In the closing minutes of Funny Ha Ha, the first movie from writer/director Andrew Bujalski, there is a marvelous one-two punch that sums up the entire film. While alone on her lunch break, Marnie sits quietly and takes an inventory of her life. She pulls out a notepad and makes a list of personal goals:
- Go without drinking one month
- Go to museums
- Spend more time outside
- Become a better cook
- Learn to play chess?
- Fitness initiative!!!
In the next scene Marnie is spending a pleasant afternoon with a friend, playing basketball and learning chess. It seems to be going well until her friend expresses disapproval at her sullen demeanor. “I just think we had a nice day, and now’s not a good time to be depressed,” he says with beer in hand. “I mean, what more do you want from life?”
Marnie recoils from the question immediately. “I don’t want anything!” she says. His hostility isn’t appreciated. But more than that, she seems embarrassed by the proposition of expecting greater things from life.
Plenty of preachers, authors and churchfolks like to speculate on the kids getting ready to rule America for the next 40 years, what some call the first “postmodern” generation. What kind of young adult is produced by a Western society jettisoning many of its traditional values and strictures, by a culture that has rejected any universal worldview may place limits on the individual’s construction of meaning and pursuit of life?
Of course the answer (which many Christians still don’t seem to understand) is that there isn’t any one kind of person produced in such a setting. One could become clumsily ambitious like a character in a Wes Anderson film or wistfully conservative like someone in a Whit Stillman film, both in their own ways leading to something amusing and endearing. One could also turn out like someone in an Andrew Bujalski film—no less amusing or endearing, but for Christians something more disturbingly poignant.
The characters in his movies stumble over language, feeling the need to qualify or immediately retract every statement they make. They’ve been educated on the power (and misuse) of language to the point that when they have something on their minds they’re too cautious or unsure to verbalize it. Instead they fill their speech with placeholders such as “like” and “um.” Their talk is dotted with awkward pauses, mispronunciations and verbatim repetitions of what someone else just said. The result is an increasing inability to say what they mean and mean what they say—or say anything at all, for that matter.
Bujalski’s characters also stumble through relationships with the same awkwardness. Their parents took sex and love from the confinds of traditional American values so that they are capable of kissing two different persons at a party on a drunken whim, neither of which is the guy or girl they’re actually interested in. When it comes to the person they really like, sex has very little to do with it—or maybe a lot to do with it; they don’t know. If there is anything of lasting relational significance in Bujalski’s films, it is not found anymore in physical attraction or romance but in the comforts of friendship, an idea explored at length in his feature Mutual Appreciation. It’s evident in the title of the movie itself: there’s a subtle shift from a more common phrase and concept to search for something that sounds similar, but is more modest and dependable.
The subjects of his films have sometimes been labeled affectionately by critics as slackers or college kids who refuse to grow up. This description seems to miss the real edge of Bujalski’s writing. Calling someone a slacker assumes that the person actually has a task or job they’re supposed to be doing. In contrast, the young adults of Bujalski’s world are entrusted so forcefully with their own autonomy and with the (liberating) promise that life is whatever they choose to make of it, they find themselves helpless.
If they seem stuck in a series of false career starts or aimlessly wandering through their 20s, it’s not because they are unmotivated or lazy. It’s because for most people who are fairly introspective and cautious in their actions the total freedom to do anything you please can be paralyzing. And if you shouldn’t expect anything more from life than a pleasant afternoon, what incentive could you possibly have for coming up with some grand career plan?
Bujalski’s films are not easy to watch. They’re made on a shoestring budget, contain very little by way of plot and are shot on a grainy 16mm film that gave me a headache the first time I saw his work in a theatre. But if you patiently endure all these things and curb the expectations that have come from years of watching movies with a very different logic, you will see some of the most heartbreakingly accurate and poignant portrayals of our postmodern generation in cinema today. It’s a world without a meta-narrative, a world with language no one seems comfortable using any more, a world without any promise of meaningful relations beyond friendship, a world with so much individual autonomy people end up powerless, a world with an aching question posed quietly at its center.
For churchfolk who look to movies as a barometer of culture, an indicator of how our collective language and symbols and expectations in the West are moving past Christianity, few young filmmakers provide the kind of rich fodder Bujalski does. It’s no small coincidence that the character probing Marnie on her expectations for life is played by Bujalski himself. The films he’s making raise the same question constantly.
Besides, any filmmaker who can write a line like “You’re a beautiful woman—or girl, whichever you prefer,” deserves at least one viewing.