Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Scariest Movie Ever

Ah, Andrew Bujalski: How does he do it?

I've been watching a lot of Bujalski's 2003 film "Mutual Appreciation" but I've yet to finish it for reasons I'll soon explain. On the surface, the movie is about a dude (Alan, played by Bishop Allen frontman Justin Rice) who moves to New York to play music and find a girlfriend, but it's actually the most frighteningly realistic portrayal of twentysomething hipsters I've ever seen. Unlike the two million other movies about twentysomethings in bands looking for love, "Mutual Appreciation" isn't look-at-me clever or tooth decay sweet or even cruelly satirical. The characters in the movie talk like real people, so much so that it gets a little obnoxious.

In one scene, Alan gets drunk and starts rambling about starting a club/space where "like-minded people" (presumably artists and musicians) can get together and be a resource for each other. His idea is annoyingly vague but his enthusiasm is endless, and when his friend Lawrence tells him he'll help out with the club if he's given a specific task, Alan gets angry and tells Lawrence he's ruining the whole project. Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie, however, is excited by Alan's theoretical "space" and keeps talking in semi-patronizing tones about what an "amazing" idea he has.

The scene is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but I'll only talk about a few. Firstly: Alan's idea. I've heard this idea, in different forms, from at least six or seven people, all of whom were drunk at the time and as overly enthusiastic as Alan. It's a variation on the classic "We have so many talented friends--why don't we get them together and make something cool?" insight that almost everyone I know has come up with at some point. Invariably, the idea loses its luster the morning after and no one ever mentions it again, which is exactly what happens in the movie, though we technically never see the morning after.

Secondly, Ellie's patronizing enthusiasm is a dead on portrayal of the kind of insultingly "supportive" way so many people I know talk with their friends. Because she enjoys Alan's excitement, Ellie goes overboard in her praise for his idea, without actually appearing to be excited herself. At various points in the movie, Ellie refers to Alan as a "rock star," and considering he's played one show and recorded nothing more than a demo, this sounds unbelievably patronizing. Since Alan is insecure about himself and his art, all this over-the-top praise and ego massaging is bound to have the unintended effect of making Alan feel even more insecure because of the huge discrepancy between what people say about him and his own estimation of himself. To put it more simply, if you make something (a song, a poem, a painting) that you consider mediocre or worse and your friend tells you it's "brilliant," you're not only going to feel lied to, you're going to feel the soul-crushing distance between what you made and actual brilliance.

Finally, the way Lawrence explains that he needs his friend to give him a specific task to do or he's useless is note perfect. It reminds me of the way people from my generation constantly say things like "I'm a really visual learner" or "I'm a person that thinks in abstractions." In the interest of (relatively) full disclosure, this is a big pet peeve of mine. I think educated people easily have the capacity to think outside of their comfort zone and purposely use the "I'm a____" to preempt any one from challenging their point of view or way of thinking.

On the back of the "Mutual Appreciation" box, the movie is described as being about "miscommunication." I think instead the film is about a certain kind of communication favored by educated, middle class hipsters. This form of communication prizes civility and "niceness" above all else. That's not say that the type of people I'm talking about can't be rude or sarcastic or malicious, only that the default mode of conversation is low-key civility. Everything's basically chill, everyone is basically cool, a pretty good time was had by all. It should come as a surprise to no one that this sort of communication can communicate very little and "Mutual Appreciation" captures that perfectly.

I'm not kidding with the title of this post. For anyone who's spent time with people like Alan or Ellie or Lawrence, you know how painful it can be to be around them. There's something scary about watching a movie that so perfectly replicates the boredom and frustration of hanging out with boring, self-involved hipsters.

For a different perspective, read Chuck Klosterman's take on the movie.