At SXSW, Swanberg Mumbles Loud and Clear
By Laurel Wamsley, special to Art Beat
An orderly but eager crowd snakes along Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, wearing South by Southwest Film Festival badges, a large percentage bespectacled and smoking cigarettes as the film’s young and unknown cast poses and smiles for a few paparazzi on a tiny red carpet. The Paramount Theatre is Austin’s grandest, and this is the last movie of Saturday night. It’s the premiere of “Alexander the Last.”
The setting raises the stakes for this small, independent film, though its style is decidedly petite: “Alexander the Last” is the latest offering by a so-called ‘mumblecore’ filmmaker, Joe Swanberg — one of a handful of under-40 directors wielding a small budget, digital cameras and deep wells of feeling. In Swanberg’s case, way under 40; he’s only 27.
“Alexander the Last” is just 72 minutes, but in that time many quiet, charming, funny and moving things happen to average-looking characters with ordinary problems in a small, but well-decorated apartment. Yes, as critics point out, Swanberg’s characters are post-college, white and talented to various degrees, but his films, like “Alexander the Last,” capture their world extremely well. As Swanberg notes when I interview him the next day, older viewers sometimes watch his works “almost like they’re ethnographic films.”
Mumblecore is not an answer to the French New Wave, nor is it an update to Generation X and Hollywood’s version of its artistic, aimless youth a la “Reality Bites.” It eschews predictably “political” ideas in favor of naturalism or, like, reality: Sometimes you have a crush on your co-worker, and sometimes your pretty sister gets everything she wants.
After the movie, Swanberg and the cast (minus the wonderfully intelligent and odd Jane Adams) take questions from the audience. They ask Swanberg questions like, “Why didn’t you act in this one?” and “The girl who sang the song in the movie…is that song up on iTunes?” One of the film’s producers waves to friends in the crowd and a representative from SXSW announces an after-party at a nearby bar, saying everyone is invited.
Swanberg has debuted a movie at SXSW each of the last four years, and it feels like much of the audience in this old theater has been here before. They’re four years older now, back at SXSW to watch a big screen Swanberg once again turned into a mirror.