“THE angsty youth, reflective and thin-skinned, is one of American indie cinema’s favorite archetypes, but the writer and director Andrew Bujalski manages to subvert it in one crucial respect. Instead of being motormouths, his characters speak in half-sentences that trail off into excruciating silences. Compared to Richard Linklater’s earnest philosophers or Noah Baumbach’s poised wiseacres, Mr. Bujalski’s sheepish drifters are mortifyingly tongue-tied. But their verbal tics, taken together, could stand as a fumbling generation’s poignant cri de coeur: “I guess,” “I mean,” “I’m sorry,” “I don’t know.”
At 28, Mr. Bujalski has already made two homespun, micro-budget features, both set deep within the befuddling gray zone of post-collegiate life. In his first, “Funny Ha Ha,” Marnie, a 23-year-old recent graduate, floats between dead-end temp jobs while nursing an unrequited crush and fending off an unwelcome suitor. His latest, “Mutual Appreciation,” centers on a more ambitious but equally restless protagonist: Alan, an indie rocker who arrives in Brooklyn with a gig but no band mates.
Marnie and Alan are the most unassuming of existentialist heroes, slouching toward not epiphanies but the tiniest shifts in perspective. Both films are slow-burning comedies about the fear of adulthood made by someone who isn’t yet inclined to sentimentalize or belittle these threshold years. As Mr. Bujalski presents it, the quarter-life crisis is an inherently funny condition, but it’s not necessarily a laughing matter.
“Funny Ha Ha” was completed in 2002, but failed to secure distribution despite strong endorsements from critics and bloggers, not to mention a “Someone to Watch” prize at the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards. In April of last year, with the help of Houston King, a fan turned investor, Mr. Bujalski finally released his film through a company called Goodbye Cruel Releasing.
Though still an industry outsider, Mr. Bujalski is emerging as a critics’ favorite – A. O. Scott of The New York Times named “Funny Ha Ha” one of the 10 best films of 2005. The film was also a modest hipster phenomenon long before it opened, thanks to Sundance Channel showings and one-off screenings at colleges and art houses. On a recent Saturday evening, about 150 people, many of whom would not have looked out of place in Mr. Bujalski’s movies, turned up at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village for the barely publicized local premiere of “Mutual Appreciation.” (If no distributor comes forward, Mr. Bujalski and Mr. King say they will release the film themselves later this year; in the meantime, DVD’s are for sale at www.mutualappreciation.com.)
The post-screening discussion at Anthology opened with a predictable question: How much of the film was improvised and how much scripted?
“I’ve gotten that at every Q & A,” Mr. Bujalski said the following day. “I could have said, ‘This is now a question I’ve answered a hundred times, so I have a scripted response, but I’m also making it up as I go along, so maybe this is a good analogy for how it works.’ ”
But the start-stop chatter in Mr. Bujalski’s films is less arbitrary than it seems. A master of the mixed message and a veritable sculptor of dead air, he’s deft at showing how inarticulateness can serve as defense tactic and passive-aggressive weapon.
Besides keen-eared writing, a key to his films’ eccentric charm is his strange talent for casting nonprofessionals, often his friends. Kate Dollenmayer, the star of “Funny Ha Ha,” and Justin Rice, the lead in “Mutual Appreciation,” are both former roommates (with real-world accomplishments – Ms. Dollenmayer worked as an animator on Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and Mr. Rice leads the indie-pop band Bishop Allen). Mr. Bujalski assigned himself the role of the spurned love interest in both films.
His preference for nonactors dates to his senior thesis film at Harvard; a change in shooting location abruptly forced him to write new scenes for new performers, and he found he had an easier rapport with the nonpros in his cast. The filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who was Mr. Bujalski’s thesis adviser, recalled that once she suggested he cast a fellow student she had spotted outside her office. “I said, ‘Run after her – she could be good,’ ” Ms. Akerman said in a recent telephone interview.
In today’s independent film landscape, Mr. Bujalski is at once an anomaly and a stubborn idealist. While digital video is the default medium for low-cost moviemaking, he insists on grainy 16 millimeter. “There’s a deliberateness to film,” he said. “If these films were on video they would feel a lot more frivolous. Film allows you to make the statement that this is on purpose.” Mr. Bujalski also prefers the tactile splices of flatbed editing to cutting with a desktop computer.
Robb Moss, a documentarian and Harvard lecturer who lent Mr. Bujalski a Steenbeck editing machine for “Funny Ha Ha,” said, “One of the charms of Andrew’s films is that they spend no energy convincing you of his ambition.”
Mr. Bujalski, who lives in Boston and still holds down a day job as a junior high school substitute teacher, cautioned against the temptation to romanticize his D.I.Y. process. “It’s completely unsustainable,” he said. “I’ve been absurdly lucky.” (Both his films were financed through a combination of savings, grants, private investment and contributions from family and friends.)
He now finds himself grappling with the same career anxieties as his “Mutual Appreciation” hero, who goes through the motions of networking and self-promotion with an ambivalence that often shades into dread. Mr. Bujalski has acquired an agent and is looking to the economic models of independent stalwarts like John Cassavetes and John Sayles, who financed personal projects by taking on work for hire. Hoping for a shot at Hollywood screenwriting, he recently connected with some executives in Los Angeles, though he said he treated the meetings more like therapy sessions: “I would go in and tell them my problems,” he said. “They always had a couch.”
As the big 3-0 looms for this chronicler of 20-something malaise, his first two features increasingly represent not just an impractical way of working but also a quixotic way of life. “As I get older and my friends get older,” Mr. Bujalski said, “it’s harder to say to people, ‘Take a month off from your life and work for me for free.’ ”
Source: The New York Times