Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sexual Politics: The Occasionally Autobiographical And Always Personal Films Of Joe Swanberg

The 2013 San Francisco Independent Film Festival's closing night film was Joe Swanberg's All the Light in the Sky.  The next day, the Roxie kicked off a three day, 12 film retrospective of Swanberg's work.  I was able to see four of the 12 films in the series.  I was impressed by all of to varying degrees.

Uncle Kent starring Kent Osborne, Josephine Decker & Jennifer Prediger; directed by Joe Swanberg; (2011)
All the Light in the Sky starring Jane Adams, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden & Sophia Takal;  directed by Joe Swanberg; (2012)
Hannah Takes the Stairs starring Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Kent Osborne & Andrew Bujalski; directed by Joe Swanberg; (2007) - Official Website
Nights and Weekends starring and co-directed by Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig; (2008) - Official Website

Swanberg was present at all the screenings.  Kent Osborne was also in attendance for his films.  Jane Adams showed up after All the Light in the Sky.

Last year, I enjoyed How to Cheat at Cinequest.  Kent Osborne starred in that film.  His character cheated on his wife with a woman who lived in a house that was memorable.  She had a nice view of the LA skyline and used stairs to access her door.  One year later, I can still remember the house.  In Uncle Kent, Kent Osborne lived in that house.  I'm surprised I remembered that.

In Uncle Kent, which I suspect to be partially autobiographical, Kent Osborne play Kent.  In real life, Kent Osborne is an animator/cartoonist (he worked on SpongeBob SquarePants) and co-wrote the screenplay for Uncle Kent.  In the film, Kent is an animator on a television show.  He has just turned 40 and has planned a weekend with a bisexual woman he met on Chatroulette.  I'm not too hip on the internet so I had never heard of that site but subsequent research and conversations lead me to believe there is a negative connotation associated with that website.

Kate (Jennifer Prediger) seems like a nice enough woman and there seems to be chemistry between Kate & Kent but there is also an awkwardness.  Both Kate and Kent have their shortcomings; Kate has a boyfriend and Kent snoops on Kate's digital photos.  Unable or unwilling to consummate their relationship by traditional means, the pair hatch a plan to have a threesome and quickly enlist Josephine Decker (I don't think her character's name was mentioned).  In a memorable sequence, Decker serves as the proxy or intermediary between Kent and Kate.  After the deed is done, the awkwardness is only worse between Kate & Kent.

Much of the film's "message" is unspoken and I was impressed by how effectively Osborne & Swanberg were able to communicate Kent's inner dialogue.  The characters Osborne played Uncle Kent and How to Cheat are very similar.

Uncle Kent was paired as a double bill with All the Light in the Sky.  I can see why.  In both films, the protagonist deals with his or her sexuality as they confront their age.  In All the Light in the Sky, Jane Adams plays Marie, a 40something actress who is starting to feel old.  With a beachfront house and paddleboard, she lives an idyllic life.  The arrival of her niece (Sophia Takal) seems to stir something inside Marie.  The presence of the younger woman is an actress who reminds Marie of her younger days.  She also appears to make Marie aware of her own loneliness.  I say "appears" because like all of the Swanberg's films I've seen, characters don't explicitly state their condition.

Marie begins exploring possibilities with various men - Kent Osborne shows up as a handyman/nice guy, Marie's long-time friend & neighbor (Larry Fessenden) has an awkward dinner moment and there are one or two men whom Marie interacts with during research for a role (or was it looking for a second career?).  There is never a great passionate moment for Marie.  Her niece's departure has the superficial effect of calming her as she resumes her surfboard paddling as the film closes.

All the Light in the Sky is a more subtle film than Uncle Kent.  There is no ménage à trois denouement.  As Marie paddles into the sunset, the audience is left to ponder the outcome.  She seemed satisfied when the film began, an externality in the form of her niece perturbs her and by the end of the film, she is back in a closed-loop state with all oscillations dampened out.  Excuse the systems engineering lingo.  This is far from a criticism.  I thought the entire was beautifully contemplative and understated.

In fact, I wondered why the 31 year old Swanberg would be so interested in the concerns of a fictitious 40something actress given the title of the retrospective program.  Then I saw that Adams co-wrote the screenplay for All the Light in the Sky.  I had my Eureka! moment.  Swanberg was bringing to screen the autobiographical aspects of Osborne and Adams screenplays.  Compared to the other two films I saw, I think Swanberg would do well to collaborate more often.


Hannah Takes the Stairs stars Greta Gerwig as a young woman bouncing between men.  Her first boyfriend is Mark Duplass who quits his job and bum about.  When that puts a strain on the relationship, he ends it without much objection from Greta.  She then hooks up with co-worker Andrew Bujalski who is kind of weird.  Finally, she tosses him over for another co-worker, Kent Osborne.  Along the way, there are some humorous moments.  The finale feature Osborne & Gerwig sharing a bathtub while wearing swimsuits and playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture on trumpets which is not the first scene she shares the bathtub during the film.  The quirky film gives Gerwig room to spread her wings and she gives an appealing and realistic performance as a young woman, unsure of how to proceed in her post-college life.

Nights and Weekends features Swanberg and Gerwig in a long distance relationship.  The first half features the passion but eventual breakup of the couple.  The second half, much more interesting in my opinion, takes place a year or so after the breakup.  Swanberg is in town for a business trip and sees if Gerwig wants to meet for dinner or to hang out while he is in town.  This puts Gerwig in a conflicted state.  She is at a low point in her life and a reconciliation sounds appealing but she is not sure.  Gerwig shines in this portion of the film.  This leads to a remarkable scene.  Swanberg is getting professionally photographed for his job and the photograph assume Gerwig is his girlfriend and ask them to post together in front of the camera.  Gerwig & Swanberg non-verbally convey, to the audience, the awkwardness of the situation as the photographer blithely shoots away.  The finale is an equally remarkable scene where the two attempt to have sex but neither is really eager for and it fizzles their relationship.  If Hannah Takes the Stairs is a quirky comedy, Nights and Weekends is a cold postmortem of a doomed relationship.


I would have liked to have seen more of Swanberg's films but several of them had late start times.  On Friday (February 22), Caitlin Plays Herself was scheduled to start at 10 PM and be followed by Marriage Material.  On February 24 when I saw Uncle Kent and All the Light in the Sky, they were running behind schedule.  I had planned to see Autoerotic at 9:30 PM and possibly The Zone after it but called it quits after All the Light in the Sky.

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