Thursday, 10 May 2012

DIY ART & LIFE: A DAY WITH JOE SWANBERG ("ART HISTORY", "THE ZONE", "SILVER BULLETS") Review By Greg Klymkiw - Mumblecore Madness Invades Toronto on May 13, 2012, the Christian Sabbath (or, for those so inclined, The Day of Simon, a day of rejoicing, happiness, feasting, remembrance and contemplation of both the challenges and triumphs of Simon, who during his reign, kept Israel pure from the filthy paws of the Heathen.)

DIY Art & Life: A Day with Joe Swanberg - Art History, The Zone, Silver Bullets dir. Joe Swanberg ***

Review By Greg Klymkiw

This is not a slag or a backhanded compliment, but seeing three recent works by the mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg (Art History, The Zone and Silver Bullets) is, at least for me, a day of rejoicing in discovering samples of the early work of a young filmmaker who displays the sort of artistry that's best contemplated within the context of what's to come.

In other words, I admired these pictures, but I didn't really like them all that much. They're pretentious, full of themselves and focus, somewhat annoyingly, on the (seemingly) weighty relationship between the medium of cinema, the act of filmmaking and the contemporary lives of a new generation of twenty-somethings.

But you've gotta see them. Kind of like medicine, but the kind we all enjoy - Gummie Kids Tylenol laced with acid. It's cinematic medicine that goes down like the bastard progeny quim-popped by a union of Mary Poppins and Timothy Leary (but perhaps spliced with the seed of Henry Miller).

The trio of short features (think novella for a literary comparison) comprise Swanberg's Full Moon trilogy. They are - ugh - improvised. This, is not necessarily a dirty word for me, but as naturalistic as the performances and dialogue are within the clearly manipulated mise en scène, I always felt distant from the characters - which, I'll admit, might even be the point - but in so doing, Swanberg seems to be clearly drawing a line and daring us to cross over or "go home".

This strange "take it or leave it" attitude (whether intentional or not) will, for many audiences - even those of us who are inclined to appreciate new forms of storytelling on film - provide a barrier from investing in the lives of those on-screen.

Though each of the movies (and collectively, the trilogy) are endowed with a series of solid narrative arcs, Swanberg's very approach continually subverts and obfuscates story to a point where the thing that drives our interest forward are not the traditional beats of character or constructive format, but his very gifted visual panache (that borders deliciously on the fetishistic) and, perhaps most importantly, the astounding ability to create tension through tone and atmosphere.

Swanberg is clearly the real thing.

That said, watching this trilogy is more exciting when one imagines a time when Swanberg will invest his voice and style in work that adheres far more closely to traditional rules of cinematic storytelling - creating a solid construct with which he can pull us into the lives of the characters, their journey and, at the same time, snap bits and pieces off the architecture - not just because he can, but because it will contribute to telling a story that sucks us in so deep that his subversion of the medium acts as a genuine story beat - jolting us, yet always moving us forward.

Watching these films is, aside from their considerable visual and tonal virtues, a total blast. It's one of the few times I've experienced early works of a filmmaker, whom I'm convinced is on the road to making movies that are going to completely knock us on our collective asses. Experiencing said works before he joins the pantheon of visionary directors who collectively respect the history of the medium, subvert the shit out of it and still make movies that will preach beyond the confines of the "converted" is a roller coaster ride very much worth taking.

Usually, one watches early works of directors we admire in retrospect. For me, this is probably best exemplified in the shorts of Martin Scorsese (It's Not Just You, Murray!, The Big Shave and the wildly contrasting post-Mean Streets documentary Italianamerican), David Cronenberg (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and David Lynch (The Grandmother). Seeing those movies in retrospect provided a fascinating glimpse at what followed, but seeing Swanberg's stuff NOW is the complete opposite of this experience. Here we have a chance, to see - in this day and age - a whole mess of cool shit that's going to transform into something even cooler and, perchance, be infused with a greater lasting value than what's currently on display.

With that, I briefly give you the narratives to all three pictures. They're worth recounting.

In Art History, we follow a low budget director during the making of a micro-budgeted sex-drenched independent art film. The filmmaker's jealousy intensifies as the leading lady falls for her leading man - resulting in disastrous aesthetic consequences. In The Zone a couple and their female roommate are seduced by a mysterious visitor whose charms prove ephemeral and result in a major upsetting of the idyll of the twenty-somethings' apple cart. Silver Bullets, the third film in Swanberg's trilogy charts a young actress' attraction to her director (of a werewolf picture, no less) as her live-in boyfriend expresses dismay over her acceptance of work in the film and gradually descends into a pit of depressive paranoia.

There's not a darn thing wrong with any of these narratives, though Swanberg's pseudo-Cassavettes-influenced improvisations blended with the meta-film approach to story are played up in extremis and always keep us at arms' length from appreciating the journeys fully. In spite of this, there is a bounty of pure, glorious cinema to feast upon - lighting and compositions of exquisite taste and a dazzling bravery in holding many of the shots longer than most films do in this age of ADD-inspired shooting and cutting.

The tone of all three films is extremely creepy and though it seems like narrative and character are the casualties, Swanberg delivers the goods in providing his strong original voice and it is his style that ultimately rules the day.

My favourite of the three is The Zone. I found it delectably unpleasant to the max and even vaguely enjoyed how it intentionally ran out of steam.

Swanberg is also quite comfortable indulging himself in the kind of fetishistic behind-the-camera impulses that have always made for great work (but in the works of most young filmmakers often falls flat).

Within the mainstream, Alfred Hitchcock and, to a certain extent, David Lynch, explored their particular penchants to a point where the act of both filmmaking and viewing the films are endowed with unique fetishistic qualities for makers, viewers and participants alike. Jan Svankmajer in his decidedly non-mainstream Conspirators of Pleasure broke all sorts of barriers and plunged us into a delightfully strange miasma of kink. And lest we forget the perverse Austrian Ulrich Seidl who, in both documentary and drama plunged us into all manner of fetishistic depravity to expose the humanity in the extremities of human behaviour. (Anyone who's seen Seidl's Dog Days and Jesus, You Know might find similar, though muted comparison points in Swanberg's trilogy.)

The aforementioned filmmakers all crossed my mind while watching Swanberg's work.

This is a good thing.

For me, the thrill of seeing the birth of a new voice, the anticipation of what this voice will add to the future of cinema whilst taking its own unique place in the pantheon of cinematic immortality is worth its weight in gold.

Toronto audiences are blessed with the opportunity to spend several hours with Swanberg and his films as Ultra 8 Pictures, CINSSU and Refocus present DIY Art & Life: A Day with Joe Swanberg at Innis Town Hall (University of Toronto campus) on Sunday May 13th beginning at 4:00pm and lasting into the deep, dark night. Tickets are available HERE or by emailing