I have a theory: Joe Swanberg is fucking with us.
I don’t mean that the 30-year-old filmmaker, having directed a dozen scrappy features more or less based on everyday existence in seven years and considered among the chief figures of the so-called “mumblecore” trend, has buried some kind of malicious agenda in his work. However, when the news came out that this week that Swanberg’s next feature would star Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick as well as Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston, anyone familiar with Swanberg’s existing oeuvre probably did a double-take. Something fails to compute.
It’s been clear for years that “mumblecore” was an illusory concept initially used (and publicized for the first time on this site) to describe a bunch of low-budget filmmakers, most of whom collaborated on each other’s projects and told listless stories about bored twentysomethings not unlike themselves. However, Swanberg benefited tremendously from the perception that his brand of microbudget filmmaking stood on its own as the epitome of the clichés that the “mumblecore” label implied. His slapdash camerawork, low-cost lighting, non-professional casts and frank sexuality underscored an apparent commitment to unvarnished portraits of young adulthood.
Whether exploring a dark breakup tale in “Nights and Weekends” or cheerily poking romantic confusion in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” Swanberg celebrated the smallness of his resources. His cameras introduced Greta Gerwig to the world before she transitioned to much larger projects, but even then, he seemed entirely comfortable in his niche. Or was he?
It certainly looked that way. Even when Swanberg worked with Noah Baumbach (a producer of “Alexander the Last”) or ventured into slightly new territory with an older character (Kent Osbourne’s slovenly 40-year-old bachelor in “Uncle Kent”), he regarded the world with the same casual tendency to reconfigure familiar dramas within the framework of a subjective milieu. The movies and the characters that lived through them were indistinguishable; when Swanberg himself starred, you knew you were watching the real guy.
In movies like “Art History” and “The Zone,” Swanberg played a self-obsessed filmmaker whose ego and attraction to cast members often corrupted the work at hand. The epitome of narcissistic filmmaking even when fascinating to watch, Swanberg’s existing movies provide a model that runs directly counter to commercial art. But maybe the movies themselves existed to provide the filmmaker with a subtle form of therapy (it’s a lot less costly than paying for out of the pocket care when you’re a broke director, that’s for sure).
As he cranked out a filmography with a rushed quality that suggested an erratic aesthetic, it’s reasonable to assume that he also needed to exorcise some demons before stepping us his game.”I want people to like me,” Swanberg told me last fall when he premiered “The Zone,” a movie that actually concluded with his real-life wife berating him for making the same movie again and again.
Swanberg’s newly announced “Drinking Buddies,” which news reports describe as another relationship-gone-awry story, may not take him in a radical new direction. However, with this kind of talent and exposure involved, nothing is certain. Name talent always invites compromises and raises expectations. (For similar reasons, I am incredibly curious about longtime microbudget cinematographer and director David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a crime drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, putting their faith in a filmmaker whose previous budgets couldn’t have covered the standard rate for craft services.)
These are not the conditions that the typically freewheeling Swanbergian production style can flourish under. Reports conflict, but one can assume that Swanberg’s shoots can get excessively intimate, sometimes awkwardly so. Perhaps he made those movies that way because he knew he could only get away with it for so long. As low-cost scribbles, they made sense, but if Swanberg got hired to direct a “Batman” reboot, he could not cast Kent Osbourne as a frumpy Bruce Wayne who lies around the batcave all day getting high.
Even while Swanberg’s style is easy to deride, it has unquestionably evolved on a number of fascinating levels. While I’m not a universal defender of his output along the lines of The New Yorker’s Richard Brody or Fandor’s Dave Hudson, I do find that by virtue of constantly pushing ahead, Swanberg’s projects show the mark of steady improvement. Around the time of “Alexander the Last,” his camera grew steadier and his moods more precise as the sense of a clearly defined arc came across over the course of the run time.
By making so many movies in such little time, Swanberg formed a focus group with his small but ever-expanding audiences that enabled him to make substantial adjustments and explore different ideas without slowing down. Instead of taking time to craft a refined vision, he delivered snapshots of identities and attitudes, taking advantage of a medium that allowed him the freedom to work cheaply and erratically without pausing to wait for validation before moving ahead.
A lot of audiences and critics paid close attention, deconstructing Swanberg’s juvenilia for his benefit. Wittingly or not, Swanberg’s viewers were his regular soundboard as he prepped for the next stage in his career. It’s impossible not to wonder if he quietly dreamed this would happen all along. The answer is likely buried in the movies: Working on a microbudget scale was quite possibly not a statement of freedom but rather a hidden cry for help. If so, it looks like the gamble paid off.