Art History (2011)

Joe Swanberg is one of the linchpins of modern American no-budget indie cinema, with a string of improvised titles made quickly for no money, but often made in collaboration with stars and directors who would go on to even greater work on their own, whether his chief collaborator here (Josephine Decker, whose new film Shirley is out soon) or elsewhere with Greta Gerwig (on Hannah Takes the Stairs and her first co-directing credit on Nights and Weekends) and, of course, the recently passed Lynn Shelton (who acted in Nights and Weekends). Swanberg went on to dabble with higher budgets and bigger stars, as in Drinking Buddies, but this earlier work, made in surely his most prolific year (he put out six films in 2011), is both very independent and also boldly experimental, not always shining the most positive light on its director.


I used to live with a filmmaker who liked to make deeply self-reflective projects (you might call them self-indulgent, though I have a fondness for self-indulgence) with a minimal crew, a handful of actors, and usually focused tightly around relationships, but sometimes they were more straightforwardly about sex — and specifically the operation of power within sexual relationships (whether successfully or not is another question) — and this Joe Swanberg film feels like one of those. I appreciate the attempt to navigate an understanding of the messed-up power dynamic between the person wielding the camera and the people having sex in front of that camera, especially when the director is in love with his leading lady (Josephine Decker, whose own films are brilliant, while I’m mentioning her). For all of that, though, there’s a complete lack of any kind of erotic or exploitative feeling in the film (this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, itself p0rnographic). Instead, it’s narrowly focused on three people and the feelings between them (the third is Kent Osborne), and if it doesn’t always succeed that’s often because it feels like the camera is too far away from the actors’ faces, so it’s hard to know what exactly is going on between them. It also seems to end just as things are coming to a head, so like the film I’m just going to end this review abruptly.

Art History film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne; Cinematographer Adam Wingard; Starring Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kent Osborne; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 31 May 2019.

Nights and Weekends (2008)

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.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
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.

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.

Happy Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.

Drinking Buddies (2013)

I like beer, it must be said, and I like the new wave of craft breweries in the States (and here in the UK) that have sprung up over the last decade. It’s almost certainly to this film’s benefit that it doesn’t spend too much time actually talking about beer (aside from a few establishing shots of brewing taking place, there’s no in-depth discussions of hops, malts or mouthfeel), but the characters certainly do drink plenty of it. You might posit that it’s because of the relationship dramas occurring in their lives, but really it’s probably because, well, you know, beer is nice.

Given the central characters work at a craft brewery (or a microbrewery, as it once might have been called), the film sets itself very much in a gentrifying inner-city world where men wear beards and trucker caps, where young people hang out in bars which have a studiedly old-fashioned vibe, go hiking in the wilderness, play music from vinyl records, and, of course, drink beer just so long as it’s not mass-produced lager. In this respect, the poster is somewhat misleading, since you’d hardly recognise one of the film’s leads, Luke (played by Jake Johnson, second from right in the poster), who sports a slightly unkempt thick beard throughout the film.

The film’s real central character, though, is Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works in a marketing capacity at the brewery. She and Luke flirt throughout their working day, but each has a stable (if rather more straight-laced) partner that they live with. Kate is with the humourless Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is engaged to the serious-minded Jill (Anna Kendrick). After the two couples have returned from a holiday together at a rural cabin owned by Kate’s partner Chris, the latter break up, leading Luke to start wondering if he has deeper feelings towards Kate. One suspects at this early point that the film is heading towards partner-swapping territory, given that Chris and Jill also seem to hit it off quite well. However, nothing is quite so programmatic, and it ends up being quite a bit more subtle than the set-up initially suggests.

Of course, this kind of small indie interpersonal drama is hardly the stuff to break any cinematic moulds. Stylistically, it sets itself apart from earlier films in the same vein (like Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs) thanks to some expert lensing courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson, with cleanly-framed images taking their cue from the metallic sterility of the brewery and the modernism of Chris’s swanky apartment. Yet the key to any such enterprise is the quality of the ensemble cast, and in this case the four actors gel together really very well. Kendrick and Livingston are rather less showy in their smaller roles, given that their characters are written to be somewhat pedestrian, but Johnson nicely conveys his character’s charming goofiness with a very subtly combative edge. Best of all is Wilde, who holds the film together with a low-key improvisational acuity, avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘strong, free-spirited single woman’ clichés. On the part of the whole cast, it has to be said there’s a lot of drunk acting required, and none of this comes across as forced or embarrassing in the way these things sometimes can; there’s also thankfully no sententious moralising either.

What results is a very focused little drama that feels like it’s dealing with people I know (or have been) in recognisable situations. It’s very careful not to push the revelations too hard or wring them out for melodramatic purposes, finding an ending that feels organic to the characters without closing off anything too neatly. And that kind of thing is, for me, always refreshing to watch. Somewhat like beer is to drink, so I’m going to stop now and think about that for a while instead.

Drinking Buddies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Wednesday 6 November 2013.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Every generation, I guess, has its cinema of self-involved navel-gazing, and for whatever it’s worth (not always very much to some critics it appears), this must be mine. I grew up in New Zealand which in the 2000s had its own micro-budget lo-fi independent digitally-shot relationship dramas, and New York it turns out has its (more widely-known) analogue with the so-called “mumblecore” scene (based largely around the creative personnel involved with this film), and presumably taking its name from the improvisational style of the dialogue. And yet, for me, it sometimes feels like there are completely different types of emotions unearthed within this idiom than in your more polished festival (and multiplex) fare, and for that I like it.

Andrew Bujalski (probably the pre-eminent director in the scene) plays Paul, the senior partner in a creative writing duo with Kent Osborne’s Matt. They work in a fairly bland little office for what appears to be a TV show. However, it’s their intern Hannah (Greta Gerwig) who is the film’s focus, as you might have guessed from the title, and her character is the one most nakedly exposed (quite literally in the first and last shots of the film). Over the course of the film, she gets into relationships with three of the men in the film, as she deals with a certain kind of early-20s ennui.

Having gone on to further successes, most prominently in Frances Ha earlier this year, it’s unsurprisingly Greta Gerwig who dominates the film, and your enjoyment of it is likely to be predicated on how charming and identifiable you find her. As it happens, I do. She has a deft and likeable comedic presence, while not sacrificing a kind of unfocused sadness at her character’s core, which she is only slowly (and with great difficulty) able to open up about in a conversation late in the film with Matt. She can be contrary and contradictory, but there’s an openness to the way she delivers it that I find likeable.

It’s the dialogue scenes, which I understand were largely improvised (hence the writing credits for most of the cast), that give the movie its momentum and with which some reviewers have taken issue. Yet I like the halting silences and lacunae that realistically inflect the conversations. For example, there’s a beautifully-judged scene in which Hannah invites Paul up to her flat and they meet her flatmate, who swiftly exits, whereupon the scene sort of judders to a fantastically awkward halt. Most of the time the cast banters affectionately, which provides the ebb and flow of the narrative, as unfocused as its characters.

It may not be a grand statement or a glamorous one, but in its way it says a lot about people in their early-20s learning to find their feet. At least as long as such films continue to star actors as watchable as Greta Gerwig, I’ll continue to be happy to watch them fumble through life on shaky digital video.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osbourne and Andrew Bujalski; Starring Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 August 2013.