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Berlin Critic’s Notebook: Swanberg America’s One Last Auteur Hope?

Berlin Critic's Notebook: Swanberg America's One Last Auteur Hope?

For this first dispatch, I was going to comment more broadly, on the Berlinale entire. The better weather, the lowered expectations, the increasingly blurred identities of the festival’s various sections, weirdly appropriate to a festival screening Bergman’s “Persona” as part of a retrospective devoted to the late master. But instead, I’d like to devote this report to a single filmmaker, Joe Swanberg, and a certain tendency of American criticism.

I’m not a fan of Swanberg’s work, to say the least, and would happily deny him the oxygen of publicity; but the world premiere here of his two latest films, “Silver Bullets” and “Art History”, demands some reflection, I think, on his place within this Business we call Show. Not least, for the reaction to his work, especially among American critics and cinephiles, who feel obliged to take a position on the man and his work. And this stance tends to be extreme – he’s either the lone savior of independent cinema, the last honest man, or Shiva, the destroyer of all things: there’s no in-between.

Recently we’ve been treated (I say “we” – I mean of course the few dozen of “us” who read this stuff) to the curious and unedifying spectacle of Richard Brody, on the New Yorker’s website, not only cheerleading for Mr. Swanberg, but also taking it upon himself to attack his critics. There was a post on January 21 about “Uncle Kent”, another on February 11, anticipating this Berlin premiere, and, on February 4, a review of Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather” that for some reason veered off into yet another consideration of “Uncle Kent.” Swanberg is like a scab, it seems, that Brody can’t keep from picking. (This kind of writerly infatuation is not without precedent at the New Yorker: I’m reminded of how, at the beginning of his tenure as pop critic, Sasha Frere Jones used to write about hip-hop, week after week, to the exclusion of every other form of contemporary music – a habit that’s now been curtailed, presumably by editors aware that a Gucci Mane mixtape falls somewhat outside the interests of much of the magazine’s readership.)

But the tone of these posts is increasingly defensive, not to mention muddled: the most recent piece sees Brody in one breath making wildly extravagant claims on Swanberg’s behalf (“in any case, to put the thirty-year-old Swanberg’s work beside Bergman’s at thirty gives the advantage to Swanberg in terms of the personal imprint on the medium”), and in the next, as if realizing the consequences of this statement, attempting to negate the comparison altogether. (“Of course, Bergman made ‘Summer Interlude’ at thirty-three and ‘Monika’ at thirty-five, so the bar is high – so high that nobody should be forced to measure up to it.”)

In conclusion, therefore? Joe Swanberg either is, or is not, comparable to Ingmar Bergman. Take your pick.

At least one reason for scorn, though, had nothing to do with his own work. Swanberg, it seems, had cited Pialat’s great “A Nos Amours” as one of his ten favorite Criterion titles on the DVD company’s website – a choice that apparently elicited much sneering from the cognoscenti. I’m not sure why. Even a buffoon can sense the presence of great art, like a pig sniffing truffles in the damp earth. What I found puzzling was not that Brody leapt to the filmmaker’s defense, dumping on the haters (“the Miniver Cheevy-like scoffers . . . seething in their DVD collections”), but that he felt compelled to praise Swanberg, both for his “wise and keen grasp on some of the best and most powerful . . . work of recent decades”, and for his camerawork, which he said “is expressive and spontaneous even when it’s rough-hewn.”

Joe Swanberg. [Image courtesy of the Berlinale.]

Spontaneous, without question. Expressive? Well, on this point we can agree to differ.

But wise? About what, exactly? About Pialat? About drawing lessons from Pialat to use in his own work? About life?

Having previously sat through “Hannah Takes The Stairs” and “Alexander the Last” and “Nights And Weekends” – plus a few episodes of the truly execrable “Young American Bodies” on IFC.com – my main problem with Swanberg’s films is precisely their very lack of wisdom. They’re superficial works, made by someone with nothing especially insightful, much less revelatory, to say about either sexuality or being young and directionless, his chosen subjects. Devoid of politics, bereft of any sense of the world outside their own immediate milieu – and almost defiantly incurious about it, a failing that’s much harder to overlook – they offer the comfort of easy recognition (“hey, that’s just how my friends talk/argue/fuck!”) in place of the tougher work of discovery; they’re about confirming everything you already know and recognize, instead of confronting you with anything you don’t. And by placing their maker front and centre, a soft-spoken lug with a George W. Bush smirk, they rank as some of the most patently solipsistic movies ever made.

Given this absence of intellectual rigor, worldly curiosity, or even a single memorable line of dialogue, you might be forgiven for hoping for certain refinements of visual style, if only to make the ride a little less bumpy. Alas, the surface is unyielding. There are no striking performances in Swanberg’s oeuvre – in fact, few “performances” at all in the conventional sense, merely examples of exhibitionism and unself-consciousness. There’s little in the way of incisive editing, no production design beside the readily-at-hand, nor indeed any of the strategies and devices that make our movies more than unmediated slabs of quotidian reality.

“Spontaneous, rough-hewn camerawork,” though, we have in spades.

So why is Brody so smitten? The uncharitable view holds that, in his unwavering support for Swanberg, Bujalski, les frères Safdie, et al., he has the air of an elderly uncle trying to appear groovy with the kids, whose music he tries to love despite his better judgment. But I think it goes deeper than that. I believe it’s sincere. Like many of the better American critics, Brody is an auteurist at heart, and is therefore eager to find and consecrate homegrown examples, in order to sustain this worldview.

The problem is, as he well knows, the entire mechanism of US filmmaking, in all but its most handmade manifestations, is inimical to auteurism; rather, it emphasizes the efficiency and superiority of the industrial process. In so hostile a climate, one must take one’s heroes where one can. Hence the rabid over-praising – and not only by Brody, I hasten to add – of every Bright Young Thing that comes alone. All of whom, amusingly enough, are compared to European models, from Lance Hammer (“an American Dardenne!” we were assured) to Sofia Coppola (“Somewhere” was just like Antonioni, doncha know?). And of course, Swanberg himself, whom Brody regularly likens – not entirely without justification – to Philippe Garrel. But it’s telling, I think, that no one ever compares these guys to, say, an Anthony Mann, or a Frank Tashlin, or indeed any other product of the US studio system, since that would negate the argument being advanced.

(This, incidentally, is why the career trajectory of someone like David Gordon Green, from the exquisite lyricism of “George Washington” to the baked stupor of “Pineapple Express,” is such a bitter pill for his early admirers to swallow, representing as it does not only one very gifted filmmaker’s flight from the salons to the marketplace, but an entire narrative of U.S. indie filmmaking in the last decade.)

I didn’t suffer, especially, in the Swanberg diptych. I sat through all of “Silver Bullets,” and somewhat to my surprise, found it the most ambitious and interesting of his works to date. Described by one American friend, not entirely facetiously, as “Joe’s ‘8 ½,'” it at least evinced a greater ambition: a broader palette of visual textures and emotional tones, a few mildly intriguing editing choices, and some bad but defiantly foregrounded music. It also boasted a satisfying astringent self-critique from the filmmaker, who essentially admitted onscreen to deriving no pleasure either from the act of filmmaking, or from the result. Awards, money, good reviews – all these things were meaningless. The only reward his craft afforded him, he claimed, was the chance to “get close to people” who interested him.

By “people,” Swanberg means “young women.” And by “get close to,” he means…well, you get what he means. (In this regard, at least, he does bear direct comparison with Bergman.) Nevertheless, the result was interesting. Watching, you think for a moment, good lord, he’s actually grown as a filmmaker…

And then, immediately after, came “Art History,” which was exactly the movie his detractors expect of him: essentially, ugly people fucking in unflattering light – and let’s face it, not even an amateur swingers’ video can de-eroticize sexual intercourse like Joe Swanberg – complete with dialogue that smacked of a none-too-effective improv class. Dead scenes, flat surfaces; a general air of redundancy and purposelessness. Eventually I walked out, sensing a cheeseburger with my name on it a few kilometers away – at The Bird, Berlin’s finest pub – and deciding that the promise of something was better than the certainty of nothing.

In the foyer, though, people were infuriated. What had they just watched? Why was it even in the festival? I spoke briefly with a prominent British critic (who’d walked out with me, and dismissed both films as “just garbage”), and then with a young woman from Norway, a documentary maker, who was almost speechless with rage: the film was, she said, “like when you boil meat – you know you have the stuff that rises to the top? That you have to scoop off? This film was that. It’s the product of a culture with nothing whatsoever to say.”

Ouch. Still, in the context of this year’s Berlinale – so unpromising on paper, loaded with so much work that will likely elicit nothing more than a shrug – to generate such passion might be considered a triumph, of provocation, if not of cinema. For one night, at least, Joe Swanberg might justifiably have been called the most important American filmmaker around.

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