Friday, January 31, 2014

Fitting Andrew Bujalski

The films of Andrew Bujalski can be defined by their transitional qualities, or the difficulties one has in defining his films in relation to any certain period of American independent film. While he tends to get lumped in with the ‘mumblecore’ movement, those films are aesthetically defined by a cold, low-key but distanced approach. Bujalski instead has shot all but one of his films on 16mm film, which brings a warmth to his films that truly hits its peak in Beeswax (2009), as Bujalski explores the suburbs of Austin, Texas. There’s a mid-afternoon-in-summer feel in his work that can occasionally have a displacing effect as you watch one of his films, as the warmth of his films makes them feel much older than they really are.

Coupled with this aesthetic warmth is Bujalski’s affectionate approach to characterization, reminiscent of early Linklater. His characters are more inclined to say what’s important to them in a direct way and are charmingly assertive, compared to the early films of his contemporary, Joe Swanberg. While many mumblecore films use improvised dialogue and scenarios, Bujalski’s films are scripted with a certain type of contemplation that lends itself well to the warmness of his work. Even Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), which is more surreal and cartoon-like compared to his previous films, has the ability to add an ounce of pathos to even its most silly characters.

Computer Chess marks an interesting break from Bujalski’s previous work. Shot on a vintage tube Sony AVC-3260 video camera and set in the early 1980’s, the film is also his first to be shot with an outline rather than a script. As the mumblecore genre expands to the noir mystery of Cold Weather, the Manhattan-esque Frances Ha and the horror genre in You’re Next, Bujalski’s Computer Chess is difficult to include in this expansion. It’s a film that doesn’t concern itself with the wealthy, social aimlessness of those films. Computer Chess also experiments with form in a far more conscious way, beginning with a mockumentary approach that feels genuinely convincing. When I saw the trailer for the first time, I was sure it was for a documentary. As well, the mannerisms of the period-piece affect in the film do not resemble the present-day setting mannerisms of traditional mumblecore films.

The transitional effect in the progression of Bujalski’s films feels natural and effortless, yet engaging in new and interesting ways. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2003), feel very much of a pair. They are immensely successful in establishing Bujalski’s nuanced and conscious approach to characterization. As well, these films feel a part of a lineage of American independent films of the late-1990’s and early-2000’s, films that might not have much in the way of traditional plotting and arc, but have a stronger insistence on thematic unity. With Beeswax, made 6 years after Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski takes a more direct approach to narrative that breaks away from his first two films, while still maintaining a direct approach to characterization. 

Bujalski will be in town as part of The Seventh Art - Live Directors Series presented by CINSSU on February 3rd and 4th at Innis Town Hall to screen Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.  

Ben Harrison

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