All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




-Hunger (Steve McQueen, U.K. / Ireland)

McQueen's debut as a feature filmmaker is stunning, a political and aesthetic intervention of the highest order precisely because McQueen understands that "issue cinema" is, to all intents and purposes, a dead end. And yet, pretty much since the Lumiéres first cranked one out and certainly since Eisenstein and Vertov caught Lenin's eye, no one can deny the trembling, laser-like power potentially harnessed by the cinematic apparatus under the proper guiding intelligence. No one in their right mind can simply walk away from political cinema, and McQueen, with great artistry and wisdom, discovers . . . perhaps not an altogether new program for film-advocacy (and that would be to sell his achievement short in any case), but at the very least a radical approach to the problem of representation and its deadening effects. Films about the "Troubles" in Ireland are virtually a dime a dozen, territory nearly as well-trod as the Holocaust. Is there anything left to say, and if so, is there a manner in which to say it that doesn't just turn unspeakable suffering into comforting bourgeois narrative at best, or cheap spectacle at worst?


McQueen's solution is almost mindbogglingly simple. Hunger is an example of cinema as synecdoche. (Sadly, as I type this, I realize Charlie Kaufman has already hijacked the concept this year, for lesser ends. But let's try to bracket that regrettable fact.) The highly abstract first act of Hunger finds McQueen zeroing in on relatively decontextualized fragments of the Northern Ireland situation, and in particular the men around the Maze prison in the early 80s during the struggle for political-prisoner classification. We see a guard (Stuart Lohan) soak his bloodied knuckles, before we know he's a prison guard, and long, long before the plot reveals how those knuckles became busted. We observe patches of the (Northern) Irish landscape surrounding the prison, but it's unclear where these pastures lay. They are not "establishing shots." We see men in the hole coughing up scraps of paper without knowing what they represent. Individuals are broken down into fingers, earlobes, bloody wounds on the skull, stiff limbs struggling to move through the cell. Everything is reduced to its barest constituent part, but McQueen's parsimony is worlds away from Bresson, whose work it superficially resembles at first. There is nothing transcendental about Hunger. Rather, McQueen is displaying a world of brute materiality, of the gestures required to furtively move objects or manipulate bodies in agony. But more than this, every fragment represents some larger social whole -- the prisoner, the guard. and more than this, the Republicans, the Loyalists, the Catholic Church, the Crown -- that is everpresent but can never exactly be seen as a totality. At the end of Act One, when the guard suddenly becomes a stand-in for his social position, sum and total, it is shocking, because McQueen's radical materialist humanism displays in concrete terms the cold rationality, the madness but also the logic, of a battle in which men must embody forces larger than themselves.


So, when the second act finds Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) engaging in an extended dialogue with Father Dom Moran (Liam Cunningham) about the shift in tactics and the need for the hunger strike, McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh move us out of the realm of pure physical movement. Now the "Movement" is one of assessing effective strategies, how to dislodge the intransigent Thatcher and set the Republican cause on a new path. This is where McQueen's film is at its most dialectical, because Hunger provides both sides of the debate within the Republican ranks with their best possible argument. Sands insists that as a rebel and a human being, he must be prepared to die for the cause he loves above all. Moran, whose love and admiration for Bobby is evident, sees Sands leading the troops down a path of nihilism, as though the fight qua fight has replaced the revolutionary love that sparked it in the first place. In a way, this explicit problem is also the very problem at the heart of making a film like Hunger. When McQueen, for example, avoids some of the most gruesome prison abuses by showing only a swinging billy club but no body beneath it, is he fetishizing violence? Is he doing the same when he shows the pummeling head-on? Like Sands' own answer, McQueen's decision to make Hunger shows a new approach to the problem, one which is every bit as problematic but has to be explored. By making a film that, in remaining true to the facts, must turn in the final segment to an extended act of violent self-erasure, McQueen raises a fundamental question about protest, and protest cinema. We watch as sores fester on Sands' malnourished back, as his sunken chest begins digesting itself. (Pace Mike D'Angelo, I don't think the cut to flying birds was meant to imply freedom. I read it as a visualization of the internal sensation of one's atoms flying apart.)


We are left with the same questions that Sands and Moran laid before us at halftime. Is this heroic? Are we changed by the vicarious sacrifice represented onscreen? Or is it simply an extended dead end, the frank recognition that absolute empathy is impossible? More to the point, how can Bobby Sands and the Republicans, or anyone else, square the political signification of the hunger strike with what we see, and what Sands undergoes? After all, what Sands undergoes is an irreducibly particular death, the extinguishing of a wholly unique and forever irreplaceable light in the world. For Sands' sacrifice to obtain value as protest, it must function synecdochically. His particular body, and those who starved in his wake, must achieve generality. They must be soldiers, Irishmen, not just singular human beings with grieving Mums and Dads and wives and children. And yet, the necessary power of the sacrifice also requires that that full individual dissolution, with all the will and waste it entails, must somehow be retained. Part and whole, all at once. McQueen, ever the body-conscious sculptor, he who intended to memorialize the Iraq War with postage stamps bearing the likeness of each and every British serviceman and woman killed in combat (a project the government nixed, logically, incomprehensibly), needs the so-called "conventional" final act of Hunger to put the whole question of the strike, and political representation itself, to the test. The film shows us pictures of a body beaten beyond all idealism, whose final citadel of human sovereignty was a turning of the bludgeon inward. Geopolitics as anorexia, and vice versa. Does this drama, played on the surface of a man's skin but fought from the inside, show us anything at all? Even as Hunger honors the dignity of the decisions taken by Sands and his followers, McQueen leaves us suspended in a state of absolute uncertainty.




-The Edge of Heaven [Auf der anderen Seite] (Fatih Akin, Germany / Turkey / Italy)

Akin's film is one that hit me a bit strangely. I liked it, and I can't slough that off by saying I merely admired it. No, there was a great deal about Edge of Heaven that I found genuinely engaging and moving, even though I felt like I saw through its every move. I'm deeply sympathetic to Akin's detractors, and in a way, I almost wish I could join their team. Aspects of this film are preposterous. The most glaring examples -- the cheap, choreographed near-misses among the main characters, of course, but also the patently undergraduate-level, world-peace-through-hot-lesbianism subplot -- would be enough to tank most any other film, and certainly betray a regrettable dependence on simplistic schemas in Akin's thinking. Nevertheless, there's a remarkable agility in Akin's direction, and even in much of his writing, that manages, most of the time, to elevate and even transubstantiate Edge of Heaven in spite of its worst tendencies. There's a sturdy, classical quality to Akin's shot construction, a look, appropriately enough, between the urban Eurasian environments of mid-60s cinema and the master-shot school of contemporary festival fare. Rainer Klausmann's compositions are remarkably detailed without being fussy or exaggeratedly fixated on "form," per se, giving the sense of a rough visual equivalent to thick, late-modernist prose style. What's more, Akin's roundelay of multicultural trauma / drama is agonizingly clinical at times, the stuff of an illustrated lecture about The Perils of New Europe, or The Conundrum of Turkish-German Identity, or what have you. And yes, compared with the punked-out bellow that was Head-On, Edge of Heaven is buttondown, schematic.


But yet again, Akin's skill as a writer and director vaults over an impediment this obviously built into the very foundation of the project. With the significant assistance of Baki Davrak's downcast performance, a character as potentially two-dimensional as Nejat (Baki Davrak), the Turkish professor of German literature who moves to Turkey to take over a German bookstore (an irony Akin feels he must underline with a Lars Rudolph cameo!) becomes a genuine figure of complexity and pathos, a three-dimensional being actually struggling with the implications of cultural dislocation rather than a rhetorical trope on two legs. (In fact, let's compare Akin, with his shortcomings, to recent Atom Egoyan for an object lesson.) Despite the fact that the agenda is always right there on the surface -- generational conflict and rapprochement, as overlaid on the shifting borders of toe E.U. -- The Edge of Heaven puts it across with low-key melodrama (a Turkish inheritance channeled through Euro-influence) and makes it matter. Even when this film was wrongheaded, it was (as Sartre used to say) "right to be wrong," and Akin is getting somewhere. Head-On showed him in barely-contained, outburst mode. The Edge of Heaven, often to its own detriment, is a film on its best behavior, swinging for the rafters of profundity and thereby underlining its rookie errors. Soon, really soon, Akin will strike the perfect balance between fury and control, and then he'll finally earn those Fassbinder comparisons.


Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

Clearly one of the most accomplished films of the year, Rachel Getting Married is also proving rather divisive, and it seems to me that you can learn a lot about its structural underpinnings from the views of some of the people it rubs the wrong way. It would be simplistic, and fundamentally incorrect, to frame the issue as a form / content problem, as though Jenny Lumet's script, with its anguished family history slowly bubbling to the surface and its strange periodicity with respect to melodramatic incident, were some sort of stumbling block for Demme's expansive, post-Dogme humanism to overcome. It doesn't really work like that, because there is a lifeblood coursing through the whole thing, holistically keeping the film alive as one singular, breathing organism. But maybe one way to characterize this event-horizon tendency is to think of Rachel like an accordion, or a folding chair that keeps collapsing. Or like someone who keeps fucking up, over and over. Because even though Kym (Anne Hathaway, whose sad raccoon features are more than a glam-down) swerves through each sober moment like she needs a wall to prop her up, she's actually struggling to build something, through a form of destruction. She is Shiva, as she jokes in her ill-timed toast. The high-wire act of Rachel, which the script seems to intuitively understand but occasionally fails to transmit (luckily the director is there to redirect), is that the wedding is and is not the right place for the great family reckoning. The pure act of bonding through love, of expanding the family unit, should happen in a lie-free space, but what that means for Kym will never be the same as for Rachel, or for Dad. Rosemarie DeWitt's performance conveys this aching to come first, just once, for maturity and responsibility to be valued instead of taken for granted. And, well, let's face it -- Bill Irwin's character is a kind of Demme stand-in, the bumbling, benevolent white guy out of his element but embracing that internal and external chaos with as much openheartedness as one dented man possibly can. (Sorry to get all "p.c." on yer ass, but his character's palpable abdication from the swaggering privileges of white patriarchy alone speak volumes about the sensibility Demme brings to the film. That's just the truth, Ruth.)


And his actions, in a way, serve as the backbone of understanding Demme's reading of the material. Is is necessarily phony to want to clear a space in life for pure unsullied joy? Some critics have mocked the film's wedding scenes as hipster fantasies or manqué Obama rallies. But this is simply insulting. Is it really so obscene to want to harness the power of the cinema for an extended, even "indulgent," representation of people coming together, finding unity despite pain, battling their way through to rapprochement? There are passages in Rachel Getting Married that open themselves up to cynicism and, to my eyes, flip it the bird. For example, I can't remember the last time I saw a sophisticated art film provide such a clear-eyed, respectful picture of the positive role that AA and NA can play in the lives of recovering addicts. (Is this really less valid that Requiem for a Dream?) Likewise, the easy, graceful incorporation of a liberal spirituality, one that not all of the film's characters share, is all the more poignant for that very reason -- that it need not be any point of contention and, in making that space, even we agnostics can momentarily tap into its power. Now, "generosity" has its limits, I suppose. Even some of the film's champions have taken aim at the dishwasher contest and its regrettable conclusion. But (Exhibit A), don't families amuse themselves with preposterous icebreakers, especially where male in-laws are concerned, and (Exhibit B), doesn't unspoken grief blindside us by erupting in the random course of living? Yes, these are screenwriters' contrivances, but Lumet and Demme actually play them unusually well. Their shaped character doesn't detract from their ability to convince. To call this "sincerity" might seem unconscionably lazy, but when the raving gets a bit out of hand (certain late-in-the-game showdowns), we can see by contrast that much of Rachel performs its work by making space, holding back, giving room. It's baggy, given to an elasticity of time that permits the past to jab into the present and let the present keep right on trucking. ("That's not fair!") So yeah, maybe Demme's always wanted to hang out with Tunde Adebimpe and Robyn Hitchcock, and that dual desire "says something" about some kind of post-enlightened racial consciousness that needn't even announce itself. Maybe this strikes you as self-congratulatory, and Demme should go back to making movies about smooth-talking psychopaths who eat people. Get a clue, haters. It's time to start making sense. You've got to go through hell before you get to heaven.


-Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)

Through Being Cool -- Reports that Sparrow is a minor addition to the To filmography may not be exactly incorrect, but they sure as hell miss the point. Gangsters can go straight, apparently (consider the respect rightly accorded to the rather sober Election films), but woe unto him who dareth put a little spring in his step. Spry, airy, and liable to have you grinning like an idiot by the end of the first reel, Sparrow is To's fluffy homage to both the French cinema of the 1960s and the stylish Hong Kong culture of that same period, the two melded into a confectionary whip of indistinct time and place, two geographical pasts spun out into an ambiguous, half-sepia movie-present. From the opening sequence, it's obvious that To is taking his usual choreographic sensibility in a radically new direction, every bit as precise but for once leaning into the dandy pose straightaway, without the usual ice cold tough-guy posturing. Simon Lam is Kei, leader of a band of merry pickpockets, and we meet him in his sparse, amber-lit apartment as a sparrow flies in the window. Kei is busily dusting off his shoes with wide, Astairesque gestures, and he gazes up at the bird with a kind of exaggerated wonder, an open grin of guilelessness not in keeping with the To universe as we've known it thus far. Soon, we meet the other boys in the gang, all piled on a single bike. The opening pickpocket sequence, showing these artful dodgers at work / play, naturally calls to mind Bresson and Pickpocket, but To's editing exhibits a willingness to engage with and discard conventional filmic language at will, like sleight of hand. There's none of the austerity of Bresson here; instead we move back and forth between the movement of objects and the wide open totality of the spatial environment, with an easy facility that can only be called "entertainment."


One gets the immediate sense that To has wanted to cut loose like this for ages, getting free (sorry, the metaphor is comically inevitably) from the cage of machismo that he's barely taken seriously for years, until such time, that is, as he felt the need to deconstruct it head-on. (Again, cf. the Elections.) There is a deep-blue, saturated character to the night sequences in Sparrow, rain-soaked and neon-lit, that hints that the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai may well have been on To's mind, and why not? His HK colleague has long been an avatar of the swoony romanticism that To's work has subsumed within various genre frameworks, albeit to great effect. But here, To seems to have embraced the movie-set artifice of Jacques Demy musicals, with their candy-colored umbrellas and faux-chaste sensuality, to say nothing of the go-for-broke street-level existentialism of that arm of the Nouvelle Vague that blossomed in the wake of Jean-Pierre Melville. Crime and sex are virtually interchangeable in Sparrow, bodily activity conducted for the sheer pleasure of closeness, or of placing one's physical frame into the expanse of the city and attempting to launch oneself outward, as a force larger than the boundaries of your own small skin. Hell, by the time The Girl is introduced -- that being Chun Lei, a kept woman struggling to escape from the old crook who owns her -- the boys in the gang have already demonstrated their desire for some tempting new MacGuffin, and she fits the bill. Kelly Lin, lithe and self-possessed, holding the requisite trump card of a certain unspoken damaged-woman anguish, is the perfect prime mover for misplaced male chivalry in need of its objet petit Ahh. The gorgeous four-part seduction sequence, during which this Mystery Woman presents herself to the pickpockets, is Absolut Lubitsch. (This is Trouble in Paradise X4.) By the time of the final showdown between pickpockets young and old -- in the end, it's less about love than criminal honor, since after all, To can never exactly stop being To -- the last of the balletic setpieces falls into place like a missing ingredient, and Sparrow appears to be a perfect film, one that just came down from the sky, lighted before you for a few chirpy moments, and went on its merry way. If there's a "flaw," I suppose, it's that there really isn't anything at stake in this beautiful piece of pop-formalist elation. One could make an interpretive stretch and try to make a bigger deal than necessary out of To's combination of European and Chinese cultural elements (and it's true that this sort of intercultural pop object is a very now gesture, one that excavates and recodes the past), but honestly. It's all about le soufflé.




-Dust (Hartmut Bitomsky, Germany)

This is one of those grades on which I'm liable to stand alone. By the usual "objective" measures, Dust is a good essay-doc, well-shot and exhaustive in its free-form consideration of the topic at hand. (I can easily see this getting the Reverse Shot "Great Film Alert," and not altogether undeservingly.) And of course, Bitomsky has chosen a dilly of a subject, the aimless floating stuff of the universe, all the leftover excess that trails behind any human endeavor or natural process. Trouble is, Dust is a bit too diffuse, containing far too many tangents and, within the individual segments, giving far too much space to wall-to-wall scientific discourse of the sort more suited to a university lecture hall. The result is that almost no one segment, and no individual manifestation of the "problem" of dust, ever lights on our frontal lobes long or deeply enough to have any impact whatsoever. It's just wham, bam, onto the next thing, but at a very stately, professorial pace. Yes, the granulated character of dust could have provided a formal model, a dispersed, airy documentary in which ideas drift around one another like semi-staticky ions. But no, Bitomsky's slabs of discourse -- a look at dust-repellant plants / the technology behind building implosion / a wet-vac design team / a visit with a clean-freak / an examination of space dust, etc. etc. -- are dense and leaden, eventually resulting (for me) in viewer tune-out. There are some lovely moments. In her five-minute segment, a dust-collecting artist / archivist manages to sum up the film's philosophical raison d'être with terse wit and spunk. (She would've been a prime subject for an Agnès Varda doc, actually.) The opening moments, comparing film itself to dust, promise a formal reflexivity the rest of Dust fails to deliver, and the false ending, ten minutes before the credits, wherein we see a museum cleaner dust an immaculately modernist wire sculpture and an expulsive, 3D post-Expressionist canvas with equal care, offer wry commentary on the "culture industry" of dust. But, at the risk of seeming like an uncharitable viewer, I think the main problem with Dust is that Bitomsky insists on showing off every last thing he learned and thought about during the process of making the film. None of his subjects, and therefore the film itself, ever shuts up. Superficially (the essayistic orientation; certain shot selections; the politics, implied and explicit), Dust resembles the work of Bitomsky's colleague Harun Farocki, but this only dramatizes Dust's shortcomings. Farocki's work is always driven by an acute organizational intelligence but also by patient observation, the wisdom and the respect to realize that he (and by extension we) can learn a great deal more by paying close attention to the gestures and rituals of human labor. Yes, Bitomsky isn't Farocki, but it was hard to watch Dust without thinking just how many verbose, over-explicated passages of the film Farocki would have left alone, to let us discover as they unfolded in time. Despite Bitomsky's approach appearing to be more accessible, I think there's a reason why Farocki's work has proven so seminal for some of today's most advanced practitioners, from Nikolaus Geyrhalter in documentary to the Christian Petzold circle in fiction. It's about the spaces these films clear for spectatorial thinking, long after the dust settles.


-Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)

While watching SOP, I had a bit of a mini-revelation about Mr. Morris, and why he so often irks me. From his extended interview-cum-handjob with Robert McNamara, to his series of unaired Kerry ads featuring Bush voters who switched allegiance, even way back to his time as a student at Berkeley, where, he's always quick to point out, he studied analytic philosophy of mind, and dedicated himself to the pursuit of Objective Truth, abjuring all that Nietzsche / Heidegger / Derrida / Foucault nonsense that was swirling around at the time, the guy fits a particular profile that I've never really liked. He's the "reasonable" lefty, wherein reason is equated with a propensity to identify not only with the other guy's point of view, but with the other guy's characterization of your point of view as loony, irrational, and out of touch. Morris has to be the liberal Democrat who can show that he's just making good plain old Common Sense, and does so by bending over backwards to let right wingers have their say. The object of the game, of course, is to display civility and humanism, to allow for the fact that even those with whom we disagree are almost always behaving out of pure motives, and to simply impugn those motives tout court is to allow oneself to be blinkered by ideology. But there is something to be said for Robert Frost's old joke about liberals being too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument. Too much recent Morris exhibits this tendency to a crippling fault, and SOP is no exception. It's not that Gen. Janis Karpinski or private-sector interrogator Tim Dugan are unworthy interview subjects, fail to provide ample insights, or lack moral authority. The problem as I see it is that Morris cedes complete moral authority to these subjects (particularly Dugan, a CACI employee) without ever clarifying whether or not their actions, within the film's frame as well as outside of it, have earned that voice-of-reason mantle. Apart from this, SOP's biggest failures, as others have noted elsewhere, are the result of Morris simply having very little to add to the Abu Ghraib discussion. There are fascinating moments that cinema actually adds to the explanation of the event, such as the data analysis of the multiple-camera perspectives, and how the rejoining of sync-events (single actions shown by more than one camera) allowed investigators to create an ad-hoc timeline. Motion graphics provide an instant grasp of the concept.


But for the most part, Morris simply asks us to gaze into the faces of "evil" too dumb or vacant to even achieve Arendtian banality. A brain-dead redneck like Lynndie England aspires to banality. Megan Ambuhl is just a generic "mean girl" from any random U.S. high school. Had she not joined Charles Graner and Pvt. England in torturing Iraqis at Abu G, she probably would've just been the nasty checkout lady at CVS. Morris's biggest failure, however, is in his fascination / repulsion with Sabrina Harman, with whom his Interrotronic libido is clearly smitten. (You don't have to read too far between the lines on this one.) Pretty, soft spoken, lesbian, Harman is supposed to be the whistle-blower, the misfit who sees beyond the warped funhouse mirror of military groupthink. But she can never provide a satisfactory answer for her own participation, and Morris asks one "pointed" question and lets it go. (Funny how his style now makes his every voiceover appearance seem momentous. His interjected questions take on a weight they don't always earn journalistically, and that's certainly the case with his softball to Harman.) There seems to be a thread Morris halfheartedly weaves about gender and the military, but he's too cowardly to pick it up and go. (That would be too "strident" and "partisan," no doubt.) So we get a completely absent, ghostly presence -- the unseen Charles Graner, legally prohibited from participating -- who is said to have been the ringleader. He allegedly manipulated weaker men and all the women (even Harman, by intimidation). And these Americans, who fear for their lives constantly, get to sexually humiliate and physically torture Arab men in ways that aggressively feminize them. All the while, a man like Dugan is struggling to work his man-to-man, strength-through-honor war games with captured Iraqi generals. But Morris almost conducts his own campaign as if he believed that offering analysis or explanation, of gender and race, of military protocol or the tenuous line between S.O.P. and illegal torture, would somehow make Abu Ghraib seem like less of a clusterfuck, comprehensible and therefore acceptable We've seen the pictures, we know they're disgusting and deplorable. We also know that they require analysis as photographs. But Standard Operating Procedure is a documentary that strives to behave like a nightmare. (Danny Elfman's score certainly propounds this throbbing inexorability.) As a nightmare, Morris hints at understanding but seems to finally want us to conclude that it is impossible and maybe even undesirable, that Abu Ghraib represents less a breakdown of basic humanity than of logic (far more frightening to this filmmaker) and that explanation would be tantamount to collusion. But as a result, Standard Operating Procedure is a kind of self-cancelling check, sharpening our collective outrage into a shoulder shrug.




-Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)

There are instances when I encounter films, filmic objects, filmic phenomena, UFOs -- call it what you will -- that leave me so utterly baffled and/or nonplussed that I just want to bury my head in a pillow to muffle the agonized screams. At these moments I feel an acute empathy with all the folks who so viscerally "don't get" the avant-garde that a mere ten seconds in the company of a film by Stan Brakhage or Hollis Frampton makes them want to bolt from the theatre, even if it means ankling unprotected into the pouring rain. This, for me, describes the cinema of Joe Swanberg.


Now, look, I'm not going to use the M-word, because that's only a small part of the issue. For one thing, I quite enjoyed Aaron Katz's Quiet City, a sort of minor-key American answer to Linklater's Before films. And despite my misgivings regarding theme, performance, and the rather aggressively self-effacing deployment of the cinematic apparatus ("we jus' some flies on the wall up in here"), I've continually asserted that Andrew Bujalski is one of the best and most important American directors working today. He should be commanding a far greater position on cinema's world stage: Venice and Cannes, not Sundance and certainly not SXSW. And it's true, the estimable Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant, whose writing and opinion I greatly respect, has made it clear to me that I have not yet dipped into Cine-Swanberg's sweetest fruit, the early works (and LOL in particular) being his strongest. So I'm not going to claim any authority here, especially given that, as with Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends has me utterly perplexed at what I'm seeing before me. How is this a film? Why are people making it, apart from the narcissistic thrill of seeing oneself projected really big up at the IFC Center? Why are otherwise rational filmgoers playing ball with this art-annulling process? I just want to pound my head against a desk, and then weep as Cinema is slowly interred to an already-waterlogged grave.


Truth be told, Nights and Weekends is a considerable step up from Hannah, which was a shapeless, consumer-grade stammer of a film. Nights displays a cursory command of composition and framing, an occasional visual idea (such as golden dusk light anchoring one side of the frame while a blue bathroom window holds the other, diptych-like), and a vague temporal structure that represents cinematic thinking, even if the improviser-director-stars cannot exactly follow through with its implications beyond the patently obvious. A couple (Swanberg and Gerwig) live apart and try to make a long distance relationship work. It's awkward, and things aren't aided by their jejune, post-collegiate romanticism. They fuck a lot at first, then it tapers off into recrimination. Blackout. Then there's a one-year gap, followed by a tentative reconnection that flames out spectacularly, but with near-wordless petulance. Swanberg and Gerwig have adopted a time-honored structure, with shades of Bergman, the Nouvelle Vague, not to mention 1970s American cinema, but the whole M********e thing ultimately defeats them. Unlike their modernist forebears, Swanberg and Gerwig have nothing critical to say about their characters, their social position, the world that shaped the hopes and dreams about which they incoherently mutter. We, the audience, watch these two figures sputter about in a mud-stuck, hobgoblin-consistent manner from which they cannot depart. But this crisis of non-personalities illuminates nothing. Gerwig does her pissy Annie Hall thing that apparently charms the pants off some desirable demographic. (At times her persona recalls the moody girl in Daniel Clowes's original "Art School Confidential" comic who told her boyfriend she couldn't have sex anymore because she had to "channel that energy into [her] pottery.") Swanberg stares and squints, looking like a jock fallen out of his depth; when cornered, he'll say something thoughtless but in an utterly guileless manner, which actually sums up his directorial style.


The final scene packs a certain punch just because it replicates something everyone has experienced -- sex turning really, really bad in midstream -- but this concluding non-revelation clarified exactly what's wrong with Swanberg's films, and unreconstructed American indie cinema from this milieu. Its practitioners treat scrupulous simulacra of inarticulate behavior as an end in itself, as though they honestly don't recognize that art entails shaping, forming, providing a viewpoint on the subject at hand. It means finding an outside, not just fashioning a rank simulacrum of observable anthropological data. (Did these guys fail to grasp the irony in Warhol's work? Did they just mistake him for an honest-to-God autistic savant?) Nights and Weekends faithfully reproduces several couplings -- some smitten, some twice-bitten -- of a pair of regular kids, and then they stop being in love. I guess if your benchmark is "Elimidate," this must seem like fucking Hong Sang-soo, but art lovers, and adults who don't need to see their actual lived experiences in blotchy carbon copy, need not apply.