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February 05, 2009


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Well. You make a strong case against a filmmaker I'd never even heard of until your self-described cheap shot in the Sundance article. But as bad as you make Swanberg's films sound, I'm now curious to check out a few in order to find out if I feel the same way, which is a reaction I doubt you would have a problem with.

But, considering my own tastes, my knee-jerk reaction, based on this article, is to give him a pass. I scrolled through this article before actually reading it (to see how long it was -- I do that sometimes), and I initially assumed that the office still from "Hannah on the Stairs" was taken from some behind-the-scenes home movie, or something, where the low-budget indie filmmakers were hashing out plans in some kind of jerry-rigged office. Because it sure doesn't look like a frame taken from an actual, honest-to-peaches film.

And the whole unsimulated sex thing...okay, fine, if you want to, I won't stand in your way, indie filmmakers of the world. But when the guy who wrote and directed the film is the same guy humping away on the females in his cast, that's when I begin to find the whole concept to be very dubious.

Tom Russell

You know, I probably should have thought twice about throwing in the Ozu reference. I should note that I didn't really intend to equate the two, per se, only to make a point re: "beauty", but I see how I left that open to misinterpetation and apologize for having caused the aforementioned umbrage. (It was also a poor example because, looking at that still, you're right, it is a beautiful image in and of itself, though not as heart-breaking devoid of context.)

A response-- not *precisely* a rebuttal, but a response-- will be forthcoming.

Joe P

You nailed it, Glenn. Dull is a perfect word to describe Swanberg's work. Whether it be narrative or filmic technique, he's lacking on all fronts. His supporters can rattle on all day long, but they're reaching for stuff that simply doesn't exist.


Great points.

As I said before, Swanberg's work is important to those who make or want to make movies, since he makes them so cheaply. He is sort of the Gen-Y version of Richard Linklater and SLACKER, in that respect.

However, for those with no interest in making films, they can be quite dull. That is something you couldn't say about SLACKER.

Glenn Kenny

@Tom—Don't kick yourself over the Ozu reference. Had you not made it, I would have had a harder time pursuing a particular line of argument. I don't mean that to sound sarcastic, although I allow it might. I appreciate that you were making a point in good faith. It's just one that I disagree with. In any case, I look forward to your response and further thoughts.

Tony Dayoub

Glenn, I haven't seen any Swanberg, but I must admit I'm interested. It seems like his work would at least have interest for anyone with a tendency towards voyeurism. Am I wrong about that?

Glenn Kenny

You're not wrong. Per se. But there are better films out there about voyeurism, and better ways to satisfy one's own voyeurism jones. Just saying.

Keith Gow

Whether or not Tom was fully committed to the Ozu comparison or not, the comparison now stands - and it's clear from those screenshots who is the artist and who is the fraud. Honestly, though, I had never heard of Joe Swanberg until I started to read this entry, Glenn. And like bill, I want to at least try one of his films just to see how I react. But the way you describe them, they do sound very amateur, look very amateur and have a surprising lack of depth.

What's great about this post is that even though I've never heard of Swanberg, it's always instructive to read about how a filmmaker has gone wrong so it's easier to see when filmmakers go right. And any chance to look at a still of an Ozu film is worth reading about a supposedly terrible filmmaker. Ill-thought-out comparison aside.

Tom Russell

Well, Keith, it wasn't that I wasn't "fully committed to the Ozu comparison" but rather that, as I stated above, I wasn't making a comparison. I was using Ozu as an example to illustrate a related point in answer to another commentator's comments. To give you a little more context, let me re-present what it was that I had actually said:

"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."

Nowhere did I say Ozu = Swanberg, or even Ozu's style is like Swanberg's style. I was talking generally about a theory of aesthetics. You can even look it up on the comments for the entry Glenn linked at the beginning of this entry (and thus see some of the arguments this piece is in response to) instead of merely assuming that I equated the two and had gotten cold feet about it.

I don't mean to be bitchy here, but I'd really hate for this to become one of those "Al Gore said he invented the internet!" things (look at crazy Tom Russell! he thinks Joe Swanberg is like Ozu!) and so I thought I ought to nip it in the bud.

Keith Gow

Thanks for re-presenting your comment, Tom. I see what you meant now - and why Glenn chose to call you on it in his response post.

I'm not sure I fully agree with your proposition that "you can't divorce style from substance" - certainly Michael Bay has a style without being substantive in the least. And the crux of that para of yours you have re-stated here suggests quite clearly that if you take a still frame from Ozu's final shot of "Late Spring" that it's not particularly beautiful - where Glenn's screenshot clearly shows that it is beautiful. Where the multitude of screenshots from Swanberg's films don't even remotely resemble beauty.

Same caveat as Glenn, though - I certainly don’t want to put across any kind of “you damn kids with your digital video and your casual nudity” vibe here.

It's a fine line to suggest you're not equating one with the other, but the example inside an impassioned defense of Swanberg does read ambiguously. Which of course you have already admitted to upthread.

Claire K.

From what I've seen, I would actually strongly disagree that Swanberg's work would especially appeal to a truly voyeuristic tendency. The thrill of voyeurism is partly in catching something that wasn't meant to be seen, and is therefore genuine in a way that something meant for public consumption cannot be. There is little genuine here, and the pervasive self-consciousness of everyone onscreen never allows the viewer to forget that the performers know they're being watched. It's incredibly uncomfortable, and only accidentally interesting, in the same way that the real reason "Girls Gone Wild" is interesting (the hollow desperation) is different than the reason everyone pretends it's interesting (the tits).

John M

I'd also argue that Swanberg's a pretty bad model for low-budget filmmakers, because his movies look every bit as cheap and casual as they are--I mean, it's not exactly astounding or inspirational to hear that they didn't cost much. His process, I guess, is mildly instructive/interesting, and yes, he did make five features in five years for what is I'm sure a shockingly small amount of money, but look at the produce: it's mushy, and probably won't stay fresh beyond the car ride home.

He's exposing the ugly side to that early-digital-revolution slogan: "Everyone can make a film now!" Indeed, now it's: "Everyone can make a film now, and get a deal out of it!"

John M

That first office shot still, I gotta say, is hilarious in so many ways. Not only for the retarded placement of chairs, blank white walls, awkward camera-height, and possibly accidental paper towel roll, but really, what's with the guy in the foreground? It's like Swanberg wanted to shoot a "dirty" two-shot, as they say, but couldn't bring himself to fit more of the guy's head in...and the foregrounded head is IN FOCUS, so one might assume his hair should grab equal attention.

Ick. This is the antithesis of space. It's like looking at a kindergartener's maniacal glue-and-construction-paper collage. (Maybe Vertov would be proud?)

Joe Bowman


John M

And to throw in a couple perhaps more controversial examples of films in which style is divorced from substance, please, viewer, take a look at 2008 faves SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Both are very stylish--not beautiful, necessary, but stylish, heavily designed--and in their own ways, precise.

And neither has much to say at all.

(Swanberg, I feel, is lacking in both departments.)


"Mumblecore" is to film as stories by senior year undergraduates in a creative writing program are to fiction. They might show promise, but somebody needs to tell them "Write what you know" doesn't mean "stare at your navel."

John Felice

I love it when you go longform, Glenn, even though I have doubts as to whether or not this creep really needs any more publicity. I'm sure he's sitting in Austin right now, shit eating grin on his face, a UT sophomore pre-med hottie sucking his balls, saying to himself, Yes, yes, I am Joe Swanberg, motherfuckers, that's right, uh huh.

Rabbi Lutz

Joe Swanberg is the Goyim Eric Schaeffer.

Herb Birch

At least Mr. Swanberg doesn't habitually abuse the word "putative", Mr. Kenny.

Natalie Norton

What I want to know is what the did Joe Swanberg do to invite the level of contempt that people are heaving at him? He must have a really repellent personality. This all just can't be about his mediocre movies. Anyone care to dish?


In a just world, William Greaves would've been the one to make a plethora of films and Swanberg the one to only make one.

Glenn Kenny

@ Herb Birch—There's no abuse of the word "putative," as in its meaning, "assumed to exist," nor of "putatively" as in its meaning "supposedly." Okay, probably the phrase "putative attempt to ease sunburn" is pushing it, but in every other instance the usage is correct. If you want I'll find some grammarians and copy editors to back me up. That said, I certainly do use the word one or two times too many in the piece. The guilt over which doesn't make me feel any less inclined to make certain suggestions to you, with completely immaculate usage, but I'll restrain myself.

@Natalie—My whole point was to accomplish the aim without dishing. So you'll have to look elsewhere for that. I will say that it's a good thing for one of the filmmakers under discussion here that he has not achieved a level of fame that would attract the interest of an investigative journalist of John Connolly or Mark Ebner's ilk. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

don lewis

Crap! I wrote a whole big response to this and it got lost. Ah well. here's a truncated version...

I'm still plotting a response to the critical response to Joe's work but have alot on my plate and can't formulate those thoughts just yet. That being said...

The term "mumblecore" was latched onto by journalists, bloggers and festivalites. Joe and the other filmmakers who got lumped into that category really don't have similarities in their films other than use of actors and a general attitude of improv. If you put all these films together (films of Shelton, Bronstein, Katz, Ross, Duplass, etc) you would find them all very, very different. Sure, there's some similarities, but I think Joe's films are the least like the other films to be honest.

And although as stated, I'm a friend of Joe's and I like his work, in NO WAY do I like everything he does or feel it ALL worthy of praise. This article and the anonymous internet naysayers in here act as though everyone thinks everything he shoots is gold. It's not. And that gets to my main point.

Joe's made 5 features in 5 years. That's fine and dandy but everyone jumping all over him is forgetting...5 years in the terms of making features really is not very long. He's still learning and crafting. Still getting closer to (or, some might say, further away from) what he's saying about cinema, human interaction, sexuality, personal space and so forth. Does he miss the point sometimes? Hell yes. But he also nails alot of it and even if you don't agree, I think you should at least respect the fact he's getting at what he wants to get at or trying to.

Now, that being said.

You guys act like Joe has worked tirelessly to create this image of digital video DIY Godfather. Like he grabbed a camcorder and shot some naked friends fucking and called it "MUMBLECORE" and crowned himself king of this newfound land of filmmaking. Truth is, he's just making his films. What's he supposed to do if people want to distribute them or show them at their festivals? Say no? The guys a filmmaker for crissakes.

It reminds me of the band Vampire Weekend. All these critics and bloggers collectively shit themselves over their debut album last year. "It's low-fi GRACELAND!" "It's brilliant!" "These are kids who made an amazing album!!" Then the backlash starts and rather than shine the light on those claiming VW is genius, they attack the band. The bands job is to make the music. The press builds them up, attaches a moniker, creates a buzz. When people don't agree, they attack the musician. The same is true for Joe and "mumblecore."

Joe's just making movies. Attack the movies, not the guy. A majority of the statements here are just wrong and mean spirited in terms of where he lives, what he does, etc. I'm willing to bet 3/4 of the negative commenters in here are jealous wanna be filmmakers who *could* shoot and edit what Joe does and don't. Or, have and haven't received any notice. Or worse, same commenters haven't even SEEN any of Joe's movies, got sick of reading about him and just jumped into the backlash for shits n giggles and some misplaced issues of inadequacy or artistic frustration.

Now THAT being said...

Glenn-I love the way you laid out your biases against Joe in the start of the piece (the apologia section). I wish more writers would do that when criticizing. However, your issues still come across as arrogant, condescending and smug. So...you met Joe and his public personae didn't thrill you so....his movies suck? I mean, he's not an actor per se, he's a filmmaker. I tend to judge films on what I see, not on what I perceive as some "half smirk" that you probably earned while bashing the guy all over Spout. And everywhere else you could get a word in. It seems to me you've grafted your impression of Joe the person onto every aspect of his work (the films, the style, the actors) and that seems trite and rather silly. You're more or less projecting your feelings on him and what you perceive of him onto the work. Obviously, you will disagree, but having read your piece 2-3 times, that's what I gleam.

I'm sure you (and most people...including me truth be told) are just sick of hearing his name mentioned constantly in terms of his movies, but again, why is that Joe's fault? He's just doing what he does and still has a ways to go. I think his new movie "Alexander the Last" will be a big step forward and yet, I feel as though people will continually want to pigeon hole him. "Oh! There's a cock! There's some pussy hair!! Ooooh....same old same old Swanberg. Lecherous!" (** I haven't seen the film, just being snarky myself**)

So, that's my issue with what you wrote and my take on it. I do have some thoughts about what he's doing philosophically and cinematically speaking, but can't extract them from my head right now. But in closing I will say, it's unfair to totally reject his work based on the first 5 years of his career. It's FIVE YEARS. I mean....really people.

Tom Russell

Still formulating my larger response, but let me echo Don Lewis here: you might not like Swanberg's films but you can all be civil when talking about another human being. We're all adults, yes?

Glenn Kenny

@Don: You ask: "So...you met Joe and his public personae didn't thrill you so....his movies suck?"

No. Exactly no. But if that's all you gleaned after 2-3 readings, there's probably nothing I can do to convince you otherwise. I make about a dozen specific points based on what's on the screen in certain Swanberg works, and still all you can see is my personal animus. I guess that's your privilege. But trust me when I tell you that I really do not envy or resent Mr. Swanberg. I just don't like his films, and I wrote this post in response to some people I respect who do find them worthwhile.

As for "it's only 5 years," well, I guess we've come to expect too much from filmmakers early in their careers. Look at Godard's first five years. Oh, wait, I forgot, no fair comparing Swanberg to good filmmakers.

@Tom Russell: Look, I laid out my biases, potential and otherwise, at the outset, and then tried to put them aside for the rest of my piece. If some commenters want to vent in a more personal style, I'm not gonna intervene unless it gets really out of hand. Admittedly, Mr. Felice's comment is borderline.

Tom Russell

I actually disagree with Don's assertion re: your biases and I actually find the whole piece to be extremely intelligent and a lot of your arguments speak to some of the reservations I myself have about his work-- which is why it's going to take me a couple of days to muster up a proper response.

It was more Mr. Felice's comment that I was responding to.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks, Tom. I know that Craig has something in the works as well. I look forward to both. As the Polish film critic once wrote to Andrew Sarris (this was recounted, I recall, in the introduction to "The American Cinema"): "Let us polemicize."

Claire K.

Mr. Lewis, I'm not sure I understand your point--yes, it's only 5 years of work, but one can only decide whether one likes a director's work based on the work that *currently exists*--not based on a sense of what he may or may not be able to accomplish in the future. I don't think anyone's saying "I don't like Joe Swanberg for infinity!! No matter what he does! Ever!" But since his future work is not yet available for viewing, one can only evaluate what's here. And it's totally fair to reject someone's work based on...their work.

Jette Kernion

pssst: it's Mark Duplass who's in Hannah Takes the Stairs, not Jay.

I sometimes have trouble connecting with the characters and situations in Joe Swanberg's films, and figured it was a generational thing -- they seem a lot younger than I am, and deal with relationships in a way that I don't (anymore). Maybe it's really the smirks that are keeping my empathy at bay. I'll have to keep an eye out for that with the next Swanberg film I see.

Glenn Kenny

@Jette—Indeed. I was wrong in the first citation, and right in the second. Someone's gonna say I was trying to tar the brothers with the same brush!

Corrected now. Thanks.

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