Why mumblecore nudity will never go mainstream.

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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.

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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.

In those rare instances when nudity is shown in a nonsexual context in a Hollywood movie, it is rarely casual. Sometimes it's a very big deal, like Julianne Moore's famous pantless scene in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts [link very NSFW]. She's having a major argument with Matthew Modine's character, and when he registers that she's half-naked, he screams, "You don't have any panties on!" In other instances, nudity is played for laughs—this is often the case with male nudity. In a DoubleX article from last summer, Willa Paskin noticed the trend of flaccid penises showing up in comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In that film, Jason Segel's character surprises his girlfriend naked when she walks in the door after a long trip. When he realizes that she is dumping him, he demands that she break up with him while he's still unclothed.

Even if a mainstream movie wanted to employ the casual nudity of a mumblecore film, it would be difficult to pull off. Mumblecore movies are highly collaborative affairs, often made by close friends. Typically, the actors also have writing credits and do some work behind the camera. Director Joe Swanberg, for example, is naked on-screen in Nights and Weekends and in his Web series Young American Bodies. Lena Dunham, the writer, director, and star of Tiny Furniture, a recent festival darling, told me over the phone, "I've never gotten naked for another director, which for me is defining." She appears in varying degrees of undress in her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, and in Tiny Furniture. Her co-stars in Tiny Furniture are her real-life mother and sister, so when she is walking around with no pants on it's that much more of a safe space. This intimacy would be tough to manufacture in a big-budget movie, not just because it's rare for A-list actors to know one another so well, but also because there are so many more crew members involved in a bigger productions.

Perhaps the most significant reason true mumblecore-style nudity is unlikely to ever really make it into the mainstream comes down to money. Mumblecore movies are so small that they do not get rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. If they were rated, most of them would likely get the dreaded NC-17. A quick perusal of the top-grossing NC-17 films shows that the rating means comparative box-office death.

The earthy feel to the films that Greta Gerwig and her cohort have developed may "blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema," as Scott tentatively predicts in his essay. And while true mumblecore-style nudity might never show up in a box-office blowout—as Dunham says, "It's not like you're going to see a James Cameron movie with chubby girls naked"—it could show up in smaller, lower key mainstream productions. If directors are looking for an example of how this might work, though, they should skip the painful sex scenes in Greenberg in favor of one that really does capture the spirit of the Gerwig aesthetic. Toward the end of the movie, on the eve of an emotionally fraught event, Gerwig dances drunkenly around her apartment in tights and a shirt. She's not naked but looks like she's taken off an uncomfortable skirt in order to relax after a trying day. Who among us has not performed this sort of half-clothed ritual alone in our rooms? It's as vulnerable and true as that Corona-sipping sex scene is brutish and contrived.

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