexplicable self-confidence, earned the movie a brief theatrical run years after floating between festivals, plenty of overzealous presskit-stuffers, and a financier for Mutual Appreciation, his sophomore outing, which is presently touring American theaters.

The movie continues Bujalski’s explicit audience-courting/borderline-solipsistic ethnography of today’s urban, middle-class-bred, immediately postcollegiate kids (“a new generation of white-boy blues,” per Sebadoh, in their vicious/funny “Gimme Indie Rock”). The cast, including Bujalski, is comprised of twentysomething, non-professional actors; their non-adventures revolve around the non-events of their non-lives — inchoate personalities forever snagging up on dead-end sentences, moving their mouths while talking about next to nothing of traditional interest: not news, not fucking, not movies, barely music, and only the most vapid of anecdotes. “Do you want any, uh... bread?” says Bujalski’s character, ineptly playing host by offering up a plain, store-bought loaf — and yeah, people’s domestic lives tend to be a bit messy when they’re just out of college, but like so much of the movie, this is just absurdly precious.

Mutual Appreciation’s star, who makes the grandeur of that word seem all wrong, is Justin Rice of the Brooklyn pop outfit Bishop Allen (his bandmate, Christian Rudder, was in Funny Ha Ha). Rice plays Alan, a fop musician too self-conscious to go full-out dandy — his ill-fitting blazer corresponds to a long, Oscar Wilde face. He’s lost the rest of his band in a recent relocation, and finds himself in a fumbling state of flux; after shaking off the unrequited crush of an admiring college DJ (Seung-Min Lee), he finds himself fluttering on the brink of cuckolding his buddy Lawrence (Bujalski) with his girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Lest you anticipate the scintillation of a ménage-à-trois: the unconvincing attraction between Ellie and Alan doesn’t resolve so much as damply crumple into a group hug. Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore enjoyed a sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during Mutual Appreciation’s opening weekend, but Bujalski’s picture makes the ecstasies of that film’s generation seem as remote as the nineteenth century; Mutual Appreciation seems to distrust transcendence of any sort, shirking the jumble of sex, settling instead for a climax that’s as cute-comfortable as a plop into a pile of stuffed animals. It’s so amiable, so understanding... I confess: I want to punch the dramatis personae in their mouths.

The personality types examined in Bujalski’s sophomore effort — subtle gradations of passivity — are only marginally different from the Bostonians of Funny Ha Ha, but the backdrop has moved from The Hub to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, a blue-collar enclave and Hasidic stronghold broached, from the Nineties onward, by a populace of transplanted postgrads, poseurs, co-oping clonettes, and a handful of actual artists. But if Mutual Appreciation didn’t specifically mention its protagonist’s relocation and lace the plot with a parsing of local color references (a looming show at the popular venue Northsix is the impetus for what sparse action the film contains), you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between Brooklyn and Brookline.

The gambit of Mutual Appreciation is to set a film somewhere that is, for all of its intrinsic ridiculousness, a totally unique social bathysphere — and to ignore that singularity entirely. To make a film about milquetoast personalities in a neighborhood of “characters”; to concentrate on middle-class quarterlife angst at the exclusion of Williamsburg’s bizarre class tensions (that is: systematic poverty vs. slumming; authentic dives vs. affected shabbiness). There is a resistance to accented personalities in Bujalski’s oeuvre; his characters are seeming homebodies (in a neighborhood whose per capita cocaine consumption is infamously high, Ellie only talks sarcastic-hypothetically about sniffing lines so she can clean up her apartment), the hangdog also-rans of la vie de bohème — Alan, like Bishop Allen, produces forgettable obscure-chic guitar music that will languish on a few iTunes and be deleted in a year’s time (to the film’s credit, it never paints him for a genius).

If much of what I dislike in Bujalski’s filmmaking must be accounted for by my objection to the milieu his films travel in, this shouldn’t suggest that the filmmaking itself is anything close to competent. It’s been approvingly commented on that, even as digital filmmaking marches on, Bujalski has dedicated himself to celluloid, shooting on crass-looking 16mm that makes critics nostalgic for an imagined yesteryear when Bolex-wielding mavericks were supposedly expanding the medium on every street corner. In a New York Times smoke-up-the-ass piece, the director explained his decision to eschew HD for film as an attempt to give his work a quality of respectable “deliberateness” that video lacks. All very well, though shouldn’t the film’s format be decided by aesthetic concerns? In fact, Bujalski’s films are so indifferent to cinematography, a friend had to remind me that Funny Ha Ha was shot in color.

This said, some of the critical comparisons Bujalski’s garnered are chilling indicators of a larger, collective amnesia. Though not going so far as to chance a direct comparison, the name Eric Rohmer has popped up in writing about Mutual Appreciation with a frequency that’s only second to the misapplied Cassavetes paralleling — can the perpetrators be remembering the less sure-tongued protagonists of Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs cycle? But when thinking of those films, lensed with such unassuming sumptuousness by Nestor Almendros, I have to note that Bujalski’s films are among the homeliest artworks I’ve ever seen. This young director’s gross laxity in matters of composition and blocking makes for a numbing viewing experience. This isn’t just uptight bourgeois aestheticism talking here — I’ve watched movies shot on a few hundred dollars worth of short ends that’ve showed more visual sensitivity than this. The depreciated value of the image should be a concern for a self-respecting film culture, and it’s a genuine concern — one needs only compare, for example, the recent, hideously lit Talladega Nights to something like National Lampoon’s Vacation, which I happened to recently watch on the same day, to detect an across-the-board notching down of our visual expectations. Both are high-profile comedies starring marquee SNL alums, but the gulf between their basic behind-the-camera craftsmanship is profound — and this lack of attention is just as disheartening in independent filmmaking as in big-budget stuff.

It’s embarrassing even to have to point this out, but the clamor of soundalike praise for Bujalski’s work — most of it prettily put and totally unsubstantial — makes it seem necessary: Bujalski is not Eric Rohmer, not even Kevin Smith. The great artists grouped under the tent of Naturalism — Rohmer, Dreiser, Pialat, Harold Frederic (the diversity of their talents reveals the ambiguity of the word) — deserve celebration because they reintroduce us to the world; much of the undeserved reputation that’s been attached to Bujalski is limited to the facile familiarity of his situations. Many of us have perhaps mis-paced our drinking, placed an addled phone call to an ex that we immediately regretted, faced a lull in conversation that seems to fairly roar with discomfort, choked on a phrase (countdown till voice-of-a-generation Bujalski tackles the “awkward MySpace date”?) — the intelligence behind these films, I would chance to guess, is a hyper-self-conscious one, and so these fuck-ups carry tremendous weight. But it’s a chartered, slightly xenophobic, and tedious cul-de-sac idea of life. After watching one of Rohmer’s movies, I have the feeling that my eyes have been flushed out, cleansed; I want to go for a walk, just to look at everything anew. Faced with the prospect of watching Bujalski & Co., I’d just as soon take the walk instead.


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