Maybe ‘Mumblecore King’ Joe Swanberg could be considered as one of the few real, independent auteurs. In any case, he takes liberty in portraying himself like that in his Full Moon Trilogy (Silver Bullets/Art History/The Zone, 2011). By studying the plots and styles of those films, it explains how Swanberg tries to make layered cinema that not only glorifies but also, even more so, criticizes himself as an artist.
Will the real auteur please stand up? A portrait of Joe Swanberg.
“Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.”
(Sarris, 1962: 562)
That definition would describe, according to Andrew Sarris in his Notes on [François Truffaut’s] Auteur Theory, the filmmaker as an auteur, an artist that transcends his personal vision into his films. Since 1962, that theory has been revised several times. A film like Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) for example could be considered having almost four auteurs behind it. Paul Schrader’s script needed the combination of Martin Scorsese’s directorial abilities, Robert De Niro’s wonderful performance and Bernard Hermann’s perfect mood-setting score to end up in such a masterpiece. Critics like Roland Barthes even proclaimed The Death of the Author (1967) and the birth of the reader.
With that in mind, the so-called auteurship of certain people can be questioned but also be an interesting and guiding thread throughout film history, if handled critically. A lot of those auteur filmmakers try to consecutively cooperate with a small group of people anyway, which causes an undeniable resemblance in aesthetic, style and substance of successive projects of that group. John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, Woody Allen and Sang-Soo Hong are a couple of examples that probably as well had a great influence on young mumblecore filmmakers. This chapter is an interpretation of the work of one of them, in particular that of Joe Swanberg who could be regarded as very close to being an auteur, for various reasons. The following part will explain his recurring style, content and method of filmmaking and how he literally expresses that to the fullest in his metafictional Full Moon Trilogy (2011).
The thirty-two year old filmmaker (born in 1981) could be considered as one of the ‘founders’ of mumblecore. Since his film debut, Kissing on the Mouth (2005), he has been very prolific. Besides having finished sixteen full feature films, of which six in the year 2011 alone, several shorts and a controversial web-series on ifc.com called Young American Bodies (2006), Swanberg appears as well as an actor in a bunch of other independent films. Mainly, he tries to contribute to the new American horror scene with friends Ti West and Adam Wingard as key players, who from their part, tend to show up in his movies as well.
Style and substance
As a big fan of Eric Rohmer and Paul Mazursky, Swanberg’s films feature naturalist dialogues between twentysomethings struggling with relationships, sex, intimacy and even filmmaking. To get that intimacy, he will zoom in really close on faces and body parts. The style and quality of image or camera movements and zoom-ins seem borrowed out of Lukas Moodysson’s classics Fucking Amål (1998) and Tilsammans (2000) or Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier’s Dogme ’95 films. Together with a kind of ‘youtube’ amateurism, it also harbours a kind of straight honesty. One of his and mumblecore’s most representative films is Nights and Weekends (2008). He co-wrote with rising star Greta Gerwig the story of a young couple, failing to connect when they reconvene after a year living apart. Their dialogues contain an emotional friction similar to that of Linklater’s Before… trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013) or even Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
Starting scenes with close-ups and never using establishing shots, the spectator gets thrown in the middle of the happening. The young director breaks with the usual narrative by never giving a proper introduction of his characters but by just letting them be. Without any clear narratological guiding lines, his characters can seem vague and abstract in the beginning. Actually, there is a getting to know them along the way, by following them in their daily lives. By exposing their recognizable, down to earth vulnerability, viewers can identify pretty fast with them. Swanberg does not include every conversation that is happening or shot according to the storyline, can be confusing. References to those ‘deleted’ scenes as it were, activate the viewer and expand the movie’s range. Everybody of the actors, including Joe himself, usually act out close versions of themselves, by which the spectator even more gets the feeling looking at deepened out performances.
Producing and distributing
Almost all films Swanberg directed, he also wrote, edited, cinematographed, produced and even acted in them. As a mumblecore artist, by lowering his budget to a minimum, he tends to keep in full control of his projects. While many independent filmmakers these days turn to crowdfunding services as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, big Hollywood names like Zach Braff, Spike Lee and the writing team behind series Veronica Mars also started to use those for their own directing projects. It can be discussed that this way they have total freedom and independence, working outside the studio system, but they also block the way for investors to reach those small filmmakers that do not have a name or access to Hollywood and money any way whatsoever.
Others like Swanberg himself just take on huge credit card debts, which they try to get rid of in the long run. In the past, the production costs of a film were the major obstacle of making a movie. Now, eventually, the main control shifted to the film festivals and even more to the film distributing companies that visit those to buy the theatrical rights of potential money-makers. All depends off course on the young artist if he or she wants a theatrical release for his film.
Options are Video On Demand or distributing online through streaming companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, all of them offering a percentage of the film’s profit or fifty percent of the money gained on advertising like Hulu. More independent, ideological domains like IFC, MUBI, Jaman, Babelgum, Fandor or Kentucker Audley’s Nobudge offer little to no money, just the chance to spread the work around the world to be seen. DVD is another possibility, wherein for instance putting on amazon is free of charge as long as they keep a percentage of the earnings. Another example is the distributing company Factory 25 that tries to be mumblecore’s ‘Criterion’.
With Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), Swanberg accomplished to get a theatrical release in the USA, spending more money than gaining from it. After, he put them on VOD to win some of the previous costs back. Learning from that, Alexander the Last (2009), he just released on VOD, which meant a higher profitability. Notwithstanding his pessimist vision about the medium of DVD, he released his Full Moon Trilogy (2011) in a limited collector’s DVD box called Joe Swanberg: Collected Films 2011, distributed by Factory 25. He claimed that if enough fans subscribed (a thousand exactly) to buying each year a 100 US Dollars priced package of his last year films, he would never have to worry again about production costs. Even though he published a free full feature movie named Marriage Material (2012) on Vimeo to promote the sale, there are still limited DVD boxes available. So probably it was not such a great success as he hoped.
In 2013, he released a film called Drinking Buddies with more known faces like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick, which still featured some of his friends as well. Cutting out all of his controversial and explicit trademarks, the film is a charming, ‘mumbly’ story about a couple of friends drinking beer and challenging the boundaries of interchangeable relationships. No wonder Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Mazursky, 1969) was his favourite movie at the time. Too bad, the film did recover only a bit more than the half of the original budget of 500.000 USD. Despite that fact, Magnolia Pictures still has faith and will distribute together with Paramount Pictures his upcoming Happy Christmas (2014), featuring Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham, mumblecore star, famous because of her series Girls (2012-). Swanberg will maybe have to adapt a Soderbergh kind of strategy, to alternately put out commercially and artfully projects, in a way that the profits of the first could hopefully reimburse the losses of the second.
On the contrary, as a matter of fact, in 2009 he told Weiss on the web show Filmfellas he was sure he wanted to keep doing little art films for himself on such a small-scale budget that, if they failed in making money back, they would not hurt him. He would never ‘lower’ himself to a genre like horror, which almost has a sure public. But after trying out a lot of distribution ways, he fell in a way, together with friends and other directors for ‘easy’ genres like detective or horror, which he is not a particular fan of. In an interview of 2012 with The Seventh Art (Heron), he said he finds the enthusiasm and loyalty of a horror audience at festivals fascinating and that art film lovers are cowards that need a validation of their favourite journalist film critic. Next to participating in films by Adam Wingard and Ti West, he also directed one of the parts of horror anthology V/H/S (2012). In 2013, he made the crime/detective story 24 Exposures, which is filled with postmodern, metafictional turns, the kind Joe Swanberg, loves to exploit.
Method of filmmaking
All in all, today, he still tries to make his films on a minimum budget, in a minimum period of time and with a minimum amount of crew and actors. In one month, he produced Happy Christmas (2014) with a crew of only five people and the same amount of actors. Usually he rents a house or apartment for a month where he and the rest of the crew reside for a month. That results in a chamber piece mood resembling old indie films as John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus 7 (1979) (appropriately restored by IFC Films in 2002), Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) and Edward Burns’ Sundance winner The Brothers Mcmullen.(1995). Those three highly influential films feature a group of lost, nostalgic thirtysomethings, delivering a sentiment not so far from that of mumblecore.
Like John Cassavetes, Swanberg’s crew and actors are friends of whom everyone films a bit, acts a bit and writes a bit. They all obtain credit in the end for what they did. A lot of the times with these kinds of productions, collaborators get into big fights about that. Examples are Cassavetes himself in producing Shadows (1959) and it more recently happened with Susan Buice and Aron Crumley with Four Eyed Monsters (2005). Each actor receives the space to improvise and search for inspiration out of real life experiences to bring real emotions into his or hers performance. They go as far as playing an exaggerated version of their own personality to a certain extent.
In addition, Swanberg directed a couple of films totally devoted to friends, for example Uncle Kent (2011) to Kent Osborne, Caitlin Plays Herself (2011) to Caitlin Stainken and All the Light in the Sky (2013) to Jane Adams. The women with whom he collaborates usually write their own scripts. Because Swanberg only writes about things he knows about, not only will his films have an apolitical tendency but they mostly feature young, white middle class Americans. After a day of filming, at night, Swanberg watches everything and edits at the same time. He articulates the whole process in his most personal collection of films up to date, his Full Moon Trilogy (2011).
A meta-cinematic portrait of the artist as an auteur. Case study: Full Moon Trilogy
“None of these films are fun; they’re my guts being spread out on screen.”
Joe Swanberg (2011)
In the 2010’s, at the turn of the decade, the times are changing. Some of the main mumblecore filmmakers tend to differentiate and break boundaries by taking on surrealism, for instance Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), or even a kind of metafiction, echoing French Cinéma Vérité of the sixties. A filmmaker, writing himself upon the big screen, like Fellini did in his famous Otto e Mezzo (1962), is nothing new and recently still explored by Iranian directors like Kiarostami and Americans like Kaufman & Jonze’s collaboration in films. The new independent filmmakers, by staying close to themselves in their films, tend to go the same way. Next to Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Susan Buice, Alex Karpovsky and Kentucker Audley already indulged themselves in narcissistic experiments of depicting themselves as true auteurs behind their movies.
In the following descriptions of every film out of the trilogy, Swanberg’s procedure of filmmaking will become clear because that is the main topic that the three films are about. At the same time as he is pretending to be an ultimate auteur, he directly criticizes himself with irony. His Full Moon Trilogy could almost be called a satire on his own life as a filmmaker. The first one, Silver Bullets (2011), deals with his view on choices a director has to make, from casting to what kind of film. With Ti West acting as his counterpart, there is a clash between art and entertainment in film. Secondly, Art History (2011) decomposes the naturalism in relationships he wants to achieve between actors and everything around that even make it more complex. The third part, The Zone (2011), climaxes as a film in a film in a film and again questions his objectives as a filmmaker. You could argue he is being hard on himself to be ahead of the critics.
The following part goes deeply in upon the semi-autobiographical plots of the three movies, which is important because they document Swanberg’s filmmaking experiences and give an extremely personal insight in the mind of a contemporary independent filmmaker. As quoted before, these films are almost literally “his guts being spread out on the screen”.
With Chekhov’s self-reflective The Seagull (1895) as a main influence, Silver Bullets deals with subjects as art, commerce, power and desire in cinema. Joe Swanberg places himself, as an art house director, opposite his friend Ti West who in the film and in real life tries to express himself as an artist through horror flicks. When Ethan (Joe’s role) finds out his girlfriend (Kate Lynn Sheil) accepted the leading role in one of Ben’s (Ti West) movies, one about werewolves to be specific, he feels cheated. Not only does he look down upon the entertainment industry, he is also so jealous that he casts her friend as his girlfriend in his next movie. Both directors eventually make out with their leading parts. More importantly, the spectator gets a look into the seemingly opposed minds of the two guys, at least Swanberg’s depiction of them. Not so different after all, they both have difficulties achieving their goals as artists.
Joe Swanberg discusses, next to his ironing girlfriend, his troubles of finding creative, refreshing new styles of filmmaking. Bothering about the fact that he never succeeds in recreating images as they are in his head, he mentions the complications of representing his daily life and conversations at home, with his girlfriend. Ti West talks about having to get through “layers of lies” to achieve some pretentious, artistic aims in film, he would not dare to share with anybody. At one of the most personal moments in the film, Joe Swanberg tells his leading lady, portrayed by Amy Seimetz, he does not care at all about making movies, about the fact they gain success by winning prizes or that they fail completely. The only reason he makes them is because he does not know what else to do, adding the fact he loves to meet new people with whom he can team up with. The discussion is reminiscent of the beginning of the film that quotes an interview with famous postmodern writer David Foster Wallace, who could not deal with success and fame and killed himself.
Expressing sex and the attached emotional feelings as an actor or actress can be extremely difficult. Two actors, Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker, give it a try by improvising and using real life experiences in their portrayals. Unscheduled, they begin having real feelings for each other, raising the question if these authentic emotions would guarantee better acting performances or maybe worse? In the meantime, Joe Swanberg, who plays the director, conducts the whole filmmaking process at the house they rented to shoot the scenes. The usual course of events linked to filmmaking unfolds, together with everything happening around that. In the end, these people have to live together with each other and the camera for a while which means some kind of intruding on each other’s personal life. Swanberg gets jealous again and by obstructing his actor’s love, he sabotages his own film. Their search for love gets challenged with some disappointing to very painful encounters. The whole makes one think about the ‘behind the scenes’ of such a film, the real and acted feelings.
“Was that the point, or is that just what happened?”
Kris Swanberg (The Zone, 2011)
At the start, the film shows the eye of the camera, anticipating its importance and resembling that of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). A story starting out a lot like Teorema (1968) of Pasolini turns into much more than that. An intruder, Kentucker Audley, enters the house where a couple, Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal, and a friend, Kate Lyn Sheil, live together. They seem to accept him and he ends up having sexual intercourse with all of them. After that happened, at around the thirtieth minute into The Zone, Swanberg’s typical low budget, symbolic, experimental but still constructed film ended, the screen goes black and somebody opens the curtain in the film. The confused spectator observes the whole cast and crew having finished watching the first version of a project they were working on. Immediately, before the viewer can form his, their criticisms get thrown around the room. For example they discuss which scenes Swanberg has to change, add, expand, etc.
The second part of the film explores Joe Swanberg’s influence on the actual actors, as they have to expose themselves in front of his camera, literally and figuratively. Eventually the couple takes their iphone and tries to shoot a couple of the extra needed intimate scenes on their own. More relaxed they shoot him sitting in a chair, with no clothes on. But after all, the images will end up in Swanberg’s Final Cut Pro. The director mentions the fact he has the power as it were to make and break human relationships. The couple pretend to be together in real life and when they try to have a threesome with their mutual female friend, actress Sophia Takal cannot bear it anymore and pushes her boyfriend away. After having a discussion about if it is worth it to bring their relationship into danger, the film about people making a film stops to move on to an epilogue with Joe Swanberg, his wife and child behind his laptop, just having watched the movie. Whereupon Kris Swanberg spawns her criticism:
“It’s just another movie where you’re complaining about making movies”
Modern arthouse cinema’s two of their main obsessions throughout the second half of the twentieth century were to achieve complete auteurship and perfect realism. Joe Swanberg tried to handle the problems, conflicts and influences an auteur has to face in this all-is-available age with excessive, eclectic supplies of culture. In his Full Moon Trilogy, he has tried to break with the concept but by making that effort, by pushing it away, he reassured it at the same time. He came out as a typical authentic artist who gets misunderstood constantly.
Despite having much in common with previous movements as regards to the search for ultimate auteurship and realism, the only difference is the digital one. Filmmaking has become accessible to anyone. Off course, a lot of bad films will be made, but clearly also much more good ones, and hopefully, they will be available somehow, through the mazes of expensive overexposed, commercial marketing. Everyone can make films today, everybody at every time, at every place. Only not many realize this yet, what possibilities they have. People have a too clear sense about what a film has to be. If we can just break it all open and follow Taiwanese filmmaker Ming-Liang Tsai for example. He does not like Hollywood because their films are like books of which they turn the pages for you. He thinks acting and plotlines have nothing to do with cinema, they are just rules imposed by film schools to make movies a profitable business.
Highly interesting Joe Swanberg interview by The Seventh Art (2012).