This afternoon I wrote the following in the comments thread attached to Glenn Kenny's essay "The Cinema of Contingency: Notes on Swanberg", over at Glenn's blog, Some Came Running. My comments come on the heels (easy now!) of a pack of buffs basically retreading the same tired arguments contra Joe Swanberg's cinema, now bringing especially to the forefront, as I wrote today in a private email to Glenn, "success-jealousy, certain unsettling class-biases, and an unexamined and hypocritical chauvinism/misogyny." Particularly that twinning at the end, which I outline in the broadside below.
(Note for further reflection: How does phallocentrism operate within the realm of the collective? Can we still call those "prisoners" who have commandeered the panopticon?!?!)
Now, let me emphasize here that I enjoyed GK's essay quite a bit, and assert that, in my opinion, and despite Kenny's ultimate dismissal of JS's oeuvre, he raises a number of interesting questions about Swanberg's cinema greater than any I've encountered in even the laudatory pieces that have come my way. That spleen of mine that surrounds the matter, reproduced below, does not take Kenny as its target, then, but those who continually respond to new and provocative artworks with a few arch, pseudo-ironic dribblings that serve no purpose greater, ultimately, than reaffirming their own anti-transgressive emotional stases. In other words, it's up to Glenn to go through the trouble of airing his own biases, examining the films at length against the relief of his own tastes and ideas, and finally drawing a (not impermeable) conclusion — before: cue downpour of trolls' two-cents (as in "two-penny goddamn," as in, "what one does not give, in relation to the airing on the Internet, just because it is possible, of your opinion" [which opinions, by the way, as my father so frequently and eloquently puts it in contexts decidedly extra-'Net, and to the degree that everyone has one, "are like assholes"] ). Given all this, an evisceration sometimes simply must be in order. Pardon me, madame — snark will contribute more to the raze of this civilization than the sternly-worded rebuke.
Before I forget, let me also make clear that my mockery of received-ideas around what the term "mise-en-scène" refers to isn't aimed at GK, despite my indication of "flower arrangements" in the vicinity, as it turned out, of a palate-cleansing post by Kenny featuring a frame from Visconti's great The Leopard [Il gattopardo, 1963] that contains exactly that. — I admit the flowers were in my mind, but in Visconti they're obviously no mere window-dressing (and another note before I forget: a treatment of the Italian master's late 1974 chef-d'oeuvre Conversation Piece is long overdue, at least on one of our parts), and Glenn has always been on more than People-You-May-Know-terms with the masters of mise-en-scène and the mysteries they do manufacture (cf. his examination of Borzage's Liliom  vs. Lang's Liliom  at The Auteurs' Notebook, as one recent example). Rather, and unglossed in the text below, I had in mind a conversation once engaged in with Dan Sallitt about the visual arbitraries at play in the work of certain masters, and the primacy they exerted over the defenses mounted on their respective behalves by certain hoarier denizens of the old a_film_by listserv. I recall the use of a flower-vase on the café table to illustrate the point. As such the flowers are a piece of personal vocabulary: something of a touchstone. (For any readers who might be interested in a few other conclusions drawn around the same matter — and on matters of "pragmatism" — see my piece written about Ingmar Bergman shortly after his death, here.)
So: an overdue dialogue — and one conducted on the eve of the premiere of his latest film, Alexander the Last — about the cinema of Joe Swanberg. For my part, and in addition to the hellion-clarion underneath, I'll be posting some thoughts about each of JS's works to date over the course of the next week or two. Not exactly a defense — in World 2.0 the once imperiled material of film-works becomes intangible and more or less ineradicable — but an appreciation, 'couched' in analysis. That is, "cinematherapy", reappropriated. Vive Swanberg.
"However, the fate of art that tries to do without criticism is instructive. The attempt to reach the public directly through 'popular' art assumes that criticism is artificial and public taste natural. Behind this is a further assumption about natural taste which goes back through Tolstoy to Romantic theories of a spontaneously creative 'folk.' These theories have had a fair trial; they have not stood up very well to the facts of literary history and experience, and it is perhaps time to move beyond them. An extreme reaction against the primitive view, at one time associated with the 'art for art's sake' catchword, thinks of art in precisely the opposite terms, as a mystery, an initiation into an esoterically civilized community. Here criticism is restricted to ritual masonic gestures, to raised eyebrows and cryptic comments and other signs of an understanding too occult for syntax. The fallacy common to both attitudes is that of a rough correlation between the merit of art and the degree of public response to it, though the correlation assumed is direct in one case and inverse in the other.
"One can find examples which appear to support both these views; but it is clearly the simple truth that there is no real correlation either way between the merits of art and its public reception. Shakespeare was more popular than Webster, but not because he was a greater dramatist; Keats was less popular than Montgomery, but not because he was a better poet. Consequently there is no way of preventing the critic from being, for better or worse, the pioneer of education and the shaper of cultural tradition. Whatever popularity Shakespeare and Keats have now is equally the result of the publicity of criticism."
— from the "Polemical Introduction" to the Anatomy of Criticism (1957) by Northrop Frye. A passage, no more, no less.
Let me diffuse a couple milligrams of unbridled contempt for the Commenters on this thread who would believe that a still frame-grab, divorced of context or, y'know, movement and sound, can settle the case once-and-for-all for bad mise-en-scène, or the demerits of a filmmaker.
One can capture frames from any film, even one by a revered studio-based master like Ozu, which look like shit — F.Y.fucking.I. Setsuko Hara with her eyes half-blinky, maybe; Chishû Ryû seemingly captured mid-seizure but actually on the cusp of pronouncing, "Kono thread de hihan-suru hitobito wa, Kurosawa no hakuchi da yo." I suppose the points-scoring rejoinder to this will be, "Heh-um, [snark-expulsion of air from nostrils, accompanied by half-smirk similar to that castigated by GK above], of course, it's one thing to pull out an ugly frame from a film with so many beautiful ones, but try finding a single beautiful one in a place where there ARE none." To which I would respond that they exist in the films of Swanberg — who, by the way, shouldn't be induced to formulate a body of work that only justifies its existence by its degree of proximity to Ozu, any more than should Hollis Frampton, or Bob Clark — and I'll be presenting the evidence when I write about each of the films over the next week or two at Cinemasparagus + the Indiepix blog. At that point, feel free to take the — not a defense, but an elucidation — or turn and walk away. Just know that your glib little crowing on Internet comment threads smacks about five times more envacuumed, implicitly-'superior', and self-conscious+totally-unaware than any of the persons/characters in the films under discussion.
Let me also register my disgust at the prevailing viewpoint, which clearly exists, no matter how much you people (yes, YOU people) deny it exists, that the aesthetic value of a film is directly proportional to its budget or — how I coat this term with such bile-relish as I pronounce it — "production values." The entrancing waft of Mammon creates the thrall to everything from short works being considered "supplements" (or: "bonus features"), to the U.S.'s most popular films being reported by way of ticket-grosses, rather than number-of-tickets-sold. (The tallying itself being, obviously, absurd to begin with.) Couple completely independent filmmaking, shot ON OCCASION in spaces with white walls and dumpy furniture, like the kind that wasn't at all art-designed (because it's fucking REAL) (I would love to see any of you "art-design" that office from the temp scenes in Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha and in thus attempting even get NEAR articulating both the warp-and-woof of the suburban world beyond New York City or metropolitan exurbs, AND a very particular and soul-crushing pathos of the American lower-middle-class) — with portrayals of sex, and the American public — those Pragmatic Purveyors of Proportion — really, REALLY get their dander up. The thought process, which might be titled "The American Anxiety Over a Perceived Discrepancy in Levels of Commitment to the Diegesis on the Part of the Filmmaker, or: The American Anxiety Over Perceived Way-More-Than-Any-of-Us-Had-Been-Expecting-Commitment to the Diegesis on the Part of the Filmmaker," goes something like this, as I see it:
-Look at Joe Swanberg's fuckin' FACE. With that fuckin' GOATEE. And his fuckin' MOUTH OPEN.
-Yeah. That dumb fuckin' MOUTH.
-I know. And he's getting written about (ugh, and by the way seriously I could do what he does and get written about, ugh it's so depressing), because there was like, this scene, where he came, right. And it was coming to other women.
-Other women who were IN the FILM? Oh my god. That's so phallocentric.
-I know. He must have had them hypnotized to agree to it. Didn't they realize they were being, essentially, RAPED?
-They were TOTALLY being raped! By proxy. Which is to say by the camera. Which is to say by what it filmed, which is what I was watching. Which is to say Joe Swanberg is making me feel like I've committed the raping.
-Ugh. What a creep. And he keeps puppeting them into doing this again and again in his movies. And you know what, if they're not, okay, being puppeted, let me just go on record and say that, if that's NOT the case? then these women are just LOOSE, I'm sorry. It's like, anyway, I'll take my movie-sex simulated next time, thanks, where it exists to mechanistically keep the story moving. Proxy-rape is only for behind the door of my own bedroom.
-Seriously. And okay, I'm all for "more mise-en-scène than there is story," I mean, SOMETIMES, but it's gotta have some punch — y'know, 'cause mise-en-scène as I understand it is really just vividness of colors, epic'ness of scope, and busy-ness of the flower-arrangements in the frame. Gloss.
-I don't want the dull-matte-finish that Swanberg's selling.
-I know. I want something saleable. Something that makes me feel like I'm getting my money's worth — I want to see a car-chase or at least some fuckin' velvet curtains, y'know, so I have SOME evidence that the filmmakers respected my spending my money on the price of the ticket/rental — which car-chase or velvet curtains would evince their concern and that they did put forth some effort here by at least finding SOME funds. If not ideas.
-Exactly. At least have the courtesy to give us signifiers.
And so on and so on. Hey, Commenters, we can agree to disagree — one man's Gerwig-looking-away-to-avoid-looking-at-the-camera-is-an-amateur's-botched-take, is another man's Gerwig-looking-away-to-avoid-looking-at-the-camera-is-touching-human-and-real. It just comes down to two different ways of looking at movies, to two different ways of looking at the world. And, apparently, to a difference in opinion over whether such twains as movies and life, must ever, ever meet — whether there must ever, ever exist a Cinema of Contiguity.
Since his name was mentioned once in a (tangential) comparison Dan [Sallitt] made between the filmmaker and Swanberg, I'll shut off my vent's diffusion by reciting the words of Maurice Pialat: "Si vous ne m'aimez pas, je peux vous dire que je ne vous aime pas non plus."