Few labels in contemporary cinema are as polarizing as “mumblecore,” which refers to a recent group of low-budget American independent productions: the term refers to the fact that the characters in these films often speak in aimless, halting circles. Where the genre’s fans see honestly raged attempts to reckon with generational disconnect — the cinematic equivalent of shoe gaze, perhaps — detractors perceive rampant narcissism filtered through amateurish aesthetics.
Last year, the Duplass’ brothers’ Baghead broached the possibility of a “mumblecore horror film.” it thus seems fair to ask if Damien Chazelle’s Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench might be the first “mumblecore musical.”Like Andrew Bujalski – whose 2005 feature Mutual Appreciation is perhaps the best film grouped under the m-core rubric — Chazelle emerged from Harvard’s undergraduate film department, and seems to have been similarly weaned on the works of John Cassavetes, whose shadow – and more, specifically, Shadows – looms large here. In fact, a critic for Film Comment suggested that Chazelle’s film is a spiritual sequel to Shadows, and, insofar as it orbits the members of an insular, artistic community – a group of young jazz practitioners hooking up in Boston’s student ghetto – the comparison makes sense. Chazelle’s decision to shoot the film in alternately roaming and fragmented 16 mm takes only exacerbates the Beat era vibe.
But I’d suspect that the 24-year old Chazelle is as familiar with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as he is with Pull My Daisy: the charm of Guy and Madeleine is that its odd juxtapositions – 40’s style jam sessions attended by kids in hoodies and Yankees caps – coalesce into something that feels both of the moment and oddly timeless. “You never hear anybody blasting Coltrane [from their car stereo],” moans aspiring trumpeter Guy (Jason Palmer), whose liaisons with two young women — anodyne Elena (Sandha Kim) and the eponymous Madeline (Desiree Garcia) — give the episodic narrative its spine. It’s an odd lament, but it rings true — and no less so for the fact that, several scenes later, Guy awes rhapsodic about a newer kind of old school hero: Grandmaster Flash.
Guy’s fixation on music is both his defining character trait and the source of his frustrations. His relationships have the same bobbing, erratic rhythms as his trumpet playing. We never quite understand why he breaks up with Madeleine – only ten minutes into the film – or why he seems incapable of connecting with Elena, who compensates by flirting indiscriminately with strangers on the street (leading to a stand-out, stand-alone sequence featuring a retired cop that miraculously straddles multiple boundaries between tension, terror, humor, and, finally, empathy).
Madeleine favors a different form of musical expression. Relocated to New York, she purges her hurt via a pair of songs (music and lyrics by Justin Hurwitz).The jauntier of the two cuts, “The Boy in the Park,” is also an honest-to-goodness production number, with Melanie backed by a tap-dancing coterie of busboys and waiters; there’s also an ecstatic cutaway to a bartender (clearly a non-professional actor) shaking a martini mixer in accompaniment. The dancing and singing here – and in an earlier, virtuoso single-take sequence at a house party – Is just right: surprisingly adroit but endearingly unpolished, undercutting the fantasy-world conceit endemic to the movie musical without ever crossing over into irony.
The confidence of these scenes arguably throws the more conventional mumble-coreisms of the rest of the film into sharper relief, and Guy and Madeleine is surely not perfect: the chronology of events is occasionally unclear, and the script introduces a few elements — like Elena’s insecurity when Guy (who is black) announces that his family is coming to stay — that would benefit from more sustained attention. (There’s a fine line between subtlety and evasion, and Chazelle crosses it more than once). At the same time, the DIY approach is rarely conducive to perfection, and the peaks here are dizzying. In the final scene, Guy, who has seemingly drifted away from Elena, has a chance meeting with Madeleine and asks if she wants to hear a new ballad he’s been working on; she’s leaving on the next train out of town, but assents. Chazelle stays on Guy’s face, obscured by his trumpet, as he works through a wounded melody.
Whether this gesture rescues the relationship or simply provides a stay of execution is unclear. Like Richard Linklater, Chazelle understands the value and power of a romantic cliffhanger. But it’s the right ending for a film about music’s ability to both impede and enhance communication. The bold, bruised notes of Guy’s solo are worth a thousand mumbled words.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2009