SXSW Film 2009: Don't Use the M-Word

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For good reasons — like the fact that all of Joe Swanberg's features have played here — the annual South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, has a reputation as the adopted home of mumblecore. The dreaded M-word is used more and more negatively these days, but any term that labels films as diverse as Frownland, LOL, and Mutual Appreciation is a coinage looking for a definition. It was bound to fizzle at some point.

The terminology may be disintegrating, but the filmmakers behind these movies are still collaborating and still growing. This year, Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) is back with his third feature, Beeswax, and Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) is back with Alexander the Last. Swanberg's film features (among others) Justin Rice who starred in Bujalski's previous film, and the wardrobe is credited to Ry Russo-Young, whose latest film You Wont Miss Me played at Sundance but is now getting another airing here at SXSW where it's arguably more at home. Russo-Young appeared in Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs; meanwhile, Swanberg shot second unit footage for David Lowery's new film St. Nick (and vice-versa) which is in competition this year at SXSW. And Bujalski himself acts in Sorry, Thanks, the debut feature by Dia Sokol, who has produced films by most of the above filmmakers and who also appears in Beeswax.

It's a complex web. I'd draw you a graph, but I can't figure out how to keep it from looking like a pile of twigs. I'll put Chris Ware and Edward Tufte on the problem posthaste, but even a collaboration chart might not reveal what's obvious to audiences: despite the M-word umbrella, the films produced by this community are quite diverse.

Here's a rundown of the new films from this loose-knit band of filmmakers that are screening this week at SXSW:

Beeswax is probably Bujalski's best film to date. It's the warm tale of twin sisters and their community of friends, co-workers, and business partners, and curiously it feels both spontaneous and carefully guided. Like his other films it allows us to spend time with the characters during undramatic moments so that we come to like, appreciate, or at least understand their motivations at ostensibly more important ones. But unlike his previous films, this time that get-to-know-them strategy deviously tilts the audience in favor of a character who may be more at fault than she (or a casual audience) realizes. Given Bujalski's unwarranted reputation as a director of improvised films (actually, his films are scripted), this carefully orchestrated, unexpectedly acidic cauldron bubbling beneath the genial surface is a welcome development. That's but one of the film's layers; another is the interesting way that information does or doesn't flow through this network of acquaintances, the way people help or don't help each other, and the way they solicit or don't solicit advice. The business in the film is a vintage clothing store, but I suspect many of these communication difficulties arise in the world of collaborative filmmaking, too. The film sags a bit in the third act, just briefly, but it rebounds with Bujalski's largest special effect to date (a lightbulb blowing out on cue) and closes with an unresolved but complex ending, leaving the entire film to linger well after the closing credits.

Swanberg's Alexander the Last is also a film about sisters (again the hive mind seems to have planted a kernel in its constituents who then took it in completely different directions), tugging at the bond between women who "aren't twins but are very close." Unsurprisingly, they fall for the same guy. Alexander the Last is a small film with thin, or perhaps opaque, characters, but Swanberg displays a new technical assurance in his editing, especially in the core sequence that involves interlocking love scenes between two couples, one a real sexual encounter and one a rehearsal for a stage play. Each couple includes one of the sisters, they're making love to the same guy, and Swanberg stages the two scenes as physical parallels so that when he cuts repeatedly from one to the other, the differences in the positions and states of undress speak as loudly as the audio that bleeds across the boundaries, as loudly as the voice of the stage director who tweaks the placement of a head or hand, heard like the voice of God or the voice of self-doubt over a private moment between young lovers. Intertwined, the two sex scenes become a clever view of the dueling plot lines and, more interesting, an examination of Swanberg's own methods. His films often involve scenes just like the real half of this encounter; are we now also seeing a simultaneous commentary? Are we conversely seeing the desires that play inside the inconveniently married sister's head? It's a lyrical film, similar in spirit to the youthful, bouncing, melancholy tone of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Bells," which is nicely read by Justin Rice late in the film, putting me unexpectedly into the baroque world of Eugène Green. Alexander the Last doesn't leave me with anything concrete to chew on, and I'm not sure there'll be a great deal to glean from a second viewing (I could be wrong), but it does exit with something like the clear peal of a bell, which is sometimes just as good. Plus, anything that resembles Woody Allen at his best — minus the agnostic angst — is a fine achievement for a casual, impressive, and steadily improving filmmaker.

[Note: In an unusual arrangement, Alexander the Last is not only playing at SXSW but is also available on demand.]