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.

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.

Butter on the Latch (2013)

I’ve spent my year watching female written/directed films at the cinema, and one of the things that’s becoming most clear is that women’s voices are not well represented via traditional modes of distribution (get an official release slot, arrange exhibitors, organise marketing, posters, promos, et al.). Some of the best work, some of the strongest and most interesting work, can only be seen at festivals or via alternative modes of distribution, with one of the most prominent of these in recent years being the value-added practice of appending Q&A sessions to touring (or live-streamed) programmes of small, independent films. This is the way that US director Josephine Decker’s two recent features have been packaged for the UK, doing a tour of receptive cinemas during early-August.

Butter on the Latch, to be fair, is probably a hard sell. It focuses on a couple of New York women (Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence playing characters with their own first names) attending a musical camp/retreat out in the woods, and whose friendship is ultimately tested. But a recounting of the plot would only tell you so much, and would need to be hedged around with all kinds of qualifications, because the style of the film suggests something so much more volatile and evanescent. It has a sort of dreamlike fragmentary quality, leaning heavily on decentred close-up framings of women’s faces, often shot from behind, claustrophobic in its affect, and frequently out-of-focus. This disconnect feels of a piece with the emotional terrain, which I’d describe as being somewhat psychosexual — not perhaps to the extent of Decker’s follow-up film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but with strong hints at various dynamics at play between the two friends, as well as a man who is also attending the music camp. However, the febrile style seems to allow for all the possibilities to be in play simultaneously; indeed it would seem almost reductive to speak of events in the film at all except insofar as they reflect an underlying unease between the two women, in which the male character becomes almost fodder. There’s plenty of mystery underlying it all, and if the style can be challenging and even at times frustrating, it also holds things together with a really fascinating creative tension.

Butter on the Latch film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.