In his pluterpenultimate volume, Convulsions of Egotism, the karateka Thadeusz Shortchange expressed this about Joe Swanberg's first feature, Kissing on the Mouth  —
"Because convictions are egotism by another name, we cannot earnestly deny the film's polemical title or the film's opening sequence as being advertisements for their author. The message "I am against," implicit in both entities, and the desire to promulgate that message, exist as one; the term "world-view" articulates the entire movement.
— Not only a manner of looking at the world, but a compulsion to see the world refashioned to reflect one's ideas.
— Some objects under observation refract in the artistic moment through the will of an individual: repurposed, they're projected.
— Observation and action, simultaneous.
Paradox thus resides in the institution of the artistic gesture, but it's the action-half, the transubstantiation, that makes egotism moral — this due possibly to the proximity, in world-view's instant, of Desire to the noted Praxis.
Seen from another vantage (one paraphrases Malkmus: no moral absolutes) — A certain man's idea of morality is the thing that says, "No not that." Another's is the thing that says: "Yes this too."
With his film's title, Kissing on the Mouth, Joe Swanberg says, effectively: "I am against puritanism directed toward sexual expression." In the opening scene: "I am against the luridness of onscreen presentations of sex." — It would be a mistake to confuse (terribly moral) paradox for insincerity. So let the advertisement stand as it is: any artist worth his salt learns the "I am against" — for, indeed, hasn't art's whole history shown us, against popular sentiment, and as proven above, that the "I"s have it?
In this case of Kissing on the Mouth, both the title and the opening scene communicate: "I believe particular cultural assumptions, in being writ large, become transposed with moral assumptions." Let no man be sincere about morality — if sincerity were Tarot, his card would read The Determinist, The Absolutist. Exalted world-view circumscribes point-of-view — with observation like a surgical incision, cuts observation open: finds one's way, gropingly, toward provocation — purely as happenstance.
Be no more guilty of sincere morality than Shakespeare, whose "twain", in The Sonnets, were also "inner" and "outer": when Will writes "my chest", he's thinking at once of the me that contains the thinking heart, and the thought-about you that has the ungendered breast belonging to me, the me that is a body and the me that is my artwork, fashioned out of memories that delve inward to recall moments of outer life, and out of the imagination culling from the (my) inner life to project an Everything outward.
Is The Karateka laughing or smarting? Is he being 'aleatory', or, y'know, --teleo(g)nomic--? Who am I really to say for sure — the obscure text is useful, at least insofar as it would indicate some richness in the film's first scene. With that, it might do to take a chance on a look. —
Just before Kate Winterich and Kevin Pittman get on with the sex, Pittman props back and dongs a rubber, while Winterich's made her way in front of the computer, pays no mind — rather, is ambiently aware: busy as she is, choosing music from the playlist.
"One second." A one-second shot that, in its instant, recounts a modern rite: e.g.: "Here, one second, I'll bring in the computer and put something on." An interchange committed several hundred-million times since 1999, and one which registers, for me, as one of the true gestures of modern life which, until Kissing on the Mouth, had not been filmed — probably because it hadn't (and still hasn't) registered as 'event' enough to be worth the attention of older, 'wiser' filmmakers — or, equally likely, because it hadn't (still hasn't) 'registered' for them at all: this event that might be invisible (or inaudible, like the mosquito ringtone) to viewers on the other side of particular demographic passwords. In his first-ever scene, Swanberg evinces a keen sense of these invisible codes (their registration will become a hallmark of his cinema) and, via Winterich's face, films a new gaze: the gaze that is more alive than it looks dead — one thoroughly modern, one reflected on the plastic of MacBook and BlackBerry screens, one which evades easy cataloguing among the "gazes of mechanization" that have beamed through the works of directors diverse as Keaton, Chaplin, Jerry Lewis...
Less quantifiable: the Richter of one's recognition-shock upon sighting tweet'ish detail — a shock-of-the-new in resonance with the new-familiar. (And I pause to footnote: less quantifiable, but obviously more subjective, and potentially hinging on the apprehension of codes like "tweet'ish"; it's either Swanberg's agenda, or the reality of current living, this testing incessantly the porousness of the objective v. subjective, itself a function of the you-get-it v. you-don't.) Swanberg 'tweets' his details at a level on par with the 'noticing' done by a talented new novelist. In fact, it's the commitment to celluloid (or to sensor) of the 'That's right; I've seen that' that has demarcated every new movement in the cinema — silent-actualité — New Wave — the post-Dogme digital-cinema.
Again I pause to go back to Shortchange (his surname like a dare? — in the tradition of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), who finds the title "Kissing on the Mouth" polemical — perhaps because it's innocent, perhaps because it's lurid, perhaps because it doesn't describe anything that actually happens in the film, perhaps because it comes from bygone utopia. Taken at face value, it's a New Wave title. And it puts me in mind of a still more scandalous title of an arguably more scandalous film: Pas sur la bouche [Not on the Mouth, Alain Resnais, 2003]. Moderne est classique aussi.
So the music begins, and with it a kind of self-dramatization that pervades the picture — a self-dramatization that is a corollary of the title's utopia, and one that is inherent to the generation. My generation who endlessly wonders: "What if life had a soundtrack?" (and makes it close to a reality with the shuffle of iPods+iPhones with which one can segue fluidly from disparate track to the next to call and back to music), the generation that uses the word "drama" to describe or to color events a hundred times a week. In Kissing on the Mouth, the drama is the 'drama', or rather has it as an active ingredient, like what we might talk about in a modern conditioner; after all, the shower has become the getaway, and the place of reflection, a place for assessment... (here, which woman — Winterich or Williams — fulfills which fantasy-or-fetish function — etc.... a set-up for the amazing 'unspoken-crush'-divulgence/non-divulgence climax and its big quasi-platonic hug in the kitchen...)
...But we'd look insecure, skipping ahead to the head-&-shoulders-&-head sequence midway-through as a means of proving that Swanberg homes in on real details. Let's stay with the opening scene, and Kate Winterich's belt, which the director devotes four close-up/insert shots to before the fucking even starts. Her accessory's sexy, kind of eyelet-studded, at once 'punk' and that brand of 'punk' that has by the late '90s already been reappropriated for a safer set, that is, you can pick up this belt at a mall-store or the like, and still it telegraphs: "sexy," and the barest trace of "fetish." It's the sort of belt you like hooking your thumbs into when you're kissing the girl. In the film it's matched, by the way, by Pittman's own, which reads entirely differently as vague/diluted 'edge'. Later, Swanberg removes the belt from a sexual context and matches it with a pursestrap; the belt returns near the end at the moment of Winterich's avowal of the dissolution of the sex-relationship with Pittman.
Even before he places them within aesthetic framework, Swanberg understands that sartorial codes are cultural codes, and that the present era has complicated the range of both. Whereas cultural tastes once served as an index of an individual's psychology, they now swerve into the realm of en-masse substitute for psychology. In one of the voice-overs that compose character-Patrick's/director-Swanberg's brewing project on the nature of relationships, a young woman delivers the following monologue:
"It's like three or four years ago I had this big thing where I always say, like, 'Well I would never marry anybody who didn't like The Simpsons.' And, like, my friends were like, ' — The stupidest thing you've ever said, like, in your life,' and I'm like, 'Oh nuh-no, I have, I have reasons for it,' like, to like The Simpsons you have to be inTELLigent, like you have to have a good sense of HUMOR, y'know, blah blah, like, you have to be, y'know, fairly LEFTIST, y'know, whatever else..."
(FunFact: Kubrick had his sister send him VHS tapings of every episode.)
Why shoot the ethnographer? — he's in the midst of research: How did these twenty-somethings live, in the mid-'00s? What were their dreams and their hopes? How did they couple?
It's alright to say Kissing on the Mouth is a film about sex. Neither cry nor justify. It's a film about sex as natural activity. Simply unrepressed, nothing sacramental. Show sex. Talk sex. Kris Williams (Kris Swanberg in 2009) says: "And all this emotion comes into it, and you, you're like, 'Well I don't love you,' — 'Well then why did you have SEX with me?' — And you're like, 'I just wanted to FUCK, okay, I just wanted to COME.'" The filmmaker has set himself in the humble role of studio-engineer recording the way young, reasonably liberal/educated women actually speak, and with just such frankness too — it's not Sex and the City-bonne parole — nor is it likely to make its way into the outtakes or deleted scenes of the S&C film's DVD, which I fuckin'-bet carom farther out from reality — and is still-less-likely to emit from the lips of a Hollywood starlet. —
(Can any of us imagine the sensation such words would cause in a film that was destined for wide-release? Or — if some brave mainstream-U.S. actress actually signed on to the ostensible project containing these come'y words — the degree to which the studio PR mechanism would be surreptitiously fireworking such a 'provocative' outburst as the main, probably, talking-point or marketing-point of the film?)
— But these have been ten-years' words of friends.
(Maybe the simple offering of 'recognition' from the filmmaker, a certain generosity, is itself, umm, unremarked sacrament...?)
We're just talking. And I'm saying with sex comes body AND voice. Swanberg takes the measure of an actor: the ones who are only there as voices, and Winterich's flat Midwestern accent; and the ones with faces deserving of attention accorded to them (and thank god for this happening again, in an American cinema-scape that's bashful holding shots, because it's the same as looking your audience in the eye) — Swanberg knows how to shoot women's faces. So-and-so-person may be unremarkable, you pass her on the street, or you say, "That's a pretty girl." Swanberg follows up on one's remarking and takes the involving gaze and shows us: Yes, she's pretty, her eyelashes are pretty, her eyelid droops a little, it's touching. We're just talking. It's a film about sex, but also a film about bodies: about cellulite as much as tits. About roll-on around pubis and loins. About Kate Winterich who, as per the evidence, will probably not always have that body, and looks at it in the mirror like she knows it. (I apologize, because I like modica of chivalry, of being more polite toward women than men — but I watch this film and I'm talking about it, and all of our bodies, god knows mine is, are lurching toward decrepitude. Maurice Pialat, by the way, opened his grandmother's coffin and filmed the body inside for La Gueule ouverte [The Slack-Jawed Mug, 1974], though he never used the footage. He had his actors look. Nathalie Baye describes the sight, a skeleton and dust, as calming, peaceful, beautiful — in a way reassuring.)
The film is about this: no big theory, but: the gaze-as-just-sayin'. Who else in young cinema has anything to 'say' or show about anatomy, physiology right now? I defer to Tricksters, and Pittman's rubbering as the first antenna-extension for Swanberg's radar of survey: men's cocks are blood-sausage and dog-dicks. (To me, this is the real observation that makes a movie, and is far more honest, and sympathetic, and intellectual than: "Anne Hathaway's in eyeliner for 100 minutes pretending to recover from a thiamine binge," or whatever.)
Again, via the body, the novelist's detail: The way bare feet touch (they're always) dust-and-crumby hardwood floors. (I wrote over at Glenn Kenny's: "[Joe Swanberg is] using the lexicon of the 'insert shot' ... to basically anchor the entire montage. And all of this is of a piece with a larger sense of TACTILITY that he conveys (really, the best, and 'most tactile' modern film I've seen since La ciénaga [The Swamp, 2000] by Lucrecia Martel) by way of the close-ups of the bric-à-brac on the roommates' desks (fingernail clippers, tape, etc.), of hair-cutting and -washing, of the absent-minded wedging with a utensil-end of a scrap of red candlewax left on a kitchen-table, of the way you suck at making eggs so you have to keep dipping your index-finger into the pan to remove the shards of eggshell.") (See also the title of the movie.)
It's also a film about roommates — something any city/borough twenty-something knows about. Waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom in the cold-floor morning. Checking off the chores-list. "Fine. But why not dramatize it?" Fuck you. What is there to dramatize? This is like Lumière — light and shadow at the 41st parallel.
Gentle swerve back to Swanberg/Patrick on Pittman/Chris: "That guy's a fuckin' PRICK..." — Of course he is. But what has he done in the film to telegraph this? He's fucked the roommate; he has a stupid haircut; he and Winterich've talked a bit and again it's segued into fucking. That's all. But still — (again) new codes, and a new way of presenting character in the cinema, dramatically/dramaturgically. Take the photo-shoot with Winterich as an example: It's a boy shooting a girl, but it's dead, there's no ethnography. The seduction (a nothing-seduction) comes on fast, they're kissing, then they're in bed. The fucking prick. — And then: "Can we do something other than sex?" : Oh, the woman's aggressively horny in the moment, and she does not want to hear this! But then, wait: so what? She turns the tables, stating they've already dated for two years, that that's over and now there's this: which means: it's all about sex, and what more does he want? Well, he doesn't know. So he turns the tables back (for the second time in the film) about how Winterich needs to get 'serious' and stop taking a job offered by her parents, upstate, long drive (long drive home on the weekends), to the botanical grounds. And yet — she's right! What the fuck 'DOES' that matter? And we ask ourselves what the fuck HE'S doing that's so exalted — writing a photography blog?
Swanberg too is all surface, but unlike This Douche Chris, is so in the best cinema sense: nomenclatural and literal insert shots build up toward an articulation of the dignity in the small event. — Painting the kitchen. — Doing the wash. — Recording testimonies. — Making a sad pair of eggs. (See above.) — And the yellows are beautiful, fortify the hive of the home —
— like the yellows that comb, drift, in the sequence of lights dappling Winterich's dash on the car-ride home to that weekend/womb-zone job, as she listens to the interview MP3s.
In fact the voix-off of the interviews allows two layers at once. We 'drift' again (there's never cinema 'neorealism', let alone 'neoneorealism' — the "ethic" is irrelevant) into the gorgeous series of the interviewees discussing their relationship to their parents. On one visual track J. Swanberg and K. Williams embark on gerry-rig-painting the apartment kitchen in the way living in such-and-such-a-place demands (right after graduation without such-and-such-a-job); on another, cross-cut, adrift-Winterich in the golf cart with the sign taped to the steering wheel: "ADULT DRIVERS ONLY - NO ONE UNDER AGE 16." Which FYI's hilarious.
Small solidarity: bulletin in the background for Neil Young's then-contemporary, now practically forgotten, all the same extraordinary Greendale .
Kissing on the Mouth is the beauty of a filmmaker discovering how things work, how to make things work. Audio dragged over shots, sequences — letting it run. 'Mundane' conversations, the images of life, 1.33, how to make cinema and the to-be-continued.