By Anna Bielak | January 26, 2012
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Kentucker Audley, Caroline White, Joe Swanberg, Kris Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Amanda Crawford
Starring: Kentucker Audley, Caroline White, Joe Swanberg, Kris Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Amanda Crawford
With Marriage Material (currently available to stream for free via Vimeo), Joe Swanberg lets us think that he has progressed one step further in his filmmaking, but on the other hand he just convinces me that nothing ever changes. Why? Because mumblecore — that, after all of these years still does not want to be considered either as a wave or trend — still plays first fiddle and because of the fact that, as counterculture has taught us, youthful revolt always causes adolescent emptiness and leads to marital safety and regular life ready to be undermined by new doubts. It is easy. It is life. It is like the biological cycle. Yet, does it mean that we can perfectly predict what will happen next and Swanberg will not spring a surprise on us anymore?
Swanberg’s films are growing up and changing along with the director, it is obvious. Let’s start with LOL (2006) – a film about twenty-something boys having their first sexual experiences via the Internet. Avant garde form, multi-screen frames, experiments with music. Uncle Kent (2011) came some years later to tell a story about a cartoonist from Los Angeles who obsessively wants to spend a night with a girl from New York. Was this a side effect of Nights and Weekends’ (2008)? Long distance relationships, like the one Mattie and James have in Nights and Weekends, may entail a chronic lack of sexual satisfaction. Swanberg also touches upon this subject in Autoerotic (2011).
With Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007), Swanberg analyzes the inability to be in a long, regular relationship with anyone. Thanks to Caitlin Stainken, an actress from Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater, Swanberg shows how to play oneself. The same year, he turns into an experimental filmmaker with Silver Bullets (2011); but Swanberg did not give up the idea of shooting a film about working on set, he released Art History soon afterwards.
In Marriage Material, Joe and Kris (Swanberg — who was pregnant in Autoerotic) leaves us at home with their friends Emily (Caroline White) and Andrew (Kentucker Audley) to take care of their baby boy. Babysitting brings up a late night conversation about being in a relationship, having children, getting married and becoming a regular family. There is nothing original in this specific conversation, yet, in listening to this long dialog there is something more than just listening to those two people. As Emily and Andrew talk in bed before falling asleep, we slowly realize that we see a slightly different picture in front of our eyes. After a while I figured out that watching Marriage Material lead me to see the reality outside of the frame and that conviction makes this film a really important one. The whole world can be added to the fragment of it. The couple in bed turns into synecdoche, and that introduces me to 30-somethings, just as the Eiffel tower helps me briefly enter Paris in every movie that is set in France. The Marriage Material characters slowly become the kind of figures who have more in common with society than with individuals. They talk about typical issues, they are not original, yet extremely truthful with their ideas and problems.
What is more surprising than the issues raised by Swanberg in Marriage Material, is the form of his newest film. On the one hand, he uses the three acts form of traditional drama; on the other hand, he denies it. The first part of the movie is the cause of the middle one, the most important part of it –- the conversation in bed. Having a cause and a climax, we are ready to get the effect. Yet, there is no such thing. Instead, we are looking at Emily exercising to shape her body and make it healthy. Conversations in Marriage Material are like those exercises, helping the characters to be in a perfectly made, healthy relationship. One needs to do it over and over. Resignation means stagnation –- everything is slowly dying then. Energy is essential; so whatever works, it is always like a never-ending story.
For a different perspective, check out Don Simpson’s review of Marriage Material.