Funny Ha Ha (Dir. Andrew Bujalski 2002)
As part of a larger PhD project examining a range of promotional media, I’ve recently been considering the ways that film trailer sound—the music, dialogue and ambient noise—plays a role in shaping the spaces of American indie film culture, which is thought to originate roughly from the mid-1980s. In my research so far I’ve been exploring the idea that the sound mix in trailers for independent films has worked, in its own particular way, to both inform and construct indie as a series of concepts, practices and viewing spaces. What follows reflects a few of my initial thoughts on indie trailer-scapes through the lens of ‘Mumblecore’, which will be fleshed out and brought into conjunction with other types of indie filmmaking and promotion over the coming months.
As a strand of American independent filmmaking associated with a characteristic sound, Mumblecore has been especially illuminating in helping to understand how sound in the film trailer operates, and to what effects. In popular discourse the term ‘Mumblecore’, thought to have been coined by a sound designer as a joke, has come to refer to a series of independent films that emerged early to mid-2000s that demonstrate certain sonic and narrative characteristics. Although the ‘mumbling’ aspect has been associated with slightly loose, vague and meandering narratives, similarly the distinct sounds of films such as The Puffy Chair (Mark and Jay Duplass 2005), Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski 2005), Four Eyed Monsters (Susan Buice and Arin Crumbly 2005), and LOL (Joe Swanberg 2006) have been described by Nessa Johnston as markers of an excessive “indie-ness” that highlights an improvised tone, a lack of formal training, and a low-budget aesthetic that attests to naturalism (2007: 69). The music and ambient sound in the trailer for Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski 2002), often thought to be the first mumblecore film, does appear to speak to these elements in its catchy indie tunes and its lack of sound effects; but more than this, in forming a sonic space with its own tonal character, the trailer can also be seen to draw from and shape notions of a particular indie “territory” through its sound design.
The Funny Ha Ha trailer features three songs by Brooklyn-based indie rock band Bishop Allen, who also appear in the film: ‘Busted Heart’, ‘Another Wasted Night’, and ‘Things Are What You Make Of Them’ (in order of appearance) play alongside scenes from the film and title cards. However, the flux in music volume throughout the trailer forms a consistent interplay between foreground and background, rhythmically shifting focus between the aesthetic qualities of the songs and the images. The songs can be described as modest and humble, forming catchy and simplistic indie-pop beats through guitars, bass, drums and keyboard. Notably, there is a lack of explicitly synthesised sounds or technological gloss. Even the voice of the lead singer (Justin Rice) has an untrained quality that, to my ear, is charming in its slightly offbeat style; a wobbling tone that seems modestly awkward and perhaps a little unsure of itself, but persists with gusto regardless. Of course, this is also an assessment that could be levelled at the narrative, which follows a small group of post-college early twenty-somethings as they embark on “adult” life, and the low-budget aesthetic of the image (filmed on 16mm). In Wendy Fonarow’s analysis of British indie music culture, she states: “For indie, a raw, simple, underproduced quality to sound suggests closeness to the wellspring of musical authenticity” (2006: 42). Although the image quality evident in the Funny Ha Ha trailer certainly exhibits such “raw” and “underproduced” elements (in its use of 16mm film, ‘natural’ lighting and on-location filming), I believe that sound design also prominently speaks to the supposed “authenticity” of the film. Such a dynamic might be considered as a sign of a significant overlap in indie discourse between the spaces of film and music cultures, and one worthy of further exploration; suggesting convergence between these media forms that not only allow them to speak to one another in the trailer format, but also illustrate something of the mobility of indie audiences between different media realms.
It would be an understatement to say that the scenes and dialogue are simply ‘well-matched’ to the music; they form a mutually productive synergy, the latter of which is noticeably isolated through sound design in both the trailer and film. There is a lack of ambient sound in the trailer’s scenes: one sees Marni (Kate Dollenmayer) running into a friend and his wife unexpectedly at the supermarket, a place that one would assume to be filled with bustling ambient noise. Yet the soundtrack only registers the trios’ dialogue, which although accompanied in the trailer by the music track, appears to draw focus to the cringingly stilted conversation between them. Together, the music and dialogue foreground the awkward interactions and anxious articulations that have come to characterise not only this film and Mumblecore, but have also to some degree become recognisable artefacts of indie more broadly; perhaps not least in some part due to the advertising and marketing discourses surrounding films such as Funny Ha Ha, as but one film that attempts to claim a foothold in the spaces of indie through a range of promotional methods that includes the trailer soundtrack.
There is also an important commercial synergy to consider, with the sudden and unexplained changes in songs throughout the trailer being reminiscent of the ability to skip through CD albums and MP3s. It is worth emphasising however that only the beginnings of the songs are played, forming a trailer consisting of three distinct tonal registers. I am reminded here of Raymond Williams’ concept of televisual “flow”; originally related to television of the broadcast era, flow suggests that programming—aimed at keeping viewers watching—attempted to generate fluid movement through programming and advertising that would lead the viewer from one show to the next (2000: 233). Distilled in this trailer is a sense of flow between the scenes and songs that together form a series of different tonal textures and appeals to the film (a budding romance, quirky comedy, and potential heartache). But, it is a flow made potent through the very format of the trailer, itself made up of “beginnings” and promises. Vinzenz Hediger points out that the trailer is a space where “infinite possibility dwells, where the world, and the world of images, is all it can be” (2004: 154). To this I would add that sound in the trailer also plays a crucial role in forming this space of beginnings, generating a sense of anticipation not only for the middle and end of the images but also for the music soundtrack; here Bishop Allen’s 2003 album Charm School that features all three songs.
Even though it is almost too easy to become caught up with comparing indie trailers with the Hollywood “mainstream” as a negative and reductive binary comparison, my thinking is that it is perhaps more fruitful to consider—as I have begun in a small way to outline here—the specific dynamics and intricacies of these film trailer soundtracks through representative case studies of strands such as Mumblecore. I wonder if not enough attention has been given to the ways that trailers work to both forge connections between and differentiate indie film products, not only from Hollywood, but from other types of independent filmmaking and media such as music; and also, how these promotional styles and practices work to form ‘indie’ despite its many different rivulets and offshoots, as a series of spaces that converge to form a film culture.
Erin Pearson is a PhD candidate at University of East Anglia. Her work explores the ways that promotional materials work to shape the discursive and physical spaces of American ‘indie’ film culture. Erin has contributed a chapter focusing on the role of review journalism in structuring indie to the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Indie (ed. Geoff King). She has also written for Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series, and is the reviews editor for Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.
Fonarow, Wendy. 2006. Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. Music/culture Series. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
Hediger, Vinzenz. 2004. ‘A Cinema of Memory in the Future Tense: Godard, Trailers and Godard Trailers’. In For Ever Godard, edited by James Williams, 141–59. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Johnston, Nessa. 2014. ‘Theorizing “Bad” Sound: What Puts the “Mumble” into Mumblecore?’ The Velvet Light Trap 74: 67–79.
Williams, Raymond. 2000. “Programming as Sequence or Flow.” In Media Studies: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham and Paul Marris, 231-237. New York: New York University Press.