This Thursday at Doc, it's just one Swanberg after another

Posted by Ben Sachs on Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 2:55 PM

Joe Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets
  • Joe Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets
On Thursday at 7 PM, Doc Films continues its local filmmakers series with a "Joe and Kris Swanberg double feature," with Joe's Silver Bullets (2011) and Kris's Empire Builder (2012) screening back-to-back. The pairing makes perfect sense: Bullets is something of a directorial self-portrait and Empire—directed by his wife and featuring him in the role of "the Husband"—offers another reflection. (Also neither movie has yet to receive a run at any Chicago theater.) If that sounds like Swanberg overload to you, Bullets already has your number. The director claims he fashioned the movie as a response to criticisms of his previous work—in fact it often seems to anticipate its own negative reception. Like Swanberg's subsequent Art History (with which it premiered at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival), Bullets stars the director as someone very much like himself, a low-budget filmmaker who makes improvised, sexually explicit movies on digital video. The character's ongoing project has created a strain between him and his actress girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil), who ends up cheating on him with the director of a low-budget horror movie she's acting in. Is the story autobiographical or an illustration of what Swanberg's critics think he deserves?

With its off-the-cuff dialogue and purposely graceless eroticism, Bullets sometimes feels like Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game as remade by legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar (though it's not as funny as that sounds). What distinguishes the movie from any cinematic forebear is its relationship to its particular zeitgeist. As Ferrara said in an interview a few years ago, movies are getting bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller, which means that independents like Swanberg have to compete with an ever-growing pool of filmmakers for increasingly fragmented audiences. Bullets illustrates this crisis in several ways, most succinctly in a recurring shot of Swanberg staring transfixed into the laptop on which he's editing his current project. Is this what it means to be a digital-era auteur, making movies by yourself for yourself? In another scene, Swanberg's character goes off on a diatribe about why he even bothers to make movies if he can't imagine new forms of cinematic expression. It's a discomforting scene: the actor-director is supremely self-conscious here and yet seemingly unconcerned about embarrassing himself.

Such is the gambit of Silver Bullets—that somewhere between exhibitionism and indifference lies a genuine spontaneity worthy of cinematic art. The critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt (The Unspeakable Act) has averred that Swanberg employs improvisation "not to find new ways to get good performances, but rather to use the fiction as a tool to document the performers' states of being." There's an obvious danger to this method when the filmmaker is also documenting himself. One can get caught in a loop of the self, doing certain things in order to record them, then recording the process of recording and so on. That loop is the focus of Bullets—if not the social media that have come to rival movies as our culture's favorite diversionary activity.

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