For Moviemaker, Inspiration from Harvard

“Funny Ha Ha,” the critically acclaimed film by Andrew J. Bujalski ’98, starts and ends on a low note.

The film, which screened at the Harvard Film Archive on Thursday in honor of its 10th anniversary, opens with the protagonist—a twenty-four-year old woman named Marnie—drunkenly wandering into a tattoo parlor only to be denied service by a benevolent tattoo artist. The film ends with a picnic between Marnie and her recently-married best friend Alex, for whom she has harbored unrequited amorous feelings.

Bujalski, who graduated with a degree from the College in Visual and Environmental Studies, said during a discussion after the film screening that his studies at Harvard had a significant impact on his filmmaking style. In particular, he said, the emphasis on documentary film in Harvard’s VES department shaped the way that he thinks about creating movies.

“I think of narrative filmmaking as some sort of strange form of documentary and myself as a documentarian who’s too lazy to follow people around,” Bujalski said before a packed room at the Harvard Film Archive.

The film, which first came out in 2002, bears traces of Bujalski’s time at Harvard. Parts of the movie were filmed across the river in Allston and, according to the director, about a third of the cast graduated from the University.

Bujalski said he prefers to create movies that leave the audience grappling with loose ends.

“I never want to situate the audience,” Bujalski said. “I always want you guys to find your own way into it.”

Since graduating from Harvard, Bujalski has directed four films professionally. Funny Ha Ha was Bujalki’s debut project.

Critics have placed Funny Ha Ha into the mumblecore subgenre of independent films, a category characterized by non-professional acting and colloquial dialog.

But, during the discussion, Bujalski said he hesitates to accept the mumblecore label for his film.

“I have this strange dissociation from the word mumblecore,” Bujalski said. “I read that word in the New York Times...and I don’t really see my work as fitting that label.”

Thursday’s screening drew a group of viewers from beyond the Harvard bubble that ranged from Cambridge residents to members of the film industry.

Saul Levine, an experimental filmmaker at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said that he enjoyed watching the film despite his usual aversion to the mumblecore genre.

“It’s not so characteristic of mumblecore which often is sentimental,” Levine said. “It delivers on the irony and anger that I think many of the other films [in the genre] want but don’t quite get together.”

Bujalski said he has found it fascinating to observe how people react to his work, which he called “unconventional.”

“I never people getting frustrated and w imagined alking out,” said Bujualski. “I never thought it was possible until it happened.”