by Jeff Reichert
Alexander the Last
dir. Joe Swanberg, U.S., IFC Films
A few nights ago, after downing some tacos and watching an episode (or two) of House, I settled on my couch, turned out the lights, clicked the On Demand button on my remote, and ordered myself up a gosh-darnit, honest-to-goodness new release straight from its festival premiere at SXSW for the low-low price of $5.99. A few years ago, this would have been an impossible scenario, now each week brings word of fresh platforms for distribution and new configurations of traditional release windows, while theatrical exhibitors sit on the sidelines and wonder if their trade may well heading for extinction. Who said the revolution wouldn’t be televised?
The film I spent six bucks on was Paste magazine cover boy Joe Swanberg’s hotly anticipated (by some, if not me) fifth feature, Alexander the Last, which recently premiered in that mumblecore hotbed of Austin, TX, and is now available exclusively via your teevee. Marginally a story of two sisters, Alex (Jess Weixler of Teeth), a married actress, and Hellen (Amy Seimetz of various sub-indie fare), a photographer who makes pathologically poor relationship choices, and Jamie, the man they dually romance (Barlow Jacobs, also a face you may vaguely recognize), Alexander builds itself around rehearsals for a play starring Alex and Jamie, but is generally most concerned with those fleeting moments of interaction between the trio that happen outside the theater. If it sounds like a work unlikely to spark a sea change in how we watch movies, it is. Yet, if it registers as a success, you can bet more and more filmmakers (especially young Americans) will sign on to bypass theatrical releases entirely.
In a film with a mere 72-minute running length (including a lengthy tacked-on opening credits sequence featuring the main cast members inexplicably covered in pies), this kind of minor-league activity doesn’t have a chance to amount to much—Alexander is truly a narrative in name only. It’s a film that rests almost entirely on the instant, though thankfully, unlike Swanberg’s earlier works, those instants aren’t stretched out into eternities through unending playpen improvisations. The addition of some seasoned performers (notably Josh Hamilton and Jane Adams as, respectively, the play’s author and director) adds some depth, and the omission of folks like Kent Osborne, Greta Gerwig, and Swanberg himself, all so ingrained in the scene, decompresses the stultifying atmosphere that’s smothered many a mumblecore film. It’s also refreshing to find some visual beauty—occasional shots recall the dissipated languor of early Fassbinder, others the sensual creepiness of Lars von Trier’s DV films. On most scores, Alexander the Last is almost worlds away from the piercingly unwatchable horror of Hannah Takes the Stairs. But all the same, to build any force of momentum at all, the interstitial and seemingly insignificant need time to accrue gradually (see two filmmakers Swanberg has been erroneously compared to: Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel), a task Alexander seems far too ADD to complete.
Even if the general level of the production represents a leap, the whole is still marred by a disturbing undercurrent that’s made most of the postgraduate naturalists (to borrow colleague Nick Pinkerton’s apt taxonomy) seem generally insignificant—there’s no danger here, little seems at stake, and there’s hardly a sense of how these lives are impacted by the world at large. Will Alex cheat on her husband, Elliott (Justin Rice)? Is going through with the act in real life even necessary for a breach of marital faith? Will Jamie and Alex sort things out? It’s unlikely you’ll care by the end, so little developed are these strands and so inconsequential they end up as a result. There’s some intriguing art-meets-life-meets-art interplay between the theater rehearsals and “real-life” stuff (including a nimbly intercut pair of sex sequences), but we haven’t exactly graduated into Rivette territory either.
Part of the problem remains Swanberg’s general inability to deploy any credible emblem of masculinity. Justin Rice, when confronted with Weixler’s bare breasts on two occasions seems generally unaware of how to handle them, while Jacobs, the smirky-squinty Swanberg stand-in, barely sketches anything out past the barest hint of an accent and bedhead. Without believable males, even the miniature relationship machinations being traced here end up irrevocably crippled. Swanberg’s still at his best filming sex, a trait that shouldn’t be diminished in a film culture more comfortable with turning the lights off on copulation, even if it has opened him up to charges (i.e. Amy Taubin’s) of exploitation. Still it should be telling that a “New Talkie” director shines most when his characters wrap their mouths around each other, instead of their writer-director’s words.
Though I’ll always much prefer the rituals of theatergoing to this more solitary viewing experience, $5.99 later (imagine the value had I invited a few friends over to split the costs...) I felt as though I ended up watching something resembling a movie, and in the right place. After all, why should theaters be able to charge the same price for a movie that costs $200 million to make as they do for a movie that costs $50,000? In many ways, Alexander’s the most perfect, least irritating exegesis of the Swanberg project yet; throw in the distribution platform and pricing and you’ve got a filmmaker that’s finally made it, small-time. I might not turn off Alexander the Last if it came on (free) television again, and there’s even a part of me still wondering a bit about those people I spent that hour with. It’s the first Swanberg film that left me actively wanting more instead of aggravated by far too much of far too little.