It's probably about time you met Andrew Bujalski, but I'll dish a little before he shows up so it's not a totally blind date. The Boston-based filmmaker has crafted two low-budget, 16mm affairs that have made quiet yet deep splashes in the world of independent cinema and earned him comparisons to mortal gods with names like Cassavetes, Jarmusch, and Leigh.
Bujalski, who writes, directs, edits, and acts in his films, will be in attendance at the Dryden Theatre on Friday, February 10, to introduce his most recent work, Mutual Appreciation, and field questions following the screening. Whether that hardcore DIY approach will also compel him to knit mittens for the entire audience I can't really say.
Shot in austere black and white, Mutual Appreciation takes place in the hipster enclave of Williamsburg and follows a newly arrived singer-songwriter named Alan (Justin Rice) as he tries to conquer the Brooklyn music scene. His sole allies in this strange land are fellow transplanted Bostonians Ellie (Rachel Clift) and her boyfriend Lawrence (Bujalski), though Alan also has a newfound champion in Sara (Seung-Min Lee), an aggressive DJ who sets her sights on the submissively uninterested Alan (but finds a drummer for him). Alan, naturally, grows increasingly fond of the already attached Ellie, and the appreciation is, well, mutual. What could be a formulaic setup, however, Bujalski handles in a way that's anything but cliché.
As with his first film, Funny Ha Ha (more on that one later), Bujalski supplies what is obviously a cast of his friends with the most spartan of scripts, allowing them the liberty to improvise. That's the only explanation for the organic interactions on the screen and the often funny, sometimes awkward, always authentic dialogue emitting from the speakers. Most movies feature beautiful people saying ultra-clever things about only the most important of subjects.
Bujalski employs ordinary-looking folks who are not always the most coherent and concise, though they know what they're talking about, and we do, too, because that's how we communicate. But it's not quirky for quirk's sake, a trap that ensnares a frustrating number of independent films. Bujalski conveys his notions about love, gender, and commitment in the slyest of ways and with a gifted eye for composition.
Funny Ha Haunspools a couple days after Mutual Appreciation, and Bujalski offers this romantic comedy from a female perspective. Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), adorable despite her wilty hair and tombstone teeth, is in her mid 20s, between jobs and boyfriends, and she could use a little direction. The guy she's been not-so-secretly crushing on has recently broken up with his girlfriend, but his varied and self-serving reactions to her do nothing to help Marnie's situation. There's someone at her temping position who is interested (he's played by Bujalski), though his squirm-inducing and passive-aggressive moves demonstrate that his experience with women is wanting. Marnie's search for significance and purpose propels Funny Ha Ha, and Bujalski's debut feature exhibits all the promise that he follows up on in Mutual Appreciation.
Nearly anyone can relate to the lackadaisical yet well-meaning Marnie and her friends, and this affinity caused me to remain completely riveted to and entertained by a film that has little in the way of plot but much in the way of heart and truth. My favorite aspect of both Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation is the way Bujalski ends the films virtually in mid-conversation, exiting the lives of his characters as quickly and with as little fanfare as he entered them. Movies work best when you can imagine them continuing in the same vein even though you're not watching.
What's shocking, to be honest, is that Bujalski's brand of candid and sincere filmmaking is so difficult to do right. It seems like it would be the easiest way to break into Hollywood: Write parts for your friends, have your mom make some sandwiches, turn on the camera, and then clear a place on the kitchen counter for the fruit basket from Jerry Bruckheimer.
What will Bujalski do when the studios start throwing money at him? Could he maintain a relatively artistic sensibility like Richard Linklater or would he sell out like Wayne Wang? Can he spend his career fashioning gritty and graceful movies outside the studio system like the above-mentioned icons of indieimprov? And will he make me a scarf to match my mittens?
Mutual Appreciation (NR), directed by Andrew Bujalski, shows Friday, February 10, at 8 p.m., and Funny Ha Ha (NR), also directed by Andrew Bujalski, shows Sunday, February 12, at 7 p.m. Both screenings are at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.