The Puffy Chair: How to Pioneer a Film Movement with a Big Purple Chair

Following the French New Wave movement in the 1950s a wider perception of cinema as art started appearing, and with that the notion of authorship.  The director, the auteur of the film, ‘seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing, or at least characterizing, its mode of being’ (Foucault, 2002, p228).  One individual has a creative control and recognisable creative input over a body of work they create.   Looking at the modern day many people now associate the director of a film as having an artistic oeuvre of work. However, nowadays there is a rise of independent cinema.  Single filmmakers fulfilling every role that would be required in a big budget film.  During this resurgence of the indie film, new figures have emerged as leaders of the new independent film movement. This is truer than ever with Mark and Jay Duplass and their 2005 film The Puffy Chair.

The Puffy Chair is a super low budget comedy drama both directed and written by Jay and Mark Duplass.  It premiered in 2005 at Sundance and went on to win the audience award at SXSW.  The plot follows Josh Sagers, his girlfriend and his brother as they travel across the country to collect  a purple lazy boy to bring home to their parents.  The film is considered part of the ‘mumblecore’ movement.  Mumblecore movies ‘are characterized by handheld cinematography, natural lighting, real locations, simple set-ups, and emphasis on facial close-ups, and few takes’ (Filippo, 2011, p5).  Mumblecore films are usually shot in the sequence that events happen, and very regularly shot on a low budget.  The Duplass Brothers are considered one of the founding fathers of this movement, and their style can be seen throughout all the films they are involved in – either as directors or producers.

The Duplass style comes from the way their films are written, shot and produced.  Talking about Sam Fuller films, Moullet says ‘we see everything that other directors deliberately excise from their films: disorder, filth, the unexplainable, the stubby chin, and a kind of fascinating ugliness in a man’s face’ (Moullet, 1985, p149). Fuller’s films are gritty in terms of content.  Fuller can draw parallels to the Duplass brothers with his favour to cast obscure and often unknown actors in his films.  This can be seen in ‘The Puffy Chair’, with Mark himself playing the lead role, his wife Katie Aselton playing his girlfriend and even his real parents making an appearance.  Casting choices become part of the Duplass oeuvre, with a few exceptions, unknown and inexperienced actors are usually cast.  The Duplass brothers’ films are usually scrappy in terms of how they are filmed.  The Puffy Chair is shot almost entirely by hand and focuses heavily upon character interaction.  In the opening scene we are first introduced to Josh and his girlfriend.  The camera jumps about haphazardly and aggressively zooms from medium shots to close ups in a documentary-like fashion.  This is often so extreme to the point where the camera is fading in and out of focus. Usually it would be considered as poor or cheap filmmaking to have such an unprofessional looking piece of work, but under the Duplass’ control it becomes part of their filmic style.  Seeing characters real reactions to what’s happening, with minimum cuts, a realistic style of filmmaking that you could be imagine being promoted by the likes of Bazin.  It draws you in, and you feel like you are in the room experiencing a conversation as it happens, not watching an overly edited version of it.

What the Duplass Brothers achieve through their stylistic filmmaking is a very recognisable style.  They have the ability to make a film on the lowest budget possible that can still engage an audience.  The Duplass oeuvre is unique in the sense that it can still be felt in their movies that have bigger budgets such as Cyrus (2010) which maintains a rustic hand-held feel.  Other films that they have a producing credit in such as Tangerine (2015) shot entirely on iPhone cameras fit right into the Duplass oeuvre.  There are of course other telling factors that a film is produced or directed by the Duplass Brothers, including the relationship focused storyline and Marks regular acting appearances.

It is clear for The Puffy Chair that the Duplass brothers are the auteurs’ of the movie.  Their creative input totally shapes a film to the extent that not only would the film not have the same mumblecore feel to it without them, but it wouldn’t exist at all.  The style created with The Puffy Chair continues to echo throughout their work as they become more recognised and critically appreciated in the film industry.

 

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Works Cited:

FOUCAULT, M., 2002. What is an author? In: D. FINKELSTEIN and A.  MCCLEERY, eds. The book history reader. London: Routledge

FILIPPO, MARIA SAN., 2011. A cinema of recession: micro-budgeting, micro-drama, and the ‘mumblecore’ movement. Winter Issue 85. United States: CineAction

MOULLET, L., 1985. Sam Fuler: In Marlowe’s Footsteps. In: J. HILLER, ed. Cashier du cinema: the 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

 

The first in a series of work on Mark Duplass.

Neil McLeod, 2016

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