[3 December 2008]
Improvisations are nothing new these days and are exemplified by the success of Christopher Guest comedies like Best in Show and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm TV series. But most of the mainstream focus sticks with the comedic side used by countless alums from Chicago’s Second City. Dramas filmed with improvised acting hearken back to the well-known Cassavetes classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s. In actuality, those were scripted projects modified by the actors’ styles to appear improvised.
Alternatively, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs was built without a script and grew organically during the shooting. This extremely low-budget film depicts a small group of young people searching for a connection in Chicago. Each actor is able to deliver a natural performance by eluding the confines of a tightly constructed story. However, the downside could be a random collection of footage that loses part of the audience. It’s a tricky balance to retain the loose atmosphere while trying to craft an innovative, exciting movie.
This picture fits categorically into the recently spawned “mumblecore” label, which includes Swanberg’s LOL and Andrew Bujalski’s excellent duo of Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha. The term mumblecore evokes the idea of characters speaking quietly and unintelligibly, which isn’t truly accurate. These films do have a unique style—epitomized by minute budgets, realistic young characters and everyday situations.
This is a “love it or hate it” approach that may quickly alienate viewers expecting the glossy indies playing at the local art-house cinema. But it offers a welcome respite from the typical costume dramas and crime epics that grace those screens. I’d prefer not to rope these films into such a lazy term as mumblecore, as it sounds like a boring, pretentious experience. The actual result is fairly realistic and employs more energy than you might expect from watching people talking.
The love story does take a few turns, but those shifts avoid the overly dramatic movements of glossier pictures. In fact, Stromberg moves past some of the major scenes and only shows us the follow-up to the big moments. His decisions achieve varying degrees of success but never jump completely off the rails and into painful territory.
Greta Gerwig (Baghead) stars as the title character, who is disenchanted with her aimless boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass). After that relationship ends, she grows interested in several co-workers, with diverging success. Hannah sports a short blond hairdo and a lively attitude that could charm many indie-rock guys. Everyone means well, but the connection isn’t always there.
These larger sequences are surrounded by typical moments at work and home that keep things light. Hannah interns at a TV writing company in an office with Matt (Kent Osborne) and Paul (Bujalski). Both guys are quirky and lack traditional good looks, but they are the type of men who would attract someone like Hannah. The details of the actual job aren’t important here, as they say little about the true personalities of each figure. We spend more time watching everyone in various states of undress than learning about the intricacies of writing. This is not gratuitous nudity used shamelessly to attract audiences. Its inclusion actually fits within the genre’s aims to depict a more realistic community.
Joe Swanberg isn’t a household name, he received some critical acclaim for the authentic approach of LOL. He shoots this picture mostly in close-ups, which sometimes only capture part of the actor’s face. One particularly effective scene reveals Hannah being emotionally honest and never pulls back to show the discussion’s other participant. It’s a lengthy moment presented in one take that showcases Gerwig’s acting skills.
This movie is packed with filmmakers who understand this approach, especially Bujalski, who depicts the only character who really mumbles. Mark Duplass starred and wrote 2005’s The Puffy Chair, and he directed this year’s Baghead. Several minor characters were also played by young writer/directors who appear to enjoy the freedom of this environment.
The DVD extras maintain a light-hearted approach and skip the typical interviews seen on many releases. They contain behind-the-scenes footage that includes“Deleted Duges”, which presents actor Todd Rohal’s ability to crack everyone up and elicit many tales. Another fun extra is the short film Thanks for the Add!, which takes a friendly shot at the rise of MySpace. The commentary brings Swanberg, Gerwig and Osborne together to discuss the unconventional experience of making Hannah Takes the Stairs. Their chemistry is evident from the start, which leads to a breezy conversation.
This connection comes across on screen during the film to raise our interest. It’s not a consistently rewarding experience, but it is worth the journey. I expect we’ll see plenty more from all the key participants in the near future.