Why mumblecore nudity will never go mainstream.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 1 2010 3:32 PM

Naked Honesty

Why mumblecore nudity will never go mainstream.

Nights and Weekends. Click image to expand.
Nights and Weekends 

Greta Gerwig is usually nude at some point in the movies she appears in. This fact was addressed by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott last weekend in an article about Gerwig's breakthrough performance in the Noah Baumbach movie Greenberg: "When she takes off her clothes—which is not infrequently—it does not seem teasing or exhibitionistic but disarmingly matter-of-fact." Scott argues that Gerwig's unaffected nude scenes in Greenberg share the aesthetic of her earlier work in so-called mumblecore films—ultra-low budget, often-improvised movies about lost twentysomethings. He sees Gerwig as carrying the "loose, no-big-deal" mumblecore aesthetic into Baumbach's film and believes she has the potential to take it even further into the mainstream "Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation," Scott writes.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Greenberg does occasionally achieve the loose feel of a mumblecore film, thanks, in no small part, to Gerwig's performance. Yet it is a mistake to equate Gerwig's nudity in Greenberg with the nudity in mumblecore movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Humpday, Nights and Weekends, Tiny Furniture,and Alexander the Last. Gerwig could become the definitive screen actress of her generation, but there are limits to how much of her aesthetic she'll be able to bring to more mainstream pictures—and it's especially hard to imagine Hollywood ever really adopting the approach to nudity that's been a hallmark of her mumblecore work.

Advertisement

When Gerwig is naked or semi-naked in Greenberg, it is always in a sexual context. Much has been made of the supremely awkward sex scenes between Gerwig and Ben Stiller, particularly their first encounter. As Slate's Dana Stevens describes it, "Baumbach throws the two together on a cringingly bad sort-of date that segues in a matter of minutes from a shared Corona to a truncated act of cunnilingus." Gerwig's nudity in that scene is anything but matter-of-fact: Baumbach seems to be going out of his way to make her appear ungainly, outfitting her in an unflattering bandeau bra that Stiller's character has trouble removing. Furthermore, there is a visual imbalance between the pair. Gerwig's character is half-clothed, while Stiller remains completely dressed. That Gerwig is a relative unknown while Stiller is one of the most famous, recognizable men in the country further exacerbates this imbalance.

Actors in mumblecore movies get naked to have sex too, and they have a lot of it. But the nakedness really is matter-of-fact—there's a sense of intimacy that feels authentic and nonjudgmental, though it's not always pretty. In Nights and Weekends, the opening scene shows Gerwig and her co-star Joe Swanberg, bursting into a dingy, post-grad apartment and having sex on the floor. They are a couple in a long-distance relationship who have not seen each other for months, and without any dialogue the two convey their excitement. Both are equally naked in this scene and Swanberg is obviously aroused. For the viewer, there is again a sense of recognition: This is probably what I look like having sex. In a mumblecore film, there are no manicured Hollywood caresses, and the bodies portrayed are not Hollywood bodies—one Variety reviewer described Lena Dunham's figure inTiny Furniture as "Neither model-thin nor obese"—but they're not made out to be freakish, nor are they especially sexualized. They just are.

What's more, actors in mumblecore movies are often nude in nonsexual contexts: They're taking a shower (Nights and Weekends) or walking around their apartment in their underwear (Tiny Furniture). The nakedness doesn't titillate; it's mundane—the viewer thinks, This is probably what I look like while I'm brushing my teeth in the morning.

This is not to say that the nudity in Greenberg has no mumblecore DNA at all. Gerwig didn't do several months of yogarobics to be naked on-camera—in a very un-Hollywood turn, she gained 15 pounds for Greenberg—not because Baumbach requested it but because she felt her character, Florence, was someone whose "thighs rubbed together when she walked." Usually when an A-list actress agrees to be nude in a movie, it is only after being assured that she will be shot in the most flattering way possible. In the recently released Atom Egoyan movie Chloe, for example, Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore are both fully nude, but they both have "ideal" bodies and are made to look as glorious and erotic as possible.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.