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Netflix’s Easy: Mumblecore’s Origins and Season 2

EASY -- "Spent Grain" Season 2, Episode 4 -- Pictured: Zazie Beetz as Noelle and Dave Franco as Jeff

Before I start discussing Easy, I’d like to talk a bit about its creator, Joe Swanberg, and the Mumblecore film movement, a style of independent filmmaking originated in the early 2000s. If you’d like to just read the review on Easy Season 2, scroll down to that section.

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Mumblecore is a subgenre of American independent filmmaking noted for its low-budget production, on location settings, flexible story scripts, and emphasis on naturalistic dialogue and acting. It is in many ways, a result of the rise of independent movies of the 1990s (think Slacker, Clerks and Before Sunrise). Where 1980’s cinema was defined by big budget blockbusters (think Star Wars, Back to The Future, Ghostbusters) and large competing multiplex theaters, the 1990’s saw a resurgence in independent films: movies that steered away from traditional Hollywood structure using a more intimate and down-to-earth approach to storytelling.

To be fair, independent movie making outside of a major studio has been around since the beginning of movies. United Artists, technically the first independent movie studio (and now one of the largest), was founded by key figures of the Golden Age of Hollywood. People like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, sought to operate outside of a big studio system, where movies were produced in excess and decisions were dictated by greedy moneymen during a time of little financial regulation, and even smaller entertainment competition.

So independent movies have been around for a long time. Though much of today’s indie scene, including Mumblecore, has its roots in the styles of French New Wave cinema of the 1960s. Characterized by subversive film techniques, French New Wave was an avant-garde exploration of style and expression where the director could share their subjective world in all its quirks and absurdities. In a post-WWII France that refused to break from narrative tradition, French New Wave represented a voice for its youth that acknowledged that things could never return. Nor should they. Its outside the box approach included long tracking shots, jarring narrative jump cuts, themes of existential absurdity, and sarcastic irony and meta-references to other films and movie techniques. Above-all-else, the driving factor that defined French New Wave cinema: subversion of expectation (think 1, 2, kitty). Kitty? See, subversion of expectation. You expected the number 3. Ya got a kitty.

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I shall name you… Schrodinger.

French New Wave was about bending the rules and less about traditional story telling. It’s obsession with characterization included making both the style and the audience characters participating in part of the film watching experience (think breaking the fourth wall. Or my kitty example). French New Wave would later influence the boom of American indie cinema of the 1970’s (think Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Bonnie and Clyde), who then in turn, inspired many of the filmmakers of the 1990’s.

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Like how this scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Bande à part’

 

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Would go on to influence this scene, from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’

So how is this related to Mumblecore?

In the early 2000’s, film school growth and costs grew exponentially. The cost of tuition at a prestigious film school became comparable to that of a micro-budget film. Atop that, film schools were slow to adapt to the newfound digital landscape. Digital cameras and editing software was cheaper and more accessible to use, yet schools still more or less focused on shooting with traditional film (And a lot still do).

Enter mumblecore. Intimate yet less cinematic, mumblecore was the style many film school dropouts and fresh out of college artists were using to approach movie making, mostly by using a whatever works approach. Applying much of what French New Wave had done with dialogue and characterization, this subgenre was known for being shot with minimal camera technique utilizing cheap and localized settings. It’s most defining attribute: it’s collaborative effort. Many mumblecore filmmakers pull real life experiences and natural conversations from its actors, trashing scripts for real drama caught on camera. And while the dialogue and story threads often feel meandering at times, the portrayals in mumblecore films are about as real as they come. A result of capturing human interaction in a very raw way.

But where French New Wave’s intent was to subvert with style, Mumblecore’s was to generate content their way. To make films anyway possible using a do-it-yourself approach because the alternative was costly and inaccessible. What mumblecore didn’t realize at the time, was how much it would come to represent the throngs of aimless young adults unable to articulate, or comprehend, what they’re supposed to do next. To become the voice of the millennial hipster.

Prominent careers that have come out this movement. Greta Gerwig (Director of the Golden Globe winning Ladybird) was a frequent collaborator and actress on a number of Joe Swanberg’s early films. Lena Dunham (creator of HBO series Girls) got her big break through her mumblecore film Tiny Furniture. And the Duplass Brothers (Tangerine, Jeff who lives at Home) co-produced a mumblecore movie called Safety Not Guaranteed, an indie gem that would go on to attract Hollywood attention to its director Colin Trevorrow, writer and director of the Jurassic World movies.

Coincidentally, Mumblecore’s rise and fall coincided with hipsters and the genesis of YouTube. Its do-it-yourself mantra of filmmaking, permeates almost every aspect of internet related content making. That is not to say mumblecore was responsible for the DIY approach, but rather it’s accolades and coincidental boom and acceptance into the culture, helped pave the way for modern indies.

Joe Swanberg is considered one of the founding fathers of mumblecore. His movies Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs, are considered staples in the genre’s history, with emphasis on Swanberg’s stylistic approach on topics of sex, love, and technology, all mostly set within his hometown of Chicago. Easy, the Netflix original series, is precisely that. Vignettes shot in mumblecore fashion, dealing with issues about love, sex, and technology, all taking place within the second city.

‘Easy’: Season 2

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Critics hailed season one of Easy as one of the best shows no one was watching. From its overt motifs about sexuality (The show is called Easy for a reason) to its low-key marketing pandered towards aging millennial hipsters, Easy seems like yet another indulgent melodrama of the snowflake generation. While the show is similar to Joe Swanberg’s previous works in mumblecore, most notably, in its exploration of growth and responsibility, what differentiates the series lies in its sincerity. It’s well-contextualized exploration of taboo and modern romance.

Covering the gamut of relational subjects regarding role play, activism, feminism, and even polyamory, Easy is by far one of the most representational shows about romance and sexuality I’d ever seen. Even more compelling, is it’s shot in mumblecore fashion, using outlines over full written screenplays.

For this reason, Joe Swanberg was very particular in his casting. It’s cast ranging in age from individuals in their 20’s to 50’s. Just like other works by Swanberg, many of the actors pulled from real life experiences, with several playing slightly altered versions of themselves. For instance, in season one Mark Maron, a stand-up comedian/podcaster, plays a graphic novelist who writes stories taken from his personal life. That same episode, Emily Ratajkowski, the famed model, portrays a selfie-artist that showcases personalized selfies for a living.

Like in season one, season two takes place mostly in Chicago’s north side by Lincoln Square. There are also many returning characters, but you don’t have to watch season one to understand. In this sense, the series is similar in style to Paris Je T’aime or New York I love You. Stories about romance between the city and the respective culture of its people. Each story operates like its own slice-of-life movie with something poignant to express.

I reviewed each episode individually below with a short premise and take away, minus the spoilers. Overall, I felt that this season was stronger than season one, and that it opened the door for covering more relational and culturally sensitive topics beyond sexuality. To me, easy season two took a step forward, With Joe Swanberg’s style moving beyond its romantic adolescence and moved into budding adulthood.

Ep. 1: “Package Thief”

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A group of residents at a very friendly neighborhood band together to decide what to do about a package thief. Lindsay (Aubrey Plaza), the main character, tries to maintain the voice of reason, as bored suburban neighbors take matters into their own hands, hilariously escalating matters into paranoia.

This episode is very much about mob mentality and how it effects intimate relationships. It works well as a sitcom episode premise. I can really envision this happening in a show like “Friends”. There are strong performances all around and a lot of familiar comedic faces. One of the funnier episodes of the series.

Ep. 2: “Open Marriage”

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Returning from last season, Kyle (Michael Chernus) and Andi (Elizabeth Reaser), are married with children living the typical suburban dream life. Everything is seemingly fine except their sexual intimacy issues (as seen/hinted in season one). They decide to try something new by having an open marriage.

So when Andi goes on a date, Kyle decides he needs to pursue other partners as well. Hopefully, as the audience realizes early, it’s with Amy (Lindsay Burdge), his affectionate co-worker whom he blatantly has much better chemistry with.

What’s great about this episode is that it subverts expectations. It goes out of its way to not conform to societal norms, but also portrays intimacy in a raw yet realistic fashion. With great contrast between perspectives: of the comfortable yet boring partnership and the awkward yet exciting prospect of new.  This one’s a bag of mixed emotions reflecting upon the nature of open relationships.

Ep. 3: “Side Hustle”

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Sally (Karley Sciortino) is a sex-positive feminist writer who writes about relationships and sexuality. She is also a sex worker. Odinaka (Odinaka Ezeokoli), is a stand-up comedian from Nigeria who jokes about cultural discrepancies. He is also a driver for Uber and for a Chicago city tour bus.

Both of their side jobs give each character the material needed for their actual professions. With Sally, her moonlighting as a sex worker allows her to divulge into different sorts of kinks and explore taboo sexual practices. With Odinaka, his interactions with different wakes of life at his jobs gives him plenty of stories about American culture.

The two stories cross but not in a cliché. Instead, the episode focuses on their parallelisms. That both are doing what they must to get by while embracing their professions. What I really like about this episode is that it’s not shameful, but rather, embraces two incredibly similar lifestyles that couldn’t be any more different.

Ep. 4: “Spent Grain”

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The return of what some would argue were the main characters from last season. Set years after their season one episodes, brothers Jeff (Dave Franco) and Matt (Evan Jonigkeit) have expanded their beer brewery. What started as an illegal operation in the garage, has grown into a legitimate budding business. But with growth comes the difficulty of balancing passion and responsibility. With Jeff, he’d like to keep to the dream and stay creative, brewing the beers he wants to versus what’s in demand: their hot ticket IPAs. He reminisces about the old days of no rules and open possibilities. Matt in the meanwhile, just tries to keep the business stable, compromising parts of their dreams just to keep the business operational.

Running on a parallel yet similar journey, are the brothers’ wives Noelle (Zazie Beetz) and Sherri (Aya Cash). Both families have grown significantly since their first episode, and the wives have undergone rather prominent story arcs about maintaining level-headedness in the face of conflict, in contrast to the brothers’ frequent issues of keeping secrets and mistrusting loved ones. In this episode, we see that the women have started a doggie treat business, finding much easier and streamlined success in contrast to their spouses.

It’s a pretty interesting contrast between two start-ups. It’s also intriguing to see how this story about relationships between families and spouses and business, can both come together and tear apart, when brewed all together. Of all the episodes in the series, this might be the only one worth watching the prior preceding episodes of before viewing.

Ep. 5: “Conjugality”

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Returning from season one, graphic novelist Jacob Malco (Marc Maron) is doing a publicity circuit for the twentieth anniversary of his autobiographical breakout novel. His publicist (Kate Berlant) gets on his case in regards to his lack of online presence. Ultimately, Mark’s representation requests Jacob ask his ex-girlfriend, Karen (Michaela Watkins) for a blurb, or really, any sort of interaction that could garnish public media attention. Jacob then has a choice: respect his ex’s privacy after building a career out of their failed relationship, or meet up with her and try to sell more copies of his best work for as author in the twilight of his career.

It’s a continued story about artists and their public image. Their relationships both fictionalized and real. Although Jacob is narcissistically cringeworthy, he is also charming in his own defeatist way, and the context of his relationship with Karen very much puts him in his place. The actors really sell this one, so this episode will be or will not be for you depending on how you find their portrayals, Marc Maron’s especially.

Ep. 6: “Prodigal Daughter”

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This was hands down one of the funniest and most insightful episodes of the season for me. Grace (Danielle MacDonald) is a typical privileged teenager. Her family has noticeable wealth and she appears rather spoiled, with a bit of a defiant streak. One day, she’s caught trying to hook up with a boy in her room. Her parents, Andy (Peter Gwinn) and Gretchen (Judy Greer), punish her by forcing Grace to attend Church.

This is where it gets interesting. Grace starts reluctantly attending church and its functions, rebelliously questioning some of its scriptures, particularly the one about rich people not getting into heaven. She then proceeds to get revenge by donating her life’s savings to the church, a whopping $48,000, much to her parent’s chagrin.

What happens next is rather touching, but you’re going to have to watch it to find out. It’s a nice episode with a good lesson up for discussion. Not cliché as much as it is honest about religion, hypocrisy (between Grace and her parents), and what it exactly means to be good. Or at the least, hold good intentions.

Ep. 7: “Lady Cha Cha”

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A continuation of the most socially progressive storyline from season one, Chase (Kiersey Clemons) and Jo (Jacqueline Toboni), are two socially cognizant feminists who’ve gone from fun hook-up, to dating, to now full-on living together. Where season one was a story exploring Chase’s adaption of Jo’s lifestyles and beliefs, mostly out of mutual interest and romantic affection; season two sees each woman acting independently, preaching feminism through their respective arts.

With Chase, she is getting into burlesque dancing, a very niche and underrepresented group amongst black feminists. With Jo, she is running an art show, though a very post-modern female driven one. Though they both rightfully love their causes, the problem is that in both forms of progressive feminist art, each partner gets into quite provocative circumstances of femininity and sexuality. This beckons issues never seen in Chase and Jo’s relationship. Matters of insecurity and especially, possessiveness.

It’s a beautiful piece about modern feminism, particularly the struggle with artistic open expression. Though it’s not so much about who’s right or wrong, as much as it is a story about perspective: two intelligent female activists in love with each other and with similar goals, that have differing views about what’s okay.

Ep. 8: “Baby Steps”

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Returning for the finale is the talented Kate Micucci portraying Annie, the adorable music teacher who’d also just happened to have a three way with two of the most gorgeous people on the planet (Orlando Bloom and Malin Ackerman) in season one.

Recently dumped by her douchebag boyfriend (Portrayed by Danny Masterson. Befitting choice and real-life scumbag), Annie is thirty-seven years old and wants kids, but knows that her time is limited. Emotionally heartbroken, it doesn’t help that she spends most of her days around children, and seems for the most part, very good with them.

Enter Samantha (Megan Ferguson), a woman Annie babysits for. Samtha is called away for the weekend due to an emergency. She asks Annie to babysit her baby, Abby, and for the next few days Annie sees what it’s like being a mom.

What happens next is somewhat of a different take on what it means to be a family. Though it’s fitting, it’s also somewhat lackadaisical in execution. The biggest take away of the episode is that it’s a look into loneliness and healing, through caretaking. And though it hits the right emotional beats, it also leaves a lot to be said.

‘Easy’ Season 2, is available streaming on Netflix.

About Christian Angeles

Christian Angeles likes to watch the moving pictures. He also listens to words on the page and writes in ways that make people feel things. All on a laptop. Sometimes from an app on his phone. You can follow him on Facebook or Instagram. Read his literature reviews on goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/xnangeles. Or read his articles in NewBrunswickToday: http://newbrunswicktoday.com/author/christian-angeles

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