Filmmaker Joe Swanberg and Critic Devin Faraci Clash at Fantastic Fest

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by Matt Singer
September 23, 2012 4:47 AM
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Joe Swanberg at Fantastic Debates Photo By Eric Kohn

Criticwire's covered fights between critics and filmmakers before. But those were verbal spats -- what went down last night at Fantastic Fest's annual Fantastic Debates was a full-on brawl. Two men who clearly didn't like each other got into the ring and duked it out. And when it was all over, only one was declared the winner.

The combatants were Badass Digest film critic Devin Faraci and "Hannah Takes the Stairs" filmmaker Joe Swanberg. I don't know the origins of this feud, though pre-fight rumblings claimed the two got into some kind of an argument at last year's Fantastic Fest. However it started, here's how it ended: with the two entering the squared circle to debate the relative merits of the mumblecore genre and then take some very pointed, very personal shots at one another -- verbally and physically.

On my scorecard, I had the debate a draw -- both men got in their fair share of quality zingers (and, for the record, I had no particular dog in this fight. I like Devin's writing and I like Joe's movies). The boxing match that followed, though, left nothing to ambiguity. Swanberg absolutely annihilated Faraci. First he knocked out his contact lens, then he knocked him down on at least three separate occasions. It wasn't technically a bloodbath -- since as far as I could see there was no blood -- but it was ugly all the same.

For all the drama of the actual boxing, the intellectual sparring was even more interesting. The gulf in the pair's rhetorical strategies revealed a lot about their differences: Faraci worked from well-prepared notes, Swanberg mostly winged it. No wonder these two don't see eye to eye. Faraci likes structure and order in his movies (just look at the things he demands good films contain in his closing argument below) while Swanberg prefers improvisation. No amount of bickering (or punching) will change that. They simply view movies differently.

Here's the full transcript of the Faraci/Swanberg debate from Fantastic Fest 2012, which shall henceforth be known as "The Accostin' in Austin."

Devin Faraci: Joe, I want to thank you for coming down to Austin, Texas to talk. I understand that last night you and your wife ordered out some Chinese food and that Magnolia is now releasing that in 100 theaters next weekend. Congratulations. 

I'm here not because I hate Joe Swanberg -- that's just a plus. I'm here because I love independent cinema. I love indie movies. They are the beating heart of film. This is what the best, the brightest, our greatest directors from Oscar Micheaux to Roger Corman to Dennis Hopper to Kathryn Bigelow, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson -- this is independent cinema. These are people without big means, these are people with big dreams, big visions, and usually -- take note -- a script. Even Cassavetes, who didn't have scripts, had these amazing actors, these incredibly trained naturalistic actors whose qualifications were much more than being willing to have sex onscreen with the director. 

Mumblecore is the opposite of everything that's great about indie film. It's the laziest form of filmmaking. It's a bunch of middle class and upper class white kids whining about their ennui and their middle class white lives in front of a camera, without a script, without good actors. Here's what you need to make a mumblecore movie: a sense of entitlement, white skin, and Greta Gerwig, and that's it.

To me, the word "core" at the end of mumblecore, sounds like it should be something punk rock, something amazing, something edgy. Instead it's the blandest, most self-indulgent bullshit, aimed only at the narcissists who make it. Your only audience, pretty much, is you.

Joe Swanberg: Well, true to form, I haven't prepared like Devin. I heard you use the word "lazy" just now, and also it seems to be the case that I've made more movies than almost any American filmmaker, so that seems to be a constant contradiction.

Additionally, if my audience is just me, why do I make a living as a filmmaker, and why do you seem to have seen so many of my movies?  Maybe you recognize yourself in those movies, Devin. Maybe us mumblecore filmmakers are making movies from the heart that are connecting with you in a way that makes you a little bit uncomfortable, possibly in your underpants area. Maybe they're a little too familiar. Maybe the awkward fumblings of the sexual scenes hit a little too close to home. So rather than embrace these films, you put up a wall of defense.

I also heard you mention Roger Corman, another filmmaker who, in his time, was accused of being lazy, amateurish, sloppy, all of those things. Now he's a hero of yours. Maybe you've got to give these mumblecore movies another 25 years before you see the true impact of them.

Mostly, I'm out there doing it Devin. I'm making movies. I'm getting my friends together, with no money. We're going out there, we're doing it. We're putting ourselves on the line for shitheads like you to take cheap shots from behind your computer. There wouldn't be a you without a me, Devin.

Devin Faraci: Joe, you're right, you have made more films than most other American filmmakers. Hitler killed more Jews than most other people, but that doesn't make [AUDIENCE BOOING DROWNS OUT THE END OF DEVIN'S COMMENT]. It's true, your early films were full of your heart, your soul, your dick. And then you moved past short subjects into longer movies.

It is important that people keep making movies. I do agree that having no money should never be a roadblock for any filmmaker out there. Having no talent, that's a whole other matter altogether.

Joe Swanberg: I'm going to ignore the cheap shots, Devin. We've both come of age in a really amazing time, where technology has allowed me to have a voice and technology has allowed you to have a voice. And I think that, unfortunately, when you use your voice to try to squash people who are young, who are just coming up, who are still figuring out the kind of filmmaker they want to be, the kinds of films they want to make, all you're doing is discouraging creative people from becoming who they are.

I think the next time you see a movie that you really hate, you might want to reflect on it for more than 25 minutes before you write a review, first of all. You write reviews faster than I make movies, that's for sure. How much longer before we get to put the gloves on?

Devin Faraci: Joe, I do agree. I think that young filmmakers out there working hard should be supported. They should have places like Fantastic Fest, to come and show the work they're doing. It doesn't mean that every thought they've ever had has to become a 65 minute motion picture. Here's the thing though: at the end of the day, I think making movies isn't just about getting your friends together and turning a camera on. It's about creating something that speaks to people, something that has a soul, something that has narrative. I think you need to have one of these things: amazing craft, amazing script, amazing actors. At this point, when Kevin Smith is beating you in all three of those, I don't know what to say.

But I do want to say, Joe, I do respect that you came down here. This is not easy, this is not your crowd. I think this was very big of you. And I look forward to punching you right in the face in a couple minutes.

Joe Swanberg: I don't have much to say Devin, except that I'm going to be making a lot more films for the rest of my life, most of them you'll be watching. I'll never read another word you write. I think you've demonstrated an incredibly close-minded view of what cinema can be, by referencing just script, or just narrative, or just those things. I think you have a lot to learn. I'm excited for you to learn it. Mostly I'm excited to put the gloves on and beat the shit out of you.

And then he did (and then he did). Did it prove anything? Did film "defeat" criticism when Swanberg defeated Faraci in the ring? I don't think so. I believe both critics and filmmakers -- not just these guys, but all critics and filmmakers in general -- need to recognize that they're each working in the pursuit of their own form of self-expression. And despite the evidence presented by this rather combative evening, both need the other to thrive. But if you disagree with me, it's not like I'm going to fight you over it.

UPDATE: Debate and fight video below, courtesy of Fantastic Fest and Arts + Labor.

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21 Comments

  • imBadRonald | February 1, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    A draw on the debate?!? Swanberg was all over Faraci inside and outside the ring! Faraci just delivered rhetoric and gags, while Swanberg offered up arguments and discussion. No -- I'm not a mumblecore fan. I can easily see why people cast it off, but I also see it does holds some merit. Of course, it all depends on the filmmaker.

  • imBadRonald | February 1, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    A draw on the debate?!? Swanberg was all over Faraci inside and outside the ring! Faraci just delivered rhetoric and gags, while Swanberg offered up arguments and discussion. No -- I'm not a mumblecore fan. I can easily see why people cast it off, but I also see it does holds some merit. Of course, it all depends on the filmmaker.

  • Kentucker Audley | December 26, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    Cool fight.

  • Jon Jost | September 27, 2012 2:30 PMReply

    While I agree with Joe that scripts are not a necessary ingredient to a good film (can be, but not necessarily), etc. etc. I would like to note that the narcissist charge holds some weight - as in Joe's comment that he's made more films than anyone else - while he's made 16 films in a very short time (I admit I couldn't sit through those I tried - Kissing on the Mouth being one) I note that the world didn't start at his birth, and while I have been around a bit longer, IMDB says he's made 16 films (not sure they are all features); I've done 34 or so (lost track). And some people I know in the "indie" world have done so as well.
    That these things resort to boxing matches suggests (as do the cable shows of extreme fighting a friend of mine watches) suggests the terminal state of decline of our so-called culture. Sad.
    www.jon-jost.com
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  • Colin Biggs | September 24, 2012 6:30 PMReply

    You would think Faraci would take a boxing lesson or two one of these years.

  • AAAutin | September 24, 2012 12:01 PMReply

    I fail to understand why someone who seems so intent on limiting free expression and discouraging fringe artists would choose a profession which is fed by both.

  • CinemaPsycho | September 23, 2012 5:29 PMReply

    While I haven't seen a single Swanberg film yet, I am glad that Devin Faraci got the shit beaten out of him, because he's a fucking asshole. Don't get in the ring if you can't fight, moron.

  • Puffer | September 23, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    Once again, Godwin's Law does *not* state that your argument or analogy is invalid if you bring up Hitler/Nazis. It simple says says that on a long enough timeline all Internet debates will come to this. Godwin himself said there are plenty of times when using Nazis as a reference is appropriate and/or relevant.

    The ironic thing is people now use this misapplication of Godwin's Law to "Godwin" arguments in their favor. "We'll, you mentioned Hitler so everything you said is invalid."

  • Pierre | September 26, 2012 8:56 PM

    Last time I heard people were trying to a legitimise a Godwin's Law off-shoot to officiate that thesis anyway. I wonder where the internet is with that...

  • PM | September 23, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    Joe's a good dude. Good on him for engaging in that 'debate' (and fight).

    I shot a 90-minute interview with Joe where he gets into more detail about his thoughts on film criticism and modern cinema culture (in a less combative environment). You can watch it for free here:
    http://www.theseventhart.org/issues/005-joe-swanberg-lauren-greenfield/

  • HushJohn | September 23, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    Well, these silly "debates" are just juvenile exercises to liven up festivals like this... On one point, though, Devin is wrong about Cassavete's films being improvised and having no script. Gazzara, Falk, etc have all said that the films they did with Cassavetes were heavily scripted. His actors have often said that the idea that the films were improvised can be chalked up to Cassavete's ear for dialogue, his extensive rehearsals, and the freedom he gave the actors when filming.

  • antho42 | September 23, 2012 1:18 PMReply

    What about Wong Kar Wai? The man is notorious for not using scripts.

  • jason jones | September 23, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    Cassavetes used scripts. You'd think a self-described critic would know a thing or two about the subject he's debating. Its just a fact. I have several of them.

  • nyise | September 23, 2012 12:24 PMReply

    "It's true, your early films were full of your heart, your soul, your dick. And then you moved past short subjects..."

    Ouch.

    No filmmaker ever wants to be told his dick is a 'short subject'.

  • Ignatius J Reilly | September 23, 2012 12:20 PMReply

    "I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love." - WH Auden

  • Daniella Isaacs | September 23, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    In addition to suggesting he doesn't really get Cassavetes (though he tries to preemptively neutralize that charge), this exchange suggests Devin doesn't really get Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, and a whole lot of other important filmmakers either. It also seems odd that as a self-professed film lover, he compares the act of making movies with the act of killing Jews. Yikes!

  • Corey Atad | September 23, 2012 10:20 AMReply

    Gotta say, Devin lost this one big time, and not just because he perfectly demonstrated Godwin's Law. The problem with Devin's line of argument is that he's essentially deciding, in fairly narrow terms, the elements that make a film artistically valid. The truth is, so long as a film exists and someone watches it, it becomes artistically valid. Joe Swanberg might make good films, or bad films, but that's a matter of taste. A more interesting argument might be that he makes so many films about such trivial concerns as to as to water down their individual effect. Unfortunately, Devin resorted to simply attacking the films as not being good, and also as not being worthy art. Always an impossible argument to make, even against an opponent who basically clings to his right to make whatever he wants. It's an automatic loss.

  • Marsha | September 23, 2012 9:32 AMReply

    They certainly jam-packed their little scuffle with cliches. Joe's whining about critics all being big evil meanie heads who discourage artists from their one true calling doesn't exactly impress me. Then Devin went Godwin in record time. Neither argument should be seriously made by anyone over the age of 15, though I gotta hope Devin was joking. Surely he knows enough to not Godwin himself within seconds. Right?

  • Brad | September 23, 2012 9:31 AMReply

    When your first rebuttal proves Godwin's law, you've lost the debate.

  • Luke | September 23, 2012 6:11 AMReply

    I realise that the atmosphere in the room can effect things, but that transcript reads as if Devin came on top in the debate. I find that particularly impressive because I disagree with almost everything Devin said and enjoy the Swanberg movies I've seen (I agree with Joe's assertion that Devin has a close-minded view of what cinema can be). However, Devin injected more humour and insight than Joe did, and had a generally more structured and cohesive argument.

  • kasper | September 23, 2012 12:41 PM

    But I also think Devin came in with his insults ready to go.

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