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by Eric Kohn
September 20, 2011 2:21 AM
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REVIEW | Joe Swanberg's "Art History" is Less Cassavetes, More Kevin Smith

Joe Swanberg's "Art History." Image courtesy of joeswanberg.com.

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.

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3 Comments

  • mike s | February 25, 2012 4:49 AMReply

    ummm...are you serious? when did film become quite this stupid and inconsequential? 1/3 of the populace is living under poverty level...we're in how many illegal wars...our elections are a sad farce at best and people are screwed and it sounds like you're reviewing some film that was made in france over thirty years ago and wasn't even that hot then. wow, american apparel ads really said a lot about what's going on didn't they? let's really study that phenomenom...better yet let's do so over an entire career. swanberg really understands it...you know... i mean the banality of sex or to give swanberg the benefit of the doubt the difficulty in filming intimacy as a subject or theme i guess is plausible enough for a film or two if that's not the entire gist but the intellectual goobledygook you guys are attaching to these essentially lightweight, niche rush jobs is frankly pretty goddamned embbarrassing. which is it today? swanberg has his finger on the pulse...or he's a original artist who's creating his own mileau. retards. If swanberg had half the eye or profundity you barnacles accord to him he'd propably be able to give some semblance of a mature and weighty treatment to his own pretensions, salemanship and silliness and it's place in relation to the actual world we live in. instead he's created constructs based on his own very limited idea of what it means to be an artist and made a number of films analyzing this rather half baked construct...leaving out anything a hair beyond adolescent in the process...yeah, man i get it...people who go to art school like to get naked sometimes because they think it's artistic and sometimes it's the exact opposite of intimacy. I'm sure even the actors swanberg works with be they hipsters art students or otherwise aren't nearly as boring and stiff as his imagination colors them....but yes that's true.... here's a couple of other thematic observations...the art world is beyond a cut throat place worse now than ever, money is allmighty, people don't know what's the hell is going on and are more isolated then ever, love is dead, everything is a businesss strategem, culture is in the toilet, violence is real, and for every artist that has a sliver of success and by success i mean isn't living in complete exile and obscurity or literally starving and has aqcuired it by some kind of indie cronyism there are many many more whose something to say because it's not immediately identifiable to your paltry imitation of the monolithic hype machine will die.. there's a fifty fifty chance if i ran into some of you would be journalists i'd very heartily kick your ass....you'd probably say it's because i'm bitter of the attention swanberg get's but you'd only be showing your own utter lack of comprehension and complete imbeciliatlty...i'd then be forced to spit on you while i explained to you that i'm not even a filmmaker in fact but merely a guy who would like to see a good film for a fucking change and is entirely sick of being sold shit so some idiot can make fifty bucks from filmaker magazine and get a press pass to some snoozer of a film fest... you're leeches i hope you know and soul suckers and you're destroying art and you're either to stupid to know it or are to desperate and sick to attach yourself to something that you lie ...therefore as the saying goes go to hell you're already three quarters of the way there..personally if i had a choice ...though substance of course is always preferable... i'll at least take my vacuity or oblivion with with attractive bodies and and a trace eroticism...check out my film it's a veritable materpiece it's called "screw off"

  • MARK GEORGEFF | October 30, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    Ohhh PHILBERT...you're just so great. It's amazing, how such a talented hack like yourself has escaped the Hollywood radar? Yeah, you're the one making masterpieces, and the rest of us filmmakers just barely scratch the surface.

  • philbert ooper | September 20, 2011 4:34 AMReply

    eric, why do you love to suck joe swanberg's balls so much? i've seen 12 year olds that can make a more interesting movie than him. there isn't one single aspect of filmmaking that he's good at. well, he is good at making complete crap, but i wouldn't call that a positive thing.

    if you want to see a mumblecore movie that is actually interesting, funny, and improvised the right way then check out my masterpiece Unicorn Ninja Soldiers- http://youtu.be/kwbFM8NWJg4

    as you will clearly see i have more talent in the tip of my pecker than joe swanberg has in his entire smug banal boring body.