Monday, November 27, 2006

Mutual Appreciation: Gimme Indie Film!

(Andrew Bujalski, US, 2005, 109 mins.)

True, he likes the Breeders, thinks Green Day's pretty swell, but what about the Bartlebees and Neutral Milk Hotel? It's okay for a Sunny Day but that Sting album won't do so when I play you Allen Clapp you'll know baby I love you!
--Tullycraft, "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About" 

Mutual Appreciation is the indie-rock version of a feature film. In fact, the line between the two dissolves in Andrew Bujalski's follow-up to Funny Ha Ha (2003). Granted, it's an obvious parallel, since Alan Peeples (Justin Rice) is an aspiring Conor Oberst, but the picture itself plays out like a lo-fi pop tune. So much so that I scrambled to find the perfect analogy. Sebadoh's "Gimme Indie Rock!"? No, too loud and snotty. Mutual Appreciation is just as funny, but more subtle, less obvious. Tullycraft's "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About"? No, too smart alecky. Mutual Appreciation is just as appealing, but more sincere, less angry.

To Bujalski's credit, his movie is too original to parallel any one songwriter or filmmaker--although Cassavetes is frequently invoked in reference to his work. So, does it help to like Bright Eyes, Sebadoh, Tullycraft, or Bishop Allen (Rice's real-life group) to enjoy the film? Does it help to like any independent music? It's not a prerequisite, but indie-rock fans are more likely sympathize with a stoop-shouldered, fuzzy-haired slacker like Alan. Those who prefer more polished entertainments are certain to grow weary of his shambling antics more quickly. He's like Nicolas Cage on Xanax. 

As the action begins, Alan has just relocated from Boston to New York. He's in a one-man band called the Bumblebees. Actually, there used to be other members, but he left them behind in Massachusetts (Bujalski's home base). Now he's looking to start anew. All he really needs is a drummer. (So, I guess it might not hurt if you're a fan of two-person combos like the Black Keys or Mr. Airplane Man.) Until he gets a place of his own, Alan is staying with his pal, Lawrence (Bujalski), a grad student. Lawrence's journalist girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift), often hangs out with the two. It quickly becomes clear that Alan has a thing for Ellie, though it takes much longer to realize that the feeling is mutual (hence the title). 

Will Alan act on his attraction? Will Ellie? Well, Mutual Appreciation isn't a soap opera. What they do may not be irrelevant, but what's of greater interest to Bujalski is what they say--or try to say--to each other. Not just Alan and Ellie, but Alan and Lawrence, Lawrence and Ellie, all three together, as well as the conversations they have with the folks floating around the periphery, like Sara (Seung-Min Lee), a DJ with the hots for Alan.

In other words, this is one verbose film. I have a penchant for "talky" films, so I'm not complaining, but you can't say you haven't been warned. It's because of this quality plus the naturalistic dialogue (which feels improvised, but is mostly scripted), non-professional actors, messy apartments, and black and white flatbed-edited 16mm--the independent film equivalent of a four-track tape--that Mutual Appreciation has elicited comparisons to My Night at Maud's (1969) and The Mother and the Whore (1973). 

While Manohla Dargis finds the Cassavetes comparison misleading, I find the French references equally misleading, but not necessarily inaccurate. Bujalski may well have taken cues from Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache--along with Mike Leigh, Jim Jarmusch, and Richard Linklater--but there's less at stake in Mutual Appreciation. He isn't, for instance, tackling religion or politics. Yet therein lies the charm. It's exactly what it appears to be: a look at several young Americans. (Which brings to mind the Bowie song, but Lars Von Trier already nabbed it for Dogville.) It's set in the present, but would probably feel the same had he set it in the past. Hence, I don't think he's speaking for his generation, as some have claimed. As flattering as they may be, such pronouncements set audiences up for disappointment. 

I have no idea whether Andrew Bujalski will turn out to be the next Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater. On the basis of this film alone, I think he's just trying to be his own guy, which seems to be the movie's main theme: finding your identity. You can't do it alone. We're unavoidably affected by what other people think of us, as well as what we think they think of us. And we respond in different ways. Consequently, although I found the passive-aggressive Alan irritating and compelling in equal measure, I could never really anticipate what he was going to do next. As much as Mutual Appreciation is like indie rock, it's even more like real life. 

Here's a way to spend our day with Lois and the Crabs, we'll have some fun and visit Cub and maybe we'll hold hands. We can keep the Lemonheads and Weezer he gave you, 'cause you and me got Heavenly and Nothing Painted Blue, hey-hey!
--Tullycraft, "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About" 

Possibly the best reviewed film of the year, Mutual Appreciation plays the Northwest Film Forum Dec. 8-14, Fri.-Thurs. Andrew Bujalski will be at the Friday and Saturday screenings. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, click here or call 206-267-5380 for show times. Images from Arbelos Pictures.

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