Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On the Joe Swanberg bandwagon

In 2005, the sxsw film fest was a lot of fun. We'd just moved to Austin that August. Cavite, a fantastic inventive film, was having it's world premiere with the support of John's UT Advanced Producing class. There were a ton of great docs: Murderball, The Aristocrats, Be Here to Love Me. Troop 1500, Enron, The Devil & Daniel Johnston, You're Gonna Miss Me, Fearless Freaks, Highway Courtesans, Cowboy Del Amor, Our Brand is Crisis - to name just a few. And of course we were excited about the Paramount screening for the one we were involved with, about our year away showing free movies in Fiji. It was a great time of feeling our way as new locals, and enjoying all our friends from around the world.

One of our friends who came to the festival that year was Lizzy Donius. Filmmaking partner (and frequent Split Screen contributor) with photographer Amy Elliott, she'd recently taken over as executive director of IFP Chicago. Always ebulliant, she introduced me to one of her hometown favorites, director Joe Swanberg and his team, there with his first feature Kissing on the Mouth. I missed the screening, but enjoyed meeting him repeatedly. There was a lot of banter about the nudity in his film - and my very clear discomfort with that. Not on moral grounds, I was just born self conscious. I don't like being naked, and I don't necessarily like seeing others that way. But we chatted and laughed and he promised to send me a dvd. I remember there was talk about several of the other low budget indie features, Four Eyed Monsters, Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair, High School Record. The only two I caught were The Puffy Chair and High School Record. Puffy Chair, funny and accomplished, was clearly a favorite of all the males I ran into, young and old, film savvy or not. I personally went crazy for Ben Wolfinsohn's High School Record - really digging the offbeat humour.

Shortly after the festival Joe sent me Kissing on the Mouth. I watched, dreading my response. But I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't really care if he was jacking off in the shower. I got the naturalism of the nudity and the sex, I undersood that the film was more about how people were relating than forcing shock or eroticism. Clearly he needed to work on his narrative, but there was something there. Some fundamental connection. We had a great time following up on the phone. I appreciated where he was coming from. I supported his making these micro budget films as his own form of film school. I wished him well.

Sxsw 2006 and it was great to see Joe and his gang again. This time he was premiering LOL which actually ended up my favorite film of the festival. Yes it was funky and pieced together, but it employed some of the sharpest social observations that I'd seen in ages. I loved it! Joe was just relieved that many of us applauded his filmmaking progress from Kissing on the Mouth.

In fall 2006, Joe showed up in Austin with a fine cut of Hannah Takes the Stairs to share with a few friends . I'd been pretty oblivious to the hype during it's making. I wasn't familar with everyone in the cast, though I had, by this point, caught up with Andrew Bujalski's two features. I loved the film. It's quiet. And small in scope. It's still slight on narrative arc, but nonetheless is a beautiful window into a kind of human gamesmanship or romantic merry-go-round. There was humour and pain, and though subtle, the performances were by and large tremendous. I was thrilled for Joe - thrilled at his filmmaking progress.

The feature debuted during sxsw 2007 in a sold out, one show only, premiere screening at Austin's glorious restored movie palace, the Paramount. It was exciting and triumphant, sxsw celebrating the return and growth of one of its discoveries. As one of the peons on the screening committee, I was proud to write the catalog copy*. And now the film is opening tonight in NYC at the IFC Center, with VOD availability via IFC Films First Take. There's been a ton of press and blogger chatter. Much of it centering around the concept of Mumblecore, a term I don't use nor subscribe to. But attention's attention, and I am hoping that some of it will translate into real bodies, in real seats, (and VOD orders), for this sweet heartbreaking film. It's small, it's precious. It's the work of one guy who surrounded himself with a bunch of other talented filmmakers and artists to make a little film.

Highly recommended.

*this is what I wrote for the sxsw 2007 catalog entry:
Joe Swanberg burst out of the pack at sxsw 2005 and 2006, with Kissing on the Mouth and LOL. Made on the cheap, improvisational, pared down to the bone, both films delighted with their naturalism, humor, sharp social observations and frank nudity.

His third feature in three years, Hannah Takes the Stairs, is significantly more accomplished. It tracks Hannah, an attractive young playwright as she moves through the men in her orbit. First one guy, then another, then another. There’s communion, waning attention, flirtation, new excitement and heartbreak. The film is merciless as it tracks the minutia of her short romantic attention span. We laugh. We squirm. We watch the human drama unfold. Again, the sly, nuanced social observations are dead on.

Not that Joe is taking all the credit. He’s working off a wilder conceptual premise. The film’s title card reads: a film by Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Ry-Russo-Young, Mark Duplass, Todd Rohal, and Kevin Bewersdorf. Familiar sounding? Bujalski is the heralded writer/director/star of Funny Haha and Mutual Appreciation. Mark Duplass shares the same tri-credit on The Puffy Chair. Both actors have gained an eager following for their personal, comedic, observational, improvisational work. Kent Osborne is a comedy writer who’s received Emmys for his work on Sponge bob Square pants. Russo-Young’s directed the sxsw 2007 premiere, Orphans. Kevin Bewersdorf’s compositions are key in LOL. It’s an inventive premise, casting well known creatives in a kind of filmmaking commune. And it works! The neophyte acting crew delivers. Duplass, Buljalski, and Osborne are particularly charismatic, with lead Greta Gerwig, magnetic at the center. The exciting evolution of Swanberg’s filmmaking talent continues.

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