“People are constantly falling back on their beds — but always in languor, never in passion . . .”
It’s difficult not to be grateful to a film that introduces you to six or eight of the most charming people you’ve ever met. Even if it does nothing else, or fails to tie them all together, you’re left with a score of perfect lines and situations. However, the characters of Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) are not only spirited individual voices — they’re cohesive. As a group, they’re irresistible, surpassing even the family of wits in Ozu’s Equinox Flower (1958) — my previous high-mark of charm. However, in order to describe what Bujalski does, I’d have to turn to another medium: maybe the lyrics of Stephen Malkmus, or the dialogue of Ivy Compton-Burnett. What’s unusual about Bujalski is that he manages to achieve the precision of those writers without any sign of polish, or obvious mastery of language. As the title suggests, Funny Ha Ha is more about the humor of excruciation than brilliance: if his characters have wit, it’s the spacey, California kind. A sentence never ends sharply — it tails off into “you know…” or “and stuff… ,” yet even that way of fading out represents a specialized technique. Bujalski manages to create a distinct style, conceived out of the most common bits of language: the conversation is based around office pleasantries, and is as likely to involve mastery of Excel as a formal discussion of manners. People’s comments, no matter how vague or flaky, are like frayed ends that mesh together. Most importantly, it’s flakiness without attitude: the characters tend to say “something” rather than “whatever ,” indicating at least a general interest in events.
However, a comparison with Equinox Flower isn’t out of the question. While the dialogue is utterly familiar, we see how tricky it is to operate in this environment — which at times seems as remote and difficult to inhabit as Ozu’s universe. Speaking to these people must be like being a foreigner in Japan, and trying to master the incredibly fine nuances of that country’s small talk, in which shooting the breeze involves infinite variations on digression and reflection. In Bujalski, one has to communicate in a very exact way: there’s a particular method of sliding in and restating opinions without over-assertion. A honed line is unacceptable: it risks stamping out the delicacy of the whole exchange. This isn’t aSeinfeld clique, where people engage in self-conscious “talking about nothing.” Conversation has to remain mild and flexible: no comment can be too streamlined, otherwise it constitutes an unnatural use of force. Even a high waistline, or a moderately effective gesture, would be enough to unsettle the rhythms of this world. Thus the main character, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), is a familiar yet rare breed: a loose, unaffected girl of a type one might have thought no longer existed. She’s a shambling girl, who looks like a ‘90s album cover: she even resembles Stephen Malkmus, with her lustreless skin and hair. Like most of the characters, she looks virtually shoulder-less, or jointless: her limbs dangle off her frame and seem less suited to movement than being in bed. Marnie is slightly depressed and slightly hopeful; her grip on life is tenuous, but she’s always looking for something new to do, even if it’s just spending more time outdoors. The opportunities that come her way are equally homely. This is a world in which going out with a friend’s girlfriend’s engineering colleagues is taking a chance — it sounds generically promising, and is a potential step out of one’s routine.
Since the circle of this film is so tiny, it can be difficult to perceive the organization that underlies the script, or to see the plot as anything more than a string of “random” possibilities. In fact, every single person we encounter — every passer-by or correspondent — has their part to play in high comedy, and one of the film’s joys is its unacknowledged staging of coincidences and events. Even the smallest workplace incident, in which people stand around to discuss whether Alex is strange (“Considering who Alex is, it’s not that weird”) features a couple of bystanders and colleagues, who contribute a few perfectly tailored lines to round out the atmosphere. However, what are the odds of meeting a like mind — let alone twenty? What becomes apparent is that all these people are basically reverberations of the same voice — they all have the same rising intonation, the same way of trying to set others at ease through self-deprecation or theatrical klutziness. They are, in effect, the same person with the same posture: none of them know what to do with their hands or falling strands of hair, and they all talk like they have braces. Yet the humor never becomes fixed or compressed, because of the unique way the characters are dramatized. Our introduction to Marnie’s friend Liz (Anitra Menning) occurs when she is found slumped over the wheel of her parked car. Although she is drunk and has to stop herself from passing out, she manages to be very amusing and impassive while doing so, and being “unconscious” of what she is saying only seems to add to her appeal. This kind of predicament is a staple of ‘30s comedy, as well as Ivy Compton-Burnett — to have a character discovered “charmingly” comatose, or remaining totally deadpan in crisis. The film retains that screwball element, but at the same time, the girl’s emotions have serious weight. When Liz remarks, without self-pity, that she has “no-one to make out with,” she seems like a character out of Altman: a person found in a sad or maudlin state, whose mood infuses the whole narrative. Even Marnie is touched when Liz declares, out of her drunken haze, that she is not really there — she denies being in her car, being troubled, or even existing at all.
This form of denial reflects the self-presentation of all the characters. They tell us things about themselves that are either patently lies, or have a strong resistance to the truth. When stating opinions about the world, these people express levels of interest or apathy that bear no relation to the actual subject. When embarking on a plan to, say, go out or change one’s seating position, they’re full of beans (“It’s excitement-packed!” “This is the chance of a lifetime!”). Overenthusiastic thanks are given for small favors. Food and drink are gestured towards excitedly, with the exclamation “Go for it!” or “Let’s do it.” It’s a semi-parody of geeky enthusiasm: every act seems to require a gesture of faux fanfare — whether it’s snacking or making small talk, it’s “no joke.” To some extent, these remarks celebrate events that the characters are actually happy about. However, the over-formality is also a form of apology — for what one is and does. It’s a conceit: a way of giving will and premeditation to one’s actions. As Compton-Burnett has written, “Self-knowledge speaks ill for people; it shows they are what they are, almost on purpose.”1 Bujalski’s people may lack insight, but if there’s one statement that characterizes their behavior, it’s: “I’m like this, on purpose.” Their attitude is declarative: in effect, “I know what I am, and I’m willing to atone for it in advance.”
The use of foppish formality (“I can’t believe you usurped my phone position”) is a way to playfully open a dialogue, without being ostentatiously witty. Even though this group is tolerant, it has a real aversion to verbal display. So what happens if the speaker gets the mix wrong? What if, in the attempt to be whimsical, he does the one thing that’s unforgivable — he shows off? At that point the conversation becomes paralyzed, and the only concern is for the damage caused. Like Ozu’s characters, these people respond to a perceived breach — whether by oneself or others — with a million feather-light caresses, to normalize and smooth over the disturbance. Each person has to be reassured about the part they played in the failure of communication. Mitchell (Bujalski) begs to be excused for asking “What’s your deal?” as if it was an interesting or hip question. On the phone, Alex (Christian Rudder) apologizes repeatedly for a couple of background taps as a “racket.” As in Wilde, the smallest disruptions of tone are registered as “cuts” to the delicate social membrane. After Mitchell asks Marnie, “What’s your deal?” and she reacts uncertainly, he apologizes and tries to rescind that “terrible question.” However, Marnie, after being temporarily startled, is anxious about seeming unfriendly, and she in turn has to be consoled for her error. Most of the film consists of people consoling each other for lapses in protocol, or the failed chemistry that results from an attempt to be interesting. The “dramas” in this film are generally connected to a feeling of social loss or breakage: the unfulfilling phone call that leaves one stranded and in need of a balm, the angst over the dumb thing just said. People have to be distracted from their concerns over being “lame ,” or not being agreeable or easy enough. Aside from “like” and “or something ,” the most commonly used expression is, “I’m fine.” People are constantly trying to ascertain whether others are fine, and if everyone is content with the direction in which things are heading. They take pains to let others know that they too are fine — by over-thanking them, or saying, “Don’t apologize.” Being fine also can be indicated by a neutral state of compliance — for instance, by insisting that a decision is “up to you” and would be good “either way.” Characters often claim that things are fine either way — as if thinking it forward to express a preference for one thing over another. Opinions are given apologetically, so that they are ready to be retracted if found alarming or unwarranted (“That’s terrible…I mean, it’s great, it’s hilarious, it took me a second to get it.”)
All conversation has to proceed under these ultra-refined, civilized codes, in which everything is geared towards easing the transition of sudden movement. People carefully state that they’ll be “right back” before going to the bathroom; they announce a move to the porch with the phrase, “Talk to you in a minute.” A person heading to the door reassures others that he’ll “be there in a couple of seconds.” The smallest move has to be signaled way in advance, so as to avoid alarming others by one’s absence or transformation. This is a style of conversation that monitors every change in tone — flags are set up all the way, and people risk overstating themselves in order to make others comfortable. Rather than presuming to introduce a new subject, people play with familiar words (“Tat-too!“), or reframe an existing concept (“We were just talking about you.” “I was just talking about you guys to myself.”) There’s no way to act or enforce a change without a monumental effort of will, so people end up going along with relationships they don’t want. At the most, a body will be pushed off if it is too insistent — but until then, long periods of encroachment can go by without comment. In Bujalski’s latest film, Mutual Appreciation (2005), Alan (Justin Rice) is subject to many advances from Sara (Seung-Min Lee) and he warily submits his body to them, before finally admitting that dating is not possible because it is “untenable.” In Funny Ha Ha, Marnie must be pushed for an answer numerous times until she concedes that a relationship will not happen for “reasons pertaining to me.” In both of these cases, going out is not an option, but hanging out definitely is — and that could continue forever. No-one will initiate any change — saying “I should go” whilst not moving is about as direct as it gets. Refusing to exit a difficult situation can reflect a kind of stoicism, but the use of vagueness is evasive as well as sympathetic. When Marnie finds that she’s been excluded from a dinner party of two couples, the group smoothes over her hurt very calmly — as if ejecting a cell. However, being left out means that Marnie officially has no close friends, despite everyone’s offers of vague sunshiny love. Alex, the boy she wants, has to be prodded before confessing he got married, because it occurred “kind of under the radar” — which is where everything important seems to happen. During the course of the film, Marnie finds herself coming between each of the two couples — all of a sudden, she’s slipped in without knowing it. Everyone’s guilt only increases the demands for reassurance that all is well. After Dave (Myles Paige) kisses Marnie within meters of his girlfriend, one of his first reactions is to ask her, “Are things cool?” Since the group’s code requires it, she can only reply, “It’s fine.” His next statement (“Are you sure?”) may only be semi-calculated, but it still leaves her with no room to say anything other than, “I’m fine.” In this case, being “concerned” is a way to let oneself off the hook, while leaving someone else to deal with the fall-out.
This kind of non-commitment can be dangerous. An invitation to meet “like whenever” is maybe sincere — but maybe not? Alex’s vagueness can be an absent-minded play with words (“I gotta let him down, or in, or something”), but also a way of deferring conflict (“We should have coffee, or something, sometime soon.”) When Marnie is caught lying, she says, “That’s terrible, I don’t know what I was thinking” — a sly elision designed to dispense with awkwardness on one side. In Mutual Appreciation, Alan constantly holds others off by saying, “I should probably run and try to give you a call back later” — as in never. What does this unwillingness to get specific mean? Most of the characters use a deliberate imprecision in talking — and not just for humor. Changes between people manifest themselves in a silence and unease that has to be covered in some way, and ambiguity seems to be the most common approach. Even when someone is truly hurt, they tend to vamp over their own fumbles rather than speak directly. People apologize for raising an issue by using a goofy tone, so that others can write it off as a cool conceit. Thus everything they say can be understood in the context of a “character” voice, and partially dismissed. When Marnie dares to get personal by revealing she loves Alex, she regrets it; a confession of depression or love soon becomes a “thing” for everyone — an object that can be handled, cradled or exposed by friends. Alex is a character who wavers rather elegantly around other people’s pain. When he has to confront Marnie about her feelings, he lies in bed to make the difficult call — as if to comfort and nurture himself during the uncomfortable situation, although he himself feels “no emotion.” His posture during the call reflects his changes in tone; after having successfully shelved the topic (“But we should, I don’t know, we should talk about it more, just not right now”), he finally gets out of his fetal position and stands up confidently. Towards the end of the film he goes to Marnie’s house, full of angst, and asks, “What’s on your mind?” — innocently expecting her to name and solve the problems between them. Even the walk-on characters are unable to deliver any kind of straight response. When Marnie tries to find out where Alex has gone, his co-workers begin dithering (“Up in Maine, someplace…” “In Maine, I think.”) Nobody in this film is capable of giving a direct answer when two vague ones will do; information is never at hand, or cannot be confirmed.
Everyone is folded into this world of soft movement and indeterminate behavior, and those who make their views plain find themselves rejected. One of these is Mitchell — the most memorable character, thanks to the director’s generous casting of himself as the man who carries lightness too far, and threatens to take it out of charm. First, Mitchell tries to quiz Marnie about her lack of energy, and his verbal style is shockingly direct — almost a parry. Later, he tosses a beer bottle off a veranda in a gesture of forced quirkiness — a frightening act in a society which aims for placid smoothness in everything. At that point it’s clear that he and Marnie have no chance, even as friends. Self-presentation is a complex issue — as Alan shows us in Mutual Appreciation. When presenting a demo of his songs, he has the embarrassed manner of a slacker who has felt obligated to produce something. However, as the tracks play, he has a rocking reaction to his own music: subdued but proud. He also deals with the issue of self-promotion by using a parody of marketing language to describe his work (“it’s concise, catchy, upbeat.”) In Bujalski, characters use one of two methods to describe themselves: either the undersell (constant self-deprecation) or the apologetic oversell. In Funny Ha Ha, even Alex’s uncle is in on the act: his amiable but clipped manner seems like a grown-up version of the styles perfected by young people. He also treats Marnie with the kind of indulgence peculiar to family friends. Both films make a point of highlighting the family contacts who create opportunities for the protagonists. Depicting family friends is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to a world of relative privilege — much more so than, say, a display of wealth the audience could become attracted to. Having this array of helpers shows all of Bujalski’s self-awareness: his main characters are fairly gifted people who nevertheless require the assistance of, say, their father’s friend who knows someone in the business. The films capture the weirdness of socializing with family friends: that inbuilt good will and cheeriness, as well as the slightly excruciating sense of being beholden to someone. InMutual Appreciation, the contact turns out to be a highly influential guy (Bill Morrison) whose pronouncement that Alan has “it” could mean everything. It may not be the ideal situation envisioned by an artist, but the older man proves himself totally capable of absorbing the young people’s dialogue — he effortlessly masters their floating style of interaction, and even their self-parodying use of dramatic words like “puissance.” After a gig, Alan and his friends end up at the man’s apartment, chatting aimlessly while lying around. The evening is polite, pleasant and relaxed — yet somehow cringe-making. It’s odd to see an aspiring rock star networking with family friends, and everyone seems to exist in a junior relation to this “uncle”: an adult supervisor who is more spontaneous than any of them.
However, this kind of awkwardness is common to all of Bujalski’s social events. His parties are attempts at wildness that never come off — people feel fatigued midway, and friends end up talking to one another when they fail to click with others. At root, this appears to be an energy problem: characters rarely have the stamina to stay upright, and if there is a couch around, they will dive into it rather than deal with the pressure of eye contact. People are constantly falling back on their beds — but always in languor, never in passion, and with an exhaustion that’s reminiscent of Wilde. InMutual Appreciation, the characters tend to be so passive they cannot resist advances they don’t want. In one of the film’s more curious themes, it appears that people who lie down are easily controlled and managed. Once prone, their speech starts to slow and they seem incapable of asserting any direction. Yet even the ditzy, throwaway talk that happens in bed reflects the constant shift in relationships. When Alan arrives in New York, he spends a day lounging around with Lawrence (Bujalski) and his girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift.) When Lawrence leaves the room, Alan and Ellie come up with the fine idea of establishing a club that manages to be cool while excluding no-one. However, this dream of inclusive cool is an admirable project that soon fails. On his return, Lawrence is invited to join the club — but later it turns out that Alan and Ellie are attracted to each other, and Lawrence is kept out of their secret drama.
This seems to be an era in which plans never materialize, despite their creative or original design. When Lawrence is asked to act in a play, he doesn’t want to and never really agrees to, but somehow ends up being involved. Lawrence must read a “sexy” script at the behest of two women — this is a show where all the parts are written by women and performed by men. There has obviously been an agenda in assigning him this role, although whether it’s mockery or seduction is unclear. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t work: Lawrence’s voice becomes expressionless and faint as he has to read the “provocative” lines, although he soldiers on regardless. What starts off as a precocious plan ends with people going through the motions.
The film seems to have almost a “period” view of conversation and gender relations: as if cataloguing every behavior that was current in the last decade. Styles of talk that are generally considered annoying or negligible are closely examined — as remnants of a culture that still persists. If one person introduces a corny idea of subversion, others are prepared to go along with it, even though the conceit has long worn off. When Alan is asked to attend a stranger’s party, he turns up at the house to find there is no party: just four girls sitting around, talking to pass the time. Once again, this is an event that never came together — but it doesn’t matter, since the women are pleased to have a new feature to comment on, and he is happy to find them so friendly. Since they don’t know each other, everyone slips into the familiar ways of interaction: for instance, the convention of girls putting make-up on boys, which no longer generates a frisson, but is performed as an old standard of party behavior. We all know these acts and these people: the films reference all those “alternative” trends of the ‘90s, from slacker humor to hackneyed attempts at sexual confusion. Bujalski portrays the group behavior of an era, with its full range of topical and conventional attitudes. In Funny Ha Ha, a couple of men who get close are teased by girls; this use of homoeroticism as humor is not intended to be confronting. In fact, it’s almost nostalgic: a gesture towards those hoary old ideas of subversion. When someone trots out one of these concepts, it’s no more than a way to signal that they are playing along, and assisting the flow of dialogue. Rather than come up with new comments, most people tend to dig out lines from the archives. Therefore the conversation consists of dated old favorites and clichés of small talk. Nerdy phrases are reclaimed as objects of fascination: from the parody of a conversation opener (“Can I tell you my theory?”) to the stab at a dramatic assertion (“It’s a free country!”) Expressions that have been done to death are given a final, enthusiastic airing (“You’re, like, the King of Crazy, over there!” “It’s a big title to live up to.”) What are people doing when they speak like this? They’re playing at being companionable — but they’re also choosing a way of acting that is not “themselves.” For instance, a person who says “Please…please…please” in monotonal bursts is not being “himself”: he’s been overtaken by a mood of child-like utterance. Such a person is telling us he is no longer accessible to reason — although for all we know, he is pleading for something he really wants.
What Bujalski wants to know is why someone would act this way. What was behind those “offhand” things we said — the pose of ditziness or nonchalance? Did we act hapless to reassure others — or to try and disguise our own intent? If identity happens “on purpose ,” then conversation is seen as an intentional coding, where speaking a certain way has underlying motives. The most familiar remarks are scanned again and again, for what they reveal. Even the expression “like” is fully investigated for the elision of ideas it represents: the way it can negotiate a subtle slide between topics, and get one out of a tight spot. Bujalski’s subject is these everyday evasions; however, his view is also extremely forgiving. Even if everyone knows what everyone else is doing — either being genuinely forgetful or tactically vague — no-one really seems to mind. In his observation of group behavior, and its attempts to be fair, reasonable or exciting, Bujalski discovers that most of us are willing to forgive or ignore contradiction in others. For the most part, we accept it if someone does not say what they mean — we understand that this is a way for people to dramatize themselves, or even just to kill time. The fact that people submit to a situation they know is contrived reflects a desire to please — even if it’s highly self-conscious. In Bujalski, conversation is always aware of its own motor: it’s a huge effort to keep up rhythm and momentum. Thus the most enjoyable moments occur when the pressure is off — during the aftermath of a party, a too-long afternoon, or a day spent nestled between friends in bed. In these situations, we feel the full weight and lightness of time passing: when hours of silly conversation give us a sense of elation as well as fatigue.
In depicting the dramas of “hanging out and stuff ,” these films explore the extremes of lethargy and lightness. The characters are either so blithe they have nothing to think about — or else they are too intense, constantly urging themselves towards spontaneity. Either way, they are susceptible to changes in mood that occur beyond their control. At the start of Funny Ha Ha, Marnie wants to commit to something permanent — so she goes to get a tattoo, having taken the precaution of getting drunk beforehand. This is a stage in her life where every act seems to require an endless process of working up: thinking, talking, rehashing. Marnie’s sadness leads her to sink her head in bed, or physically push herself outdoors — at the end, we see her sitting out in the sun. Hers is a sleepy, seasonal depression — almost a summery feeling, which might soon pass, and maybe already has.
- Ivy Compton Burnett, Parents and Children. Gollancz: London, 1941, 118. [↩]