In our new column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. In this instalment, Brad Mariano looks at a forgotten film among indie director Joe Swanberg’s prolific filmography, The Zone (2011).
Date Watched: 18th September, 2014
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 41
This segment, traipsing through the forgotten corners of our favourite movie database, Letterboxd, can often lead us in strange directions, most often due to misleading synopses that go unchecked. This of course is half the point, to discover and write on films that haven’t been written about every which way and to go in with only vague guidelines or expectations. Case in point, the Letterboxd summary for The Zone:
A mysterious visitor spends the night at an apartment belonging to a young engaged couple and their friend. Over the course of the night and the following day he sleeps with all three roommates and then disappears, leading to conversations about God, life and filmmaking.
I discovered this film looking through Swanberg’s filmography at a glance, and it’d not hard to see why some might be forgotten – this is one of the incredible SIX feature films Swanberg made in 2011 alone, and one of the four of these that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia stub. But, there are a million underwatched indie films out there – the hook that got me was the above plot summary, which to me was clearly a remake/rehash of one of my all time favourite films, Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini. In it, a ‘mysterious visitor’ (Terrence Stamp) stays with a family, seduces each member before disappearing. As hinted above, the void he leaves results in some extreme revelations. Now here’s the point of disclaimer – I struggle with Swanberg and mumblecore more generally. In absolute terms, I pitched this piece as a “A film I love remade by a director I hate”, but a more reasonable and accurate wording would be a film I do love, made by a director whose methods I haven’t usually responded to. Pasolini’s premise descended into his key concerns – the visitor’s presence and departure leads the bourgeois family into reflection on religion, sexuality and class awareness, particularly from a Marxist perspective. I was interested to see how Swanberg’s low-fi filmmaking would inform or transform the premise.1
However, that’s not really what The Zone is interested in. That narrative does feature, but its only really half the film (or structurally, one third) – the first half hour is a visitor (Kentucker Audley) filming around a sharehouse and seducing the three inhabitants. It’s quite effective – shot in pretty surreal, meditative style, and with aural cues that appear to be taken from Angelo Badalamenti’s opening Mulholland Drive score, there’s a low-budget spookiness to the scenes that works. But also, one talent Swanberg has in spades is the ability to capture sexual tension on film (think the unspoken chemistry of Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies), something all the more difficult when you consider how many mainstream films historically bank on this dynamic, of attractive and capable actors so often incapable of portraying physical attraction without dialogue or sex scenes; the necessary awkwardness but palpable excitement is something much harder to convey, and it needs time and atmosphere that blockbusters don’t afford it. There’s a real immediacy to the visitor’s encounters with the housemates through his iPhone, though his tryst with the male housemate (Laurence Michael Levine) and the later climax of the three housemates coming together realising the visitor’s absence have softened impacts, and then we’re suddenly given a jolting narrative shift.
We jump to Joe Swanberg himself at a computer with all the actors critiquing and editing what came before (there was a striking effect to see the actors criticising the male encounter, and I felt sort of duped to have my own observation so cleverly pre-empted) – suddenly, what came before is the film-within-a-film; not an unprecedented structural device, and according to Swanbergphiles, not even something new to his work, but the bulk of this film becomes a treatise on the creative process; not something as operatic as Fellini’s 8 ½ or any of the other known “films about filmmaking”, but one distinctly about the types of films Swanberg makes – highly collaborative, micro-budget films with friends as the chief collaborators.
The central problem becomes the staging of a scene in the film-within-a-film, of a threesome between the characters. On the original narrative level, the vistor has presumably left a sexual void akin to that of Silvana Mangano’s character in Teorema, and they come together one night in some sort of reverie. The catch is that with not just the characters in the fictional film, but the actors playing them, two of them (Levine and Sofia Takal) are in a relationship, as well as being close friends with Swanberg and co-star and co-partner in the scene, Kate Lyn Sheil. There’s a real authenticity to these scenes, between the actors (some really erotic scenes as actors prepare for it mentally) and particularly the position Swanberg the director is put in; that people have gotten hurt in small productions like these, and weighing up the personal versus artistic problems like this becomes a quandary as a particular dilemma emerges. As soon as you cut scenes or make changes due to extraneous factors, like the personal lives that are involved, you necessarily jeopardise the artistic integrity of the work. However, even if you do go forward with the planned scenes, there’s no guarantee they’re going to be any good, and that’s the ingenuity of the premise – even as spectators, we suspect the threesome angle would likely play as sleazy and sort of clumsy, but as soon as it’s hampered by other reasons, it would be impossible to believe that it’s being dropped for purely artistic reasons. It’s a hell of a paradox, that ends up derailing the project entirely.
When it becomes increasingly clear that despite assurances from the actors, the scene will impact their personal lives severely, this dilemma stunts the progression of the film; even in a production as improvisational as a Swanberg film, there are some concessions that for the filmmakers would be too detrimental to the artistic process. It plays out really fascinatingly – Swanberg basically shows that there are no more problematic, incendiary but important elements to a film than the people involved, and crucially separates this style of filmmaking from big budget films – in a Hollywood production, money and professionalism will usually win out. In Swanberg’s methods, the incestuous and collaborative nature of a film like this means he’s working in tumultuous circumstances, where frienships, romantic entanglements and professional relationships are inextricable from one another and from the work in progress. And although the film as a whole has a necessarily navel-gazing and narcissistic angle (the fact that we watch a guy masturbate for several minutes is symbolism too obvious to even point out here) there’s an honesty in the way Swanberg points out the limitations of both this style of filmmaking, and of himself – a better filmmaker might disregard the people involved for the sake of the art, and a better friend might not have brought people he cares about into this mess in the first place.
There’s a coda at the end that goes to an even further meta-level, that won’t win over people already turned off by the film, and posits an argument that tries to invalidate the whole film. On one level, it’s another way of pre-empting criticism, but I think it further illuminates the frustrating nature of this sort of filmmaking. A whole, a successful discovery for me; even if my original angle is ruined, it made me enjoy a director I’ve had a lot of trouble with: Swanberg in meta mode is pretty fascinating.