Alexander the Last

Fair or not, Joe Swanberg, director of five movies and mainstay at the South by Southwest Film Festival, has become a poster boy for the new do-it-yourself film movement in general and Mumblecore in particular.  Swanberg’s films, which are often characterized by improvisational and collaborative scripts, homemade production designs, and frank explorations of young adult sexuality, have tended to polarize critics, some of whom seem more preoccupied by the Mumblecore “brand” than the films themselves.  Of course, as Alejandro Adams argues, Swanberg’s films are inseparable from Mumblecore, and Swanberg himself is an “institution.”  Others argue about relatively trivial aspects of the films: The cast is too white. The production values suck. And so on.  I’ll add that I’ve tended to have some ambivalence toward many of Swanbeerg’s films, mostly because I found Amy Taubin’s reading of Mumblecore as deriving from “lad-magazine culture” to be somewhat persuasive.  But after catching Alexander the Last (IMDB) recently on IFC’s On-Demand, I’ve become somewhat more energized by Swanberg’s approach to moviemaking and by the themes his films often revisit.

Alexander the Last opens with a mock lesbian wedding between two sisters, Alex and Hellen, their wedding rings improvised stems of flowers.  While Alex (Jess Weixler) recites standard wedding vows, her sister improvises her own vows, and as Cynthia Fuchs notes, the scene is “a sweet, touching, and oddly intimate moment, and it’s not completely clear—now or later—just what it means.”  It certainly recalls the childhood games sisters might play, but it also introduces some of the major themes of the film: the intense friendship between these two sisters, the power of marriage vows, and the challenges associated with sexual intimacy that have become a central preoccuption in many of Swanberg’s films, as well as his web series (with his wife Kris Williams), Young American Bodies.

We then see Alex in bed with her new husband, Eliott (musician Justin Rice), as Eliott prepares to go on tour with his band.  As they embrace, Alex asks Eliott what she describes as a “fake question:” do you love me?  Again, as Fuchs points out, the question itself isn’t completely fake, but her manner of asking allows her to confess or express some level of insecurity about their relationship and to seek reassurance from Eliott.

After Eliott leaves, Alex auditions for and wins the part in a play that will frankly explore the sexual relationship between a character played by Alex and another played by Jamie (Barlow Jacobs). The film carefully establishes a vgue attraction between Jamie and Alex, even while Alex introduces Jamie to Hellen.  Although Alex flirts with Jamie, she also flirts with the boundary between player and performance.

During several key scenes, the playwright (Josh Hamilton) and director (Jane Adams) insist that the play must deal with sex directly and worry about theability to convey sexual desire onstage.  And in one of the more effective sequences, the film crosscuts between stage rehearsals of the planned sex scene in Alex’s play and Jamie and Hellen actually in sexual throes.  The rehearsals are deliberately awkward.  We hear the director describing what she wants and even physically arranging the actors with the future audience in mind.  As a result the film seems to introduce a dialectic between authenticity and representation that is somewhat new to Swanberg’s films.

The scene also displays a level of formal sophistication that may not have been explicit in some of Swanberg’s earlier films that seemed to wear their homemade status as a badge of honor.  As Andrew O’Hehir observes, Alexander “is a distinctly more professional film than Swanberg’s previous work, and in most ways that’s a good thing.”  The compositions are sharper, and the use of sound and editing seems far more self-assured.  I don’t want to suggest that there is anything particularly “new” here.  The dialectic between authenticity and performance has been a staple of punk cinema for decades, and the low-budget, minmalist aesthetic isn’t entirely new either.  I even found myself thinking of Woody Allen’s mid-career character dramas in places, perhaps because of the New York setting, but I think Alexander is aksing some interesting questions, both about social relationships and about our means of representing them onstage and onscreen.

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