Mistress America (2015): Thoughts on Mumblecore and Comedy in Nollywood.

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I saw Mistress America (2015) sometime in July and I was really impressed by it. I talk a lot about why I like Mumblecore, but that’s usually from a philosophical perspective. I admire the courage and determination of young people, who, like in the French New Wave, decided to tell their stories without being discouraged by a lack of a substantial budget or major studio interest. There’s more to it, I imagine.

Mumblecore originated in the early 2000’s and is a style of indie filmmaking marked by its affinity for naturalistic dialogue and performances. The films in this subgenre place emphasis on dialogue over plot and reflect the lives of their creators: young people in their 20s and 30s.

Some of the prominent figures in the movement include The Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, and frequent collaborators, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach who co-wrote the indie comedy/drama, Mistress America.

The talkiness of the mumblecore style is something about it I really admire. Film is a visual medium first, yes, but it is also aural. And while we tend to focus on music (both diegetic and non-diegetic) and sound design whenever we intend to enrich a film (by creating motifs or building soundscapes), I believe dialogue plays a major role in this too.

The pace and delivery of the lines can add a certain musicality to scenes and the film as a whole. Watching Mistress America (2015), I was reminded of screwball comedies from Old Hollywood, where the humor is not only in the lines being said by the characters but the speed and pace at which this is delivered. Sentences have a rhythm to them, a certain cadence, when they’re read out loud. That’s why the best kind of prose appeals to the ear, ditto for film dialogue. Wes Anderson for example understands how to use this well.

There’s an intricate, almost absurd(ist) pacing to Anderson’s films, expressed in the movement of the actors and the camera, as well as the editing and the music that accompanies the scenes, but especially in the way lines are delivered, with a certain affect unique to the worlds he creates. Not as dry as Lanthimos’ but mixing the comical and the dramatic with flair and poise; maybe ‘quirky’ is the word I’m looking for.

Mumblecore also reminds me of the dialogue of Quentin Tarantino: Postmodern and proud to show it, constantly referencing other works of art and entertainment – from music and poetry to film, painting, food and other aspects of popular culture. Like in the New Wave, it’s spoken by young people unsure of their place in the world, trying and failing to understand themselves. Here, everything is said. Sincerity is shrouded in words and words and more words. It might have an understated visual style but the dialogue is over-the-top. Film is a visual medium, yes, but viewers connect to these stories because our world is full of noise too.

People are constantly talking. The 24-hour news cycle inundates us with information, both relevant and ridiculous. Walk into a random coffee shop and take note of the way people are using words: to argue, to demean, to seduce, to convince, to blame, to mock, to shield from criticism. Even when we aren’t talking, we are tweeting or posting or meme-ing. And yet, despite the overabundance of words that we hurl at each other, we are lonelier than ever. More isolated, even with better technologies that facilitate communication.

When we imagine films that tackle loneliness, we picture visual poems where the characters are framed in extreme wide shots, against staggering backdrops that highlight their state of being, shut out from the rest of the world. But in a film like Frances Ha (2012),  a different type of contrast is used; one that isn’t primarily visual but verbal. There is a list on Letterboxd titled, Lonely People in Neon Cities (and the movies listed there are bold and riveting). But this is why the audience feels for Frances – because even in a city of 20 million people who are never not speaking, no one seems to be able to hear her.

In Baumbach’s film, The Meyerowitz Stories (2017),  there are scenes where characters talk over each other creating a cacophony of voices, each one fighting for dominance. They’re always speaking but no one is really listening. It makes for good comedy, and also good pathos, because there’s clearly something wrong there. Something painfully human.

After seeing Mistress America (2015), I wanted to make a case for ‘talky’ films and say that in essence, they are just as beautiful and effective as their more visually-oriented counterparts – you know the ones I’m talking about, films like Maborosi (1997) where nothing is said or indeed ‘happens’ for long stretches of time.

I believe that in Nollywood, one thing our comedies lack is intent, a deliberateness behind the camera. Comedy doesn’t just happen, it has to be carefully crafted, same as thriller, drama and horror. One lesson I learned from Greta Gerwig a while back is that even though the way her characters talk sounds like it’s courtesy of the actors who had to improvise their lines on set, the entire thing is actually written that way. The tone and intent is determined on the page first before she goes to the director’s chair.

We could learn a lot from that in the industry.

Joseph Osamudiamen

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