There’s not much nuance to the discussion around Joe Swanberg’s films. You either think the amazingly prolific director’s the second coming of Ingmar Bergman and the French New Wave or a sexist softcore sleazebag. No other member of the mumblecorps generates so much heat, even if Andrew Bujalski or Aaron Katz’s films aren’t universally liked. At a Q&A in Brooklyn two months ago, I asked Swanberg why he thinks his work is so divisive. He pointed out several possible reasons – shooting entirely on video (although he’s far from alone there), acting in his own films – before settling on the fact that he puts his libido explicitly into his work. That sex drive is usually but not always directed towards beautiful young women. However, Swanberg has also filmed himself masturbating for real, and his forthcoming film, The Zone, an update of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, depicts a mysterious bisexual stranger.
As if to bait Swanberg’s critics, Caitlin Plays Herself opens with a shot of Caitlin (Caitlin Stainken, who does indeed play herself) baring her breasts. However, voyeurs will soon be frustrated, as she’s covered in dark liquid in the very next shot (echoing Brian De Palma’s Carrie) during a performance piece about the BP oil spill. Caitlin’s in an on-again, off-again relationship with a filmmaker (Swanberg) who frequently travels out of town. She dates other men, but she can’t pull herself together to make a definitive break with Swanberg, who takes offense at her onstage nudity. The film exposes both female bodies and, more daringly and threateningly, male egos.
Swanberg has improved greatly as a visual stylist since early films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. At this point, he rarely moves the camera or uses close-ups. His feel for the expressive potential of digital video has increased, as he gets a particularly uncanny glow from onscreen lights. He’s left shakycam clichés associated with the mumblecore movement far behind.
Swanberg claims that he makes films with no written script. Be that as it may, Caitlin Plays Herself does include a writing credit for himself and Stainken. As Swanberg’s work has progressed, it’s become clearer that its central point is his ability to simulate reality in all its messy aimlessness. At first, it seemed as though he were simply shooting amateurish improv sessions. In more mature films like Silver Bullets, the quality of his direction of improv has improved so much that the purpose behind the aimlessness is usually evident.
If only that were always the case in Caitlin Plays Herself! Especially in its first half, it is full of scenes that seem hopelessly digressive, introducing minor characters who never reappear, or subject matter that sheds light on nothing. The film promises to address the contradictions and difficulties of making political theater in the Obama era, but it turns out to have almost nothing to say about this. It’s far from devoid of subtext, such as Caitlin’s desire to get back to nature (which seems linked to her politics), but Swanberg’s storytelling methods are so haphazard that little of it really resonates.
Swanberg’s cinema picks up on one of the promises of the French New Wave: a kind of filmmaking akin to writing a diary. With The 400 Blows, François Truffaut filmed his difficult adolescence. With his trilogy of reflexive films, including Art History, Silver Bullets and Caitlin Plays Herself, Swanberg has created a public persona that seems to acknowledge the gossip some people have spread about him online. However, his self-portraits are rarely flattering. In Caitlin Plays Herself, his flightiness makes him emotionally – and often physically – unavailable for Caitlin.
How much of the real Swanberg exists in his cinematic alter egos? His use of fellow filmmakers as supporting actors and his tendency to work with the same collaborators repeatedly – here, co-cinematographer Adam Wingard, with whom he directed Autoerotic earlier in the year – suggests a network of friendship belied by the film’s often icy view of interpersonal relationships. All the same, they seem designed to provoke questions about Swanberg’s real life.
Much of Caitlin Plays Herself plays like the café-set first 90 minutes of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, except that neither Swanberg nor Stainken is as charismatic an actor as Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the drama that ultimately emerges offers nothing as compelling as Eustache’s devastating finale. Perhaps judging this film by the standards of conventional screenwriting or French films from the ‘60s and ‘70s is misguided; after all, Swanberg has said that he’s more influenced by YouTube clips than cinema from the past. At its best, his cinema suggests a hybrid between previous models and something genuinely new, specific to video and our fragmented technological communication. (Caitlin talks about reducing her anxiety by going off the grid.) While not nearly as accomplished as the films it evokes, Caitlin Plays Herself resists easy dismissal.<
Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He has also made 4 shorts, the most recent one being 2009’s SQUAWK. He writes for Gay city News, Fandor’s blog, the Nashville Scene, Film Comment, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, The Atlantic website and has written for many other publications.