Did Girls speak to your mid-20s ennui? Are you, like everyone else, flipping your shit about Atlanta? Do you think one or more of the Duplass brothers are sexy?
In 2002, Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha kicked off a movement of slice-of-life indie dramedies mostly about white people trying to make sense of the confusion of post-college life. This movement—whose big names include Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, 2005), Joel Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, 2007) and Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, 2010)—took on the moniker "mumblecore" because of its extensive use of naturalistic, often improvised bullshitting for dialogue.
And mumblecore has been a big deal. The Duplassi (Transparent, The Mindy Project) and Dunham (Girls, not Odell Beckham's Instagram) have gone on to massive mainstream success, while the subgenre's stylistic influences have spread everywhere from prestige TV to horror (You're Next). Bujalski is now five features in, with last year's Results taking a step toward the mainstream.
This weekend, Bujalski is visiting Portland State University to present his best film, 2013's Computer Chess, a mind-bending, existential mockumentary about an early-'80s gathering of computer programmers for a conference and chess tournament. I spoke to him about Computer Chess, his impact as a filmmaker, and the origin of the dumbassed term mumblecore.
WW: Your movies mostly deal with single people, or people in unstable relationships trying to find some kind of stability. How has this idea evolved through your career?
Andrew Bujalski: Your perspective changes, and your concerns change a great deal, of course. But I can't imagine that my grand theme as a filmmaker will ever be anything other than confusion and all of the comedy that comes from that. From childhood through middle age, that's been the pervasive theme of my life. I do feel like there's a lot that's funny that comes from the fact that life doesn't—for me—add up in the way that perhaps the folks in Computer Chess try to make it add up.
Where other people might say my first three movies were of a piece, I look at them and see everything that sets them apart from each other. But Computer Chess is, to some extent, about people who had a different approach. Computer Chess and Results are both about characters who are trying to live their lives through systems and manage their anxiety through a very particular system and order.
As your perspective changes, you aren't going to make the same movie twice. After I finished Results, my daughter was born. That was a kind of a crisis for me. With the onset of midlife crisis, I oddly feel more connected to the mood of Funny Ha Ha than I have in a while. That confusion of being 24 was just starting to reassert itself.
I'm 26 and I constantly feel an impending sense of catastrophe and uncertainty both professionally and personally, so Funny Ha Ha certainly spoke to me very deeply.
Well, we all do it—try to impose an order on something that's never fully going to be under your control. And if you think that it is, you're setting yourself up for a fall. It's extremely human, and there's nothing wrong with trying to figure out how to make things better for yourself. You just have to be careful you aren't going to collapse if you don't get the golden ticket.
How do you feel about the term "mumblecore" and your place in American indie cinema?
I've never related to it. I never felt that it had a whole lot to do with what I thought I was trying to do. It's been almost 10 years now since the real flurry of press around that. At the time, it was annoying. With a little bit more perspective around that, it's fine. I got past the frustration with it.
It's basically like you invented a subgenre.
That I don't believe. I believe I was present for the birth of a neologism. In terms of whatever mumblecore means in film history, if you look at Funny Ha Ha, which is supposedly the birth of the so-called genre, there's no genre to it. It's such a simple and old-fashioned film. I hoped it would be as good of a film as we could possibly make. But I didn't think I was being remotely innovative. I thought I was doing something really old-fashioned. It's a funny historical irony that it gets tagged as the start of something.
It's a really stupid term.
It may well be etched on my tombstone. It was a joke that my sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, made to me. I made the mistake of repeating it to a journalist. It was printed in an interview in a context in which it was clear it was a joke, and it just kind of lay dormant for two years, and then it got this currency.
And it's really interesting to see the legs that this word has had. I'll see it with reference not to a movie at all, but as kind of a cultural code. And that amazes me to think that this thing that came from my friend—and it went from his lips to my ear—went around the globe. That's a wider reach than any one film I'll ever make, and it's extraordinary to me to have been part of that.
SEE IT: Computer Chess screens in Room 75 of Portland State University's Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. 7pm Saturday, Oct. 22. A Q&A with director Andrew Bujalski follows.