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Film

Nights and Weekends

Director: Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, Alison Bagnall, Elizabeth Donius, Jay Duplass

(IFC Films; US theatrical: 10 Oct 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

Review [31.Aug.2009]

I'm Just Gonna Adjust Myself

“You just want to get a bunch of shit and share it?”, asks James (Joe Swanberg). “Yeah,” nods Mattie (Greta Gerwig), “Let’s eat on the ground like animals.” Ahh, true love. As James speaks to Mattie from inside the shower, she dries herself off, rubbing her head with one towel while wearing another. When he reaches for his towel, oops, she’s been using. She apologizes, but it’s no matter. They’re about to order Chinese.


At the beginning of Nights and Weekends, directed by Gerwig and Swanberg, James and Mattie are in mid-relationship. He lives in Chicago, she in New York. They spend weekends together, but they’re stymied by their stop-and-start structure, each encounter shifting from anticipatory bliss to sorrowful parting over two or three days. The first weekend you see, at James’ place, is full of cuddling and sexy kissing and nakedness. Even when Mattie is briefly put off by James eating a banana in front of her (it’s just the smell and the sound of someone else doing it, she explains, “I like bananas when I eat them”), they’re close, arms and legs entwined, when they’re inside his apartment.


As in most mumblecore, troubles emerge in bits and pieces of conversation. In brief scenes, lovely or tense, mostly unresolved, the film indicates a slow, almost imperceptible evolution in the relationship, the unchartable rhythms of a romance diminishing. When video game designer James brings Mattie along to a coworker’s apartment, she won’t go inside. “I won’t know what to say to them,” she whimpers, “They’re all video gamers and I’m not.” He leaves her in the hallway, eating chips, while he walks off-screen. The frame stays on Mattie, the walls pressing, the space empty-feeling. James comes back, a couple of cuts later, and she’s undone. It’s not clear how she’s turned so needy or maybe always was, but his efforts to keep up are useless.


Outside, she prompts him to play with her, which he does, but his gamboling in the rain and funny faces don’t appease her. She’s already anticipating their split at weekend’s end, she’s feeling abandoned, she’s wanting another way to be in a relationship: any or all of these feelings might motivate Mattie, but the upshot is, she yells at James, the man she loves and doesn’t want to leave: “It’s not funny when it’s not meant with sincerity,” she declares, “I don’t want to do it if you’re just doing it out of anger. I only want to do it if you’re actually gonna have fun and right now, you’re just fucking making fun of me and I don’t think that’s funny.”


Her focus on “fun,” or some idea of fun that’s slipping away—whether suddenly or routinely is unclear—suggests Mattie’s fears are functions of expectations. They’re not defined, not especially rational, but they emerge in outbursts of affection and anger. Both (all) types of interactions are vital to the short days and nights they share. James responds to her tears with his own, lower-key panic (“I’m sick of you fucking crying every time it’s not perfect”), and so she offers to behave: “Don’t worry,” she sniffs, “I won’t cry the rest of the weekend.” And so she doesn’t: they visit with his brother and his pregnant wife, they pose for photos in a booth, where they can select from various “exciting backgrounds.” In matching red knit caps, they smile and mug. “Make an excited face,” Mattie instructs. 


The jumble of their backgrounds is thematic as well as literal. Even as they promise one another to “make a plan” for going forward, they don’t. The next time they meet in the film, in New York, he’s seeing her apartment for the first time. Acknowledging their nervousness, they talk and cuddle, spend less time in bed. They ponder the relationship, looking back on key moments (“Did you tell me you loved me because you thought that was what I wanted to hear and that it was exciting or that you felt it?”) and imagining a future. Mattie connects her past with what might happen, asking, “Do you ever wonder like what story you’re gonna be in someone else’s life?”


You see already that James and Mattie will become stories in each other’s lives, though they put off the split. The film doesn’t press the crisis or the realization. As alternative to conventional plots, character arcs, even conclusions, it offers hints and gestures, glances and failures. When James comes to New York again, “One year later,” he’s in town for an interview, on account of a game he’s designed. At a restaurant before they have dinner, Mattie watches James through the window: standing on the sidewalk, he speaks into his phone, never looking back at her, as she puts on lip gloss and adjusts his air. Mattie’s in the foreground, James blurry through the glass. You never find out whom he’s talking to, never learn exactly how they broke up, only watch the awkwardness as they look for another way to interact.


They find one possibility when they go to James’ photo shoot. They pose and joke a little, not quite correcting the photographer’s assumption that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend (they’ve worn matching jeans and sweaters, to be “funny,” the photographer notes that she’s looking at him “adoringly”). Back at James’ hotel room, they look over the shots and share a few minutes of mutual desire—for the couple who looks out at them from these professionally composed images, faux spontaneity and happy faces. It might have been them. Or, as Nights and Weekends suggests, even their good times might have been imagined, at the time.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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