The very first shot of “Art History” features a close-up of a woman’s hand placing a condom on an erection. If you needed any further clues that prolific indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg has no intention of going mainstream any time soon, the director has a cock for you to look at. While his “mumble core” allies are moving on to more broad or genre interests (Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig might as well star in a CBS sitcom at this point), Swanberg soldiers on, approaching the academic depths usually plumbed by late-career artists freed by their lower budgets.
Indeed, what’s most fascinating about Swanberg’s lived-in aesthetic is that he’s so young, so confident of the onscreen interplay of real-seeming characters. Blurring the line between gimmick and hook, “Art History” finds him onscreen as part of an ensemble, a group of filmmakers shooting low-rent pornography while spending their nights drinking and joking, desperate to convince themselves that they’re still young enough to have some fun.
We’re never entirely clear what this situation is supposed to mean (using only one primary location, Swanberg might as well have shot in real-time), though we can be certain these aren’t exactly prototypical porn stars. It’s the usual stringy, skinny, hairy Swanberg players, in this case men with modest members and slight paunches, women with flat chests and long, gawky legs, all under the direction of Swanberg himself. What is certain is that Swanberg’s character isn’t making your run-of-the-mill smut, but instead trying to infuse the onscreen sex with a sense of nuance.
In a telling scene, we see him rehearse with actors, shaping a line of dialogue so that it implies a make-believe sexual past. Of course, what his character is doing is vulgar enough -- pushing for an emotional connection between the characters, he’s also bringing the actors together, both with the incestuous living situation and the intimate connections between all participants. But in fabricating a sexual history (the film within a film, unsurprisingly, seems unscripted), Swanberg seems to be creating this bond between the two of them, only to further pervert it with his own “creative” influence.
The knotty, sexually invasive shoot is observed through mostly mid-range shots when not lingering over freckled skin and sloppy birthmarks. A moment when the cast and crew line up between each others’ legs for a massage “train” seems to go on for too long, each participant terrified of getting up. And a quiet moment in the pool (which, given the proximity, is the closest thing to a “hangout place” than anywhere else in the film) is consistently interrupted by interlopers, with people physically distancing themselves as a third party arrives.
Swanberg seems intrigued by the ideas of intimacy in front and behind the camera. Fittingly, while the young couple at the center of the film quibble and quarrel, Swanberg’s director surrogate spends most of his time at his computer, ostensibly compiling footage. It’s the director as observer of the human condition, and naturally Swanberg considers himself something of a cultural anthropologist.
At this point, you’re either on the Swanberg train, or you aren’t, and “Art History,” which serves as more of an academic study than a film, isn’t going to be your gateway drug. Few filmmakers have taken such an interest in the failures of the creative twentysomething in the smaller, more intimate moments, and a Swanberg picture hasn’t been as aesthetically naked as this so far. We imagine the next step is pornography, because Swanberg has left story far behind. If you like your movies somewhere between Catherine Breillat and early period Monte Hellman, he’s something similar, if much milder. [B-]
"Art History" is currently playing the ReRun Gastropub Theater in New York City.