Eyes rolled in some cinephile circles when AFI announced that its festival program would include a three-film section called "Spotlight on Joe Swanberg." But then, eyes roll in some circles at the mere mention of the 30-year-old, Chicago-based filmmaker whose zero-budget video-films, mostly about the sexual mores of white city-dwellers, have, fairly or unfairly, becomes synonymous with the nebulous indie-film notion of mumblecore. He is slagged off by some as a pervert opportunist whose artistic practice is a mere excuse to disrobe a seemingly endless series of nubile young women. To others, he's merely a self-promoting narcissist masquerading as a filmmaker; writing in the New York Times in 2009, Manohla Dargis noted that Swanberg had "managed to turn himself into an identifiable independent name despite having evinced little initial filmmaking talent" — and that was from one of his more positive reviews.
Swanberg's apparently sincere grappling with his critics is one of the three themes uniting the three films in AFI's section, a thematic triptych that he's calling The Full Moon Trilogy — a fraction of the seven features Swanberg completed this year. The other two themes were pointed at in a line from Swanberg's 2009 feature, the Noah Baumbach-produced Alexander the Last, which focused on a young actress who develops a confused attraction to her studly sex-scene partner while her husband is out of town. At one of their rehearsals, they tackle the question, "How do you fake sex?"
Filmed sex and its reverberations in "real life"; the creative process as a space that blurs truth and fiction; the psychological and creative impact of criticism: Swanberg's new movies (which are also available as part of a limited-edition DVD box set out this fall) delve deep into the filmmaker's preoccupation with these three thorny themes through three distinct prisms.
After a prologue starring Jane Addams and Larry Fessenden as actors who appear to be ex-lovers — which doesn't foreshadow the narrative to come so much as give it something off of which to echo — Silver Bullets settles into the story of Sam (played by Swanberg), a director of micro-budget art movies, and Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil), his long-suffering domestic partner/muse. She's cast in a werewolf movie of a considerably higher budget and starts spending a lot of time with the film's director (played by actual horror film director Ti West). Sam's jealousy is both personal and professional. While his girlfriend is off at photo shoots and fittings, modeling period lingerie carefully selected by her director, Sam, struggling with a crisis of artistic purpose, casts Claire's best friend (Amy Seimetz) in his own new movie. Claire is not pleased. "You know the way you make movies," she tells Sam — a plain reference to the frequent charge that Swanberg is in it for the naked girls.
Later, Sam confesses that the forced intimacy is the only thing that keeps him working: "There's no 'thing' that the movies could get me. They get me close to people." Playing "himself" as he's seen by his haters, the director/star is crazy-eyed and terrifying, even when just a specter on the margins of this frankly self-critical horror story about the predatory instinct that goes into filmmaking, and the madness it produces. His most aesthetically accomplished and ambitious feature (from the sawing violin score to the beautifully edited sex-magick climax), it's not only the best movie-movie of Swanberg's career, but also his most genuinely provocative.
As Silver Bullets is in some sense Swanberg's attempt to depict what his personal life might look like from the outside, Art History seems like a spectator's version of his work life, an artist's rendering of what comes to mind when Sheil says the "You know the way you make movies" line. Does a rich understanding of the film, which depicts the relationships that develop between a director (Swanberg, again) and various actors living in the house that serves as the set of a sexually explicit indie, depend on some knowledge of Swanberg's "reputation," his previous films and/or the backstage relationships underpinning them? It may help to know that the actress seen dismissing the notion that there's one perfect mate for everyone is played by Kris Swanberg, Joe's real-life, actually pregnant wife; or that this is not the first time he's cast 40-something Kent Osbourne in a role involving sex scenes with 20-something actresses; or that Swanberg films like Hannah Takes the Stairs were made by groups of friends living and working together in a temporary sublet.
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Full of long-shot tableaus in which still lives of flowers and fruit compete for the eye's attention with tangled bodies, with the clamp lights that are meant to light the sex scenes of the film-within-the-film drawing attention to the layers of the narrative by framing the action in glowing irises, more than anything, Art History seems to be a movie constantly calling attention to the fact that all images are constructed. This qualifies as news when it comes to Swanberg, who is as closely identified with the run-and-gun, prosumer-video aesthetic as anyone.
A movie made for the small but passionate audience who pays attention to Joe Swanberg movies (either as objects of worship or derision), Art History knows its ideal viewer will come in with the information necessary to fill in its many blanks. Here Swanberg's actors aren't creating characters in any kind of traditional cinematic sense; they're more like objects whose movements through the frame are meant to enact variations on themes. The final 15 minutes, semi-explicit but more disturbing than sensual, is like a moving photo essay dissecting sexual play-acting — whether it happens in front of a camera or not — as psychological torture.
The Zone — the only film in the section making its world premiere at AFI Fest — is kind of hybrid of Silver Bullets' highly developed, nakedly confessional narrative and Art History's clinical analysis of process. The first half constitutes a halting, partially iPhone-lensed contemporary gloss on Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1968 film Teorema, with Kentucker Audley (the director of the very interesting indies Open Five and Team Picture, and maybe the most fascinating actor in current American penny-budgeted cinema) playing a houseguest who seduces three roommates, one male (Lawrence Levine) and two female (Sheil and Sophia Takal). That drama reaches its mysterious peak with the reveal that Audley's character might not be what he seems. And then, suddenly, we cut to an editing room, where Sheil, Takal and Levine critique what we (and they) have just seen. The second half of The Zone documents the continuing shoot, which is infused with drama stemming from personal relationships: Takal and Levine are a couple, Sheil is their real-life roommate, and the three played out a psychosexual love triangle in Takal's feature Green, which also plays AFI Fest.
The hardest to watch of the three films, The Zone is both cringe-worthily intimate and, while it's unfolding, almost completely opaque in its push-pull between real and fake, sincere and ironic. Its transition from a genuinely compelling human drama into a too-much-information meta-text is dissatisfying — and that's the point. After previously working in a "naturalistic" style that could be read as an attempt to create the illusion of reality — to make you forget that what you're seeing is being mediated by a camera — in The Zone Swanberg is taking that mediation as his sole subject, sometimes by including a recording camera as an active object in the scene. And then, the film pulls back again: Now we're watching Kris Swanberg watch the movie we've just been watching, so she can give her husband her critique. It's not positive. And with that, Swanberg's three-film response to his critics has come full circle.