*First published in 2017 in the booklet for the Blu-Ray of Funny Ha Ha.
Funny Ha Ha is one of my favorite movies. To briefly give you an idea of my movie preferences and the degree of my fondness toward Andrew Bujalski’s first movie, which was filmed in 2002 and which I first saw in 2008, here is how I answered an email-interview question in 2010 that asked me what movies I especially admired: “I like Werner Herzog documentaries, Funny Ha Ha by Andrew Bujalski, Woody Allen movies.” I found that searching my Gmail account for what I’ve said about Funny Ha Ha. “Funny Ha Ha” returns 48 results in my Gmail account.
To me, Funny Ha Ha is an extreme movie. It has no soundtrack, crying, shouting, or screaming. It has no destruction, except a mild instance I’ll describe soon, or angry characters. There is no sex, malicious behavior, vomiting, death, disease, politics, current events, or violence. There are no parents or babies, and no drugs except alcohol. The acting in Funny Ha Ha felt so unusually real to me that, the first time I saw it, I kept wanting to look away from the screen — not just during awkward moments, but whenever the characters’ expressions and mannerisms, their strained eye contact and ambiguous noises and “I don’t know”s and “something”s, made me, watching this alone in my room on a MacBook, feel like I was in a social situation.
The protagonist of Funny Ha Ha is Marnie, who is 23 in the beginning and 24 by the end. We see her halfheartedly trying to get a tattoo while drunk. We see her walking on a sidewalk reading a magazine. We see her starting a new job temping in an office. She jokes often and seems to dislike complaining or talking about herself. When asked, at a house party, how she is doing, she quietly mumbles she’s “losing her mind” before quickly changing the subject. I can imagine people saying this is a movie where “nothing happens,” but I outlined it as research for this essay and, in my view, things happen continuously, with each scene priming and leading to later scenes.
My favorite scene occurs near the end, in Marnie’s apartment. Mitchell, a co-worker at Marnie’s former temp job, is frustrated, it seems, by Marnie’s indifference toward him romantically. He accuses Marnie of “being depressed.” Marnie responds “Well, I’m sorry. Look, I’m not even depressed — A — and B, even if I was, I mean, that’s my right.” Mitchell sincerely apologizes three times, sips his beer, picks up an unopened bottle, walks to the balcony, and — after around 30 dialogue-less seconds with the only sounds being a faraway police siren and distant traffic noises — underhand-tosses it to the concrete below where it explodes. Before Marnie responds, he’s already making a complex, transforming, half-grinning, pained expression. I related to this big time and was surprised and moved to see it portrayed in film. I liked how the scene then leisurely and surprisingly resolved, with discussion and apologies and forgiveness, almost gingerly, instead of escalating into further conflict.
The beer-bottle scene is somewhat mirrored around ten minutes later in the movie’s final scene, which features Marnie and Alex, her romantic interest that, at this point, seems no longer a possibility because he recently got married, and two Frisbee players. Marnie in this scene is to Alex like how Mitchell, in the other scene, was to her, except she is less belligerent — less aggressive and desperate — than Mitchell. This overlap of emotional realities made both scenes — and all three characters — even more poignant to me. Mitchell wants Marnie, but can’t have her, and Marnie wants Alex — maybe my favorite character in the movie due to his good-natured impulsiveness and mysteriously cheerful energy — but can’t have him.
I assumed my DVD was broken when the movie ended. When I realized it wasn’t, I watched the ending repeatedly, feeling intrigued and baffled and pleased and endeared and excited. It seemed like an ending most people would strongly recommend against having. The audio was unclear. The dialogue was choppy and featured a non sequitur joke. The Frisbee players briefly appear in a strange, intruding way — one of them backwards-running on the field toward Marnie and Alex, who are seated on the grass. But then we see a shot of Marnie, a shot of Alex, and — in a cut that felt slightly different in rhythm than the rest of the movie — again a shot of Marnie, then a black screen and silent credits. This ending was like reading a story or poem that ends at the bottom of the page where I’m supposed to turn the page, then turning the page and learning I already read the last line. This is one of my favorite experiences in reading and in movies — to be surprised by an ending that, in retrospect, seems inevitable and satisfying — and Funny Ha Ha provides it extremely.
Funny Ha Ha is extreme and special in a similar manner, to me, as a group of fiction writers that journalists and other writers labeled “minimalists” in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s extreme and special in terms of what it’s about. In the introduction to an issue of Mississippi Review focused on minimalism, Kim Herzinger, in 1985, carefully considered what minimalist fiction was about:
If “minimalist” fiction is “about” anything, it seems quite often to be “about” endurance, tracing the collision of the anarchic self and its inexplicable desires with the limitations imposed by life in the world, with special attention paid to the moment when the self confronts its limitations and decides to keep on going.
After noting that many minimalist stories began with characters experiencing “some kind of disconnection” followed by “their inevitable desire for fullness or fulfillment which is found to be impossible or inadequate,” Herzinger, in a moving passage that, for me, applies to Funny Ha Ha, observed:
The characters invariably face that impossibility with a kind of touching sturdiness — often suggested by calm or silence — that seems to me both accurate and revitalizing, something like human beings behaving rather well. They may not shout, they may not change the world or entertain any illusions that they can do so, but they are not, it seems to me, beaten.