Unheard Voice of Our Generation

If the voice of a generation speaks but nobody’s around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

This is the kind of question that might provoke a grimace from filmmaker Andrew J. Bujalski ’98; indeed, this prompt is exactly the sort of empty cliché his films refuse to embrace. Further, the “voice of a generation” is a label Bujalski refuses to accept: “Go out and poll my generation and see how many of them feel like I embody their voice,” he says in a telephone interview with The Crimson.

But despite the well-deserved critical accolades heaped upon Bujalski, few people hailing from his generation are familiar with his name or work.

Like the student who chooses a Philosophy degree over an investment-banking career, Bujalski has de-prioritized commercial viability and doggedly followed his artistic vision

As his second feature film, “Mutual Appreciation,” arrives in theatres across the country, one thing seems clear; whether or not he achieves mainstream success, Bujalski has become one of the most provocative young voices in American cinema.

FROM THE BRATTLE TO THE

BIG SCREEN

“I could never have made the films I’ve been making if not for the background I had at Harvard,” Bujalski, a former Currier House resident, says. He refers to the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Department’s emphasis on the basics—how to run the camera, how to run the sound, how to edit on a flatbed—as indispensable.

“They really make it clear that that’s all you need to make a film, that everything else, technically, is bells and whistles,” he says.

And if there’s a defining feature of Bujalski’s aesthetic, it’s certainly not bells and whistles. “Mutual Appreciation” is filmed in grainy black and white and consists of nuanced scenes with partially improvised, wholly organic dialogue, and sparse background music.

It is a talking picture in which “not much happens”—that is, the type that’s difficult to synopsize—but, unlike the pleasantly rambling street philosophers who populate Richard Linklater’s films, Bujalski’s characters speak with the faltering cadence of everyday life.

It evokes cinema verite, populated by characters who continue to exist even after the few moments they spend on-screen. There is a veneer of calmness that belies a deep anxiety expressed in the jittery camerawork. As in everyday interactions, the import of the film lies in its subtler implications.

Bujalski’s style can make his films difficult, but for loyalists, it’s part of the appeal.

“I think these films in some ways are built to be open to interpretation,” Bujalski says. “They really need an audience to meet them halfway, and you have to see your own truth or falsehood or whatever you see in there.”

AN ELITE POPULIST

But such an audience has had to seek out Bujalski’s micro-budget films, due to their limited runs at small theaters across the country. “Mutual Appreciation” has had an eight-day run at the Brattle Theatre prior to its migration to Brookline’s Coolidge Theatre, where it will show at least until October 5—although it could stay longer, depending on critical and audience reception.

Students who managed to see the film at the Brattle reacted positively, as did their professionally critical peers; but these viewers are of the type that regularly reads film reviews and checks the Brattle’s website. This ensures that, for the near future, Bujalski’s films are likely to find a limited audience of cinephiles.

And indeed, Bujalski’s influences—as noted by film critics—include John Cassevetes, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer: brilliant artists whose work is largely unnoticed by the casual filmgoer.

But obscurity is not what Bujalski intends: “My biggest fear at the moment is that my films might be elitist, which I never intended them to be, and I don’t ultimately think that they are,” he says.

Indeed, as important as his VES degree were Bujalski’s extra-curricular hours spent at the Harvard Film Archive or the Brattle. His tastes are broad: ask him what the last good film he saw was, and he’ll tell you “Predator”; ask him about the impact of studio “specialty divisions” like Focus Features, and he’ll tell you that a great film can come from anywhere—the streets, a specialty division, or a big studio.

Ultimately, despite their compositional nuances, Bujalski’s films are simply enjoyable to watch. Hearing the characters in “Mutual Appreciation” discuss death by “ass cancer” or watching Alan (indie rocker Justin A. Rice ’99 of the band Bishop Allen) play a small yet immeasurably passionate show provokes laughter free of analysis.

ZACH WHO?

Bujalski’s post-collegiate wanderers in “Mutual Appreciation”—filled with all the indecision and inaction combined with his own great talent—make the “voice of a generation” characterization all too easy to bandy about. But self-proclaimed generational spokesman-cum-indie-pop guru Zach Braff has the one thing Bujalski lacks: omnipresent marketing.

Bujalski says his primary concern is to get people to find “Mutual Appreciation” in theatres or to put his first feature, “Funny Ha Ha” at the top of their Netflix queues.

“I’ve had the opportunity to say, ‘Well, let’s make marketing the last priority,’” he says.

“So what do you get? Well, you get our campaign, which has been difficult for us to craft and has not been the most successful marketing campaign in the world. But, it allows me to make the film the way I want to make it, and the people who have responded to the film, obviously, I think, see something in it that they’re not seeing in other films.”

Bujalski’s voice is perfectly suited for this generation; what remains to be seen is whether he can get us to perk up our ears and listen.

—Staff writer Patrick R. Chesnut can be reached at pchesnut@fas.harvard.edu