Friday, March 11, 2011
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.
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...
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? —
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.
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;
(b) shot of Kent and Josephine talking, getting close, in the other room next to the one you're sitting in
(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'.)
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.)
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?"
l. "WHAT IS A PERFORMANCE?"
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.
As I said: fucking amazing.
Everyone should see this.
It's an important film.
Previous pieces on Joe Swanberg at Cinemasparagus:
Hissy Fits 
Young American Bodies: Season 1 
Uncle Kent 
Silver Bullets 
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Joe Swanberg's most nervous light-sleeper film manages to harness the slow leak of energy from its relatively lengthy gestation and distribute it across a 70-minute drift-off twitch of a movie: a picture hinged on the dead-time in rehearsals and the getting-to-know-each-other period that makes directing a film a courtship with myriad foregone conclusions. The result is a cult extravaganza that will either enervate or excite viewers, — an encounter with toxic greens and moor-mist blues applied on planar mise-en-scène which in its shucked totality affirms the possibilities of cinema on any narrative or economic scale, and asserts the spontaneous heed of one's inner dæmon as never less than crucial.
"You're just ignoring the fact that it's completely provocative. You're saying: 'Hey. Guess what. I wanna cast your best friend Charly who I just met three hours ago to play my girlfriend in my next movie. My next movie which I care so much about. My next movie which is such a huge part of my life. I think I'd just like to cast Charly as my girlfriend — as you.' "
"She wouldn't be playing you."
"No, she'd be playing herself. Your new girlfriend."
The key phrase that reverberates across the picture, as a warning and a credo: is all this "Worth it to you".
"There's no thing that the movies could get me. They get me close to people. That's all that's left."
Kate practicing with the gun in the mirror; Joe's bodkin stare. Kill the fiction / euthanize this process of a film: Silver Bullets, set against Ti West's work-in-progress. Contempt, dangerous game.
Fake out: the silver bullet, device real enough to put a movie to its salt-on-a-slug end. / Hey what's true and false / Hey what's the big put-on
A desperate film. Its hero fetches references, lunges for something, anything to hold on to, from the 1997 David Foster Wallace footage from Charlie Rose, to concocting a loose parallel (concoct your actions in life, as you fabricate art) to Chekhov's The Seagull. Kissing-cousins: Silver Bullets, Abel Ferrara's Mary.
Third-party photographer entwines a couple: makes an image: study of how the two relate (cf. Nights and Weekends).
A monograph on the qualities of images ('degraded' 8mm, low light), surfaces of mystery, the aureole around Kate's head — suddenly Swanberg-Seimetz footage appears like Super 8.
The editing room (the laptop screen) is a space for revelation, the transfixing oracle — or, as Danny Kasman suggested in his piece at The MUBI Notebook (here): between this and Art History, grained (blackout) shore of nocturnal possibility. Claire (Kate) watching the footage featuring Swanberg and Seimetz — in warm colors, neon Tron'd-out red and Halloween III orange.
Put on masks, make kabuki theater (how many permutations of Kate Sheil's face throughout Silver Bullets?) — that's what cinema wants even if an audience rejects the asymmetry in-course. The matter here is not the trajectory of the bullet, but ballistics in the ricochet.
Fever-sequence where footage/circumstances imagined and the emotions of all the scenes and possible scenes of all the films in Silver Bullets, including Silver Bullets, get mixed up in a flourish of arrested-chin sex and B-violence.
And in the end, an epilogue: 2 Years Later (the bookend of the excellent Jane Adams / Larry Fessenden opening) — the discussion on being even matches in a couple, the feeling upon finding someone who's your "equal, or even better" —
(I think this is the most poignant, powerful moment in Swanberg's work to date...)
"Is the work that we made together enough to justify all this?"
Final shot reveals actual wolf: precursor of Art History's astonishing close, Sheil's desiccated stare at-camera, which is simultaneously the gaze directed upon the filmmaker at the moment of editing. / Thus a movement outward and in. / At the moment of justification, / of validation, / you will and you / must feel everything has been / lost otherwise, / otherwise, / otherwise, / otherwise, was worth fucking shit
Previous pieces on Joe Swanberg at Cinemasparagus:
Hissy Fits 
Young American Bodies: Season 1 
Uncle Kent 
Monday, March 07, 2011
Sunday afternoon film / Ghastly-kitsch / All that shit in old anglophone films where a child says something-whatever and the movie cuts to a reverse-shot of an adult wide-eyed putting forth words in response to the patronizing effect of "Oh, is that so?" before a quick cut out / There are a load of dead spans in this film — I wish I saw it as replete as other viewers claim to have done, and yet moments still interest me / For instance: Kerr is erotic before Clodagh's erotic / :a menstruating Sound of Music / :the wind that incessantly whips, blows in the pathogens / :Sister Ruth's glee in ringing a church bell hung over an abyss / :"No, I don't want to go away — I want to stay here like this for the rest of my life." / Beyond that, other moments demand some remark... / 'Beauty''s face smeared with inedible chemicals / "Sister, may I congratulate you on the birth of Christ?" / Glorious Christmas scene, the holiday as the calm offering / Sweat droplets on Sister Ruth's fevered brow like the eyes of a spider / Insufferable cloying delivery of "Lemini" 119 times / Twice-seen, Black Narcissus strikes me as a camp, technically complicated, gorgeous, morally offensive, admirably garish and ultimately shallow Crappy Film by two photoplaywrights I like quite a bit / No, they're cinéastes in other works, but to compare Black Narcissus to another adaptation of Rumer Godden, one goes back to the language of notices
The frames from the film (not 'production-stills') placed above are stolen from various sites around the Internet, as no means of capturing stills from a Blu-ray presently exist on the Mac platform.
Previous pieces on Michael Powell (solo), and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, at Cinemasparagus:
The Phantom Light