Saturday, February 9, 2008
Like Glenn, I'll begin with full disclosure. As this story goes back a few years, and as it is somewhat intertwined with my own life as a filmmaker, it's going to digress a bit and it's going to take a while. So be forewarned.
I started work on my first feature film in 2000; it was my senior year of high school and I had just lost my father to lung cancer (he was thirty-eight). That film, which I finished in early 2001, was intended to deal with that death. It wasn't very good-- the wounds were too fresh and I really didn't have anything more insightful to say then "it's hard to deal with death" and "live for the moment" and some-such.
My father had worked in insurance and so his life insurance policy left us with a substantial amount, roughly a quarter of a million dollars. My mother spent it in less than a year, at one point buying three new cars in as many months. She started to use drugs heavily, and when my father's insurance money ran out she emptied out my savings account. I moved out of my mother's house just a couple of months before my high school graduation; I never went to college.
Instead, I worked. I paid rent and I made my own meals. I tried to educate myself the best that I could. And I made two films, one with borrowed equipment and one with my own. I sent them to festivals and I got rejected from every single one.
Along the way, I met Mary, who became my wife five years ago this Monday. And then we made a film together, and let me be unequivocal here: that film was good. While I see some problems with it now, looking back at it from a distance of five years, I'm still proud of it and I still remember the joy and the sense of accomplishment I had felt at its completion. This was the film, I said; this is the film that's going to take off.
We sent it to festivals. Oh, so many festivals. And DVD distributors. And we got rejected from and ignored by every single one. (Hold onto this thought, as we'll be coming back to it.)
Shortly after we had finished that film, Mary had introduced me to Roger Avary's film "Killing Zoe". Wanting to know more about the man, I stumbled across his website and began lurking. One of the thoughtful commentators on Avary's sight was Joe Swanberg, who was, at the time, just finishing or had just finished his first feature. As I recall, Avary held digital video in great disdain and so he gave Swanberg a lot of crap. Swanberg seemed to defend digital video fairly ardently and intelligently, and since I was also a digital partisan I decided to drop him a line, asking in my awkward way if we could chat about film from time to time. He agreed.
We didn't actually correspond all that much; I remember talking with him about solving video's contrast ratio problem, and asking him why Avary had suddenly shut down his site (he had no idea either). Nothing really happened until he was making "LOL" and started asking people for the noise head videos. I submitted one, though I didn't make the final cut; I think the video's magnetic information got damaged in the mail. My name is in the end credits, though, underneath a blur that vaguely resembles me.
After that first film that Mary and I had made together, we went through a pretty bleak period together. We had bought a house and our mortgage company was, to put it lightly, less than scrupulous. We both had our share of medical bills without health insurance. Mary would find a job or a temp assignment and then lose it. I managed to find a job working with autistic people and, a year later, I managed to lose it. All this time, we were submitting the film to festivals, occasionally recutting it, and getting rejected. We spent more money on the festival fees than on the film itself.
This bad period reached an apex when I decided to run for political office, mostly as a lark. What I did not know when I made that decision was that my part-time employer would put me on a mandatory six week leave of absence; with my name already on the ballot, there was really no going back.
I was unemployed, which made me feel like a failure as a man; I was a failure as a politician, as a husband, as a filmmaker, as a human being. And in-between applying for jobs online, I was poking around the web and I found out that Joe Swanberg had a Wikipedia page, that "Kissing on the Mouth" was on DVD, that he had done all these interviews, even gotten a review for LOL in the New York Times, the Gray Motherfucking Lady. Here he was succeeding, and I was a failure, a dismal suicidal failure. I envied him. And I wrote him and said as such, if not in so many words.
And Joe said, "You know, I haven't made a dime from filmmaking." (At that time, he hadn't.) "I have negative income and debt" (just like me). "We all get discouraged sometimes. I don't make films because I want money or fame, I make films because I want to make films, because I like making films."
His words, which of course I'm paraphrasing, had a tremendous impact on me. In perhaps the lowest point of my life, Joe Swanberg put things in perspective and reminded me why I was making films in the first place. Around that same time, Andrew Bujalski, who I had also been conversing with over the course of that bad period, saw that film Mary and I had made together and had some tremendously nice things to say about it.
The two of them, taken together, not only inspired me to make films again, but I can say without a hint of melodrama that they saved my life. I will always be grateful to both of them for that. After the election, I returned to my part-time job; Mary and I started working on our next film, "The Man Who Loved", which we dedicated to Bujalski and to Swanberg.
Joe was kind enough to appear in the film we finished last year, "Son of a Seahorse", in a part we had written specifically with him in mind. Because of his schedule, we had written the part so that he could shoot his portion and send it to us by mail. Not my ideal way of working with an actor, but we gave him some detailed notes on the script and the end result was exactly what we were looking for and so much more.
I was looking forward to finally meeting Joe and Andrew in person at this year's SXSW, but alas we were once again rejected. For ten years now I've been making films and submitting them to festivals, and I've never gotten into a single one. But I'm optimistic, excited, and about to start work on my seventh feature. And I've got Joe Swanberg to thank for that.
Now, all this probably opens me up to the charge that I'm biased, that I can't possibly comment on Swanberg's work objectively. The same charge was leveled against Mr. Kenny; I think the balance of his essay proves that charge to be false and I hope the balance of mine does the same. While we might have wildly different takes on and experiences with Joe Swanberg the person, there are a few points about Swanberg the artist on which Mr. Kenny and I agree.
On the larger point of "Is Joe Swanberg the filmmaker worth my time and attention?", my answer is "yes"; Joe's a filmmaker who I respect and admire. Now, that doesn't mean that I can't have some reservations and qualms about his work. Film taste and criticism is not a zero-sum game. I think quite possibly the greatest film critic who ever lived is Charles Thomas Samuels, who in interviewing a filmmaker he admired greatly would not hesitate to call them to task. I still can't quite believe he had the balls to tell Bresson that he should have held a particular shot in "Balthazar" a few seconds longer and that the scene in question didn't really work as a result. (Incidentally: whatever happened to Charles Thomas Samuels?)
Glenn and Craig have me at a distinct disadvantage, because not only is my prose and my arguments not as precise as theirs, but they indeed have seen more Swanberg films than I have. I've not seen "Kissing on the Mouth", and I'll admit freely that that's largely because I don't have a great and burning desire to see Joe's wiener more than I already have in "Young American Bodies". Yes, we all have genitals and most of us have some form of a sex life, and, yes, this brings us around to that question, Why are people so hung up on sex?, which is probably Joe's point. But if the adult film stars I've met at the Detroit Comicon are any indication, I think I'd have a great deal of difficultly meeting and talking with Joe in person without getting the mental image of his nuts-and-berries flashing before my eyes. (Which, again, might lead us to that question: Why are people so hung up on sex?)
I've also never seen "Nights and Weekends", as it has not yet been released on DVD and I do not have access to any video on demand. I can only form my opinion based on the work I have seen: "LOL", "Hannah Takes the Stairs", "Young American Bodies", "Butterknife", and "The Stagg Party". Which is still, I think, a large enough body of work to argue from.
In addition to establishing what I'll be arguing from, I should establish also what it is, exactly, that I'm arguing. So let me be clear and let me be unequivocal: I think Joe Swanberg is a good and interesting filmmaker. He's not a master filmmaker and none of his films are "masterworks". He's not Ozu, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Truffaut, Godard, or Laughlin. I will not be arguing for his inclusion amongst those greatest of the greats, but neither am I going to say that his films exist in some special class where they can't be held up against their standards.
I wouldn't say, as Craig Keller does, that the performances are "magnificent", but I do find the performances on a whole to be "good"; I won't say that Swanberg's films are "incredibly beautiful" but I do find within them an element of beauty.
I enjoy Swanberg's films; I'm going to try and explain why. I have my problems with them; I'm going to examine those. I'm going to set forth as best as I am able why I think he's a filmmaker who is worth your time and interest. Perhaps not, at this stage in the game, an essential or epochal one, but one who is nonetheless worthy and interesting.
III. Sex and Art
Two themes that I see cropping up a lot in Joe's work are sex and art. His films and web-series generally seem to center around "creative types"-- web designers, musicians, writers, and, apparently, a video game designer-- in various modes of undress. In fact, his recent web series "The Stagg Party", a documentary about pornographer/erotic art photographer Ellen Stagg, puts these two themes squarely at the forefront of the work.
Let me say something that's going to cause a bit of head-scratching, given the filmmaker under discussion: as both a viewer and a filmmaker myself I'm not particularly interested in either of these themes.
Works of art about art, artists, making art, the creative process, et al, almost always rub me the wrong way. With a few exceptions (Truffaut, W. Anderson, Rivette) they always seem too self-referential, a bit too meta. Instead of being art about love-hate-death-pain-joy-life it's only about itself. I think the problem is that I've seen too many films from first-time filmmakers about first-time filmmakers making their first film. Also novels about novelists writing a novel (Wonder Boys: happy exception).
As for the other thing-- sex-- it's not so much that I'm not interested in it, per se; I am, after all, a human being and male at that. Neither am I uncomfortable about seeing sexuality on the screen: erotic, disturbing, ordinary, ridiculous: it's all fine by me. But, with puberty now several years behind me, I'm unlikely to seek out a film because of its sexual content. When I hear that so-and-so has made a Daring And Important Film that explores the extremes of human sexuality, the best I can offer up is a "meh". This apathy, of course, has never stopped me from writing or seeking out dirty stories about Amish lesbians.
But maybe this all just proves Swanberg's point. In an interview, he once said something along the lines of he was trying to reclaim sex from pornography, to make sex ordinary instead of sensational and fake and sleazy; that sex is just something that his characters do. And here I am, salivating over "and then her bonnet fell into the butter churn" and shrugging at films that try to elevate depictions of sex beyond mere spank material. Maybe I'm one of those Americans experiencing anxiety "over a perceived disparity in levels of commitment to the diegesis on the part of the filmmaker", but I can't be certain as I'm not exactly sure what all that means.
In any case, I've seldom found the sex scenes in "Young American Bodies" to be particularly sexy (exceptions: the standing-up-while-receiving-cunninglingus scene in season one, the boob massage in season... two? three?). They have, on occasion, struck me as funny and honest (trying and failing to construct an Alex Mack sex fantasy in season three). But mostly, it's just something his characters do. Like talking about dreams, rolling one's eyes at unwanted guests/roommates, proposing to a girlfriend, meeting new people.
From what I've seen, the sex in Joe's work is pretty ordinary and it frankly doesn't interest me as much as those scenes in which the characters communicate verbally. That said, again, I haven't seen "Kissing on the Mouth" or its notorious masturbation scene.
As Glenn Kenny describes it, the scene features Swanberg's character masturbating to completion while thinking about two different women to whom he feels different levels of attraction. It's the only time, Kenny notes, that the film becomes subjective, taking us into the character's mind as he fantasizes about each woman. This, he says, adds nothing to the film-- we already know that the character is attracted to both women. While he acknowledges that Swanberg is asking what Keller calls the implicit question of what the cinema can or should show with regards to sex, he sees it as a "literally balls-out assertion of male privilege".
And, I dunno, all this can be true. Like I said, I haven't seen it. But, this being the internet, I am therefore perfectly qualified to comment on it.
Back in my crazy bachelor days, I had sex several times a week. Granted, my only partners were the palm of my hand and my imagination. Seldom was I able to complete the deed thinking about the same woman or scenario. No; I often had to summon a veritable harem of women in bonnets and plain hook dresses succumbing to the considerable charms of a swarthy Englisher. I think this is common. Well, not so much the Amish thing, but the whole thinking-about-lots-of-different-people-to-whom-one-feels-a-physical-attraction-while-masturbating thing, I think that is a common phenomenon for human beings in general but for men in particular.
Here's the thing: you don't see that phenomenon often presented in film. First of all, you don't often see masturbation in the first place. Secondly, when characters do follow the advice of former Surgeon General Elders on the screen, it's usually played for laughs (cf. "There's Something About Mary"). Whether it's taken seriously or not, the scene usually centers on one fantasy (perhaps presented in a subjective dream sequence) and one person, usually presented in some kind of chronological order. The human mind, as far as I'm aware, very seldom works in such an orderly and focused fashion, and that goes double for when someone's got themselves worked up about something.
From the way Glenn describes it, it sounds like Swanberg's presenting a masturbation scene that's much closer to the way the human mind works, "alternating" fantasies. Perhaps Swanberg just thought, "Hey, I've never seen that in a film, it's something that rings true, so maybe I'll put it in."
I am reminded of a scene from Paul Thomas Anderson's charming "Punch-Drunk Love", in which Sandler's character Barry Egan, when asked about his work, says "Business is very food". People make those sort of Freudian slips all the time, but they seldom show up in film; when they do, it's almost always heightened and Full of Psychological Significance. It was nice to see a bit of ordinary reality reflected back at me from the screen. Indeed, Mary and I have tried to do stuff like that in our own work; in our film "The Man Who Loved", there's a scene in which one of the characters attempts to change the bedsheets while her two cats crawl all over the bed, bat at the sheets, and generally get in the way, as cats do. It was something that we didn't recall seeing in other films, and as it was a sometimes irritating part of our day-to-day experience, we put it in our film:
Perhaps I'm right and the thinking behind that scene in "Kissing on the Mouth" is that we seldom see a realistic masturbation scene in the mainstream cinema; that still doesn't make me want to actually watch it. Which is, come to think of it, probably why such scenes are so seldom in the first place.
Sure, people masturbate and people trim their pubic hair. Hey, people get diarrhea too. I've yet to see a film that graphically and realistically depicts an act of human defecation, and I frankly don't want to. Yes, all that happens and all that is honest; I just don't find it particularly interesting.
I'm more interested in seeing emotional and psychological places that filmmakers so seldomly traverse-- in graphic and realistic depictions of mental nudity, of self-exposure. Lucky for me, the films of Swanberg have that, too. And that's what I find *really* interesting.
IV. A Director of Moments
As Kenny reports, I said in an earlier comments thread that I thought the "best moment" in all of Swanberg's work comes in "Hannah Takes the Stairs" in a scene between Gerwig and Kent Osborne. In describing it from memory I perhaps put too much emphasis on Osborne's discussion of his depression medication; it wasn't really Osborne's moment that struck me as being particularly special.
The moment that I'm talking about is all Gerwig and it starts: "It sounds really stupid, because it sounds like what I'm saying is, 'Now that I know you're depressed and you have these things, I can no longer treat you with carelessness'. But that's actually what I'm thinking. I tend to leave destruction in my wake."
Over the next few bits of verbal placeholders, Gerwig's Hannah gradually starts to break down and cry. Osborne grabs a tissue and, sputtering, she works her way to this: "No, you're Good, and I'm using you to cover things up and, gee, I don't know, you deserve more than that, and that's the shittiest first thing to tell a person, because they know that they deserve more than whatever's the person giving them... I don't know, I feel like I was just trying to use you to make me feel good, and it's like, 'No, this is a person, and it's a person with problems.' Not that you only have problems, but it's like---- I don't want to use you."
It's that moment that moved me, that moment where I recognized some emotional honesty on the screen. I described it in my earlier comments as acute self-consciousness, but perhaps it would be more accurate to flip the two: that moment features an acute consciousness of self. In that moment, she acknowledges her narcissism, a narcissism that objectifies other people. She did not, prior to her suitor's confession, think of him as a person with a life that extends beyond her own. She's completely aware of this, or at any rate in this moment becomes completely aware of it, and hates herself, castigates herself for it. And still, of course, the scene is still in the end about _her_ and how _she_ reacts, and perhaps she's only thinking of him in relation to how he makes her think about herself. She is a full-blown narcissist who is also full of self-loathing.
That moment rang true for me. Not the crying so much but those couple of lines-- "this is a person" and "I don't want to use you". It was a moment that had some teeth, a moment that has (to my mind) some emotional complexity. And while there are other moments in "Hannah" and "LOL" and the web stuff that feel "real" and highlight something about the characters, I don't think any of those moments approach that one in "Hannah"; that's why I single it out as the best in Swanberg's work.
Now, the question is raised: how much of that is Swanberg and how much is Gerwig? As we all know, Swanberg often doesn't use a script. His actors improvise their dialogue and perhaps even the situations. One could argue, then, that the moment is really Gerwig's: it's Gerwig's emotions, Gerwig's words, and, who knows, perhaps even Gerwig's personality. (Having never met Ms. Gerwig, and being generally unwilling to assign character flaws to actors and actresses I've never met based solely on the character flaws of roles they've performed, I will not be speculating along those lines.)
Assuming a ginormous chunk of that moment is due to Gerwig, let me put forth the following: an actor cannot create a moment like that in a vacuum. An environment must be created and a mood fostered that allows an actor to dig deeper and to reveal more. Unless you've got an onion handy, no one's going to cry on camera unless they're able to let down their emotional shields. No one's going to go into uncomfortable territory, either emotionally or physically, unless the director has made them comfortable enough to do so.
Directing is: shot composition, cutting, scoring, blocking, dressing-- certainly. But directing is also casting and it's also creating an atmosphere that allows the actors to do their thing. There is no such thing as "an actor's picture" without an actor's director. There could be no moments like this one in "Hannah" unless Swanberg created the circumstances that allowed it to take place.
Watching that scene again so that I could get the dialogue jotted down, I realized that for the duration of that moment, the camera never leaves Gerwig's face. Osborne is off-camera, he's still talking, he occasionally moves into the frame-- but the shot, the moment, is Gerwig's. The camera stares without flinching as she lacerates herself. And, I have to say, in that moment she looks gorgeous: the white light on the side of her face, the pimples on her right cheek, the way she rubs her nose with her index finger. That's where our attention should be and that's where he keeps the camera: he focuses our attention on her: directing.
Now, I know what you're going to say: "But he always keeps his camera on people's faces!" Glenn spoke of Swanberg's "claustrophobic world of close-ups and medium close-ups... his almost infantile refusal to ever use the camera to evoke a sense of space beyond the immediate proximity of his characters."
From what I've seen, Glenn's right in that Swanberg's work seldom creates a palpable sense of space, of place, of time. Everything's focused on this moment and these people and more specifically these faces. Partially, I think this is the result of his working methods/aims: if he seeks to capture moments-- not construct them but to create a place where they can happen and snatch them up as they fleet on by-- then of course his camera is going to be fixated on where those moments happen. But partially I think it's also simply a matter of preference: I think Joe Swanberg is just madly in love with the human face. Male, female, they all look gorgeous and yet are all stripped of their glamour. He lights for faces and shoots for faces and edits for them.
Is this to his detriment? Honestly, I can't say. I *would* like to get a better sense not just of physical space but of practical non-emotional reality (more on that in just a bit). At the same time, I do like those moments.
Glenn grants that those moments do exist. He says that they're often awkward and stumbled across. And, yes, I can't say I disagree with that; even that moment I cherish from "Hannah" feels like it's been stumbled across, perhaps a bit clumsily. It did not, however, take me out of the movie the way that Gerwig-looking-away-from-camera did. It felt like I just witnessed something real, unexpected, unplanned-- and I can't help but wonder if that's because its creators were groping for that hidden truth and happened to snatch it up.
Clumsy or not, Glenn states that there aren't enough of those moments to "make Swanberg worth my time and faith". And while I've never gone and counted up those moments, for me there have been enough to keep me wanting more. But I can certainly see where Glenn's coming from, and the problem with making a film as a way of bottling up moments like emotional lightning is that, well, you can't always succeed.
While I think that moment from "Hannah" is the best I've seen in Swanberg's work so far, I will allow that I think there were more moments in "LOL". "LOL" is, I think, a better film as a whole. And this might be because of the circumstances of its making. From what I understand, "LOL" was shot over the course of some eight months, whereas "Hannah" was shot during two or three weeks. Eight months gives you a lot more time to shoot and reshoot, think and rethink; eight months allows you to discard more material and you're going to end up with a lot more great material.
V. The Tragic Smirk
I think Swanberg's films also concern themselves with genuineness, though not in that silly film school "what is the meaning of reality and representation" way. Some of his characters can be narcissistic twits, but they're not oblivious about it: they know they're being twits but they do it anyway. Two examples:
In "LOL": Tim asks his horny girlfriend for twenty more minutes with his computer; he knows she's going to say no and he knows he might catch hell for asking but still he asks.
In "Young American Bodies": Swanberg's character and his older former paramour are studying. He knows that there's to be no more fooling around between them. But still he brings it up. He does so with, well, a smirk: I know this is ridiculous but I'm going to do it anyway.
His characters live in a constant state of self-awareness. It's almost crippling; they can't be sincere because they're always conscious of how silly, stupid, and immature they are. So, how can they "be who they are" if everything is finger-quotes? I am reminded of a Tom Tomorrow cartoon in which a couple breaks up because, so used to living in an age of wit and irony, they can't say "I love you" without the other suspecting them of sarcasm.
I don't think I'm reaching in detecting this theme, though I doubt it's one that Joe has developed consciously. That is, I think it's something more intuitive which is why it has never come to the fore in the same way Sex and Art have. I would certainly like to see him develop more along these lines, though, and I hope he does so in the future.
I'm sure anyone who is familiar with this Mumble-Thing has at least a passing familiarity with Boston University's Ray Carney. He's a big booster of Bujalski, Swanberg, Katz, Audley, Bronstein, et cetera. But anyone who knows Ray knows that he's not one to just grab a couple of pom-poms and rah, rah, rah about how great someone is.
Recently, he took a look at this whole generation of young American independent filmmakers and decried the niceness of it all. Every character is polite and considerate of others. No one starts any fights or wants to argue. They're all accommodating and sweet.
True, I haven't seen much by way of yelling and screaming in Swanberg's films, but his characters are not afraid to pick at each other passive-aggressively.
The best example I can think of is one that Glenn cited as an example of unreality in Swanberg's series "Butterknife". I'm talking about the scene in which Mary Bronstein's character gets stuck under the bed and asks her husband for help; said husband instead fetches a camera and photographs her before pulling her out from under the bed by her feet. Glenn pointed out that Mr. Bronstein could easily have lifted up the bed and chalked it up as an attempt at an "I Love Lucy" homage.
But-- maybe this is just me-- I didn't see it that way at all. It didn't come across as "antics"; it came across as "disturbing". Rather than help her, he prolongs her predicament. He's having fun at her expense. I don't think he's doing it to be "cute"; I think he's doing it to get back at her for something. Heck, maybe it's nothing in particular-- behaviour that's common even in healthy marriages.
Then there's the eponymous scene in the Butterknife episode "Bedroom Bully", in which Mary is attempting to get to sleep and her husband chews loudly to get on her nerves, calls her a bedroom bully, and even sings her a song about her bulliness. They're just little things, but again here we have a character who is pushing, needling, and irritating the other. There's a tension in that relationship, and I often detect such tensions under the surface in other Swanberg characters.
There's a scene in "LOL" in which Swanberg's own character, Tim, refuses to get angry at his girlfriend for trying to make him angry thus making her more angry. He takes the audience through this process as he explains it to a friend over his cell phone. Of course, what he doesn't mention is that this in and of itself is an act of anger.
In "LOL" and "Young American Bodies", both of Swanberg's characters deliberately get on people's nerves. It was this quality that I tried to capitalize on in my own film, "Son of a Seahorse", in which Swanberg plays a particularly unhelpful customer service rep working for a utility company.
VII. Practical Reality
I mentioned earlier that in addition to a sense of physical space, I wish Swanberg's films also had a sense of non-emotional reality. What I mean by this is that why I find the performances, emotions, and certain moments of Swanberg films to be exceptionally realistic, I don't think he does nearly as good of a job conjuring up or defining the practical physical details of everyday life.
Glenn cites a few examples of this in his essay: for example, the chair situated in front of a door in an office. Don Lewis pointed out that they worked for an advertising firm and they arranged the chairs thusly for a brainstorming session. Me? I didn't know they worked for an advertising firm.
I know they were writing for something, and that Bujalski's character was apparently a blogger of renown. What he blogged about, I had no idea. What they wrote for, I wasn't quite sure. Apparently it was advertising.
I think Swanberg pays a lot of attention to his actors, to their characters, to the moments they create together; I'm not sure if he pays quite so much attention to anything outside of that. And more-so than the lack of a sense of physical space, I do think that is a detriment.
During the "Glenn Kenny Glenn Ross" affair, which I remember watching from the sidelines, I believe Joe brushed off the criticism about the lack of research into detective work for "Butterknife" because the job itself wasn't relevant to the series (I am paraphrasing and I can't seem to find the relevant page online). It was just a fun sort of job for him to have.
I kind of accepted that logic at the time, even if the detective portions weren't nearly as interesting, fresh, or entertaining for me as the husband-and-wife sections. But it is emblematic of the Swanberg work that I've seen thus far ("The Stagg Party", of course, being an exception). With the exception of the girls working in the doughnut shop in "Young American Bodies", no one seems to have a real job; that is, a non-artist job that resembles reality as working people know it. Yet everyone seems, if not exactly affluent, certainly unworried about the cost of living.
The work space in "Hannah" doesn't resemble any office I know of, but rather just seemed to be another place for the characters to hang out and entertain one another. The characters may have been co-workers but they were really just another gaggle of friends; the office might as well have been someone's apartment. For me, those scenes at that office space work less well then the rest of the picture.
It's always dangerous to be ascribing motives to other people, but I honestly think this sort of stuff isn't as important to Joe as capturing those moments and exploring his characters. And, since that's what (I think) he's good at and since that's really what his pictures are about, I can't fault him completely for that.
But at the same time, such things can get in the way of someone enjoying a film; there is a sort of disconnect between the emotional realism and the lack of practical realism. I see one of two possible solutions.
One, most obviously, is that he finds ways to ground his pictures in practical things. Part of this, yes, is creating a sense of space but part of this is creating believable jobs, responsibilities, and biographies for his characters. This should not damage his improvisational style any but rather deepen it by creating a framework for his actors to use.
The other solution is to go completely in the other direction: to give his characters jobs and the like that are so absurd and ridiculous on their face that no one will stop to question whether they feel "real". Recall Antoine Doinel's job in "Bed and Board", which involved driving toy boats around a lake. Though that film still pales next to "Stolen Kisses" (which, incidentally, *does* feature researched and accurate detective work), the silliness of the job does not detract from the very real emotions that the film is dealing with. By making those sort of practical details deliberately unreal, Joe could put the focus even more squarely on the things that matter to him.
VIII. Like, you know, um, like yeah.
For the record, some of the dialogue in all these Mumble-Grumble films drive me absolutely nuts. Yes, people in real life do at times use verbal placeholders and usually aren't slinging bon-mots like they're in a God-damn Kevin Smith film. But when those verbal placeholders and banalities metastasize into tics, it does damage the aim of realism. Plus, it makes me twitchy.
So, let's come around to the big question at last: is the cinema of Joe Swanberg the cinema of contingency? By his own admission, Joe doesn't really plan or storyboard. In an early interview, he expressed a disdain of "plot" and said he was more interested in characters, in people. He gives his actors a lot of freedom in bringing those people to life and draws on their ideas and personalities. He uses what's there, and I guess that would make it a cinema of contingency.
But what is "Salesman" but a collection of captured moments? Indeed, what is "Gimme Shelter" but one incredible moment examined and explored in endless variations?
Yes, these films are documentaries, some of the finest ever made. And no, I'm *not* putting Joe Swanberg on the same level as the Maysles brothers. But the classic documentary cinema must also be called a cinema of contingency. The Maysles, as far as I'm aware, did not "dress" their "sets" (of course, they also didn't put a chair in front of a door...). They too drew on their "actors".
But they are no less directors for it. In the editing, they shaped footage into film, reality into art. And during the shooting process, they created an environment in which their subjects were comfortable enough to reveal themselves.
And that's what Swanberg does. So, I have no problem, in theory, with the cinema of contingency.
Now, the Maysles had a distinct advantage over Swanberg, in that they were really actually and truly capturing Life. There are no holes in their films, no areas that feel unrealistic, because it is all actually real. No one's going to complain that the details of bible salesmanship are awry because we're actually watching bible salesmanship going on before our eyes.
And, however much he might eschew traditional narrative, Swanberg is working in a narrative and not a documentary form. If a character looks into or looks away from a camera in a documentary, it is real as can be; in a narrative or fictional film, it can shatter the illusion and often does.
I think, however, it is wholly possible for the cinema of contingency to produce great narrative art without resorting to the mockumentary (shudder). And I think it's wholly possible that Joe Swanberg will do that. Has he done it yet? Not as far as I'm aware. Not for an entire feature, anyway.
But there have been moments. For me, there have been enough moments to keep watching. Enough moments to hope that he continues to grow as an artist, that he's able to smooth out some of the ruffles in his films without closing off his ability to stumble upon and recognize something true and beautiful.
Now, mind: this isn't me saying that he can't be held to the same standard as other artists because he's still growing and developing. If one wants to reject his work so far, they are by all means entitled to do so. My piece is not intended to "win" anyone over to my "side". I present my piece in the same spirit that Glenn presented his: to give a fuller accounting for and understand of my opinion as objectively as I am able.
I do hope some of the above makes sense, as I know I'm not nearly as articulate as I'd like to be.