12:40 pm Dec. 7, 2012
Ten years after the release of Funny Ha Ha, one of Lena Dunham's favorite movies, she still wasn’t entirely sure what the last line was.
Last night, speaking to a crowd about to see a new print of the cult favorite and with the director, Andrew Bujalski, at her side, she told the room she rewound the movie's final scene 11 times when she first watched it. In the sequence, as two friends sit in a park to consider their complicated friendship, one says something and the film suddenly cuts to credits. She called on anyone in the audience with "more tender ears" to tell her what is said.
The ambiguous audio was, Bujalski said, a typifying detail.
“I feel about 20 percent of people can understand what he’s saying," said the director. "And incidentally, this is like a thing. I mean, I think that’s really indicative of how much we were kind of in our own world. Like, it didn’t bother me to make a movie where 80 percent of people couldn’t understand the last line of the movie. It was fine.”
That's appropriate for the low-budget film that arguably initiated "mumblecore," a genre marked by awkward communication, post-grad drift, and, in extreme cases, adorkability.
About 150 people came to see the film—and Bujalski and Dunham—at the Anthology Film Archives, where a new 35mm print of the film was making its debut.
Dunham, the creator of HBO's "Girls" and writer-director of the film Tiny Furniture, spoke as a friend of Bujalski and an inheritor of the mini-genre he helped forge.
“I'd like to report to you that the only thing that did not age well were the electronics,” said Dunham, noting the old cell phones and "an igloo of a computer."
Otherwise, the film remains as apt as it ever was at nailing contemporary post-grad anxiety. It follows Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a wandering 20-something who drifts between bad jobs, unrequited romantic interests and uncomfortable meetings at gourmet supermarkets. Bujalski also cast himself in it as an awkward friend of Marnie's, who makes a few unsuccessful moves for her heart.
Like in real life, communication is hard in Bujalski's world. Characters, many played by non-professionals, stammer and trail off as they try to figure out what they want to say. (Bujalski later clarified the hard-to-hear line: "I think the world of you, Marnie.")
Funny Ha Ha paved the way for the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair, Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs and even Garden State. Bujalski summed up the genesis of the "mumblecore" term, which began around 2005 with him repeating a sound engineer's joke about a burgeoning scene of similar films that appeared around the time of Bujalski’s second film, Mutual Appreciation. While some have come to resent the term, Bujalski accepts it.
“I assume it will be etched on my tombstone,” he said.
But Bujalski recalled a producer coining ‘ennui-sploitation’, a term that didn't catch on so quickly. “And then you can call other newer movies ‘twee-sploitation,'” Dunham added.
A few minutes later, an audience member asked whether the director was concerned with remaining true to the mumblecore movement. Bujalski rejected that idea, saying he was more concerned with avoiding making a bad movie.
“The funny thing to me about the whole movement thing is the idea that this started anything. I kind of more feel like [Funny Ha Ha] is more like the end. This is like, you know, the last indie movie of the '80s. We just got this one in really late.”
Dunham credited Bujalski for opening the door to making movies (and providing her with material to nick—"Girls" has a character named Marnie and borrows a joke from Funny Ha Ha), and recalled sending him numerous emails when she was 18 asking about technical directions and filming equipment. He responded to all of them.
“I was a lonely man," he said to laughs. "I was living in my mother’s house at the time.”
It was a crowd of film buffs, most in their mid-20s, and questions ranged from requests for advice on how to direct amateur actors to whether Bujalski is doing any for-hire scripts.
Dunham was a big part of the draw as well. Just before the screening, she greeted friends in the lobby as the crowd made its way into the theater. As she did, one girl walking in asked a friend. “Is she gonna be here? Among us?”
In the audience of fans was Marshall Yarbrough, 24, who recently interviewed Bujalski. He said he discovered the director's work around 2008 after reading a Chuck Klosterman article about the director.
"It's like people at parties who don't really like parties, I guess," he said of the film's appeal. "People who hang out that don't like hanging out."
A decade later, things have changed for the filmmaker, who was was 22 when he began to write the film and 24 when he shot it. Bujalski is now on his fourth feature, Computer Chess, about a chess tournament in the 1980s, which will screen at Sundance next year.
He’s also married with a two-year-old son.
"When you do that, you don't really remember your life before that," he said after the screening, while a group of old friends clustered around and talked. "You have some sense of it, some facts and figures are there, but you're kind of rebuilt as a person after that."
He said that when he watched the new print of the film, it too had changed a bit. A film he once considered straightforward and simple seemed harder to approach.
"There's not an effort made to bring it to an audience and the audience really has to come to the movie and find it. And it is so deeply personal. Moreso than I realized when I was making it."
If Funny Ha Ha captures the spirit of those in their 20s, is there a perfect film for people's 30s?
“Nobody’s interested in defining a generation of people who are over 30,” he said. "People split different ways, they have kids and there is another generation waiting to shape the culture. For some reason it’s only interesting to ask that question about 20-somethings. And, you know, Its also maybe the family thing, too. A lot of the people here are people I knew in my 20s, when our lives were much more intertwined, we were spending all of our time with each other and waking up on each other’s floors or sometimes in each other's beds in a way that’s just not—" He paused.
"We’re all just regular grownups now."
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