(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Kissing On the Mouth (2005)
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg
So, welcome to day two of CCLaP's mini-feature on Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg (and by the way, here's part one for those who missed it, which is basically a beginner's guide to the "mumblecore" movement of which Swanberg is a part, as well as part 3 and part 4, for those coming across this in the future). In fact, Swanberg has had quite a prolific career just in his twenties already, aided greatly by the inexpensive digital-video medium in which he works; despite having been out of college now only half a decade, he already has three full-length features under his belt (all of which have been screened in theatres nationally, and as well are available via DVD internationally), not to mention a 20-episode web-based soap opera for Nerve.com, not to mention the collection of short standalone films he's released over the years via his podcast.
It's Swanberg's first full-length feature that I'll be looking at today, 2005's Kissing On the Mouth; it's the movie that first garnered Swanberg a national audience, as well as the first to bring him to the attention of the South by Southwest film festival. And that's the first big irony about the movie, of course, is that it was made in about the simplest, most inexpensive way possible, precisely because Swanberg hadn't received much notice as a filmmaker yet and couldn't raise the kind of money most mainstream filmmakers can; as a matter of fact, the four actors who appear in it actually doubled as the technical crew and camera operators, filming on evenings and weekends whenever they had the chance until the entire thing was finally finished. And then the other big irony of this being Swanberg's first "big" movie, of course, is that it's quite sexually explicit in nature, which viewers should be aware of before watching; that it features erect penises, orgasms, extremely graphic simulations of the sex act, and would receive an NC-17 rating in a heartbeat if Swanberg was to ever submit the film to the MPAA.
But it's important to understand that Kissing On the Mouth is not pornography, not even some fancy-schmancy postmodern Suicide-Girls indie-rock version of it; that the sex and graphic nudity on display are there primarily to move the story forward, not to titillate, and in fact it was Swanberg's intention with this film to "return graphic nudity in movies to the level of the banal." (This is according to an interview I recently conducted with him, which will be running here on Monday as part three of this mini-feature.) And what is the story of Kissing On the Mouth, that it needs such nudity and sex for it to be told? Well, it's the story of relationships, mostly -- of sexual ones and platonic, and sexual ones that should be platonic, and platonic ones that should be sexual. And it's a story as well about how we present ourselves to the world, versus how we look at ourselves when no one else is around; not only from a mental and emotional capacity, but even down to the various physical grooming rituals we all have in our lives.
More specifically, it's the story of four twentysomething indie hipsters in Chicago at the cusp of the millennium, the central one being the unassuming and quietly attractive Ellen (Kate Winterich). Ellen's one of those "background hipsters" that most of us in creative circles seem to know; the one who dates the famous artist but isn't an artist themselves, the one who is always in the corner of the party, the one you're always requesting to speak up when conversing with. And Ellen has a problem, which is that she keeps having sex with her ex-boyfriend Chris (Kevin Pittman), despite knowing that she doesn't want to date him again, despite knowing how wrong it is, despite knowing that it's sending mixed signals to Chris himself (who definitely does want to get back together).
So why does she keep sleeping with him anyway? Well, that's the central question of Kissing On the Mouth, of why all of us occasionally (or sometimes regularly) do boneheaded and destructive things in the name of "gettin' some." Ellen's best friend Laura (Kris Williams), for example, suggests at a certain point that there are moments when all a person wants is a little easy, drama-free sex, without all the hassle of having a romantic boyfriend; but although Ellen cosmetically agrees with her, we sense that this is not the real motivation behind her behavior. And in the meanwhile, Ellen is having to keep the entire thing a secret from her platonic male roommate Patrick (Swanberg); and that in fact becomes one of the most interesting things about Kissing On the Mouth, of why this is such a verboten topic of conversation between two platonic friends with no romantic history.
Because the fact is that Patrick harbors a bit of a crush on Ellen; but it's more complicated than that as well, in that this crush partly exists because of the overwhelming sense of loneliness Patrick is feeling these days, not to mention that it's a crush Patrick is uncomfortable with and doesn't wish to mention out loud. It leads, then, to all kinds of semi-dicklike passive-aggressive behavior from Patrick; like an irrationally large hatred of Ellen's ex in the first place, which is the main reason Ellen can't mention to Patrick that they've started sleeping together again. In the meanwhile, though, the prolonged absences by Ellen from both Patrick and Laura's lives ends up drawing the two of them closer together; and when Ellen discovers this, she herself must now suddenly deal with odd subconscious pangs of jealousy, despite being the one who created the situation in the first place.
As you can probably tell, Kissing On the Mouth is much more of a character-driven project than a plot-driven one; and regular readers of course know that I sometimes have problems with character-driven projects, and personally feel that such projects need extra-strong and extra-fascinating characters to really pull off. Thankfully, though, that's the case with this movie, and in fact it could be argued that this is Swanberg's main strength as an artist altogether; that even in his early twenties, he had a kind of complex understanding of the human spirit that many artists spend their entire careers never learning, a sharpness to his life-observations that reportedly is growing even more acute as he approaches his thirties (if the reviews of his latest movie, Hannah Takes the Stairs, are to be believed, anyway). Swanberg has an almost magical ability to dig deep under the surface of his characters, without being preachy or monologue-happy like so many other beginning filmmakers are; an almost natural ability to present fully three-dimensional characters to the audience, sometimes through nothing else but silent and seemingly inconsequential actions.
Now to be sure, there are problems with Kissing On the Mouth as well, a lot of them technical in nature; for example, for those who don't know, I'm actually about 75-percent deaf, and trying to catch all the poorly-recorded dialogue on display here could become an unimaginable nightmare at times. (There's a reason, after all, that they call it "mumblecore.") Also, it's absolutely impossible to deny, that all of Swanberg's films have a cheap home-video quality to them, which is something an audience member is either going to inherently embrace or not; that they will either naturally see it as the next evolution of underground moviemaking, or will naturally dismiss it as not a "real" movie at all, with not a lot of room in the middle. Of all the mumblecore content I've now seen this year, in fact, that would probably be my biggest complaint about the movement in general; that although it's great that such filmmakers can release such projects for almost no budgets using consumer-level equipment, there is for sure a regrettable sense of visual ugliness that comes with many of these projects, precisely because of the inexpensive consumer-level equipment being used.
I for one, however, am mostly happy to overlook such drawbacks, in order to embrace the situation this technology has brought about; an entire international artistic movement, to be precise, growing by leaps and bounds on a daily basis right now, all of it fueled and financed and distributed by the artists and audience members themselves, bypassing the usual cultural gatekeepers who used to be required in order to get a movie actually finished and in people's hands (like studios, theatre owners, bond companies, distribution companies, etc). It's why I wanted to do an entire feature on mumblecore and Swanberg to begin with, instead of the usual standalone article; because the movement not only embraces all the things that CCLaP also stands for, but is the first such movement to also garner millions of fans, a decent amount of revenue, major distribution deals and the like. It's finally concrete proof of something that's been argued for years now by such people as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow; that in the age we live in, it is entirely possible to both seize your own artistic destiny and to have a passionate, commercially-friendly audience. For a world that has yet to see many success stories regarding artists who embrace this attitude, the accomplishments of the mumblecore filmmakers is something that excites a lot of people indeed; I'm sure it's partly what's driving all the attention these filmmakers are receiving these days, on top of the quality of the films themselves.
So anyway, that's it for today; and I do hope you'll get a chance to come by again on Monday, when I'll be running the whopping 90-minute interview I recently conducted with Swanberg (ironically enough at Bucktown's Swim Cafe, a location Swanberg has used in several of his projects). I hope to see you then!