Funny Ha Ha

Alfred Hitchcock may have preferred “slices of cake” to “slices of life,” but the cinema has excelled at both ever since its inception. If the latter is more rare in American film production, it has appeared from the works of Robert J. Flaherty to Little Fugitive (1953), a film remembered this year for the death of Morris Engel last May and for its impact on independent cinema, John Cassavetes, and the French New Wave. More than painting, music, or literature, film has an astonishing ability to record ordinary people in ordinary settings with an aural and visual clarity that can be mesmerizing.

Andrew Bujalski’s independent 16mm film, Funny Ha Ha (2003), released theatrically in Los Angeles this past weekend, exemplifies this tradition and is one of the most captivating movies I’ve seen all year. In fact, it brings to mind the age-old conundrum that occurs whenever critics make profound psychological, or even existential, connections with certain films; one doesn’t want to simply gush or describe personal points of reference in too great detail, but contextualize the film’s aesthetic, cultural, and formal qualities in ways that might be helpful to others. But while Funny Ha Ha has fairly unique formal qualities (especially when compared to other films showing at the multiplex), the bottom line is, I simply bonded with the film’s protagonist named Marnie, a post-college slacker in Boston, and found her quiet moods and inner tensions completely absorbing.

This absorption is all the more impressive since I have little connection to Marnie’s lifestyle (played beautifully by Kate Dollenmayer, a film student who animated part of Waking Life). Her lackadaisical, twentysomething life of social parties and temporary jobs, and her apparent disinterest in culture beyond a brief discussion of Twilight Zone reruns, places her in a different demographic from me. As John Esther, a critic for a local weekly, groused, ” I know there are young people in Boston who read good books and discuss serious films, have interesting jobs, and are politically engaged with the climate. Those people are absent in Funny Ha Ha.”

And he’s right; although this film features large swathes of dialogue explaining–or trying to explain, or obscuring–its characters’ inner worlds, these aren’t the articulate, amateur philosophers found in films by Richard Linklater or Eric Rohmer. Some of the personalities I found annoying (a compliment to the film’s tangible characterizations). But all of the characters are admirably confused and utterly unpretentious, and navigate the pressures of modern life as a precarious balancing act between the past, present, and possible future; hesitant to commit, yet drawing boundaries and taking action when required. Most of the time, they seem overwhelmed in the uncertainty between opportunity and limitation, dreams and reality. And that unresolved tension is so perfectly expressed by the film that it will likely resonate with anyone who has ever had to struggle with social expectations or life decisions.

Further, the film expresses this tension through its impressive extended gaze of Marnie’s “uneventful” life as she meets friends and new acquaintances, reuniting with them in mundane cafÈs, grocery stores, living rooms, and restaurants. But Bujalski downplays each setting, cutting into the dialogue without establishing shots, focusing on the characters and their arrangement and proximity to each other in ways that invite close observation. Dollenmayer’s low-key naturalism is a perfect compliment to the camera’s hand-held gaze, presenting a touching combination of amiable nonchalance and emotional yearning; each of the film’s nonprofessional actors (including Bujalski himself) exhibit vulnerable, uninhibited, convincing performances partly improvised from an established script. And while most of the conversations are light-hearted and amusing (though rarely laugh-out-loud funny ha ha), an underlying melancholy grounds its emotional base.

The end credits, written by hand, thank a number of people, including Chantal Akerman, a filmmaker Bujalski studied under at Harvard in the late-’90s, and Funny Ha Ha resembles her work in its respect for documentary reality and especially its sense of restlessness and rootlessness. The film’s characters may live in Boston, but it’s a Boston beyond the definition of the camera, a placeholder for their emerging lives that may or may not figure into their future. Although there are a couple oblique references to parents, virtually none of the young adult characters in the film refer to their parents or family and seem to exist as virtual refugees of history, seeking their place in society and tentatively tasting the options available to them. Regardless of their current interests (or lack of interests), one has the sense that their ongoing openness to the vagaries of life holds considerable promise.

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