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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nights and Weekends: IFC Center, through October 16, 2008

The first think I noticed about Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s excellent Nights and Weekends is that the ups and downs of the central romantic relationship are presented to the viewer in a somewhat jumbled fashion, and certainly not in an order that illustrates the trajectory of the relationship. After an opening scene full of ambiguous signs – long-distance lovers Mattie (Gerwig) and James (Swanberg) pull each other’s clothes off just inside James’s doorway, but their sexual hunger is qualified by a dozen small practical difficulties that make the coupling anything but zipless – the lovers quickly devolve into a period of edgy quarrelling that acquires a threatening momentum, and then subside into gentleness and affection near the end of Mattie's visit.

I once compared Swanberg's style in Hannah Takes the Stairs to Pialat’s, and we see again in Nights and Weekends the same Pialat-like storytelling gaps and sense of entropy. But Swanberg/Gerwig are much more centered on characterization than Pialat, and the structural gaps in their films are largely generated by their concern with the problem of the actor. Pialat, less drawn to the inner life of his people, has to range more widely to find elements to disrupt the filmmaking process and create the illusion of randomness that both filmmakers arrive at.

By “the problem of the actor,” I refer to an intrinsic paradox in the filmmaking process that all filmmakers must confront in one way or another: films are planned to a greater or lesser extent, and tend to arrive at a state that was foreseen by the filmmaker; and yet actors characteristically conceive of their role in terms of open-ended exploration, and are hindered by having to arrive at a predetermined destination.

We tend not to think of films like Nights and Weekends as actor-centric, because they are part of a wider trend in independent filmmaking to make films with non-professional actors, and to create circumstances in which amateur performances can be effective. Nonetheless, I’m having trouble thinking of any other film where the reactions of the actors to each other are so much the substance of the fiction, where we can see so plainly the actors processing information that they have received from each other. To some extent at least, the unusual front-loading of Mattie and James’ relationship crisis seems to emanate from the actors, who for whatever reason have crisis on their minds and keep steering each other into treacherous waters. The sense of discontinuity in Swanberg/Gerwig’s films comes not only from actual elisions in the story (which are not particularly radical), but also from the way the peaks and valleys of the actors’ interaction fall across the elisions in unexpected ways.

Swanberg/Gerwig’s acting improvisation is striking in the extent to which it evokes intelligence rather than awkwardness. They seem to want to stand clear of a common strategy (used heavily by Andrew Bujalski, to choose a familiar point of comparison) in which the awkwardness of actors working without a script is intended to simulate awkwardness between the characters. Because the actors here are very intelligent people, and no doubt because of careful editing room choices as well, the improvised dialogue in Nights and Weekends creates an unusual sense of awareness and responsiveness between the characters. It’s a pleasure to see a contemporary movie where improvisation is a challenge to the filmmakers to create more complex characters, rather than a way to finesse the need for acting chops.

After the contrapuntal emotional rhythms of its first half, Nights and Weekends charts a more emotionally steady course in its second half, which jumps a year to show Mattie and James in post-relationship mode, making tentative connections again during an impromptu, casual reunion. Here the film courts danger by becoming much more emotionally direct, with Mattie wearing on her sleeve her sudden, powerful desire for sexual reunion. Still, I found the second half as compelling in its clarity as the first half was compelling in its contradictions. Gerwig the actress is up front and center here, and she is something of a phenomenon. I think that the naturalistic style of the mumblecore movies, and their well-known reliance on amateur performance, makes it difficult for us to grasp that one of the important actors of the moment has emerged from them. Certainly Gerwig’s expressiveness grows from the documentation of a real-life personality, which seems to combine charm and intelligence with a lurking darkness and solitude. But most great cinema acting is based on such documentation. Gerwig’s ability to jump to high levels of emotionality while rooting her performance in mundane detail makes me wonder what she would have been like in the hands of a director of revelation like Cukor or Bergman. Probably not that much different…

Perhaps the clear emotional vectors of the second half are a setup for the movie’s startling climax, which uses sex as a pathway back into the conflicts and contradictions of the unconscious mind. The discomfort of this messy but authentic sexual encounter hangs in the air, casting its shadow on the couple’s stark farewell scene (which gives a final, unexpected flip to the romantic balance of power), and following us out of the theater. Could it be that the ongoing sexual revolution in international cinema isn’t likely to be a source of pleasure to audiences? Here at last we have an American film that portrays sex without indirection or self-censorship, effortlessly connecting it back to our emotional lives, dodging the usual pitfalls of simplification and sentiment, and we don’t seem to know what to do with it.

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Blogger Eric M. said...

While home last weekend I almost did go see Nights and Weekends, but I held back. Dan, you seem to be more fond of these types of films than I have, especially after you praised Hannah Takes the Stairs. And everytime I give this wave of independents a chance-from Funny Ha Ha, to Hannah I watched them with quite a bit of distaste. However Greta Gerwig did manage to impress me in Hannah (perhaps the only thing that did about that film) and she impressed me in Baghead-and that was possibly the only thing that almost made me see Nights and Weekends last week. But I will certainly give it a shot on video when the time comes.

October 16, 2008 4:24 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Eric - I don't consider myself an all-purpose mumblecore fan. As in any movement, there are individual filmmaking sensibilities, and that makes all the difference. For me, Hannah and Nights go together pretty well, but of course that doesn't mean other people might not like one a lot better than the other.

October 16, 2008 8:51 AM  

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