Lost in the Movies: Nights and Weekends

Nights and Weekends

For more background on mumblecore – a no-budget “movement” of young filmmakers, which has been building buzz through the 00′s – read my review of LOL, my follow-up on Funny Ha Ha and then the comments section for Funny Ha Ha, particularly this.

Nights and Weekends, 2008, dir. Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg, released on DVD Aug. 25, 2009

Most of the conversations in Nights and Weekends have a random feel, but one in particular is random with a purpose. Mattie (Greta Gerwig) is returning from a photo shoot with James (Joe Swanberg), her long-distance still-sorta boyfriend. At the shoot, the photographer coaxed the couple into playing cute for the camera, cooing “That’s adorable,” when an embarrassed Mattie cringed or looked at James with uncertainty. Sure enough, her snapshots transform the awkward into the semi-iconic and when the two look at them later on a computer screen, it’s almost enough to convince them they’re a real couple (they start making out, in the most genuinely sensual moment of the film, after viewing the uncomfortable kiss captured on camera hours earlier). “They’re like present us,” James tells Mattie before leaning in for the kiss, “only acting out past us.” Cue future us.

But that's not the conversation I had in mind. The purposefully random dialogue arrives earlier, when Mattie and James are just entering the room, discussing embarrassing dances of adolescent past. Mattie begins to eagerly relate an anecdote to James, describing her off-kilter dance with a boy named Matteo years ago: "We were...our rhythms were off, like, I was swinging this way but he was swinging the other way, so our knees kept knocking...it was just all wrong, and then, um, and then..." She can't finish the story, and when an amused James prompts her, all she can offer is, "I guess the end of the story is I still feel embarrassed when I think about it. We danced a whole song with the rhythm off. Anyway, I should go wash my face or something." And so she does.

It's obvious on a rather elementary level that Mattie and Matteo's dance bears more than a passing resemblance to the romantic misfires of Mattie and James' dying relationship. Yet there's a further parallel to be observed here. I should note here that it feels strange to write "Mattie" and "James" when the characters' names are seldom spoken, and those familiar with the other no-budget relationship films of Swanberg, Gerwig, and their mumblecore cohorts - not to mention their penchant for improvisatory overlaps between reality and performance - will more likely think of "Joe" or "Greta" when watching the movie. Hence, the most striking metaphor for that dance is not the tense and awkward relationship of the fictional characters, but rather the genuinely weird and often ineffective arrhythmic work of the actors themselves.

Which is to say that as Gerwig and Swanberg attempt not only to portray lovers struggling with the effects of distance and time on their relationship, but also to chart said relationship as co-writers and co-directors, their knees keep knocking. Much of the time, the combination just doesn't work. It's hard to say why, exactly; Gerwig made sparks with all three of her male co-stars in Hannah Takes the Stairs, which Swanberg directed, and Swanberg himself (despite an unwelcome penchant for dick-displaying and a smugness which repels many critics, like Glenn Kenny) has a charismatic on-screen presence. Yet the two of them together never really convince as boyfriend and girlfriend, even in the early scenes when their dissolution is still supposed to be over the horizon. We can see why they're drifting apart, all right, but not what brought them together in the first place: yes, the film is about the struggles of a relationship, but I never believed in the characters as a couple, except as a couple of actors/filmmakers who wanted to work together.

Both Swanberg and Gerwig are intelligent actors and filmmakers, and as they appear to have shot in sequence, they must have noticed this awkwardness and decided to make it their subject. The awkwardness probably has its root in the way their personalities are manifested on camera. Joe has a smirking passivity which easily shades over into passive aggressiveness; his features display an interesting interplay between soulful unease and smug confidence (a tension which he openly describes, albeit "in character," within the movie). Greta exhibits an extroverted, self-conscious playfulness. With her big moody eyes, jagged hair, and simultaneously pouting and smiling lips she gives the impression of an especially adorable Muppet. Ultimately, Joe's passive-aggressiveness is perhaps best served when he's on the opposite end of the camera from Greta, while her flightiness is more charming when bouncing off a more rooted partner.

And so these two distinctive presences continually rub each other the wrong way. Greta wants to play under a spherical structure while Joe stands to the side with his umbrella, trying to act bemused (he's most honest - hence satisfying - when his benevolent facade falls away and he acts like a jerk, dancing sarcastically to mock Greta's twee enthusiasm). Joe eats a banana and Greta tries to pass off her disgust as playful, when in fact there is something rather repellent about the spectacle. A million conversations wander off into pseudo-"deep" dissertations, the navel-gazing but slight cover for the fact that these characters have nothing to say to each other. Occasionally, after one of these exchanges, Greta will politely ask Joe to leave the room and then begin to sob, or else silently scream at her mirror before dissolving into frustrated laughter. Eventually, the two achieve a convincing intimacy (not in the first scene, in which their instantaneous stripping and coupling seems forced, the camera uncomfortably distanced from the action). Yet even in this "climax" their excited foreplay gives way to an argument over who's to give pleasure to whom first and in what fashion; even sex falls prey to their arrhythmic unease.

Nights and Weekends is, as its pleasingly poetic title may suggest (compare to Kissing on the Mouth or Hannah Takes the Stairs), Swanberg's best-looking feature to date - though I have not seen his latest, Alexander the Last. One of the cinematographers, Matthias Grunsky, worked on Andrew Bujalski's masterful mumblecore films Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation (the best of the bunch); for the first time, Swanberg's video takes on a luminous quality. This is the clearest and cleanest Swanberg yet, the most visually disciplined, but its structure still seems erratic and lurching compared to Bujalski's supremely focused work. Whereas Bujalski finds an emotional core and bounces off of it for two hours, Swanberg tends to wander and occasionally get lost in the thickets of self-indulgent improv. Gerwig, directing for the first time, only reinforces these tendencies, and the more leeway Swanberg gives her (albeit within his own identifiable approach, which may be the problem), the flimsier the film feels.

Swanberg's is a cinema of evasion and obscuration, often purposefully so (he titled an early film LOL, which is a harsher, more coldly technological variation of Bujalski's sensitive and uneasy Funny Ha Ha). This makes for compelling viewing, and often conveys an intriguing current of feeling beneath the surface, somehow prevented from ever coming up for air. However, it is also inherently less satisfying than the work of a filmmaker who allows emotions to be exposed, head-on, or who runs those submerged currents closer to the surface, so that we can almost see them pulsing behind those bare walls, beneath those tentative faces.

Swanberg's films could actually benefit from a centralizing conceit or stylistic motif; perhaps if all the action took place in a single space, or at least if all settings were interior, the work would become more assured and intense. (By the way, the director is notably more comfortable inside; his natural landscape is the sparsely decorated window frame, the bare wooden floor, and especially the doorless doorway.) As for Gerwig, it seems she needs more space to develop her own voice as a filmmaker; her co-directing credit here feels "given" by Swanberg, and there's an air of patronization which makes itself felt whenever the character struggles for some way to express what she's feeling - or wants to feel - within the dominant framework.

Still, if the film is a failure, it's an interesting one, and perhaps even intentionally so. Mumblecore tends to be so exclusively focused on the emotional flutters and mental trepidations of its self-absorbed subjects that it usually has little room for meta concerns. Yet Nights and Weekends seems to be as much about its own failure to communicate as its couples'. As such, it offers a fascinating peek at the difficulties creative people sometimes have in expressing their inner visions and potentialities (especially in tandem) - the challenge of achieving a rhythm upon which all effective artistic and personal collaborations rely. Sometimes, however frustrating, knocking knees hold their own fascination.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where this piece was linked in the summer of 2009.

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