By Reece Crothers
Joe Swanberg's most recent picture proves that there is indeed life after mumblecore. In fact this film may be the last time you need to use the "M" word while discussing Swanberg's work. But for the uninitiated, a quick history:
Attributed to Andrew Bujalski, the director of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, the term "mumblecore" refers to a very loose collective of young filmmakers whose d.i.y. aesthetic, youthful protagonists, improvised dialogue and non-professional casts, contributed to a sense of community before there actually was one. The south-by-south-west festival in Austin, Texas brought together Bujalski, Swanberg and other filmmakers like the Duplass' Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) and Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), and provided context to discuss the films in relation to each other. But unlike the French "Nouvelle Vague" or the Danish "Dogme '95", the filmmakers behind this alleged movement did not have a conscious agenda or manifesto, they didn't even know each other. But since those first films, the mublecore filmmakers have gone on to collaborate, both in front of and behind the camera, further creating the impression that they, and the actors they share, are members of a film family spanning cities and states. Swanberg appeared on screen in Katz' Quiet City, and Bujalski, along with Duplass brother Mark, both appear in Swanberg's 2007 film Hannah Takes The Stairs, for example.
The upside to the idea of a movement is that the films provide a context for each other and help small, independent pictures that often fly too far under the radar to reach the audiences they deserve. The downside is that it discredits the unique voice of each of the filmmakers, by lumping them all together, and for audience members who are less able to digest the rough around the edges aesthetics, experimental editing, and occasionally raw, improvised performances, they may dismiss one filmmaker's work because they had a bad experience with another's. I didn't like The Puffy Chair, for example. Not one bit. (Although I loved the Duplass brothers' non-mumblecore Cyrus) And if you told me that was the defining mumblecore movie, I would have missed out on Swanberg's pictures, or Katz's films, or Bujalski's. But there is no defining mumblecore movie. Even aesthetically, the films are only superficially relatable becuase of their small crews and budgets. Compare the stark almost Jarmusch-like black and white film photography of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation with Swanberg's sharp, digital, colour photography.
To my taste, Swanberg is the best of the bunch. He is certainly the most prolific. Since his 2005 debut Kissing On The Mouth, Swanberg has released a new picture every year, and four seasons of his sexy, innovative IFC web series Young American Bodies, a new documentary series The Stagg Party about Photographer Ellen Stagg, while also acting, shooting, and/or producing films for other filmmakers. That kind of output makes Swanberg the Woody Allen or Steven Soderbergh of his generation. And each of Swanberg's films has improved on the one previous. Considering that he accidentally started a new movement with his first, it is not intended as small praise.
The trend continues with Alexander The Last, Swanberg's most mature and accomplished work, and in many ways the culmination of themes and ideas he has been working on in all of his previous pictures. Working with a name producer this time, Noah Baumbach (writer and director of The Squid & The Whale, for which he recieved an OSCAR nomination for best screenplay), and featuring Hollywood stars like Jane Adams (Happiness, Hung) and Josh Hamilton (Baumbach's Kicking & Screaming), Swanberg has transcended the limitations of mumblecore and created a film that is at once both a breezy romantic comedy AND a challenging drama about commitment - in art and relationships - as a young actress is tempted by a crush on her her co-star while her musician husband is away on tour, and to complicate things further, plays matchmaker between her crush and her fragile, beautiful sister, well played by the lovely Amy Seimetz (Wristcutters, A Love Story).
The subject of romantic entanglements that arise when artists collaborate is the perfect fit for Swanberg whose earlier pictures and web series featured actors performing real sex on camera. The same dramatic question is being asked here as in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, albeit on a much smaller canvas, which is essentially, "Is it possible for two artists to find true love and happiness together?". In the audio commentary Swanberg explains that he navigated the same moral quandaries as his central character in "Alexander" while working on his previous projects. This film is dedicated to Swanberg's wife and frequent collaborator, Kris, and the film is both a love letter and an apology to her for exactly the kind of entanglements that the story dramatises.
If you've seen the very intimate Nights & Weekends, Swanberg's 2008 film with Greta Gerwig, you can imagine that the vulnerability and emotional commitment required to play such an intimate chamber piece could very easily bleed into the actors' off-screen lives. Watching Nights & Weekends is like watching certain Cassavetes films, it is so intimate, that it is emotionally exhausting to experience. It stays with you for days after. The blurry line between what is real and what is drama is what gives the film its edge. Seeing Gerwig and Swanberg introduce the film together at a screening at Toronto's Bloor Cinema a few years back, one had the impression of watching two weary soldiers just home from the war.
Swanberg & Gerwig in Nights & Weekends
Gerwig has since gone on to mainstream success, co-starring in Noah Baumbach's recent Ben Stiller dramedy, Greenberg. Baumbach got Gerwig and Swanberg got Baumbach. There is a nice symmetry there. Greenberg served as the perfect vehicle for Gerwig's transition to bigger budget, more mainstream work, and her oddly affecting, aloof charm, has made her something of a Diane Keaton for this generation, but it is unlikely that she will ever do anything as raw as her work with Swanberg in any Hollywood productions. Unless maybe they're directed by Joe Swanberg.
In his first picture without Gerwig since 2006's, LOL, Swanberg casts the talented Jess Weixler in the central role as Alex, a young, theatrical actress torn between her commitment to her husband and her desire for her handsome new co-star. It is a great observation on Swanberg's part, rendered with insight, warmth and humour, that when we want to be with someone we cant, we play matchmaker to keep them close. It's a flawed, self-defeating logic, and the stuff of great romantic comedy. The sexual tension on display here between Weixler, as the girl with a crush, and Barlow Jacobs as her hunky co-star, provides plenty of sparks. Both actors come to "Alexander" fresh from dynamic, breakthrough performances in well recieved independent pictures (Teeth, and Shotgun Stories, respectively) and share great chemistry. But their relationship is just one of many that make up Alexander's narrative , all equally insightful and finely rendered.
Justin Rice (star of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation") is great as the musician husband. A talented pop musician in his own right (his band Bishop Allen was featured on stage in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) Rice performs a wonderful musical interlude that underscores the bittersweet tone of the whole picture. Also very strong is Seimetz's heartbreaking turn as the sister who has no idea that she is being set up to have her heart ripped out by her selfish sibling. As Seimetz falls for Barlow Jacobs character, we hold our breaths in gut-twisting anticipation for the moment we know is coming, when she will discover her sister's true feelings for her new boyfriend.
In smaller roles, Adams and Hamilton are fun to watch, too, as the writer and director of the play-within-the-film. Adams in particular seems to have fun with the role. She may be the best comedic supporting actress since Lilly Tomlin at her peak. Watch HBO's Hung if you don't believe me. I wish Altman was still alive. He would know how to craft a picture for her as a lead. She actually appeared in an Altman picture, 1996's Kansas City, but Jennifer Jason Leigh was the star. Leigh also happens to be Baumbach's wife in real-life. All roads lead to Baumbach. You wouldn't have guessed it back in the Mr. Jealousy days. Though I loved that movie. I digress...
The Duplass brothers, despite making the worst mumblecore picture (in my opinion) have had the greatest success in the mainstream, attaching stars like John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei for their last picture Cyrus, not to mention RIDLEY AND TONY SCOTT(!!!!!) as executive producers, but Swanberg's next picture is Silver Bullets and it's about werewolves...sort of. And since we're living in Twilight times (whether we want to be or not) this might be the one that breaks Swanberg into the mainstream, too. No one needs to mention Dogme 95 when they talk about Lars Von Trier anymore because he is bigger than dogme. I think the same will be said of Swanberg. Personally, I can't wait to see what he does with Silver Bullets. And I told you he was prolific, it's only one of two new Swanberg pictures coming out in the near future. Keep your eyes open for Silver Bullets and Uncle Kent.
And if you haven't already checked out his earlier pictures, here's an essential viewing list of the films mentioned above, and some not mentioned, to scratch that mumblecore itch:
-Alexander The Last (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2009)
-Nights & Weekends (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2008)
-Hannah Takes The Stairs (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2007)
-Dance Party, USA (dir. Aaron Katz, 2006)
-Quiet City (dir. Aaron Katz, 2007)
-Funny Ha Ha (dir. Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
-Mutual Appreciation (dir. Andrew Bujalski, 2005)
-Team Picture (dir. Kentucker Audley, 2007)
-The Goodtimes Kid, (dir. Azazel Jacobs, 2005)
-In Search Of A Midnight Kiss (dir. Alex Holdridge, 2007)
-Frownland (dir. Ronald Bronstein, 2007)
and you can watch his Young American Bodies series free online here: http://www.ifc.com/youngamericanbodies/