Friday, March 11, 2011

Art History

Email from September 30, 2010

Hi Joe,

Some thoughts on Art History...

I think it's an amazing, complex film. First of all, it's undeniably beautiful — the light, the framings, the colors. There's such an attention to texture, and to the rhythm of particular moments. From the vase of sunflowers that appears in a few shots, to the (extraordinary) pool scenes. The natural world has a real presence even in this completely circumscribed environment: a house somewhere in LA, the confines of which we never leave or see beyond, as though the property lies outside of contiguous space and time. Despite the single location, there's no claustrophobia — e.g., the scene set around the table during breakfast, or the one shot through the window, where you and Kent sit on the step, and his character thanks yours for casting him in the movie... — it's like an 'inner-and-outer-chamber drama'. At the same time it's kind of a planet unto itself, this 'temporary' place where a group arrives to partake in a short ritual before vacating the premises. If spaces have an aura or force, haunted once and maybe emitting certain energies (cf. The Shining), then the tensions at play between the characters and the entire act of making the film / interacting seem to me that much more unsettling.

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

In line with this, the bedroom strikes me as the most uncanny space of the 'set'. It's bare, blanched, stripped, has the ambiance of an interrogation room; appears (at least through the editing) to be an "off" space relative to the geography of the rest of the house. When it's recorded in long-shot, it constitutes a frame (closer to 1.33) within the 1.78 frame, and this serves all the more to establish the room as a netherzone, with the camera (which in turn shoots the camera shooting the sex scenes) taking on the feeling of an omniscient-eye-view, some p.o.v. "outside" the drama but watching steely-eyed...

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

Which leads to one of the central issues in the mix: what exactly is the film-within-the-film that's being made? As always, documentary and fiction have a slippery/tenuous dividing line, and it's meaningfully explored throughout the course of Art History... Is the film-in-progress-within-the-film a quote-unquote "Joe Swanberg film"? Or is it a straightforward porn, or porn with artistic pretensions? At first it seems the whole of the director's footage (as far as we're allowed to see) might consist purely of sex scenes — then, later on, there's indication that this may not be the case, from the moment of the conversation scene between Kris and Josephine. At this point another question is raised: Was this outside-of-sex-on-(the director character's)-camera conversation between Kris & Josephine always planned by your character to be shot, or is it a semi-spontaneous addition on his part only after the 'situation at the house' began to develop? —

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

So: what exactly is happening? There seem to be levels of removal that keep attempting to crop up (on the part of the director + of their own accord?), as though to establish some distance from the situation at-hand. And yet: what's taking place within the characters psychologically, and on either side of these borderlines of remove that the director character is attempting to stake out (while at the same time using the remove as an anchoring point for his manipulation of the actors/drama), can no longer, by film's end, be sustained. The same omniscient-eye-view from the doorway to the bedroom finds its echo in the blank gaze of your character staring at the screen while editing.

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

In fact, there are at least two moments where we're not exactly sure whether:

(1) the cross-cutting that occurs here is action simultaneously occurring within the film-world —

i.e., (a) shot of your and Adam Wingard's characters at the screen;

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

(b) shot of Kent and Josephine talking, getting close, in the other room next to the one you're sitting in

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

— or:

(2) whether it's a shot-reverse-shot of (a) your character at the screen looking at (b) footage from the shoot. Eventually we have the sense it's the former, but this blurring only underscores another level of removal, that the film-being-made's action and the framing film-world's action are both in some strange (and real) sense intermingled — and that the intermingling is the film Art History being overseen of course by you, JS. (Thus levels of removal happening 'of their own accord'.)

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

In this sense, Art History, in line with one of the (two) suggestions of its title, is an essay-film: something "other" than what it's showing on-screen, something "other" than a narrative, something "other" than a "meta" narrative-within-a-narrative-movie. It's an essay on creation, on danger, on what's 'portrayable' without repercussion (cf. Alexander the Last): just because the in-film camera has stopped rolling, doesn't mean that the film's stopped coming into creation of its own accord (beyond just the will of the creator: rather, as though a film itself possesses its own almost sentient 'force' — something I believe) —

— doesn't mean the 'film' hasn't stopped for the characters, or, I suspect, for (here the other suggestion of the title comes into play) the actors/crew at various times in your past works.

Another "slippage," or intermingling, that I found really fascinating, and which upsets the viewer's equilibrium or 'anchor' of what's been playing out is the announcement for the first time of your character's name — "Sam" — only near the very end of the film — a pretty canny move, because it pulls the rug out from the normal strategy in "films about films" where, if we'd heard "Sam" at the beginning we'd tend to settle in right away to some on-the-nose framework/expectation that "oh, this is basically a film-à-clef, and Swanberg is basically playing Swanberg, but the names have changed." [Or, to use a different example: "Woody Allen is playing Woody Allen making a story that takes as its material his own history and process of creation, except here he's a 'novelist' instead of a filmmaker", etc.] And still more (really brilliant) slippage: the characters are improvising their Sam's-film dialogue — tender, honest, reflective — based on previous life experience. But the actors playing the characters are, I'm assuming, the real figures reciting these stories and feelings: it's Josephine & Kris or Josephine & Kent speaking for themselves...

— Documentary or fiction? Are they being filmed by Sam for Sam's-film or being filmed by Swanberg for Art History? And is there a difference? And can these things even be kept straight, or delineated...? —

— So, by film's end, the blank gaze has been unmoored from a camera in a doorway, unmoored from its attachment to a director (Sam) looking at and in-control-of a "scene on a screen": by this point, his gaze no longer has any tangible target beyond a kind of internal abyss, — and so Sam floats, adrift, no-screen, — dislodged water-logged scarecrow. (All of the metaphorical resonances of which, throughout the film, it would be unnecessary, in bad taste, superfluous, to even mention.)

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

It goes without saying that even as Art History confronts (spectacularly) many of the questions around your own past films (and the cinema in general), it reframes all expectations of a 'type' of movie that you've been associated with making (for better or for worse, depending on the associator). Even while Art History goes full-charge, and fearlessly, back into semi-hardcore on-camera depictions of sex — sequences which, however, now seem framed by brackets, or quotation marks.

As Art History unfolds, it poses the following questions:

a. "Close-ups on aroused body parts, putting on a condom, straddling and fucking — is there actual penetration or isn't there? A question that rises so that one might go further and ask: what are the borders of intimacy?"
b. "What's off-limits, that is, what, necessarily, demands privacy from the screen?"
c. "Is 'off-limits' purely vaginal breaching — and rightly so? And if so, why? — that is: why is penetration the 'money-shot', not in the sense of ejaculation, but as the demarcation line of 'having borne it all'?"
d. "And why shouldn't this line exist?"


e. "What does it mean to show sexual intimacy?"
f. "What happens to actors in these contexts?"
g. "How do you shoot a sex-scene?"
h. "What does it take to 'pull off' this kind of material?"
i. "What constitutes, with regard to the resulting material, a 'success'?"
j. "How do you shoot emotional intimacy?"
k. "Where does the body end and the soul begin?"

Last things to mention: the 'train' scene is incredible (especially Kent's reaction), as is the whole (masterful) final section, from Josephine's gaze into the camera / at Sam/you, on into the pool, and the (shocking) outburst.

Art History by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

As I said: fucking amazing.

Everyone should see this.

It's an important film.



Previous pieces on Joe Swanberg at Cinemasparagus:

Kissing on the Mouth [2005]

Hissy Fits [2005]

Young American Bodies: Season 1 [2006]

LOL [2006]

Uncle Kent [2011]

Silver Bullets [2011]


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