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Joe Swanberg

by Black Irish
“Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” – Don DeLillo, Falling Man Compared with contemporaries such as Bujalski and Katz, there is less mystery than analysis in his work. In their ability capture the inner state of his protagonists through an objective aesthetic, they become defined by the personalities of the individuals and more specifically the inherent dysfunction in their relationships as they either attempt to enter into or sustain them. As… Read more

“Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” – Don DeLillo, Falling Man

Compared with contemporaries such as Bujalski and Katz, there is less mystery than analysis in his work. In their ability capture the inner state of his protagonists through an objective aesthetic, they become defined by the personalities of the individuals and more specifically the inherent dysfunction in their relationships as they either attempt to enter into or sustain them. As they strive to do so, they wrestle with feelings of frustration, loneliness, confusion and enclosure. These are ironically juxtaposed with the use of technology, focus on careers and, infamously, moments of nudity or physical intimacy. Respectively, these show the wedge formed in personal relationships when the former two are given excessive attention, as well as the divorce of physical and emotional connection in contemporary culture. Either due to self-absorption of an inability to solve their own problems, they seem ‘blind’, unintentionally or not, to the concerns of others and thus making it difficult to connect with others emotionally. Despite the evolution of his style, the cinematography has consistently played a role in conveying these effects, not least due to the inherent starkness of the digital image. The earlier films are in a more handheld-style, often up-close, making the surroundings seem even more limited and devoid of an immediately recognizable context of ‘where’ in order to focus on the ‘what’. However, the more recent films employ longer takes, as well as still, medium-length shots. While it maintains the atmosphere of a chamber drama [due to the aforementioned limited locations and continued use of small casts,] now the sense of isolation is heightened through the empty space and there is a stillness at once both calm and unsettling. In either period, all elements take on greater meaning as they must be interpreted as though the audience were a passive participant. Another significant change between these periods are in the conclusions. In the earlier ones, there’s a greater sense of closure and a definitive end to the proceedings. Now, the resolutions are not so clear, the general sense of ambiguity remaining unbroken. Perhaps this can be attributed to a shift in perspective, as Swanberg has gotten older and started a family, which is more content with leaving the endings more open to the imaginations and experiences of the audience.

Film Comments:

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) – In his third feature, Swanberg abandons more overt experimentation with image and sound that defines his first two features in favor of working more with the internal dynamics of a closed group of people while also opening up the space by shooting in widescreen for the first time. Overall, the film, and thus Hannah’s experiences, are defined by a vague and playfully palindromesque structure through various repetetive moments and in it’s manoeuvering through three different relationships. For most of the film, her personality is given a childlike aloofness, emphasized, as mentioned in the commentary, by the use of bright colors, goofing around with toys and activities. It’s this youthfulness which makes it very easy for her to develop crushes on others, as she herself explains, yet also unable to judge who is truly suitable for her. Essentially, the film charts Hannah’s gradual development in realising what she wants to find in a partner, meaning a process of gradually opening up, a willingness to become more and more intimate with each succeeding partner. For me, this culminates in the most tenderly erotic scene, for whatever blithe nudity is depicted, when Hannah’s shoes are unlaced. [And no, that’s not a metaphor.]

Alexander the Last (2009) -

Most Anticipated:
- Silver Bullets (2011)
- All the Light in the Sky (2012)
- The Zone (2011)
- Art History (2011)
- Privacy Settings (2011)
- Autoerotic (2011)
- Young American Bodies (2006)
- Swedish Blueballs (2008)

And Now For Something Completely Different:

NOTE: More descriptions and films will be slowly added to the list in the future.

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