The ferocious realism of Joe Swanberg’s films often leave me questioning where the line between fact and fiction begins to blur. As seen through the pixelations of a low-fi digital lens, the intimacy can be so intense – the nudity and sexuality extremely raw – that I frequently wonder how the experiences of shooting these movies affects the off-camera relationships of the actors and filmmakers involved. For instance, how did Swanberg’s wife and mother of his child, Kris, react upon seeing Nights & Weekends, which many could mistake for being a very real document of an affair between Swanberg and Greta Gerwig? Gerwig and Swanberg are both actors, ofcourse, but they also share authorship credit on that film. The decision to pursue that kind of story, seemingly filmed in situations where the two may be the only two people on set, would surely lead to many uncomfortable tensions behind the scenes. Swanberg has always been an autobiographical filmmaker and this very issue – how the intimacy of his art infringes on personal relationships – is teased in a number of his films but never as explicitly as in The Zone, in which he confronts the issue head-on with terrifying results.
It’s easy to accuse Swanberg of being a masturbatory filmmaker with serious exhibitionist tendencies. The more movies of his you watch, however, the clearer his artistic intentions become. He seems to be obsessed with creating a new kind of sexuality on film, closer to that of every day life, where nakedness is just a mundanity and bodies of all shapes and sizes are exposed, in private and to others, all the time. Swanberg wants to dispel the shock of nudity and sex in cinema, to reclaim it from pornography and let it become a valid part of everyday drama rather than a kinky distraction. Frank sex and nudity remains a taboo in mainstream cinema – usually only there to titillate or to heighten an aesthetic – especially in America, but the nudity in Swanberg’s films is so matter-of-fact, his actors so open and exposed and the sex in which they partake so messy and genuine that you eventually get over any initial discomfort or surprise and just accept it as part of the storytelling.
On the other hand, many of the women who expose their bodies in Swanberg’s movies are attractive and their nudity often front and centre. Given that he himself will either share sex scenes with them or, at the very least, be closely involved in the documenting of it, you can’t help but wonder if Swanberg is merely using his art to either get himself off or experience the thrill of partaking in or documenting sexual acts involving attractive women – simulated or otherwise – without experiencing the emotional consequences. As I said before, the more Swanberg movies you watch, the more you begin to wonder about the methods behind the creation of these scenes.
The curtain is lifted in The Zone, which unfolds in two halves. The first a typically Swanbergian affair in which a stranger arrives at a house and proceeds to seduce the men and women living there. At a certain point, this is revealed to be a half-finished film and we find Swanberg and his collaborators reviewing the edit wondering how to proceed. At the centre of it all is the conflict between actress Sophia Takal and her partner, both on screen and off, Lawrence Michael Levine and the tensions that arise from seeing one other partake is sexually explicit scenes with other people. Discussions abound over the ethics of such filmmaking, with Swanberg himself asking his actors if he is pushing them too far and how no relationship is worth sacrificing for the sake of a movie. He mentions how this has been a problem in the past and, despite his best efforts, many friendships have been fraught in the wake of his filmmaking. Given the nature of his films and as their primary creator, Swanberg is given an intense amount of trust from his actors and collaborators; repeatedly wrestling with the prospect of abusing that power, here nine films into his career and finally making a film about it, is clearly taking an emotional toll on him.
We see attempts at filming sex scenes go awry as jealously and fury interrupt the drama and full-blown arguments ensue mid-scene. Given that the camera never stops rolling and the somewhat “too good to be true” nature of moments seemingly caught out of nowhere, it doesn’t take long for you to question the film’s authenticity. Are these re-created from real situations or is the entire thing a sneakily constructed work of meta-fiction designed by Swanberg to answer the questions he surely knows are swirling in the minds of his audience? That blurring of the line here being more blurred than ever. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.
The conflicts of The Zone are fascinating enough and so worthy of investigation that their on-camera authenticity is besides the point. It’s a provocative film, confrontational in its directness and suffocating in its intimacy. Swanberg and his cast open themselves up for dissection to the point where it is uncomfortable and, at times, scary. The film puts you in the position of voyeur in such close quarters to the filmmaking process, at its most confessional and exposed, that you wish you could just back away and look elsewhere, but Swanberg forces you to watch.
Given that The Zone was produced during a remarkably prolific period for Swanberg – he released no less than six completed self-funded features in 2011 – it’s refreshing to see a certain level of self-awareness suddenly dominate his work. When the director and his cast review the film within a film, Levine’s criticisms of the material echoed my own thoughts as I sat through the assembly – how a male on male sex scene is documented with a level of disinterest not present in those featuring the women, seemingly proof of the director’s worst tendencies – and Swanberg nods, agreeing. It shows that the filmmaker is not closed off to accepting his own shortcomings and considering the criticisms – whether valid or not – frequently levelled at him. Like all great artists, he is looking to improve upon past failures and avoid making the same mistakes. He clearly takes the work seriously and in one scene makes a plea to his cast to to do the same in the search for an emotional truth. In other words, he wants them to get in “The Zone” – a phrase which is never uttered aloud in the movie (I don’t think), but that’s what the title refers to and specifically how that zone can be a place of both exciting creation and oppressive, dangerous hostility.
The Zone might be the best Swanberg film I’ve seen to date, certainly the one which affected me most viscerally. The realism reached beyond the screen and made me complicit in the experience to an uncomfortable degree. I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a starting point for Swanberg novices, as the extra-textual layers do rely on some kind of understanding of the filmmaker’s MO via his other work, and your familiarity with the faces on screen – he frequently casts the same people – makes the film’s conflicts that much more intense and involving. But after you’ve made your way through three or four of his early films, fire up The Zone to see what a Joe Swanberg movie can really do.