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January 19, 2009


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Joe P

Thank god somebody else speaks some truth about Swanberg and his films. Well, other than Amy Taubin, who also nailed it in her Film Comment piece.http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/nd07/mumblecore.htm


Oh, looks like new Joe Swanberg has other mumblecore signifier of no fucking way will I see it ness: that dude from Bishop Allen stars. Ugh. Bishop Allen being in Nick and Norah the movie was another sign of it being just ok. Not as great as the book.

don lewis

Uhh....penis peepers anonymous called, they said Swanberg hasn't shown his peen since his very first movie KISSING ON THE MOUTH. Other peoples wangs, yeah. Also, Noah Baumbach produced ALEXANDER THE LAST and Jess Weixler, Josh Hamilton and Jane Adams are in it. Swanberg's moving forward (I think) so lets not get all Roger Friedman-y here people. Open mind and all...give it a chance, etc. Sheesh.

In other news...
Anyone not there getting the feeling they aren't missing a damned thing by not being at Sundance this year? I'm fairly well rested, not sick, not ready to kill someone (per se) and the weather here is in the 70's. Plus, I've been able to snag a good 5-10 screeners from the fest. I think the future of Sundance is staying home and avoiding the hubbub.

craig k.

Amy Taubin is a moron.

If mumblecore didn't possess -that- "signifier", these films wouldn't get bespattered with nearly the amount of spite they have-been-with. For the record, and for what it's worth, (a) I'm a proponent of le cinéma de Swanberg, scenaristically / mise-en-scèneistically / actorially. (b) I think his sex-scenes have something true, honest, funny, brash, and sincere to say about sexuality on film — and I suspect that a lot of the heat he takes for this (grounded in some "My Phallic Camera"TM sub-theoretical basis) has to do with the fact that he's the star/writer/actor of his pictures on one hand — an easy flag for charges of "Egotism", conscious or sub-, from the sidelines; and because of his association with Dentler, the SXSWs of the past, and all the entropy generated by either-aforementioned on another, on the other hand; and on the third-hand-of-the-mind's-eye, results from a real and visceral spite around the fact that he's able to make films for zero-budget, to be his own producer, and, so long as the films consist of human-beings talking (and/or touching) as opposed to CGI-fucking-dragons or car-chases, to keep on making his films within the same (and a very new) infrastructure that many American filmmakers present or future (and I'm including myself here) presently have the ability to rein/exploit.

Furthermore, there's an entire panel discussion waiting to be had, which I'd love to take part in — as opposed to one having to do with, for example, the fascinating question of whether "criticism is dead, part 16" — which would pertain to what/how/when/whether the camera or the cinema can or should show with regard to sex/violence with regard to a narrative-construct around it. I think it's a question that Swanberg has been implicitly posing from 'Kissing on the Mouth' to 'Young American Bodies' on up, which I find has much, -much- less to do with "provocation" for its own sake than plumbing down 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.


Glenn Kenny

@don: Clearly, I must have hallucinated something in "Nights And Weekends." Funny you should mention Roger Friedman, as I was initially going to say something about Swanberg being a good subject for John Connolly (if J.C. gave a damn about such small fry), but thought better of it. As for Baumbach, I wish he had better taste in sycophants. That said, I promise to keep an open mind about "Alexander the Last."

Ar ar ar.

But I feel you 100% in the "in other news" category. I, too, am fairly well rested, not sick...but obviously NOT not ready to kill somebody (per se)...and then there's the weather. As much as I've bitched about Sundance, I've often had a good time there, although the run-up dread is always a problem. Maybe the key is only actually GOING every other year. Or just sitting it out until it, too, turns up "On Demand"...

Glenn Kenny

@craig: I had no idea you were such a Swanbergian. But I have to say I disagree with you on just about every particular, and thus I will have to work harder and faster on a post I've been thinking about, to be titled "The Case Against Swanberg." The turning point, for me, was that pathetic web serial he did for Spout, "Butterknife," which I hope makes clear the fact that my problems with him aren't entirely due to certain aspects of, erm, content.

But since you bring it up: the fact is I just don't believe him. You say he's implicitly asking "what/how/when/whether the camera or the cinema can or should show with regard to sex/violence with regard to a narrative-construct around it." I say he's using a bunch of not even half-digested theory to justify indulging his own voyeuristic/exhibitionistic tendencies—he's Brad Armstrong with an MFA, only Brad Armstrong is more honest. And if I say I think he's a con artist, I don't mean that entirely as a slur—con artists often have to be more inventive and industrious in some respects than the real deal.

craig keller.

Glenn — I hear you. Although it's tempting to throw up my arms and reach for the old "We'll just have to agree to disagree!" warhorse, I tend to get a little, erm, galvanized by this topic, and am legitimately curious about what you have to say on the matter, — so I'll wait for the "Case Against" post to drop before I take my own reply further. At least farther beyond keying into the mention of "half-digested theory," which I at first misread as "half-digested story," either of which phrases maybe leads me to the same place. Namely, whether 'theory' doesn't somehow, and necessarily, fall by the way-side at the moment of shooting 'situations' — that is, when you introduce a 'premise' (and/or a few 'situation beats') into the construct of a scene, or AS the initial construct of a scene, that something -else- HAS to happen and which will arise out of the desperation, out of the vulnerabilities and self-consciousness at play, and which IS more likely than not going to be interesting, and maybe result in something beyond the pretenses or calculations of the director. (And which, of course, then lobs the ball back into the editing court.) Taken in the abstract, one could apply this to nearly "anything shot on a set," and reach for porn as an example, but I would have to argue that the before and the after are equally important, and often intrinsic to the commission, or the initial 'pretense', which sometimes despite its own consciousness can wind up subverted. Take for example 'Young American Bodies,' which was commissioned, in a manner of speaking, by Nerve.com, on the pretense that the series would deal with sexuality, and what's more, show twenty-somethings fucking. One of the immediate questions, for me, is whether Nerve.com could have accounted for (or cared about beyond its own status as a kind of window-dressing that 'legitimizes' the product and keeps it in-line with their soft-sell endeavors) the rhythms of the episodes being so strongly couched in the quotidiana of the characters' lives: the documentary portrait of the inanities of MySpace-band-creation, for example, or the way the "Casey" character segues into physical intimacy with the "Ben" character (Swanberg) in the aftermath of her denial of the hindsight-seen-as-totally-arbitrary proposal by her boyfriend. Let me say that I find his actors magnificent, and credit belongs to them in large part — and to Swanberg and his wife Kris Williams as directors of actors in another, perhaps equally large part — for guiding these scenes to a place that I find so effective as to recognize therein that beautiful cinephile's-jolt: "Truth." A word I find entirely appropriate to a discussion of 'YAB,' and the aforementioned 'commissioning,' because part of what he's doing, in effect, is creating a group-portraits of a subset of young Americans (the "bodies" part is at once exploitative, disingenuous, and a subtle invitation to perceive the characters as ciphers, tabula rasa, ripe for projection, for identification) that mirrors the lives of so may of us of that generation to the degree that, in seeing ourselves in the Y.A.B.'s, we understand that any of the given events, or rhythms of these events, within our same lives could 'be shot' and then reconfigured/edited/presented into a cinema-serial with an ostensibly -heavily exploitational bent-. Event for event. Week for week. Surely -some- of the people in one's circle, or one-oneself, is having sex regularly, getting/giving head: and it goes on, and on, and on... So, given that that's the process, that the cycle of intimacy initiates and perpetuates a cycle of events, and vice-versa, all the sensationalistic/exploitational aspects are rendered null and void (though I would stress this isn't some kind of 'trial-by-fire' arrangement to temper the material, but rather something closer to: "Things are there. Why invent them?"), and I wonder why more filmmakers aren't interested in constructing something closer to these rhythms. Another part of me wonders whether Swanberg hasn't simply invented something new, which seems so obvious as to strike some of us as 'really nothing at all', but which didn't exist until the infrastructure for a digital-episodic series became a reality.

Let me also add that I find his images incredibly beautiful, the attention to the image, to the light in the environments (and for that matter the environments themselves), quite moving.

I had something else I was going to say, but I've either forgotten what it was, or already said it, and have forgotten that I did. In any case, there's one particular portion of "Big Red Son" that can be said to figure beyond the walls of JS's oeuvre and into the topic at large, but I'll save it for another time. (Maybe Wednesday, if you're able to swing it — at which venue at least one other fairly resolute Swanbergian is likely to be in attendance, in the person of D. Sallitt. Still, I acknowledge the minority position.)

(I'd also add that in mentioning light in JS's images, I'm inclined to pull back on my Taubin-slur, given some reflection upon how much I like what she's had to say about — granted, the work of a filmmaker working in an entirely different mode — '2046', and Wong in general. But really, the Swanberg piece was, for me, an apotheosistic straw w/r/t Taubin.)


S.F. Hunger

Having availed myself of the IFC On Demand option to watch Joshua Safdie's beguiling "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," I have to say that mumblecore and On Demand are perfect bedmates. I'm pretty much convinced that it's a better way to watch crudely shot microbudget indies than actually schlepping to your nearest arthouse (or festival) to see something that, likely as not, looks like it was shot with a cell phone (Safdie's film actually doesn't quite fall into this category, as it was shot on 16mm and looks kind of cool, but still). We tend to fetishize the big-screen experience so much, and generally that's warranted, but if you keep an open mind about this brave new VOD world it's actually kind of exciting. I mean, that offhand remark about future Sundances being broadcast On Demand ... bring it on.


I read "Brief Interviews" last year, and it was my first real experience with Wallace's work (outside of his Lynch essay), and I thought it was a fascinating book. The actual "Interview" stories I thought started very strong, were beautifully controlled, and then kind of lost their way by the end. But the story that sticks with me the most is "Octet". That shows a writer of immense talent and intelligence struggling to find a way to make his fiction matter, if only to himself. Let's see someone turn THAT one into a movie.

Glenn Kenny

Yes, Bill, and for sheer density, "Octet" is pretty much one nuclear 25-or-so pages...


And yet I thought it read very smoothly. At least, as smoothly as something like that can read. I don't know...I'm loathe to try and find clues or keys to Wallace's tragedy in these stories, but that book in general, and "Octet" in particular, shows that he was a writer whose relationship with fiction was pretty turbulent.

Tom Russell

I too am looking forward to your piece on Swanberg. While my opinion of his work can't be more different than yours, I do enjoy a spirited and passionate discussion/argument.
Until then, let me say a couple of things. First, in interest of full disclosure, that I consider Joe Swanberg to be something of a friend of mine; he did me the ginormous favour of appearing in my latest film, has offered me emotional support/pep talks over the course of the last few years, as well as technical advice regarding the peculiarities of the digital video format. That could very well colour my interpetation of and feelings about his work, though I am closer friends with other filmmakers who, to put it gently, I do not hold in the same esteem.
I think Swanberg is a director of moments. Days and months after seeing one of his films, certain images and scenes come back to my memory: in "LOL", there is the juggling scene, the tense conversation between Greta Gerwig and C. Mason Wells, pretty much anything with Tipper Newton in it (a goofball deluxe and I mean that in the best possible way). Some of the bits in YAB-- though almost never the naked parts. The scenes between the detective and his wife in Butterknife, which admittedly outshine the "detective" part of the series. "Hannah" has some nice moments as well-- the ice cube scene, the too-forceful kiss-- but for me the best moment in any of Joe's work comes towards the end of "Hannah".
There's that scene in which Gerwig and one of her suitors are discussing his medication for his depression. And then Gerwig 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). And the self-consciousness on display, the acute self-awareness, it's palpable and moving.
I think self-awareness is the dominant theme of Swanberg's work, wangs be damned; three moments in LOL in particular stand out as good examples.
There is the scene early on at the beach, in which Swanberg's character is talking on the phone and watching his girlfriend talk to a muscley-looking chap. 'She's doing it to make me angry,' he says, but then there's the the capper: 'She's failing to make me mad which is probably making her even more mad. I think if I push it she'll go home with him.'
There is the scene in which Swanberg's character and his roommate are sitting side-by-side, sending instant messages to one another, while the aforementioned girlfriend sits on the floor, watching a movie. 'Do you think she knows we're talking about her?' asks the roomate. 'Probably,' says Swanberg, and then something flickers across his face: 'She's pretty smart.'
And then there is the scene in which Swanberg's character asks his girlfriend to postpone fooling around for twenty minutes so that he can finish some work on his computer. When he asks this question, he knows how ridiculous he's being, he knows what the answer is going to be, he knows how potentially destructive he is to the relationship---- but he asks anyway.
To me, that's a salient difference between Swanberg's films and others dedicated to adolescent stupidity. There's a world of difference between (1) doing something stupid and destructive and not knowing it, and (2) doing the same while being acutely self-aware. With (1), I laugh at the protagonist; with (2), I'm interested in them.
I think Swanberg's films are full of these moments. Now, with this emphasis on "moments", the question is begged: what about the films as a whole? And, I gotta say, I think his films as a whole-- as one cohesive 80 or 90 minute piece of cinema, flowing from beginning to end-- suffer. They function best, and are best approached, as a collection of moments and scenes. And because of that, they are not entirely satisfying in the same way as a film with a stronger narrative line.
But one could say the same thing about the films of Terry Gilliam; they, too, are often more a collection of moments and digressions rather than a well-told story. Like Swanberg's films, they lag a bit in parts.
I think one reason why Gilliam is almost universally admired and Swanberg much less so is because Gilliam's moments are bravura ones: weird images, crazy set-pieces-- the glorious fever dreams of a mad genius. Swanberg's moments, by contrast, are quieter, less about ideas and more about people.
And-- before I catch flak for denigrating the name of all-mighty Gilliam-- let me say that I don't consider one approach better than another or even easier than another. They're two completely different kinds of moments and I enjoy the work of both filmmakers immensely. What I am saying, however, is that it's much easier to rave about and deconstruct and in some respects respond to bravura, show-offy filmmaking than the quieter kind. Easier to talk about "Citizen Kane" than "Faces".
I envy Swanberg's ability to craft those moments. I've seen people attempt to make films using improvisation and they often do it very badly; that Swanberg's films are comprehensible in the first place is an achievement in and of itself. That he can create such exquisite moments is a testament not only to his actors-- his *is* an actor's cinema-- but to his abilities as an editor and director.
And all this is not to say that I don't have my own problems with Joe's films. For example, no one ever seems to have a "real" job: they're all writers, web designers, game creators, musicians. And I must confess that I generally find films about creative types, and especially about the "creative process", to be maddeningly self-referential. At the same time, those jobs don't really seem to matter; even "Hannah", which has a workplace setting, uses it less as a workplace and more as another opportunity for friends to hang out with each other.
All the characters, as a result, seem to fall into one group: friends. There are no rivals, parents, family members, or strangers. People don't seem to be tied to one another. One can't honestly say that his characters shirk responsibilities because often they have none.
And these are valid criticisms, ones that I'd like to see Swanberg address as he continues to grow. Ones I think he will address, because he has shown tremendous growth from film-to-film already.
Please forgive my brevity; once you have made your case against Mr. Swanberg, rest assured that I will be happy to discuss your points with more depth and length.

Glenn Kenny

Well, Tom, you and Craig have given me an awful lot to mull over, so I'll try and be quick about it. For what it's worth, I think "LOL" is the best thing he's done.

You hit upon something interesting when you address your objection to the fact that nobody in the films seems to have a "real" job, and that all the characters "seem to fall into one group: friends." For sure. Which in turn suggests to me that Swanberg's actual artistic models aren't Cassavetes and Pialat so much as...sitcoms.

But enough with the snark. This argument calls for some real work...but I'm not putting off my Hawks Blogathon contribution to do it, so it'll take some time.

Joe P

Quoting S.F. Hunger from above:

"Having availed myself of the IFC On Demand option ... I'm pretty much convinced that it's a better way to watch crudely shot microbudget indies than actually schlepping to your nearest arthouse (or festival) to see something that, likely as not, looks like it was shot with a cell phone..."

And it's a sad commentary on American indies that this holds true for so many of them. Where are the "big-screen" art films from American directors? Do they even exist? Are they possible to make anymore? When considering all this, you start to see where the "cinema is dead" crowd is coming from.


I've been a fairly obsessive Wallace fan for over a decade, but I find Oblivion near-unreadable--almost every story, in fact, and for reasons that I'm sure were intentional on the author's part. Brief Interviews, by contrast, is dense yet written in a fairly colloquial style, with dark yet relatable emotions. An Octet film would probably be like a good (okay--better) version of Adaptation.

John M

Craig Keller said, "Let me also add that I find his images incredibly beautiful, the attention to the image, to the light in the environments (and for that matter the environments themselves), quite moving."


His images are almost entirely without "attention." The photography in his films is smudgy and passed off--there are "environments," I guess, insofar as everything under the sun is an "environment." He shoots almost entirely in mediums or close-ups. Single-single-coverage, same-same-same. Numblecore's more like it. (Hey-o!) What are you saying here? How beautiful it is that Swanberg doesn't light, plan, compose?

Praise Swanberg for his decimating twentysomething honesty (or something) if you must, but calling the images "incredibly beautiful" suggests to me that your love for this brand of improvisational post-grad reality has grown delirious, to the point that you can't admit there might just be a lack of craft going on here.

Either that or you have an astigmatism.

Tom Russell

@ John M.: I'm with Keller.

To start with, I'm wondering if you've seen the same films I've seen if you call them "smudgy". Swanberg's images, at least from LOL on (still haven't gotten around to seeing Kissing yet; I have to agree with Glenn that, my appreciation of Mr. S's work non-withstanding, his penis doesn't exactly inspire my enthusiasm), are usually quite crisp and always in focus, with nice white light. Something like Audley's "Team Picture"-- that, to me, is "smudgy". Now, mind: I don't mean that as a knock in any way, shape, or form-- I *loved* "Team Picture" and that style worked for that picture. All I'm saying is, _that's_ what smudgy looks like. Swanberg's not smudgy.

Neither is his work "passed off". In both his web-series and features, Joe Swanberg obviously _does_ pay attention to the way things look. Yes, he uses a lot of close-ups and medium shots, and as a result I don't really get the same sense of "space" or environment that Craig does; I do, however, find his films beautiful.

Not in a David Lean or Michael Cimino sort of way-- but in the way that it is apparent that he obviously loves each and every face he puts in front of his camera. Whether the camera's shaking or wobbling, zooming in or holding still, it's that face, those eyes, that emotion, that he's interested in. Everyone, male and female, looks gorgeous without losing their "ordinariness", without becoming the made-up air-brushed robots that inhabit fashion magazines and pornographies.

Part of that _is_ composition and editing: the reliance on close-ups forces you to really LOOK at those faces, to really pay attention to these people. If that's not craft, I don't know what is.

And part of it is the selection of actors, the way those actors present themselves, how comfortable they are being on camera and revealing parts of themselves-- the funny parts and the awful parts, sometimes both at the same time-- and how much he gets them to reveal and how much he chooses to reveal in the editing room. Which _is_ directing.

You accuse Mr. Keller of being so in love with Swanberg's "brand of improvisational post-grad reality" that he "can't admit that there's a lack of craft here." You seem to be under the delusion that there is some difference between "visuals" or "style" and "substance", and that "craft" is something that applies to the former and not the latter.

You can't divorce style from substance; a director's craftmanship is not measured (if it can be measured at all) by how many magic hour shots he has or how much dolly track he can lay but by how he uses those elements to create whatever meaning he's trying to create. Take the last shot of Ozu's "Late Spring" (at least, I _think_ it'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 Excellance.

You can disagree with the value of chronicling what he chronicles, and you can raise your eyebrows whenever he pulls out his weiner-- this is a discussion that's well worth having and that, I assume, will be had after the distinguished Mr. Hawks gets blog-a-thon'd.

But the idea that there's a "lack of craft", that he just shoots a bunch of random crap and throws it on the screen-- no, I don't buy that at all.

On a personal note: as mentioned in my previous comment, Mr. Swanberg did me the huge favour of appearing in my next film. Because of his time commitments, he had to shoot his side of a phone conversation and then mail it to me. I can say without hesitation that he and his crew put a lot of thought, time, and effort into his material: that it was carefully composed and beautifully lit, that he added to the script provided to him in ways that were meaningful and showed a deeper understanding of the character and the scene.

While I think simply looking at his films will reveal the fallacy of the "lack of craft" argument, this personal experience of mine confirmed for me personally that he's NOT someone who just films a bunch of smudgy shit and "passes it off". Again, we can all differ on our opinions of Mr. Swanberg as a serious artist and craftsman, but the notion that he isn't serious about his art and his craft is wildly off-base.


Mumblecores sit atop my increasingly dusty and moldy Netflix queue so when it's reactivated maybe I'll have an idea what all of you are talking about. In the mean time, none of this sounds especially enticing, I have to say. But I'm with the guy who wondered plaintively where the big-screen independent films were, or if they were even possible anymore. Though with the caveat that big-screen, to me, is about vision more than a specific type of visuals - Godard, Rivette, and - I would argue - even Rohmer were big-screen artists.

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