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Joe Swanberg's "Caitlin Plays Herself"

Once again, Joe Swanberg splits the critics.
The Daily

The clip comes via Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay: "Continuing an extraordinarily prolific phase that has also encompassed his year-long subscription service, Joe Swanberg premieres his latest film, Caitlin Plays Herself, tonight at Brooklyn's reRun theater. His new star is Caitlin Stainken, a member of the Neo-Futurists Theater Ensemble." As always with Joe Swanberg's films, reviews fall on either side of a pretty wide split.

"Co-written by Swanberg and Caitlin Stainken, the movie is a sad, simple, and effective glance at a relationship that, more substantially, explores the blurred distinctions between life and art," writes Henry Stewart in the L. "A lot of the movie's 70 minutes are filled what the title implies: Jeanne Dielman-lite snippets of eating a banana, reading a magazine, rotating compost, writing, rehearsing conceptual theater pieces…. Swanberg, who shares cinematography credit with sometimes-collaborator Adam Wingard, shoots in long takes, never editing within scenes, a realism-enhancing technique that also underscores the static condition of Caitlin's existence."

Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "One must conclude that Swanberg — on-hand to play quarterlife depressive playwright Caitlin's absentee filmmaker lover, and giving another performance with the personality of moist bread — must be an obsessive of some sort to keep cranking along, film after film, in precisely the same willfully unengaged style, but rarely has a personal passion so lamely translated into work. Caitlin is a series of presumably improv-based scenes involving its subject's rehearsals, her extracurricular dates when her steady is out-of-town — the sort of banal conversations that you try to block out at a restaurant — and the sexual jealousy and just-beneath-the-surface tension that prevails when he comes back."

"Their tensions are kept mainly below the surface of Swanberg's long, contemplative, and evocatively composed shots, which tease strident contrasts from casual settings," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "The frustrations of the couple's personal disconnections arise from their creative differences, suggesting an allegory of the mutual dependence — and incompatibility — of theatre and cinema, of the symbolic and the documentary, of the created and the found. Much of the drama emerges through the interstices of the tensely unfolding scenes of emotional writhing and indecision; the 69-minute sketchbook implies a novelistic amplitude of experience."

Ronnie Scheib in Variety: "Swanberg's newfound interest in aesthetic formalism forces the humans in his compositions to vie for dominance against, say, an enormous wind-tossed willow tree or an abstract painting in the dead center of the frame; overall effect is to isolate the human figures in limbos of their own making. Caitlin marks Swanberg's sixth feature this year (with Uncle Kent and Autoerotic joining [Art History, Silver Bullets and The Zone]). Apparently the filmmaker's answer to creative doldrums is increased productivity."

Update: "Swanberg has improved greatly as a visual stylist since early films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends," writes Steve Erickson at Press Play. "At this point, he rarely moves the camera or uses close-ups. His feel for the expressive potential of digital video has increased, as he gets a particularly uncanny glow from onscreen lights. He's left shakycam clichés associated with the mumblecore movement far behind…. Much of Caitlin Plays Herself plays like the café-set first 90 minutes of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, except that neither Swanberg nor Stainken is as charismatic an actor as Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the drama that ultimately emerges offers nothing as compelling as Eustache's devastating finale. Perhaps judging this film by the standards of conventional screenwriting or French films from the 60s and 70s is misguided; after all, Swanberg has said that he's more influenced by YouTube clips than cinema from the past. At its best, his cinema suggests a hybrid between previous models and something genuinely new,  specific to video and our fragmented technological communication. (Caitlin talks about reducing her anxiety by going off the grid.) While not nearly as accomplished as the films it evokes, Caitlin Plays Herself resists easy dismissal."

Update, 12/8: "[N]ow that he has locked down his typically hand-held camera, it's amazing to see just how little compositional sense he has absorbed," finds Paul Brunick, writing in the New York Times. "In this film Mr Swanberg is something of a foil for the affable but undefined Ms Stainken: the warm body she keeps falling back into bed with, to diminishing returns. Why would she return for more of this guy's thin gruel? the film asks. Why do we?"

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I wonder sometimes how our children will view mumblecore. Will Swanberg and Co. be lauded as the French New Wave of this era, or will they be dismissed as pathetic narcissists the way many see them now?

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