Rushing across town in peak hour traffic when you have an impending deadline is never fun. It’s especially not fun when you finally park and arrive fifteen minutes late for a premiere of a new Australian feature film due to the congestion that is Melbourne traffic. Luckily for me and my panic, the box office informed me that the ads were still playing and that I was safe to sneak in without consequence. I even had time to catch my breath and order a glass of mulled wine from the bar! As I walked towards Cinema 5, I suddenly realised it was the only time a choc top hadn’t won out as my leading choice of cinema indulgence.
The film was an indie feature called Pretty Good Friends set in recognisable places and pockets in and around Melbourne city. The loose narrative follows three friends navigating their respective ways through their twenties, sitting somewhere in the realm of the sub-genre that is mumblecore, a trend if you will, in low-budget; low concept filmmaking. Pretty Good Friends screened at Classic and Cameo Cinemas as part of an initiative appropriately entitled Australian Film Focus. During the Q & A that preceded the credits, it was noted that the film has also had a variety of international festival screenings, winning prizes abroad since its release.
As a film student, I am committed to seeing emerging Aussie talent on the big screen and creating it myself on the small screen so I was extremely excited to see this new self-financed film make it to a commercial cinema. The Q & A facilitated at the end consisted of the film’s vibrant cast; Jenni Townsend (Jules), Rain Fuller (Sam) and Nathan Barillaro (Alex). Writer/Director Sophie Townsend of Amalume Films and the DOP Tom Swinburn also joined for a discussion primarily concerned with the casting process and the industrial terrain of low-budget filmmaking in Australia.
It was revealed that the creative team, who were mostly ex film students and performers had assembled together to make a film showcasing Melbourne and its urban lifestyle. Pretty Good Friends follows protagonist Jules, played by Jenni Townsend, as she descends into the murky waters of an emotional affair and the beginning of an uncertain career in comedy. Mumblecore films aren’t known for their robust stories (worn like a badge of honour by those involved in the movement) so that is pretty much the extent of the narrative.
Writer/Director Sophie Townsend spoke in the Q & A of her desire to create a film that young Melbourne urbanites could relate to- recognisable people; places; fashion; economic concerns and relationships.
Research in the aftermath of the screening revealed to me that mumblecore was actually a term coined by a sound mixer and referred specifically to the ‘bad’ soundscapes of the films identified as part of this sub-genre. It has since gone on to encapsulate cultural factors more specifically, such as hipster sensibilities; inner-city urban economic struggle and an apathetic outlook.
There is not a huge breadth of film theory research done on the mumblecore movement just yet, it is widely identified (in addition to the aforementioned cultural signifiers) by industrial factors such as a low budget, do-it-yourself type production. Although directors from the seventies such as Jim Jarmusch and his masterpiece Stranger than Paradise are often identified or referenced as early influences of mumblecore, the movement is associated largely with American independent films that emerged during the mid-2000s. In a creative sense it is generally associated with a loose narrative structure and naturalistic, conversational and in many cases, improvisational dialogue and non-professional actors. In this sense, Pretty Good Friends was true to form and it was revealed in the discussions during Q & A that the actors never rehearsed scenes, rather workshopped back story and character, thoroughly getting to know one another in order to hone the believability of their long standing screen relationships.
Another component of the mumblecore style of filmmaking concerns locations. Mumblecore films are primarily stories of urban predicaments filmed in interiors, minimally lit and/or dressed. The locations act as the respective character’s urban dwellings. The contained nature of these films is indicative of their low budgets but also of their focus on the politics of the personal and perhaps their homage to films like Stranger than Paradise that focussed a plethora of scenes on the mundanity and the cramped and constricting nature of an urban inner-city apartment.
An article in Variety, published in 2008 spoke of the emergence of the mumblecore movement specifically at the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin Texas. It is said that these types of films started to be seen because the festival organisers made a decision to ‘ “…stop trying to be another festival and to develop a reputation for being a place that plays innovative, worthwhile films that are perhaps a little out of the ordinary”’ (Unknown, Variety, March 3-8: 208). It is on this, that it is important to note that mumblecore films really exist as an opposition (or less aggressively) as pointedly different to the mainstream. This is also evident in their discoveries or focus on character. Writer Lynn Hirschberg ‘…posits mumblecore as a character-centred microbudget response to a movie business that has “lost its middle,” with megabudget action blockbusters dominating the major studios’ slates’ (Hirschberg as cited in Johnston, 2014: 68).
Although the screenings for Pretty Good Friends have now finished at both cinemas (they only ran for a couple of days at both), it is initiatives such as Australian Film Focus that should be supported and encouraged by Melbourne filmmakers and cinemagoers. If Australians are ever going to start supporting local filmmaking in a legitimate way, we need more events like this and hopefully one day at the big cinema chains alongside the American crop of imports.
Despite my enthusiasm for the event, it is my contention that the filmmakers placed too much emphasis on style over substance so I can’t say in good conscience that I enjoyed the film. With this said, I applaud the team for getting the project off the ground and onto the big screen. It proved to be a stimulating night of film conversation, familiar faces and places and a glimmer of hope for low-budget films making it to the silver screen.