If filmmaker Andrew Bujalski has an idea to put across, perhaps it is summarized, or hinted at, by the character he plays in Mutual Appreciation, Lawrence. When he finds out from Ellie that she experienced a “moment” with Alan, in which the two of them admitted that they shared an attraction of some sort, Lawrence responds (I paraphrase), “Why did anyone bring it up? Wouldn’t it have been better if it had remained unspoken?” In the Freudian world in which we live, this is a truly revolutionary idea. Our culture is geared toward opening up and revealing. Popular culture in particular encourages everyone to get everything off their chests. After Freud everyone feels the need to bring the unconscious to daily life and throw light on the places where secrets hide. Of course this can have positive results, but the problem with Freud, and the problem Bujalski addresses, is that a clear distinction is not made between unconscious desire and passing fancies. It may be a misinterpretation of Freud, but we do tend to think that the ultimate truth is all that which is unspoken. This is why Ellie, who is reasonably satisfied with her romantic life, feels the compulsion to confess her feelings to Alan, to in fact, drag those feelings out of him. Lawrence/Bujalski’s suggestion is simple enough, but none the less crucial: not every unspoken desire is a meaningful desire; not every vague attraction belies a deep need. Above all not every mystery needs to be unraveled and solved. In our culture there is a myth about missing out on opportunity, about living one’s life regretting what might have been. Mutual Appreciation shows, at least in part, that what might have been isn’t necessarily better than what is. We make choices in life. A million paths not taken are the lives we could have had. At some point one must live the life he or she has created, and stop worrying about what it would be like if things were different, if one lived in another town or city, if one had a different spouse or partner, or if one made a different career choice.
I preface this by saying: “if” Bujalski has an idea he wants to put across. In fact hardly any more dialogue from Mutual Appreciation or Funny Ha Ha is as interesting as the lines quoted above. Bujalski is not so much an idea man as an astute observer of behavior, and he puts it on screen in all its awkward banality. Throughout both films characters find themselves in situations where they do not know how to act. Whether in groups or in pairs, these people are always feeling each other out, sometimes brazenly testing their limits like when Alan finds himself at a “party” with three strange women who want to dress him up like a lady, sometimes excruciatingly uncertain as Alex’s phone call to Marnie to discuss something his sister should not have said. All of it rings absolutely true. Interaction seems forever superficial and efforts at meaningful communion such as Alex and Marnie’s coffee date are a beautiful mess. These people are at their best when they are alone and silent. Marnie in particular seems like a woman from a Hopper painting – everything important is happening inside. She never reacts publicly they way we are used to seeing people react to romantic frustration or heartbreak. She takes everything coolly, not even giving the viewer the satisfaction of crying when she’s alone. Instead she thinks. She mulls over her disappointment. This is the kind of filmmaking where one feels the weight of time in the shot.
There is something distinctly reminiscent of Ozu in Bujalski’s style. Both of them show deep, sincere feelings of love and affection, whether reciprocated or frustrated, without fanfare. In Ozu the characters never touch each other (think of how startling it is when troupe leader Komajuro slaps Sumiko). Ozu characters often love each other profoundly, whether husband and wife, daughter and father or old friends from school, but they never lay a hand on one another even in the most incidental way. Though kissing is often portrayed as an embarrassing mistake in Funny Ha Ha (Marnie kissing Gary the engineer or being kissed by Dave) and Mutual Appreciation (Sara throwing herself at Alan), Bujalski shows plenty of incidental physical contact. Everybody lays their head in each other’s laps, draping arms and legs over one another. Nobody has any qualms about personal space in these films. Instead Bujalski avoids having his characters make a scene. They don’t yell and scream when they are hurt or angry. Marnie looks sad. Mitchell and Lawrence talk calmly and clearly about their concerns, desires and disappointments. Though they do not emote, these characters are not at all Bressonian. They display a degree of maturity we simply do not expect from people in daily life, to say nothing of what we expect from people on the screen.
Perhaps this is Bujalski’s idea: one can live intensely and never have to throw a fit. One can suffer a spectrum of disappointments and can go on any number of strange and wonderful adventures and never have to shout it from the rooftops. This seems to have brought me back to the first thought in this little essay. Both ideas are about the value of the internal world. Here is where I would normally give you a tidy conclusion, but since Bujalski does no such thing in his films, it seems inappropriate.