Sunday, October 23, 2011

Improvisation in Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets

I have become friends with Joe Swanberg over the years, which may cast suspicion on the journalistic value of this piece. I hope the analysis below may be of some use anyway.

As per Swanberg's usual working methods, Silver Bullets (which begins a week run at the reRun Theater on Friday, October 28) is improvised, with the performers receiving at best a story outline and guidelines for individual scenes. The improvision is not simply a means to arrive at a piece of fiction: Swanberg's goal is not to find new ways to get good performances, but rather to use the fiction as a tool to document the performers' states of being.

I'll look at a few key scenes from the film, all single-shot long takes, all conversations between a couple in crisis: Ethan (Swanberg), a filmmaker, and Claire (the extraordinary Kate Lyn Sheil), each of whom is at work on projects with other artists.

1) In a laundry room, Claire is folding clothes and listening to Ethan voice complaints about his work: new forms are needed, he says, and the films he's been making don't turn out as innovative as he intends them to be. Claire tries to reassure him, at some length: all endeavors realize their conception only partially, and this doesn't mean they're bad. Ethan stares down and doesn't respond. Claire continues to fold clothes; as his silence grows, she realizes that she has not helped, that her argument means nothing to Ethan. So she wipes the slate clean and engages again: "It's not a new form," she says, acknowledging his unhappiness. "No," he says firmly, his first utterance in a while. The two have common ground again. "So what is?" she asks. "I don't know," says Ethan, and is full of words again, struggling with the difficulty of giving a concrete form to his aspiration. The battle is a small one, but the scene shows in its totality a successful attempt by one person to overcome an obstacle to intimacy with another.

2) In bed at night, Ethan hovers in out-of-focus foreground, drinking a beer and not making eye contact, with Claire in focus and center frame, sitting up in bed and looking at him. Before the start of the scene, Ethan dropped a bombshell: he wants to make a movie featuring Claire's friend Charlie (Amy Seimetz), whom he had just met. The scene follows the process of Claire grasping and clarifying her negative reaction. It begins in mid-conversation, with Claire protesting that Ethan has given her no legitimate way to respond. It's a true enough claim, as Ethan is passive, seemingly waiting for Claire's anger to subside before proceeding on his course; yet her response doesn't get to the heart of her distress. Left with time to think, Claire tries again and hits closer to the mark: in mentioning his plan so casually, Ethan is pretending not to know that casting Claire's friend opposite himself in a sexually themed movie is provocative. She errs slightly in saying that Ethan is casting Charlie as Claire; when Ethan corrects her, she refines her position instead of sticking to it: "No, she'd be playing herself. Your new girlfriend." Knowing that she risks losing perspective, Claire momentarily abandons her protest to find common ground: "I'm not saying that you shouldn't do it. I'm also not saying that she wouldn't be great in it - I think that she would. I'm just asking you to acknowledge the fact that it would be weird for me." Ethan sees her gesture of understanding and raises her with an intensifying adverb - "Fully acknowledged" - and meaningful emphasis. But the terms of this peace accord are too unfavorable to Claire, and they both know it. "But you still want to do it?" asks Claire pointedly, knowing the answer, and choosing to leave the wound unhealed.

3) Sitting side by side in a wooded outdoor location, two years after the main action of the film, Ethan and Claire, now separated, take up the topic of their past together, making only occasional eye contact. Ethan confesses that Claire was the only girlfriend that he considered his equal or even better than him, and that he had found this difficult. This tribute corresponds poorly to Claire's experience: without raising her voice, she says that Ethan did a pretty good job of making her feel worse than him. Bitterness will clearly always be within easy reach for the couple. Ethan responds in kind: the low self-regard was her own work, he says; he won't accept responsibility for it. The conversation eventually seems to wind down, with neither person having become too angry or too affectionate. After a silence, Ethan clearly wants to say something large and new to Claire: "Is the work enough, do you think? Is the work we made together enough to justify all this?" Claire just stares at the ground: "I don't know what you mean," she says, almost angrily. Ethan repeats the question with emotion, several times. He has found a genuine way to express his troubled feelings, but this formulation is not valuable at all to Claire, and she will not answer it. When Ethan drops the offending context at one point and simply asks if the work speaks for itself, Claire quietly affirms that it does - but she remains silent when Ethan returns to his theme, unwilling to weigh the relationship on this scale. The improvisation has led to a subtle but identifiable gap between the characters, and the actors sense and maintain the continuity of their character's feelings, even when this leads to the kind of dead air that makes bad improvisers uncomfortable.

In all three instances, we see the actors recovering from starts in the wrong direction. False starts are a necessary consequence of any improvisation; being able to see the mental work that goes into correcting the errors is a much rarer pleasure. Even more noteworthy is the way that all these improvisations refuse to sacrifice the integrity of the characters' positions for easy effect. The feelings underlying the characters' stances are sufficiently complex that the characters naturally waver or double back on themselves under the pressure of relating to each other, and yet are sufficiently consistent that the duels lead to standoffs, to silences that require effort to dislodge.

The scenes also suggest one of the functions of Swanberg performing in his own films. In all the examples above, he creates a tension or an imbalance by starting an action or taking a position. To an extent, Swanberg the actor carries out Swanberg the filmmaker's agenda, setting up scenes that other performers must react to. A corollary of this idea is that Swanberg invariably hands his films to his actresses on a silver platter. As the principal reactor in the film, Sheil is continuously on center stage, and the value of the improvisations largely depends on her sensibility. The scenes above are hitched less to her acting skill than to her intelligence and her emotional balance. Like all Swanberg's films, Silver Bullets requires a level of creativity from its performers beyond what any scripted film can elicit.

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