Everyone is always getting naked in Joe Swanberg’s films. Or at least, it seems that way, because these scenes – unapologetically full frontal, disarmingly casual—are what initially stand out on a first viewing. And these scenes are always shocking, not for their salaciousness (because they are anything but), but for their matter-of-fact-ness. They embody the core of Swanberg’s films, the frankness and honesty coupled with vulnerability that gives them their vitality.
Swanberg, for better or for worse, has positioned himself as, if not the key exponent, than the best exemplar, of a loose non-movement of fiercely independent filmmaking that has been jokingly (or pejoratively, depending on your stance) dubbed… well, I don’t even want to broach it myself, since even referring to it in a review opens one up to ridicule. (Let’s just say it rhymes with Dumbledore, and is truly an empty meaningless term). But his films are all of a piece, and, much like those of his fellow traveler Andrew Bujalski, seem to focus exclusively on the listless romantic entanglements of white, educated, artsy 20-somethings. I know – just what the world needs more of, right?
Nights and Weekends is no exception to this and seems, at first glance, like little more than an epilogue to Swanberg’s previous roundelay yak-fest, Hannah Takes the Stairs. That film succeeded mostly because of the winning, effortless charm of Greta Gerwig as the titular Hannah. Here in this film she has been elevated to co-writer/co-director along with Swanberg, and again success hinges on her charm, her breeziness, and her vulnerability. Her allure owes as much to her physical beauty as it does to the emotional depths it hides – she turns from inviting to petulant on a dime, is seductive and manipulative to such a perfect pitch, with so much conviction, it’s impossible to discern where the acting stops and reality begins.
Nights and Weekends blurs these lines so effectively that it’s hard to suss out whether it’s always fiction, or whether it rides its vérité stylings straight into documentary at points. I don’t know whether Gerwig’s and Swanberg’s on-and-off-and-on-again relationship is the real deal (it sure seems like it, at points), and I guess that’s the point. The film captures fleeting, ineffable moments in a long distance relationship that we know is sputtering from the get go, no matter how lustily the couple paw at each other. What it lacks in plot or narrative is more than makes up for in subtle poignancy and painful recognition.
There are no grand revelations here, no profundities into the ways of the heart, no lessons to be learned. It’s all inertia, and the inevitable waning of affection in the face of time and distance. They talk – they talk talk talk – but the conversation is neither knowingly self-aware nor arch, neither cute nor clever. They talk like people talk—stuttering, inane, tangential. The important things are between the words, and those things we cannot hear, but maybe can see, or catch a quick glimpse of.
Swanberg and company have caught a lot of flak for their self-indulgence, for making films that start of nowhere and then go nowhere fast, in the most tedious way possible. And these films are not for everyone, to be sure. I happen to respect them very much, even though I don’t generally enjoy them (the exception being Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation) while I’m watching them. Why would you want to watch this, these private moments of quiet joy and pain, moments that can only be understood by the two people involved? Or why would you want to listen in on conversations so insular and close, so integral to two people and meaningless to everyone else?
But to me these films are the perfect antidote to the truly indulgent, self-aware, too-cool-for school quirkfests that pass for relationship/character pieces in independent film these days. Empty shells like Juno, or Away We Go, or (500) Days of Summer – films that use a ceaseless barrage of hip cultural referents, “look at me” stylistic tics, and painfully eccentric caricaturizations, all marshaled to make some grand statement on the way life and love work, and all the while falling so laughably short of the mark.
Swanberg, Bujalksi, et al, are coming at the same thing from the other end, from a vérité style that seeks, and occasionally hits, on the profound hidden in moments of excessive banality. And sure, you might be able to make a case that this is just turning things inside out, and going to the other extreme, and that this style is just as affected and self-indulgent. But I don’t think so. The tape does not lie, the faces do not lie, and however much is fictional or real ceases to matter – Nights and Weekends convinces you that you are watching life – in all it tedium and quiet pain – pass by. And I guess that’s the key to the film’s aesthetic success, and commercial failure – because who wants to watch boredom and vulnerability and disappointment for even five minutes, let alone 80 – who wants to watch his/her boredom and vulnerability and disappointment reflected back at them?
Nights and Weekends DVD release is accompanied by two short features that make up in quality for their lack of quantity. The 11-minutes of “teasers” are sort of extended trailers for the film that act as both succinct summations of film itself and an extension of Swanberg’s overarching aesthetic. Each of the three pieces begins with a close up static shot of Swanberg and Gerwig engaged in one of their typical conversations. It then quickly cuts to a montage of fragments and clips from the film, which either complements or directly contradicts the conversation that continues on over the clips. Models of brevity and economy, the brilliance of these teasers is in how they so perfectly distil the film down to its essential core without losing any of the tangentiality that makes Nights and Weekends so affecting.
The other feature is a six-minute test short film, which finds Swanberg wallowing and whining in bed with a minor head cold, while Gerwig alternately whines back and bitches him out for flaking out on a party they are supposed to go to. The chemistry between the two is so palpable, so nearly perfect, that it’s almost too good to watch – or you could watch it all day. Nights and Weekends could have been 80 minutes of them lying in bed and it would have been just as good, or perhaps better for it.