Why Swanberg? Why now?
Blame it on my snark.
In January, in the midst of some armchair commentary on the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, I noted Mr. Joe Swanberg’s pronouncements at a press breakfast at which IFC announced a partnership with the film arm of South By Southwest, in which IFC would provide VOD screenings of varied SXSW premieres simultaneous to those films’ screenings at the festival. One of the films is the latest from Swanberg, the young filmmaker whose works (frequently tagged as components of a not-quite movement dubbed “Mumblecore") are noted for their improvisational “realism” and the unusual candor of their depictions of sexual matters (e.g., Swanberg himself and varied other members of his casts engage in unsimulated sex acts therein). Swanberg’s musings on where the “interest” in his films began and ended solicited this rejoinder from your correspondent: “I think I speak for myself, and for many others, that when I hear about a new Swanberg picture my first question is "Does he show his schlong in it?" and if the answer is "Yes," my "interest" shrivels up like a Pac-Man that's just gotten it from Inky, Winky, Blinky AND Sue.”
Now, those who know me even slightly, or read this blog with some regularity, probably understand that when it comes to cheap jokes I pretty much have no superego. And my Swanberg joke was pretty cheap. But it elicited some impassioned defenses of Swanberg’s work from, at first, Craig Keller, a cinephile of great passion and erudition and one of the more forceful and tenacious arguers I know. I hadn’t been aware that Craig was such a, as I put it, “Swanbergian.” I was aware that at least one other formidable film writer on the Internet, Dan Sallitt, held Swanberg’s work in pretty high esteem. With Keller on his side, a potential front was coalescing. My post also received some intelligent comments from Tom Russell, a young independent filmmaker who’s both a Swanberg fan and associate.
If I’m going to come out and say that I for the most part reject the work that Joe Swanberg has put his name on thus far, it occurs to me that individuals such as Keller and Russell are entitled to some fuller accounting. I also wanted to take up a kind of formal challenge: to construct a rejection of Swanberg that would avoid the sort of snark I used in the above-mentioned Sundance post, and steer clear of the too-easy ad hominem attacks that Swanberg (some would say rather bravely) leaves himself open to. Before doing so, it’s incumbent on me, with my old-school journalistic ethics and all, to lay some cards on the table.
I’ve only met Joe Swanberg on one occasion, and the encounter was not unpleasant. But I have never found his public persona particularly appealing. (We’ll get to his performing persona soon enough.) Like several of the main characters in his films, he seems to sport a perpetual half-smirk that’s rather grating. He always struck me as a bit of a, well, fraud; a smarter-than-average collegiate jock, perhaps, who figured out that picking up a camcorder was a good way to meet hot art chicks. I understand that the facts of his biography don’t support this perception, and some might argue that his work ethic (he’s put together five features in as many years; done two web-based video series, one still ongoing; he acts and does technical work in seemingly scores of micro-indies) obliterates the notion he’s a fraud. Still. There's my bias.
Other things you might believe germane to the spirit of full disclosure: I did have something of an on-line dustup with Swanberg over at the Spout blog; I made some remarks about what I considered the irredeemably insipid nature of his web series Butterknife, and he responded by naming a post “Glennkenny Glen Ross.” (Which, like, you know, really blew my fucking mind, because, you know, I’d never heard THAT one before.) I am friendly with Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant, who run Benten Films, which released the DVD of Swanberg and co.’s LOL. (As it happens I believe that LOL is Swanberg’s strongest work; that assertion, I allow, might look funny next to the above admission.) I appeared as a performer in a short film that Hillis directed for an abortive web anthology of shorts initiated and subsequently, I suppose, abandoned by Swanberg. Please believe me when I say I don’t care about that, to the extent that it took me a good amount of brain-racking to even recall it.
I once attended a party that was also attended by Greta Gerwig, who has collaborated on three films with Swanberg. Swanberg and I have 51 Facebook friends in common. (Man, Bosley Crowther never had these kind of issues, did he?) That is all, I think.
III: Non-Theoretical Phallus: Kissing on the Mouth
Swanberg’s first feature, 2005’s Kissing on the Mouth, made shortly after he received a BA in film from Southern Illinois University, is the most sexually explicit feature Swanberg has made to date, and hence, a good place to take on one of Craig Keller’s points. Keller insists that Swanberg’s “sex-scenes have something true, honest, funny, brash, and sincere to say about sexuality on film,” and that the heat he (Swanberg) takes for them stems from “some My Phallic Camera sub-theoretical basis.” Keller believes that Swanberg’s work in this area could fuel “an entire panel discussion [pertaining to] what/how/when/whether that camera or the cinema can or should show with regard to sex/violence, with regard to a narrative-construct around it.”
“It’s a question,” Keller insists, “that Swanberg has been implicitly posing from Kissing on the Mouth to Young American Bodies…which I find has much, MUCH less to do with ‘provocation’ for its own sake than plumbing down to the well of an aesthetic question that, as far as I’m concerned, has barely anything to do with any morality beyond the emotions of the actors.”
Pace Keller, but one doesn’t need any theoretical basis, “sub” or not, to detect the presence of a phallic camera in KOTM. It’s right there, trying to make an abstraction out of the way Kris Williams’ character trims her pubic hair with a scissor, then trying really hard not to lose it as it lingers long and hard on Kate Winterich tending her sparser thatch with a razor in the shower. Yes, people trim the hair around their private parts, and why shouldn’t that be something we can show in cinema? Point taken. On the other hand, just what the fuck are you looking at, buddy?
Things come to a head when…okay, okay, sorry, I said I wouldn’t resort to such cheap shots. Ahem. Let's continue.
The film’s centerpiece is a shower scene in which Swanberg’s character, Patrick, masturbates, alternating fantasizing about having sex with his roommate Ellen (Winterich) and her friend Laura (Williams, later to become the real-life Mrs. Swanberg). Most of KOTM is shot in handheld from a relatively objective perspective, such that, without the sex, the film could pass for a documentary about a particularly dull group of post-collegiates. But in this scene, its masturbation unsimulated and performed to completion, we are actually taken inside of Patrick’s mind. We see him pawing and kissing Laura’s breasts, then Kate’s, and we see him furiously beating off. What all this is for, we don’t know. The sudden switch from an objective to subjective perspective doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know; that Patrick is strongly attracted to Ellen and more ambivalently attracted to Laura has already been established. It doesn’t create suspense; the picture, up until this point, hasn’t been about whether Patrick will end up with Ellen or Laura; it hasn’t really been about much of anything. So what’s this scene for/about? Even if we discount whatever personal motives Swanberg had for conceiving, shooting and editing the scene in this fashion, the inevitable conclusion is not encouraging.
Is the “implicit question” Keller mentions posed here? Yes. But it’s inextricable from a literally balls-out assertion of male privilege. Why anybody would find this off-putting I have no idea. (Another such assertion, more cannily played, occurs at the climax of 2008's Nights and Weekends, wherein Swanberg's character withholds sex from Gerwig's.)
IV: The Slackness
Keller says he often finds the performers in Swanberg’s pictures “magnificent.” Tom Russell cites a scene from Hannah Takes The Stairs as particularly moving, indeed, “the best moment" in Swanberg's work. “The scene in which Gerwig’s Hannah and one of her suitors are discussing his medication for his depression, and then Hannah explains that she doesn't want to use him, that he's a person and so she doesn't want to use him (or something along those lines, I'm paraphrasing)…the self-consciousness on display, the acute self-awareness, it's palpable and moving. ”
Here is a case where agreeing to disagree just won’t do. I particularly do not see what Russell sees, and the reason I don’t see it is, I insist, that it’s not really there. That is, the self-consciousness is there. But not of these half-formed characters. It’s of the actors. The fault is not (particularly) with Gerwig, a potentially appealing performer (see her work in The Duplass Brothers’ Baghead) whom I believe is ill served (not to mention ill-used) by Swanberg. The fault, in this particular scene, is with Kent Osborne, as the suitor, named Matt. Rarely, if ever, moving any body part below the neck, Osborne sleepwalks through the picture with, yes, a perpetual half-smirk; it only disappears for one scene, when he goes into a petulant sulk, by way of expressing his displeasure that work colleagues Hannah and Paul have taken up with each other. Otherwise, the smirk is always there, along with a smug near-monotone. It never leaves his face even as he describes some of his most perhaps painful secrets, such as his use of medication for depression. I don’t know Osborne at all, perhaps he is one of the finest people on this earth, but I could not watch his face in Hannah for more than two minutes at a time without wanting to do violence to it. Not that I ever would, mind you. Just so you know.
Andrew Bujalski’s depiction of Paul is also smirk-laden, which by
rights ought be even more annoying, as the unprepossessing character would seem
to have little to smirk about. Pretty much every performer in Hannah, save for
Jay Mark Duplass, is some kind of slack disgrace. So too, is Hannah’s
dramatic argumentation, such as it is. Every other scene in the picture has the
air of an acting workshop improv exercise, right down to the way the furniture
is arranged. Below is a shot from one of Hannah’s “office” scenes; note the chair
in front of the door. Rather than any coherent idea of production design, Swanberg
invariably works with consideration only for whatever he needs/wants for any
given scene. So, here, Hannah and Paul need to be sitting down and facing Matt,
which means…putting a chair where it would rarely, if ever, actually be in an office. But that’s
okay. Contingency rules.
The slackness reaches an apogee of sorts with Butterknife, the series Swanberg created with Ronald Bronstein and Mary Bronstein for Spout. Butterknife’s eight episodes have a structural similarity to the very, very many episodes of Swanberg’s other web video series, Young American Bodies. Bifurcation is key here. In Young American Bodies the bodies in question dissemble and stammer about their desires while they’ve got their clothes on, and…have sex with their clothes off. This—the contrast between modes, that is—is a little more interesting than it sounds, at least for a couple of episodes, and possibly speaks perhaps more eloquently to Keller’s above quoted concerns than KOTM does. But…it gets real old, real quick; the repetition of the idea doesn’t reap any benefits. As for Butterknife, its episodes toggle between the workaday travails of an inept private detective (or whatever he is) played by Bronstein, Ronald, and his relatively blissful domestic existence with his loving wife, played by Bronstein, Mary. Only without showing the couple having sex, because I suppose the actual Bronsteins were a little shy about that (although we are treated to the sight of Bronstein, Ronald, negotiating a bongo board in black briefs).
The half-assedness of Butterknife’s dramatic conceit—there’s no other way of putting this—practically reeks of the contempt in which Swanberg, the Bronsteins, and pretty much every other participant in the project, would seem to hold their putative audience. Bronstein, Ronald, plays a private investigator of sorts, who both hates his work and is bad at it. Now I recall that Phillip Marlowe had his off days, and quite a few of them at that, but my understanding about investigative work is that it’s kind of an elective. Or an avocation. Or, you know, not likely a job that one gets roped into for lack of other employment options. So there’s that. Bronstein can’t even get the vocabulary of the profession right; trying to discourage a would-be client, he tells him that he’s read his “disposition.” That would be “deposition,” and it would be a deposition only once lawyers had already gotten involved. But, as they say, whatever.
The bits of business involving marital bliss are not much of an improvement. In one attempt at, I don’t know, maybe an I Love Lucy homage, Mary (the characters played by the Bronsteins are putatively unnamed, but that particular conceit isn’t held on to for terribly wrong, as Mary lets drop a “Ronzo” at one point, and then…well you get the idea) finds herself stuck under the couple's bed and calls for her husband to help her out. He responds by getting a camera to take a picture of her predicament, and then proceeds to pull at her feet. Ronald Bronstein is a pretty skinny fellow, but I think he’s got it in him to, you know, actually lift the bed. Those who consider Swanberg and his cohorts to be little more than self-infatuated circle-jerkers will find ample evidence for their argument here.
IV: The Imagery
Occasionally a Swanberg picture will offer up an image that is memorable in itself, and Swanberg’s supporters sometimes cite him as a “director of moments,” moments in which the performers will hit upon an emotional truth that we may find discomfiting, or unusual to see in a film at all, or whatnot. While I’ve never perceived the emotional temperature in a Swanberg movie to rise above lukewarm (which is one reason I find Dan Sallitt’s comparison of Swanberg to Maurice Pialat frankly ridiculous), I will grant that there are such moments in his films. Sometimes they come across awkwardly, as if they've just been stumbled across; sometimes there’s a modicum of wit in their delivery, as in the texting-in-front-of-the-girlfriend scene in LOL. That said, I insist that this doesn’t happen enough to make Swanberg worth my time and faith. Put another way, he gives me more grief than aesthetic bliss. And while I agree to some extent with Russell, in that I don’t exactly think Swanberg merely shoots a bunch of stuff and then throws it up there, I do again insist that there’s something largely, sometimes overwhelmingly, contingent about Swanberg’s cinema. The image quality is always in the hands of whoever’s holding the camera. And it ratchets up, or down, from there. LOL, I think, works as well as it does partly because of the quality of Swanberg’s collaborators; something in the aggregation was pushing him, albeit ever so slightly, out of his claustrophobic world of close-ups and medium close-ups, out of his almost infantile refusal to ever use the camera to evoke a sense of space beyond the immediate proximity of his characters. I have not chosen to attack Swanberg on the grounds that his work does not, in Kent Jones’ phrase, allow for a sense of experience beyond its own parameters, but it is of course guilty of that, and it looks as if it will continue to be. But attacking it on those grounds is just too easy.
I do, however, take umbrage with attempts to tie Swanberg to filmmakers much, much greater than he, citing some affinity by way of circumscribed circumstances, or of, say, a putative eschewal of pictorialism. Swanberg defender Tom Russell wrote in the above-cited comments thread: “Take the last shot of Ozu’s Late Spring; it's just Chishu Ryu peeling an apple. Take a still frame of that, and it's not particularly "beautiful"-- put it at the end of the film, though, and it breaks your heart, it's Beauty Par Excellence.” Well, exactly, except I take issue with the assertion that a single frame from that scene would not be particularly beautiful:
That aside, the shot/scene works the way it does because it’s a culmination to a series of sequences and shots that have been precisely calibrated by director Yasujiro Ozu. There is never any sense of such calibration at work in a Swanberg work. Swanberg likes to cite Herzog and Dziga Vertov as theorists who’ve influenced his own vision of film. But putting aside the fact that the collectivism espoused in Swanberg’s credits (it’s rarely a film by Swanberg, but rather a film by Swanberg/Wells/Bewerdorf, Swanberg/Gerwig, and so on) points to a Vertovian ideal, if we’re talking about cinema as a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not (as Scorsese so memorably put it), what’s in gives zero indication of a masterful sensibility at work. This is what makes Swanberg so suspect to me: the fact that a good three-quarters of what he puts on screen could have been coughed up by somebody who only got through half of Camcording For Dummies, or some such. A particular moment in Hannah stands out for me, in the scene in which Hannah’s soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass) slathers Hannah with ice cubes in a putative attempt to ease her sunburn. Gerwig's Hannah squirms and jerks in discomfort; before the camera zooms in on her, she jerks up her head and for a split second looks at…what? Something to her left, a reasonable distance away from the space described (clumsily) by the frame. It’s clear, in that split second, that Gerwig is no longer registering the character’s discomfort, but that, instead, she’s trying very hard not to look at the camera. Some might argue this is one of Swanberg’s moments of truth. I see a bad take, one that should have been discarded in the editing room.
And, yes; the final shot of Hannah, in which Hannah and Matt share a bath and play inept trumpet at each other (I presume that any correspondence this has with the last lines of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point is entirely coincidental), is something of an ironic fillip, a nose-thumbing at conventional happy endings. But as the sole piece of directorial commentary in the entire film, it sticks out like a sore thumb in much the same way as KOTM’s shower scene does.
V: The Insipid
Swanberg’s characters really do talk a lot of shit. That’s the whole point, I’m told. Still. Gets numbing after a while.
“Don’t you hate that guy? He’s a fuckin’ prick, right? Whatever…”
“You should come out here. I’m really bored.”
“I get really frustrated because I love things so much and I feel that what I do is so trite and so small.”
“I feel like I been, I dunno, I dunno, just didn’t know.”
“I’m not ready to kiss people.”/“You’re not people.”/“Yeah, okay, yeah, okay; I just don’t want…weirdness.”
This is real? I don’t know. I know a fair number of men and women in their twenties, early thirties, and all of them are far more stimulating conversationalists than this. Maybe I’m lucky. And even allowing that this is real; well, just because something is real doesn't exempt it from being twaddle.
And speaking of twaddle, I haven’t even gotten to the music in Swanberg’s pictures yet. But I believe this will do.
Understand, please, in taking issue with these films, I’m not trying to make any kind of blanket statement about the putative ethos behind such works, or tar all of Swanberg’s associates with the same brush. I certainly don’t want to put across any kind of “you damn kids with your digital video and your casual nudity” vibe here. Just trying to answer a particular set of queries and concerns.
UPDATE: I incorrectly attributed one Swanberg-praising quote, specifically citing a scene from Hannah, to Craig Keller, when it in fact came from Tom Russell. I have corrected this. Both Keller and Russell have informed me they are preparing responses to this piece; I am not being in any way snarky when I say I look forward to them.
FURTHER UPDATE: Craig Keller posts an "overture" to further thoughts on Swanberg here. More to come.