Seven provisional theses on the meaning and future of Mumblecore

  1. The traditional cinematic representation of communication–the perfectly crafted, expertly balanced, and of course well-timed expressions of emotion–is a double bourgeois ruse. It tricks us first into thinking that to every true emotion belongs an elegant and compelling presentation that is always to the credit of the presenter, even to the Fool who is nonetheless always a well-executed Fool, and then into desiring and expecting such modes of expression from ourselves and others.

  2. However, in truth, in practice, the communication of emotions is most often and in its essence difficult, ugly, stupid, awkward, silly, embarrassing, and most importantly, almost always to the discredit and social devaluation of the communicator. Those who disagree with this will quickly realize that any compelling example to the contrary is not the communication of an emotion but the mimicking of traditional cinematic representations of communication. So far from pleasing and admirable, genuine efforts to express emotions truthfully are in essence obscene and punished harshly. For instance, even schoolchildren learn that pouring one’s heart out to a beloved, no matter how skillfully derived from the best of the silver screen, will be met consistently with rejection. He wants to put her in his pocket and she should die there, smothered–thus teaches D.H. Lawrence somewhere in Sons and Lovers.

  3. Thus, a profound dissonance exists between the nature of emotions, especially the obscene possessive and obsessional qualities of love, and how the cinema teaches us to desire, communicate, and desire communication. The contemporary subject always feels compelled to find that perfect cinema-like expression of one’s feelings toward the beloved, and in turn we want to hear such expressions directed toward us, yet, emotions being what they are, we begin to hate ourselves and others for never being able to successfully express emotions to the great effect we come to expect through so many cinematic representations.

  4. Social institutions mediate this dissonance, known in another register as alienation. Why is the nature of romantic love always a kind of violent obsessive possessiveness? Because the legal fact and concrete phenomenon which most significantly conditions the distribution of enjoyment across society is possession. In fact, when norms of private possession so thoroughly dominate social relations, it can almost be said that possession of a thing is required for it to concretely exist to the beholder. One must possess the beloved because in our society if one does not possess a thing or a person then one cannot enjoy the thing or person, and in fact, the thing or person becomes a purely spectral object of fantasy, that which failed to become real. Why does the beloved flee at the honest confessions of the young lover? It is because we know no values other than values derived from the general mechanism of pricing, and in the love market one’s value or price is reflected by one’s eagerness: the honest plea of true love is seen as evidence that one is not worth enough to have already been obtained by someone better on whom the love is actually being spilled. We flee from honest passionate love like we flee from a salesman in too great a rush: he must be trying so hard so quick precisely because he isn’t finding buyers, which tells us that his product is no good. And truly independent valuation is so rare! Furthermore, true romantic abandon is prohibited by the social and political organization of modern society, which demands the repression of liberality and lovemaking in favor of work, making oneself scarce and thus more valuable, etc. Thus we flee from precisely what we aim to actualize and express, if only we could find the right words (as they do in the movies).

  5. The mumblecore film, especially insofar as it makes love speak as a stuttering neurotic rather than a confident, successful Romeo, has gone a certain distance in exposing this ruse of bourgeois cinema and pointing toward the truth of real emotional speech in all of its idiocy. But it has not gone far enough, chiefly because the stuttering neurotic succeeds in executing his role to wildly unrealistic personal advantage. The same cinematic valorization of emotional expression persists, only in a goofier, less traditionally elegant figure. Be yourself, stuttering and stammering, and you shall prevail. But the truth is that no, you will not: At best, you will feign a cinematically-endorsed version of charming, quirky, neurotic mumbling which is even harder to execute than the old role of Romeo; at worst, you will take the bait and actually be yourself and maybe add some stammering to boot, thereby frightening, traumatizing, and repulsing every new acquaintance.

  6. It follows that if the essential discovery of the mumblecore project is to be mined to its full aesthetic potential, it must press toward devalorizing the mumbling subject the emotional communication of whom it has so preposterously glorified for so long. What this entails is calling forth the straightforwardly obscene, vile, rude, pathetic, silly, ugly, and stupid aspects of real emotional communication in a way that avoids, through whatever technical means available, any retrospective cinematic valorization. In other words, display the horror of emotional communication without permitting some redemptive quality to redound to the perpetrator of the horrible emotional drivel–for instance, “He’s so honest!” or “He’s so cool he doesn’t even care how terrible he is!” and so forth. Such impressions should be avoided at all costs, even through extra-cinematic didactic aids, if necessary. This will have the effect of bringing the truth of contemporary emotions into line with the truth of contemporary communication, namely, the line in which they are both hard, difficult, ugly, impossible: the truth of contemporary alienation. For instance, in my recent release Open Bar Tender, my very own character is stupid, insensitive, and despicable despite vain or even positively shameful efforts at damage control. And I was only “being myself,” the pathetic naive loon I am. Capturing the idiocy and cold terror of true, free emotional or artistic communication is one truth accessible to the mumblecore film, which can be beautiful as an assemblage without valorizing the communicating subject.

  7. Whereas the devalorization of emotional communication is to begin perhaps most naturally in dialogic experimentation, it will be in narrative structure that the destiny of mumblecore unravels its next essential intimation: the mise en scene of the institutions that mediate the dissonance or alienation between the communication of the emotional subject and the truth of the emotions which are to be expressed. In short, if mumblecore is to unravel its essential discovery it must not be afraid to explicitly give treatment to the institutions which condition the mumbling subject, which teach the subject to mumble. Let us see subjects in the process of demystification, subjects resolving alienation in temporal developments at the end of which poetry and revolution meet in the sublime. Only through the mis en scene of concrete demystification should the mumbling subjects be permitted valorized speech and retrospective valorization more generally, for they will have earned it in a fashion consistent with an accurate conception of the relationship between emotional communication and the nature of real emotions.

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Murphy, Justin. 2011. "Seven provisional theses on the meaning and future of Mumblecore," (December 14, 2018).