Reviews

Joe Swanberg

USA, 2009

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Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 18 March 2009

Source DVD screener

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Reviews: Nights and Weekends

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The Naked Truth: Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig’s “Nights and Weekends,” (indieWIRE)

Categories The 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival

My personal vendetta against David Denby marks its tenth anniversary this year. It all began in 1999 when, in the venerable pages of the hoary New Yorker, the critic warned of the middlebrow perils of the then-fashionable Dogme 95 movement. “The danger of the new portable cameras,” Denby cautioned paternalistically, “is that the only storm they will release is a hurricane of blurry, junky-looking, ‘spontaneous’ scenes of little or no interest.” The myth that Dogme seemed to be espousing, much to Denby’s refined displeasure, was that film technology had become so affordable that “anyone can make a movie.” But as a guardian of good taste, even one who professed to love The Blair Witch Project, the critic bristled sanctimoniously at the thought that, one day, he might “see an army of Sony-equipped children lunging around the woods, streets, and bedrooms in search of that old ‘Blair’ magic.”

With this in mind, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see Denby trumpeting the merits of mumblecore in those very pages where, a decade ago, he was raising alarms against the democratization of cinema. Though typically more interested in lunging around bedrooms than the woods, the loose adherents of mumblecore are the very “Sony-equipped children” the New Yorker critic was patronizingly intoning about. And yet: “When the material is emotionally raw, and the nonprofessional actors show some strength, mumblecore delivers insights that Hollywood can’t come close to.” So says Denby, reveling in the pleasures of a new American film movement that owes more than a little to its European forebears of the late nineties.

Indeed, say what you will of the few dozen Dogme films made since the 1995 “vow of chastity”— a hilarious document that exclaims, “the movie is not an illusion!”— but international art cinema, with its now ubiquitous reliance on minimalism and realism, owes a great deal to what was in many ways simply a publicity stunt. But this publicity stunt, such as it was, also helped to rebuild an industry and to shape the international culture of film festivals upon which art cinema now subsists.1 Something very similar is currently in the offing in Austin, Texas, and in film festivals large and small around the country: a self-realized film-culture, fostered in a community of American filmmakers, festivalgoers, and film critics, and built around films of a particularly DIY, anti-Hollywood aesthetic— the eye of the hurricane, as it were, of blurry, junky-looking, ‘spontaneous’ scenes of little or no interest.

And somewhere in this eye is Joe Swanberg’s latest film, Alexander the Last, which by Denby’s own admission is a film that takes a baby-step beyond mumblecore proper. Clearly a transitional film for Swanberg, with a more assertive authorial voice on the one hand and more tentative (and unspontaneous) work with professional actors on the other, the film self-consciously deals with performance and artifice in relationships and art-making. This subject matter is nothing new for Swanberg— his last film, Nights and Weekends, an equal collaboration (according to the credits) with Greta Gerwig, brilliantly mined some of the same territory, subtly maneuvering around characters who continually hide and reveal themselves, both literally and figuratively. But the filmmaker’s new film overtly extends these themes, dealing explicitly with the craft of drama and its execution onstage. For this purpose, he even has a star (Teeth’s Jess Weixler) to mix with his cast of mumblecore vets (like Justin Rice) and able non-professionals.

Upping the pretend-versus-real-life ante, Swanberg’s film begins with two sisters— Weixler’s Alex and Amy Seimetz’s Hellen— engaged in an intimate ritual of feigned sisterly matrimony. It’s a brilliant opening, one that immediately raises the film’s persistent questions about authenticity and performance. The seriousness of these themes is upended by a credit sequence that features the actors being hit with cream pies. But once the film’s narrative begins we are plunged into a familiarly intimate, Swanbergian scene between a husband and wife— Weixler and Rice having sex before the latter leaves to tour with his band— and then onto a stage where Alex is rehearsing a new play.

This interest in the stage at first seems to align Swanberg and his film with the Cassavetes of Opening Night or the Bergman of Persona and After the Rehearsal. But as the film wears on, as scenes of Alex equivocating over whether or not to seduce her theatrical costar Jamie while her husband is away or to stand back as Hellen dates him, it seems clear that Swanberg is more interested in actresses than in acting. Much of the film comprises scenes of Hellen and Alex orbiting around the cipher Jamie, performing on him sex-acts both movie-real and play-acted with little remorse or reflection.

Comparing the film, perhaps unfavorably, to the brutal and intricately structured Nights and Weekends, it becomes clear that Weixler— though much might be made of her star-power and professionalism contra mumblecore conventions— is not nearly so fluid an improviser as Greta Gerwig. That film is all about the way its lead actor reveals things by concealing them (and vice versa, probably), and it derives its power from the fact that we completely believe and understand the characters’ mutual love and hatred, regardless of how little Gerwig and Swanberg (as costar in that film) explicitly say to one another. By contrast, Weixler here seems adrift in a character with motives that are nebulous only insofar as they are invariably wrong-headed. She contemplates cheating on her husband almost by simple virtue of convenience (or a particularly fun game of “Big Buck Hunter”), not because of any shared intimacy or perceivable lack in her prior relationship.

By the same token, Seimetz, Rice, and Barlow Jacobs (who plays Jamie) all offer interesting characters, but they inevitably drift into puzzling stereotypes of pointless bad behavior, always making the wrong decisions because that’s what characters do in movies like these. But this is far from mumblecore’s fault: indeed, for a film that supposedly fits into a genre of ambiguous motives and mixed emotions, Alexander the Last presents characters who, without fail or any great degree of nuance, invariably do the wrong thing, almost as though they were maliciously trying to fuck up the lives of everyone around them. This is even true of Rice’s character, the semi-cuckolded Eliott: he would by default be the most sympathetic character on hand, but he comes off as a creep nonetheless, rejecting his wife’s calls while spending extra rehearsal time with his bandmate (actually the mysterious and awesome Jo Schornikow of the Shivers and the Kites).

All of this would amount to the most wearying film Swanberg has made if it weren’t for the filmmaker’s talents as an editor. In Alexander, Swanberg’s cutting serves his actors far better than his abilities as a director. In this way, his new film is more dialectical than his last film, less about the naked truth and more about the astute comparison of one scene with another. Swanberg’s most clever strategy is to overlap certain sequences, like his intercutting of Jamie’s horny, breathy “real” sex with Hellen and his clinical, businesslike stage sex with Alex. These scenes are almost superimposed over one another, the soundtrack from one scene scores the other and vice versa, revealing more by contrast than any individual scene suggests in isolation.

The beauty of sequences like this suggests that this sort of film relies more on technical facility than most people give it credit for. And, indeed, though Alexander the Last is by no means a perfect specimen of mumblecore or Swanberg’s work generally, its off-the-cuff, microbudget aesthetic should not blind us to the obvious care and craft that went into its making.


This is one of five films that SXSW and IFC are screening in their “nationwide on-demand film festival,” available through the IFC Festival Direct program.


  1. To be fair to my nemesis I should note that what Denby really disliked about Dogme 95, in spite of his high-saddled alarums, was the simple fact that the films weren’t there. He hates von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and inexplicably likens Vinterberg’s lovely The Celebration— Dogme’s first film and perhaps its only unequivocal masterpiece— to “a standard MTV freak-out” (presumably by way of proving that he, too, has heard of MTV). But what Denby’s old rant reveals is that he was as taken in as anyone by the Dogme 95 ruse, the idea that its apostles were cinema-ascetics chastely adhering to its vows and not brilliant self-promoters parodying any number of international New Wave film movements in order to revive a film industry. This project— regardless of the numbers of good or bad films that accompanied it— succeeded beautifully, as Thomas Elsaesser and others have persuasively argued, and mumblecore, broadly defined, is part of a very similar industrial practice. It’s not so much that the films are good and bad, but that a group of people, loosely collected, is simply trying to reinvigorate a tired production model by cutting off the fat. The only difference— more a sign of the times than anything— is that Denby, grasping at straws like many a contemporary financial analyst, gambles in favor mumblecore’s long-term stability. See “Youthquake: Mumblecore Movies,” by David Denby (The New Yorker, March 23, 2009).
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