Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Funny Ha Ha

A while back, I was whining about Garden State, a movie that attempted to convey the uncertainties of twentysomethings. Well, here comes a movie about people the same age that gets it perfectly right: Funny Ha Ha by Andrew Bujalski.

There are several ace American filmmakers who have traveled this way before. I'm thinking of Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, whose movies are all screenwriting-driven and dialogue-dependent. Smart, analytical, witty talk is at the heart of their films. In particular, Funny Ha Ha reminded me a bit of Baumbach's 1995 Kicking And Screaming, with Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey. But there is a key difference between Bujalski and these directors.

At Harvard, Bujalski studied documentary filmmaking, not screenwriting, and the difference shows. There is dialogue in Funny Ha Ha, but almost none of it is of the funny ha ha variety. Instead, he records the often silent, awkward and inarticulate moments that we all know so well from real life. It feels like we are watching a documentary.

And yet, the most interesting aspect of this film for me is that it is not a documentary. It is a deliberately crafted, carefully edited fiction film that applies documentary principles. It does not merely film a pre-existing reality the way a documentary might. It re-creates a reality, based upon a structured script. It is not an autobiographical film, the director has said, but instead a personal film.

Reality itself does not automatically make for art. Simply photographing reality does not create art. Reality needs to be selected, guided and shaped by an artist into art. Funny Ha Ha feels spontaneous, voyeuristic, and "real" and it's easy to think that Bujalski turned on the camera and watched while his non-professional actors played out their daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the director shot the film in 16 mm rather than video partly because film is inherently a more painterly medium than video and thus his movie will less likely be confused as an improvisationally-based "reality show".

And now to end with a customary gripe about the commercial state of film art in America. Bujalski has received dozens of ecstatic reviews for Funny Ha Ha and has just finished his second film. He still remains unable to make a living with his filmmaking and is current applying for a position to sub in the Boston public school system.

Doug has written a terrific review of the film.


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