Nights and Weekends (2008, Directors: Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig): A fitting opening night film for the Toronto leg of the Generation DIY mini-fest, Nights and Weekends is co-director Joe Swanberg’s fourth feature film in four years (in addition to two series of online shorts), and he’s still just 26. Perhaps no other director better exemplifies the DIY spirit right now. This particular film grew out of a close collaboration with Greta Gerwig, who has acted in most of Swanberg’s previous films. Their real-life friendship informs and adds some tension to this story of a long-distance relationship.
James lives in Chicago while his girlfriend Mattie lives in New York. We eavesdrop on their hurried lovemaking and awkward conversations in both cities and then quickly it’s a year later and they’ve broken up. The last half of the film deals with their unresolved feelings as they both want to make it work but know that it can’t. For anyone who’s ever been involved in a long-distance romance, much of this will ring true. Physical distance creates both intense longing and emotional blind spots. The film begins with them tearing each other’s clothes off at the beginning of a rare weekend together. But once that’s done, they spend the rest of the time trying not to deal with their impending separation. Though they promise to come up with a plan to be together, it never takes shape. The film is full of awkward silences and glances, as these inarticulate characters struggle to hold onto what they have. There is a tension throughout the film that gradually slackens into sadness, and in another sex scene near the end of the film that bookends the opening scene, both characters can’t keep their fatalism at bay long enough to consummate their desire. It’s an emotionally affecting scene, even in the absence of any particularly well-written dialogue.
According to Swanberg and Gerwig, a lot of the dialogue was improvised, and credit must be given to the skillful editing (also by Swanberg) for shaping this into a film with an emotional arc. Of all the “mumblecore” directors, I think Swanberg is the least concerned with filmmaking “flourishes”. His films are the least “arty” in my opinion. Instead he seems to aim for emotional authenticity and in this case, he has the perfect collaborator. Gerwig is the better actor (something Swanberg freely admits), and her mood changes effectively communicate her confusion and frustration in every scene. It doesn’t hurt that the camera adores her. Even the harshness of digital video cannot dim her natural beauty.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the intensely intimate sex scenes in the film. Though we never see James and Mattie actually having sex, there is plenty of nudity and foreplay on screen. When Hollywood films show people in sexual situations, you’re keenly aware that these are actors who probably don’t know each other very well, but here we have two real-life friends, co-writers and co-directors of the film, not only emotionally but physically naked in front of each other and the audience. It’s raw and brave and awkward all at the same time. I couldn’t help but wonder what Swanberg’s wife thought of all of this, though he’s featured this sort of matter-of-fact sexuality in all of his films.
In my review of his film LOL, I wondered (perhaps a little unfairly) what it would be like for Swanberg to work with “real” actors, but I think Gerwig is the real thing. Still, I’d like to see him stay behind the camera (preferably a 35mm film camera) and work with a fully-formed script next time. That being said, and although this film feels unpolished and slightly unfinished, Nights and Weekends contains moments of genuine emotional power.