Joe Swanberg: The Kid Stays in All the Pictures

She's giving feedback. “It's just another movie where you're complaining about directing movies,” she's saying. “I guess that's my main problem with it.” He listens. The baby is on his lap. The baby looks familiar. This must be the same baby from the one where the couple comes to babysit for their friends and then starts thinking about becoming parents themselves. He was in that one, too, as one of the friends.

Before that, there was the other one in which he played a frustrated movie director. So in this one she's right that he's been repeating himself. “Making movies allows me to get close to people that I find interesting,” he said in that one, while sifting through his complaints.

He must value her feedback. These movies Joe Swanberg complains about directing — 17 of them now, in the last eight years alone — draw their power from frankness. They're resourceful and self-challenging, if unambiguously self-indulgent. Often they feature attractive young women getting naked and getting it on, often with him. (He must value her tolerance, too.)

She looks familiar. It must have been her in that one about the pregnant woman who couldn't have a good orgasm with her husband but could with a female friend. This must be the baby she was pregnant with then.

Swanberg just keeps cranking them out. The movies, that is, all these little lo-fi, micro-budget indies, full of compulsion, full of erotic and creative indecision. Individually any one of them might seem minor — they tend to run short, often not much longer than an hour — but they've been adding up. They've been running together.

He may complain, but he's good at this. He has curiosity, a conscience, a knack for narrative economy and lifelike atmosphere. He hasn't much use for the critics he infuriates, or the mainstream audiences he bores. And maybe he's always playing himself, but it's never like he's pretending. This young man and his films — a dozen of which will play at the Roxie this weekend, with Swanberg in person and as willing as ever to talk it out — are what people mean when they say “mumblecore.”

In this one, the one that becomes its own anguished making-of, he puts the baby down for the night, and turns on that same purring noise machine from the one with the babysitting friends. “I never thought I had that much power until people got hurt,” he says, sincerely. Still, he is the one running this show. In real life, he is also Joe Swanberg, and the baby must be his. But aren't they all?

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