Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's new film, Nights and Weekends, might be the most purely 'anthropological' of all the Mumblecore fictions to date. If Andrew Bujalski's work thus far has been about the long hard road to self-knowledge, Swanberg's explore the unbridgeable gap between self and other. Swanberg's breakthrough feature LOL observes the dis-connections and falsehoods of electronic communication, and how they get in the way of the real connections that happen between people. His follow-up feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs, was the result of an intense collaboration with a cast of like-minded filmmakers, including star Greta Gerwig. Hannah - which was a huge leap forward for Swanberg and which I wrote about glowingly here - is one of essential "Mumblecore" films in part because it combines M-core's character-based realism with Swanberg's more structured narrative approach. Nights and Weekends continues Swanberg's relationship with his Hannah star Greta Gerwig; they share directing and writing credits as well as co-star.
In Nights and Weekends, Gerwig and Swanberg explore the depths of intimacy and its absence in a long-distance couple. Focusing on the decay of a single relationship over a long period of time, it's rare than anyone else appears onscreen. The film offers us intimate access to the emotions of these characters through a wider set of means than most films offer. As in Swanberg's previous work, physical intimacy is an important marker of a character's emotional state - the first scene of Night and Weekends consists of Mattie (Gerwig) and James (Swanberg) entering an apartment and struggling to strip off all of their winter clothing while making out on the kitchen floor. The physical process of their rush to nakedness tell us the essential bits of their history and their present. It's the kind of scene that defines one of Swanberg's chief concerns: the body as a site - and source - of emotion, the boundary between self and other as a hurdle to be surmounted. Mattie and James are more often emotionally naked than physically naked, though frequently these times overlap, since sex and desire are so frequently moments of vulnerability (in Nights and Weekends, elsewhere). This exploration of the interpersonal elements of desire is one element of the 'anthropological' aspect of Nights and Weekends.
One reason I admire the films lumped together as "Mumblecore" is this anthropological aspect. For all of their aesthetic differences, they tend to share an interest in vernacular realisms that share the realistic mannerisms and cadences of life as its lived by my peers, the privileged solipsism of young optimistic city-dwelling liberal-arts grads, and uncertainties about the tiny worlds in which they live. Nights and Weekends takes this same anthropological approach to an unsustainable relationship, studying the moments of interaction between a long-distance couple in intimate detail. This detail is presented with objectivity, though in the film's second half we align more closely with Mattie, whose emotional world we come closer to inhabiting. Gerwig and Swanberg's movie is dangerously honest about the territorial dynamics of relationships and the confusion we're left with when they end. What makes this film especially truthful in an anthropological sense is its openness to exploring states of action rather than inaction. If Mutual Appeciation or Quiet City is a dance based on fear, this film is a battle based on selfish desire and the inability of limerence to change into love. Like Hannah Takes the Stairs or Funny Ha Ha - or for that matter Woody Allen's Manhattan - Nights and Weekends ends on a moment of closure that marks the end of a phase in the life of its characters, and the first day of the rest of their lives.
Two notes on this essay: 1) I continue to use the term "Mumblecore" to describe these films and filmmakers because they do in fact share some aesthetic and technological approaches. They don't constitute a "movement" in any strict sense, and the name is silly, but it has stuck. 2) My interview about the film with co-star, co-writer, and co-director Greta Gerwig will appear at the Notebook in the near future.
Nights and Weekends opens at the IFC Center in New York, and on IFC On Demand, on October 10.