Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: Joe Swanberg's "Art History"

Art History. 2011. Produced, directed and edited by Joe Swanberg. Written by Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Kent Osborne, Adam Wingard, and Kris Swanberg. Photographed by Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg.

Cast: Josephine Decker (Juliette), Joe Swanberg (Sam), Kent Osborne (Eric), Adam Wingard (Bill), Kris Swanberg (Hillary).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

The filming of a sex scene proves to be no simple process (if indeed it ever is) in Joe Swanberg’s Art History, a complex and unsettling examination of the creative process and the materials involved, both human and mechanical, in the making of art, as well as the psychological pressures that go along with it.  Film director Sam (Swanberg) is shooting a sex scene that presumably occurs during a couple’s one night stand.  The film opens both in medias res and in flagrante delicto, with a very explicit depiction of the characters having sex, with full frontal nudity by both participants.  We immediately know that this is not “real,” as we hear Sam’s off-screen instructions to his actors during the scene.  The film within the film has a very different visual style than the one that surrounds it; the film Sam is making is rough-hewn and handheld, not unlike the real Swanberg’s early films.  Art History itself takes the opposite stylistic tack, shot almost entirely with long, static takes, and much more meticulously framed and composed, with many scenes resembling iris shots, the image in the center surrounded by a ring of darkness.  There are a couple of shots that are strikingly lovely, especially one of a shimmering pool with patterns of sunlight that wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film.

Art History invites us to read it as a self-critique of the film director, or as the title indicates, the creative artist generally, as a sort of vampire who preys on the intimate details of those who are used as the objects of this art.  Swanberg himself says as much in his director’s statement, where he writes: “This film is an apology to anyone I have hurt because of the way I work or because of my own emotional recklessness. As the title suggests, I hope all of these instances are in the past.”  The atmosphere of Art History is hermetic and claustrophobic; the film takes place entirely in the single location of the house where the film within the film is being made.  The only acknowledgement of a world outside the film set is the sound of an airplane that intrudes at one point on the scene. 

Juliette (Josephine Decker) and Eric (Kent Osborne), the actors in the scene, are told by Sam to improvise their dialog, during which they reveal details of their personal relationships during their sex scene.  Sam is mostly unconcerned with the specific details of this dialog, concentrating instead on the technical details of lighting, sound, and the physical actions of his two actors.  The intimacy of the scene bleeds into the “real life” outside the film, as Juliette and Eric explore their real attraction to one another, having actual sex off camera during the shoot.  A simultaneously humorous and disturbing moment occurs when Sam turns his attention from checking footage he has shot to peer in on Juliette and Eric as they have sex.  The film shoot runs into a major complication when it becomes clear that Sam and Juliette seem to have some sort of an off-camera relationship as well, forming an inchoate and somewhat confusing love triangle.  This sex act seems to upset the delicate balance of the shoot, as Sam’s jealousy of Juliette and Eric’s relationship gradually becomes more apparent.

Swanberg has come a long way artistically from earlier films such as Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs; as interesting as those films were, one still got the sense that Swanberg was working out his stylistics, and that framing and composition were very much secondary concerns.  However, Swanberg right now is in the midst of a creatively fecund and boldly experimental phase of his career, and has been incredibly prolific in the past year.  Swanberg premiered three films at two major festivals within a month of each other this year: Uncle Kent at Sundance, and Art History and Silver Bullets at Berlin.  Another film, Autoerotic (co-directed with Adam Wingard), recently opened in New York, and two more films are set to be released later this year.  Art History so far is the only one of these films I’ve been able to see, but if this is any indication of the quality of his other recent work, I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing the rest of them.

Art History is now playing at the reRun Gastropub Theater through September 29.  For screening times and to purchase tickets, visit reRun’s website. The film is also included as part of film distributor Factory 25’s box set “Joe Swanberg: Collected Films 2011,” a limited-edition subscription in which buyers will receive four films over the course of a year: Silver Bullets, Art History, and the upcoming films The Zone and Privacy Setting.  This release includes bonus materials for each film, including vinyl soundtracks and set photography booklets.  For more information, and to order the set, visit Factory 25’s website.

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