Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.
Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.
It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Maddin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson; Writers Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Maddin; Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.
I gather from the internet that not everyone loves this film, which is both a shame, and understandable to an extent — it shares certain qualities with other low-budget improvised films (like Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas). You may know the kind of thing: that tentative awkwardness of the actors as they navigate conversations for the first time, not to mention some of the darker recesses of the characters’ emotions — the kinds of things that mainstream films tend to shy away from. For all that it’s clearly made as a labour of love, and it looks very polished, with a photographer’s eye for framing and cutting together. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the central character of Abby, a massage therapist who starts to become averse to skin, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an introverted and unsuccessful dentist who suddenly finds popularity due to his presumed healing powers, and caught between these two are Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) and Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy). It’s a film of people who have trouble relating to one another, and who exhibit all kinds of social anxieties that may explain a low-level attachment towards various alternative New Age-y therapies — things that wouldn’t usually make for gripping cinema, which is probably why it’s not going to be a big hit with everyone. However, it does so in an attentive low-key way that pays off dividends in Shelton’s more recent Laggies, which marries some of this psychological character work to a bigger budget and stars.
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 20 August 2015.
Sometimes, even though a film isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually make much of an effort to see, you read reviews of it that just seem grossly unfair (hello, The Guardian), and it makes you feel more warmly disposed. It helps that I’ve found Keira Knightley more likeable as an actor in recent years, while Sam Rockwell has always been dependable. Add to that my resolution to see more films by woman directors, and I felt I had to catch this in its brief window of cinema release. I’m glad I did. The American title (not retained for the UK release) is rather idiosyncratic, but captures the sense of the central characters lagging behind their peers. Chiefly this is Knightley’s character Megan, in her late-20s but lacking motivation, with no sense of what she should be doing and with cold feet about her relationship, who hides out at teenager Annika’s home (Moretz). If the central character were male, this kind of regressive ingenuousness would no doubt be grating, but actually I found the friendship between Megan and Annika rather sweet. At a certain level, yes, the film is hardly original, and so many of its details suggest screenwriterly contrivance, and yet I’m willing to forgive all that, because it’s a likeable film which avoids relying on humiliation and pratfalls for its comedy, but rather focuses on likeable people grappling with real, if familiar, issues in an identifiable way.
Director Lynn Shelton; Writer Andrea Seigel; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.