When Joe Swanberg and other “mumblecore” filmmakers began making waves on the festival circuit a few years ago, many considered John Cassavetes to be the progenitor of their seemingly lackadaisical improvisatory style. However, Swanberg’s alternately blithe, probing and naive approach to sexuality occasionally gives his work the feel of a microbudget Kevin Smith. “Art History” is essentially Swanberg’s version of “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” and, within the larger context of his career, just as inconsequential. Smith embraced casual discussions about sex for years before the middling “Zach and Miri” brought the material to the foreground. Likewise, “Art History” strips away virtually any narrative ingredients that don’t pertain to the young American bodies so often at the center of his stories.
The first shot of “Art History” finds a couple writhing in bed, messily applying a condom and going about their business until a semi-fictionalized Swanberg calls “cut” from just outside the frame. The scene is a cheap film shoot centered on a one-night stand, starring goofy schlub Eric (Swanberg stalwart Kent Osborne) and the considerably younger Juliette (Josephine Decker), who may or may not harbor off-camera feelings for the Swanberg alter ego, Sam. Since the scene — pretty much the only scene we ever see filmed — calls for Eric and Juliette to do the dirty deed, tension builds, reaching its uneasy climax (so to speak) in the final minutes.
But it starts heading that way much earlier. Within its opening moments, “Art History” rules out the possibility that passionate sex can be a simulated act. “It felt businesslike,” Juliette says to Sam about the scene, “but what we’re doing is not businesslike.” By the next scene, Eric and Juliette find themselves in a more intimate place than their roles call for, establishing the same kind of situation that hovers over nearly every Swanberg-directed sex scene.
The actors continue to engage in their behavior when the camera stops rolling, except that our ability to see them means that the camera hasn’t stopped rolling at all, establishing the movie’s clever meta-twist. “Art History” is a document of the problem it investigates. Tonally, it calls to mind “Silver Bullets,” the hourlong filmmaking drama the director completed around the same time; in both cases, Swanberg the director and Swanberg the actor-as-director cope with the moral grey area between artistic practice and legitimate desire.
In “Art History,” this takes place through a thorough examination of sexual choreography. There’s little distinction between the idea and the substance of the movie. Swanberg’s routine investigation of private urges, present here from start to finish, results in an aesthetic memorably described by Shane Danielsen in this publication as “ugly people fucking.”
Now, if these movies intend to portray real people and real sex, their lack of movie-star hotness comes by necessity. Regardless, while the first third of that description is naturally up for debate, the rest correctly defines the central concern of most Swanberg movies. In a handful of passing moments, Swanberg portrays sexuality in expressionistic terms, being especially adroit at framing bodies to accentuate their universal meaning as instruments of intimacy. But even when the movie manages some modicum of insight, it never achieves a well-rounded structure. Devoid of specific details, it has the fleeting appeal of a high-concept short film.
Swanberg’s best efforts to date, “Uncle Kent” and “Alexander the Last,” benefit from the full dimensionality of their protagonists, neither of which are Swanberg’s alter egos. However, he’s still clearly the man controlling their fate: With each glimmer of sexual discomfort or subconscious flirtation, Swanberg’s concentrated gaze can be felt behind the camera lens, just as it appears in numerous scenes throughout “Art History.” It’s far from his greatest accomplishment, but a handy guide to everything that came before. And the title makes it personal: This is Swanberg’s history of his art, a constant work in progress.
Swanberg has been prolific enough to create a precise set of expectations from his work. “Art History,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and receives its New York theatrical run Friday, satisfies all of them. Whether that makes for a perceptive or listless portrait of the boundaries between performance and self-expression largely depends on your familiarity and interest in Swanberg’s output. Either way, “Art History” is an efficient doodle mandated by familiar Swanbergian traits
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening at New York’s reRun Gastropub this Friday, “Art History” won’t perform sell-out business, but his still-growing fanbase will surely seek it out on DVD if they miss this theatrical run.