Up-close and far away: Joe Swanberg and New American Cinema
Leonidas Liambey - 12/12/2007
Up-close, far away and (the lack of) terrorism: Joe Swanberg and New American Cinema
Inside the John Cassavetes’ auditorium, in the windowless cinema, two young American filmmakers are holding a masterclass on ‘Do It Yourself Cinema.’ Ry Russo Young and Joe Swanberg are both twenty-six years old and their films are part of what has been called ‘mumblecore’. In fact, they deny being part of a movement; as the more voluble Swanberg put it, “It just happens that we were all working in a similar way. We were a group of directors who make really low-budget films sometimes using digital means and using our friends and improvisation. In 2005, we accidentally ran into each other at a festival and realized that we have the same perception of cinema.” Filmed on video with actors, plot and extras drawn from the filmmaker’s immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, the works avoid drama and action to focus on people and relationships.
, uses close shots, naturalistic (if self-conscious) dialogue and sound (the noise of junk food being eaten, to choose an excruciating example) to force the viewer into uncomfortable intimacy with the protagonists. This is magnified by the hand-held camera work and framing that brings you up close – way too close, in fact, to idealise who or what you are seeing. This is not big issue political and social filmmaking, instead it focuses on what the director knows: his life and his friends. “Generally, I am interested in human characters and not cinematic movements. I try to reproduce reality and not to create a fake one. I don’t want to use cinema as a podium to express my beliefs about things I know nothing about, as I know how fake that can be. A film shouldn’t be a platform for the director’s ideology or beliefs.”
There are some parallels with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan who Babelmed interviewed at last year’s festival. His works also focus on the private, using a small cast of friends and family and his last film Iklimer , was shot on high definition video. There however, the similarities end. Ceylan’s close-ups don’t seem to bring one any closer; instead he turns faces into landscapes that remain mysterious and distant, rather like a fractal pattern that opens up more layers of complexity the closer it is examined. The older heroes of Ceylan’s films were once political or had dreams of making great art, even if they no longer do. Swanbergs protagonists are, like the director himself, still young, but they don’t seem to have the same idealism. Nice, self-absorbed and insecure, they seemed trapped in world where very little happens. The film’s narrative then, hinges less on plot points than on the moments when relationships change, often imperceptibly at the time, but with consequences that alter their lives later on.
Swanberg’s close ups are less rigorous and investigative than Ceylan’s: they show the shine and blemish of surface, and bring out the allure as well as the bad finish and cheap materials of everyday life for post-college Americans. Unlike Ceylan, however, there doesn’t seem to be a point (or shot), which fixes this world within something bigger: it is a closed self-referential system. Later the next day I caught up with Joe Swanberg and asked him whether his films criticised this narcissism they depict.
Joe Swanberg: I think that my critical attitude towards everything comes through my films, but I love these characters. I'm not criticising them in a way that I'm separating myself from them. I'm criticising them and myself too.
Leonidas Liambey : But is there some level of disgust? You seem to get too close to the trash and the food that gets between people. Is that in a sense, social criticism?
Joe Swanberg : Yes, definitely. I have a lot of issues with my generation. I mean I'm happy to be part of it and I'm not a nostalgic person who wishes he was born in some other time or something, but we are just such a narcissistic generation. Like Myspace and Facebook and all these things: really we spend all day looking at ourselves and it's kind of gross. It’s worth criticizing, I think. By making these films just like a Myspace page -full of too much information and details that nobody needs to know, I think I'm mirroring it. I think there's criticism of that mindset there: of just being into yourself. It's really gross, but if we don't comment on it, how's it going to change or how are people going to think critically about that narcissism? Making narcissistic work staring myself is critical but at the same time, it IS it!
As director of photography in your films, what do you look for?
Faces are the things that ultimately interest me the most. I think that's because I'm getting the most connection from faces. In all the projects I shoot, I keep moving in closer and closer. I think my ideal shooting position would be to be like a mile away with a super telephoto lens shooting an extreme close-up. I'm like distancing myself as much as possible and getting up as close as possible. It's like a weird thing that I want to be far away but so close that it's uncomfortable. I don’t know where it comes from: I think its probably a little bit of a disgust thing: I want to run in the other direction and be repelled by it, but also I'm still fascinated by it and I want to get as close to it as I possibly can.
How do you see your films developing?
JS: I think that as my generation changes, my attitude towards the films will change too. I’m starting to incorporate older and younger people [into my films] because really part of the whole purpose of the work I’ve been making up to now is to not include anyone outside this specific age range and really focus in. I think formally I'm loosening up too and getting more interested in longer takes and bringing some aesthetic changes into the work. Moving away from these super close-ups and letting the scene unfold from wider shots.
I was thinking that with the action so fully removed from your films’ there is a noticeable claustrophobia to this world. To a certain extent, any external changes will be a violent shock, terrorism in a sense. Have you thought of using such violent shocks in your narratives?
I'm not interested in it. Really, I'm attempting to strip away as much drama as possible from these movies and any kind of outside factors suddenly coming into these movies really doesn't seem like it would ever appeal to me. But of course, I say that that will probably be the next film I make.
After the terrorist attacks in the US (911), there is perhaps a way in which you can’t ignore the outside world, in that ‘reality’ could arrive uninvited anytime?
It didn't affect me in that way, my reaction to it was really to be shocked… It really did come out of nowhere but it hasn't informed my work in that way. I don’t expect it to happen again in a way that makes me live in fear of this new sudden moment.
Ry Russo Young’s film Orphans was part of the International Competition of the 48th Thessaloniki Film Festival. Telling the story of two estranged sisters in their early twenties it follows their difficult attempts to reform their relationship. As Young said, “I was looking to make a film with strong female characters,” and the film is much more controlled and closer to traditional filmmaking aesthetics, despite its low budget.
Joe Swanberg has directed three low budget movies and his web series Young American Bodies is in its third series.