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February 06, 2009


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Glenn, Don's comment seems completely tangential. The "Grand Theory" posed here, whether or not an actress lies when she doesn't acknowledge the camera etc, is not particular to the films of Joe Swanberg. In addition, seeing this theory in a film is not evidence of that film's merit. Someone might also have to explain the substance of the theory in general, and what role it plays in further understanding cinema. Regardless, if Swanberg's films are decent examples of this theory then terrific. His films are still clumsy. Each of them offer insight into Swanberg's priorities as a writer and filmmaker, and the fact that each of his films are relatively identical implies -- at least to me -- that he's content with his aesthetics.

Talking to people who have seen his films, however, their biggest complaints are not with this aesthetic. It may simply have to do with the scripts and whether these characters and their problems are worth watching. A friend of mine turned off Hannah Takes the Stairs in the middle because she found everyone to be immature, self-indulgent and privileged, and that the film's structure and language praised these attributes, as if a structure and language could be ignorant of the story's shallow nature. This friend might have been searching for words, yes, but she brings up a good point: Are critics of the Mumblecore movement bothered by the style, staging, camerawork, acting, etc, or does it simple come down to the perceived intelligence of the script.

Also, I wrote a short reaction on my blog to your piece yesterday, though I'm actually a bit more content with what I just wrote here.

craig keller.

As I stitch together this Godard book, something Bill Krohn wrote leads to the following contemporary-to-the-time characterization of 'Bande à part', conceived in a review written by Luc Moullet:

"La Nuit du carrefour 1964."

The Chevalier

The idea that a camera only catches truth is just plain dumb. A camera (digital or celluloid) captures a series of still images at a fixed speed that creates an illusion of motion when played back at a fixed speed. And let's not even get into perspective as defined by camera placement, composition, lens choice, etc.

If you think it's high art to break the 4th wall by including a bad moment from a bad take, then that's again just plain dumb. That's why you do multiple takes. That's why you edit. This isn't a live performance where somebody forgets their lines, plays the wrong chord, or farts on stage.

It might've been revolutionary (to some) when Godard made a point of being consciously amateurish in his films, but to me, amateurish is amateurish, whether it's Godard or Swanberg or whoever else.

don lewis

So you guys (here and in the other posting) are really going to say that Joe makes shitty looking movies with bad acting continually because he doesn't know what he's doing or trying to do? You're telling me that when he culls footage from HUNDREDS of hours of tape, he has no idea what he's putting out there or why?

Wow. And I'm the dumb one?

The guy has been asked these questions or aesthetics ad nauseam so by all means, don't do any homework, just sit in the corner pouting and ranting "Swanberg Sucks! He make ugly moovie. Whaa!"

Cases in point (end of interview):


I will say re; acting...I may have been off base or at least not formualted my comment in the way I meant. I think Joe's actors are indeed "acting" but their acting at being natural. But I think that shines the light on the truth in cinema argument.

Is it more realistic to see documentary style shooting of non-actors being natural or is it more realistic to see, say, Viola Davis' scene in "Doubt" where she breaks down and has snot running into her mouth?

Steven Santos

My feeling has always been that real is in the eye of the beholder. I often feel much critical analysis gets bogged down in different people arguing whether a movie captures truth. As an editor, I am constantly aware that anything I watch is manipulated to get a certain reaction even if it doesn't seem like it was. I always feel movies are the reflection of mostly the director's (but also writers, actors, editors, cinematographers) sensibilities. Whether that actually reflects one perceives to be realistic is what each individual brings to it.

I personally haven't seen Swanberg's films, although, eventually, I'll try to get to them. I have to admit though that I'm in no hurry to see them because I don't think I could relate to Swanberg's world as much as I couldn't relate to something like "He's Just Not Into You".

I do expect a certain level of craft and discipline when I watch a movie. Although others wouldn't agree, I would consider looking into the camera to be more of a mistake than an artistic choice even if it's intentional. I'm not sure if it's enough to use to condemn a whole movie as much as poor camera placement, indifferent blocking and unconvincing performances and dialogue which seems to be the primary issues of Swanberg's critics.

On a semi-related note, I was watching "Dr. Strangelove" last night. During the scene where Peter Sellers' hand is out of control moving his wheelchair, the actor playing the Russian ambassador breaks character, visibly trying to restrain laughter and then returns to a serious expression. Do you discard the take for that or keep it because Sellers is the main focus of the shot and that take was probably his strongest one? And, considering this was Kubrick, there were probably at least a few dozen takes to choose from. Would anyone argue that Kubrick left it in to capture truth?

The Chevalier

No, Don, we're not saying he doesn't know what he's doing. We're simply saying he's not good at what he's doing.

And he's not growing much of an audience either. For all the press that Hannah got, it managed less than $6k opening weekend at IFC, and for Nights less than $5k. Meanwhile, Barry Jenkins, a first-time feature filmmaker, pulled in nearly $13k at the same theater for Melancholy. Why is that? Do you think perhaps that quality was an issue?...

Furthermore, to suggest that Swanberg puts effort into his aesthetic, and works hard at giving it a documentary feel is disingenuous. Because I've seen interviews with him where he explicitly claims to have no interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking and that he shoots handheld because he's too lazy to take the time to setup and move a tripod. So which is it? I'll tell ya, the lack of technical interest seems a lot more honest to me than what he told Variety in your link...

So, my question is: If he's not interested in technique and he doesn't write regular screenplays or dialogue (or at least has other people contribute those ideas) and his work with actors is to essentially let them improvise, then what exactly is he doing as a director than one could make an educated assessment of? By what standard is his direction to be considered good direction?

I understand you're his friend, and you're always the first person to stand up for him on blogs. And I'm sure in life he's a good guy. But we're talking about work here. Are you standing up for him because his work is really that significant, or because you're his friend? No offense meant.

Does anybody recall this wild comment thread from last year? http://daily.greencine.com/archives/006830.html

Glenn Kenny

While I agree with quite a bit of what The Chevalier has to say, I can't get on board with his characterization of Godard as "amateurish." The self-consciousness that manifests itself in (among other things) looking-into-the-camera moments in such pictures as "Band of Outsiders," "Breathless," "Alphaville,""Une Femme est Une Femme," et.al., is part of the DNA of those films...in a way that I don't see functioning in Swanberg's. Godard was completely capable of making films in more conventional modes at the time—see "Le Petit Soldat" and especially "Le Mepris." Not that if he hadn't proven this, it would de-legitimize what he does in the other films. Still, it's worth noting. And I also think that, relative to Swanberg, it really is, finally, apples and oranges. And not to get into areas of intentional fallacy or anything, but I think Swanberg's fairly incoherent in his aesthetic project, whereas from Godard's interviews and writings from this period, we can glean that he always knew pretty much exactly what he was on about.

The Chevalier

Oh, I'm not disputing that. More so, when Godard did "amateurish" things, it existed against something -- the standard movie polish. When he did it, at that time, it was considered revolutionary.

That context no longer exists. So when somebody does something like that today it's just plain amateurish. But I also think that, even with Godard, removed from their original context, they've dated themselves.

That said, Godard was never about capturing reality as it is, so much as calling attention to the artifice of movies. He experimented with different forms, different subjects. He was creative. And that's something I don't see in Swanberg's work.


There may be too much intellectual parsing here. The discussion of whether spiking the camera is ok shouldn't be theoretical - it either works or doesn't. I haven't seen Swanbourg, so I don't know if it works in his, but it sure as hell works when Godard does it (and Glenn, I'd take slight issue with Le Petit Soldat as "conventional" - as I wrote on the film recently, I've never really seen it that way though others seem to. Also, Anna stares offscreen at Godard in that picture too. But you're dead on about these tactics being part of the DNA of Godard's pictures - analysis is fine, but ultimately these gestures are as natural as breathing for the director.)

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