If there’s an equivalent to Hong Sangsoo in contemporary American cinema, I guess it may as well be Joe Swanberg. Both directors are wildly prolific, churning out tales of middle class ennui and relationship anxiety with frightening regularity. Both work with extremely low-budgets and high-quality actors, the result of the curious mix of critical acclaim and lack of box office their films achieve. Their films have a relaxed, naturalistic vibe in pace and performance, with lengthy scenes of actors seemingly just hanging out (and, more often than not, drinking). Of course, Hong is know for his structural experimentation, each film taking the form of a new exercise in narrative unreliability, where dreams and waking life, the past and the present, and multiple versions of reality all coexist in an unstable, purely cinematic universe. Swanberg, on the other hand, seems allergic to structure, shying away from anything that could be construed as plot, what can charitably be called an experiential vision of narrative. Hong always knows precisely where to place his camera, and once there, rarely moves but for an occasional ostentatious quick-zoom that serves to reframe the image and functions as a stand-in for the emotional impact of editing. Swanberg apparently is aware that a camera is essential for the making of a motion picture.
Swanberg’s latest film, Digging for Fire, concerns a married couple in their 30s with a three-year-old son. As we join them, they are housesitting for one of the wife’s wealthy yoga clients in a big house in the hills. The husband finds a bone and a gun on the hillside and wants to start digging to find out where they came from. The wife tells him not to. Then they go their separate ways for a weekend. He throws a party with a bunch of his old guy buddies which Brie Larsen and Anna Kendrick inexplicably attend, and, of course, digs a big hole. She drops the kid off with the grandparents, inspires a barfight and hangs out with Orlando Bloom on a beach. It is, of course, a variation on Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 classic Voyage in Italy, albeit an extremely lazy one.
The couple in that film, played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, have been married for some time but find themselves drifting apart, unable to communicate effectively with each other. They spend a few days apart: she traveling through museums, he going to a party with young people and flirting with a pretty woman he meets there. Their fights become more and more bitter as the film moves along and eventually they agree to divorce, only to be reunited in one of the most glorious endings in film history, as first a vision of the romantic dead and then an overwhelming crowd of the living show inspire them to truly connect for the first time. It is a film that was revolutionary in its time, and even today to some extent, for its quotidian nature. Improvised for long stretches, it’s a film as much about Bergman and Sanders as it is about the characters they play, their two incompatible temperaments fusing with the problem marriage they are attempting to depict. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of scenes, arranged in chronological order, following an emotional progression. It lacks either the traditional plotting of the classical cinema or the Hongian structural experimentation of the modern. But still it builds and builds, a crescendo of despair and longing that remains one of the most miraculous and devastating in film history.
Digging for Fire nods in that direction. But it is so meandering on its path, so half-hearted in its attempts to show why this married couple might be falling apart, that it never amounts to much of anything. Their arguments and disagreements are mundane and muted (whether or not to send the kid to private school seems to be a major issue), and their stories are more about parallel midlife crises than anything else. Their issue isn’t a particular dislike of their spouses, but rather a general unease at getting older, at the idea of growing up. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this as a theme, and it’s more or less the subject of the other two Swanberg films I’ve seen, Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas (both of which also feature Anna Kendrick). But if that’s what the film is about, and not a collapsing marriage or the temptations of infidelity, then the film really doesn’t build to anything at all. The emotional climax of the film comes as the husband has reburied the bones he’s discovered (a hand that’s lost its wedding ring, which would seem to be an obvious symbol of infidelity) and the wife has walked sweetly away from Mr. Bloom and cast an astonished eye upon the planet Saturn (itself ringed), only to return unexpectedly home. The music swells and the reunited couple embraces. But if their marriage was never really in any danger, if they never stopped liking each other, if they were never seriously considering cheating, then it isn’t so much the reunification of a split couple as its is the exhausted collapse of the middle-aged back into comfortable routine. The end recalls Voyage in Italy, but the movie isn’t anything like it. These people don’t have enough passion to hate each other or have affairs with prettier people or have crazy adventures. They’ve caught a glimpse of the more romantic films they may have starred in and backed slowly away (compare also the opposite progression of Coppola’s One from the Heart, where the couple at the center leaves the mundane behind and falls madly into cinema.) It might be a tragedy, it might be a comedy, mostly it’s just an hour and a half.
This is basically the problem with all three Swanbergs I’ve seen: they feint in the direction of meaning but never quite follow-through. I think it’s a side effect of what is actually the best thing about his films, their relaxed, improvisatory feel. There’s a spontaneity to the films in performance that would be much harder to capture if he had a rigidly worked-out idea he wanted to convey, or a complicated plot structure to follow. Harder, but not impossible, as Hong Sangsoo (and Jean-Luc Godard, among others) has shown. His visual style, if you can call it that, has a similarly half-thought-out feel to it, as if he’s just looking for the most expedient way to film the actors. Eschewing the long-shot of the international art cinema in favor of the faux-immediacy of the medium shot and close-up, like many contemporary American indies, Swanberg’s films end up just looking ugly and claustrophobic. It’s a style appropriate to a film like Listen Up Philip or Heaven Knows What (both shot by the very good DP Sean Price Williams), which are both about certain kinds of ugliness, but is simply grating, incongruously unpleasant in a more traditional narrative. Shots are constructed with no apparent meaning, and they follow each other in seemingly random ways. His settings are natural, but they may as well be studio sets: there’s no sense of place to any of his films. If a character didn’t talk about the fact that they were in Los Angeles, you’d never know it. There’s nothing to orient us geographically, nothing really tangible to hang onto in story. The driving force of Swanberg’s cinema is the actors. And it is fun to hang out for 90 minutes with the casts he manages to assemble. And honestly I’m beginning to admire his dogged refusal to insist on much of anything in his films. Swanberg’s films are remarkably easy to watch, with a mood of drifting, unfulfilled potential that lingers and may ultimately be what they’re all about anyway. But they’re haunted by the better movies they might have been. A Swanberg movie, at its best, is the first half of an Eric Rohmer film.
Digging for Fire is now playing at the Northwest Film Forum.