Funny Ha Ha Review
A recent issue of Sight And Sound focussing on the current state of American independent cinema, bemoaned the lack of support for innovation and new talent. The Sundance Film Festival, traditionally the platform for injecting new life into an almost moribund American film industry, evidently came under scrutiny, and the outlook wasn’t all that promising. Most commentators identified the emerging trend in American independent cinema as being split between low-budget, unwatchable, amateurish slice-of-life navel-gazing and the calling-card formulaic indie material of loners and outsiders seeking acceptance or at least tolerance in society – a familiar theme that, rather than making any original statement, perhaps speaks more of the filmmaker’s desire to be accepted into the mainstream film community, where they can get the funding from major studios to make the same formulaic films as everyone else.
One of the most talked about American independent films of recent years – equally praised as much as reviled - Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha could be seen as fitting into either of the two camps mentioned above – an aimless exercise in filmmaking with zero budget, zero script and zero talent, or a unique and distinctive voice that will probably never reach a wider audience (it was even rejected by Sundance, hence the 2002 film’s long roundabout journey to wider distribution) unless the director becomes subsumed into the American studio system and in the process softens and compromises the very qualities that made his films distinctive in the first place. Neither prospect is particularly promising.
Any attempt to break away from the traditional narrative cinema that prevails in mainstream American cinema however is always promising and Bujalski goes further than most in Funny Ha Ha, with an almost Dogme-like stripping-down of all the artifice that supports the conventional three-act narrative approach. Over the period of one summer, in a simple plot that almost anyone can identify with, the film follows Marnie in her half-hearted attempts to find a job and find a boyfriend. In essence, with a subject matter of characters who have relationship difficulties, crushes on other people, and the worries about finding one’s place in the world, with low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence, Funny Ha Ha is no different from similar stories put on the screen by other indie luminaries such as Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Jared Hess, Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley, and the great granddaddy of them all, Woody Allen. What distinguishes these films however and differentiates them from Funny Ha Ha, is their inventive scenarios, their clever observations and sparkling dialogue. But do these qualities mean their films have anything more perceptive or illuminating to say about how people really live, or are they just dressed-up more?
Funny Ha Ha would appear to have none of the above qualities, but what it lacks in polish, it gains in realism. This is how people live, from day-to-day with no direction or dramatic arc to frame their lives, this is how they talk with all their inarticulacy and awkward silences and this is how they act, bumping into objects and knocking things down, making stupid, ill-considered decisions and getting irrational obsessions and crushes. From an outside perspective, it’s impossible to understand how Marnie and her friends can get hung-up on people who are clearly worthless and have no visible redeeming qualities, but in the cold light of day haven’t we all wondered what we ever saw in someone with the distance of time and sobriety? Funny Ha Ha strips away all the artifice that you can usually rely on to provide you with the cinematic equivalent of beer-goggles – there are no glamorous movie-stars in designer clothes and expensive hairdos, wearing, using and consuming desirable products placed there by corporate sponsors while delivering their carefully crafted witty lines of dialogue, there are no sweeps of romantic soundtrack music on cue and there is no soft lighting to flatter the actors.
It may lack cinematic polish, but don’t be deceived into thinking that Funny Ha Ha is amateurish filmmaking. The choice of technique and style is deliberate and the craft is clearly evident. It’s hard to tell how much is improvised and how much is planned and scripted since everything about the situations feels natural and without contrivance. The camera-work is similarly invisible, not drawing attention to itself with clever angles, lighting or framing. The antecedents then are not the oft-referenced Cassavetes and the current the darlings of the American indie filmmaking scene, as much as the slacker, slice-of-life independent black-and-white independent comics that boomed in the early nineties – the likes of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve and Jeff LeVine’s No Hope. Funny Ha Ha isn’t perfect and I think we’ll see better work from Andrew Bujalski (made in 2002, this film has already been superseded by Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation) - but for better or worse, this is how life is, and like it or not, this could be the future of American independent filmmaking.
Funny Ha Ha is released in the UK by Diffusion Pictures. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (another point that would qualify the film for Dogme status) and although it might not look like much, this is probably as good as it could get. Funny Ha Ha aims very deliberately for a naturalistic appearance and its low-budget roots certainly show in the look and feel of the film. Shot on 16mm, presumably with natural lighting, the film nevertheless looks fine and is well presented here on DVD. The image is clear throughout with only a few minor marks that are probably present on the original negative anyway. There would appear to be no issues with the digital transfer to DVD, with no over-processing of the image or applied edge-enhancement, and the image is stable throughout. I saw one glitch of digital noise early in the film, but this could be down to the transfer of the film to DVD-R for the checkdisc supplied for review.
The audio track is rudimentary to say the least, the microphone picking up a lot of surrounding ambient echo and noise rather than being directionally focussed. Undoubtedly, this is also a consequence of the conditions in which the film was made and hence they way it should be. Dialogue nonetheless can be clearly heard, even if the characters mumble a lot and don’t have a great deal of importance to say.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the DVD.
The only extra feature on the DVD is a Trailer (2:08) for Bujalski’s follow-up film, Mutual Appreciation, which is similarly low-key, shot in black-and-white on 16mm.
If your idea of cinema is to entertain or at least to have a meaningful point to make - which are not unreasonable demands - chances are you’ll be very frustrated by Funny Ha Ha. It’s an uncompromising film that utterly refuses to play by the rules, giving you little in the way of dramatic contrivance or even likeable characters, and appearing to have very little to say indeed. For all its flaws, with the purity of its Dogme-like approach Funny Ha Ha however at least makes you question the validity of the way most films are made and that’s not a bad thing. Andrew Bujalski is a young director, no older than the people seen in the film (in fact it is the director himself who plays the character of Mitchell in the film), and if he is able to retain this kind of integrity in the movie industry, he will probably go on to make some fine films, certainly better ones than Funny Ha Ha. Despite its low-budget nature, the film is presented well and looks excellent on this UK Region 2 DVD edition from Diffusion.