The latest in Joe Swanberg’s self-reflective series about artistic indecision (after “Art History,” “Silver Bullets” and “The Zone”) focuses on real-life performance artist Caitlin Stainken (who also co-wrote) and her intermittent relationship with an indie filmmaker played, unsurprisingly, by Swanberg himself. Composed largely of fixed, lengthy medium shots and long shots, “Caitlin Plays Herself” is chopped up into discrete, self-enclosed tableaux, kind of like an American “Vivre sa vie” without the passion, drama or gorgeous imagery. Decidedly understated pic, which bows Dec. 2 in Gotham, is unlikely to change auds’ pre-existing opinions of the prolific mumblecore maven.
The film opens on a naked Caitlin (Stainken) screaming soundlessly under a deluge of black oil in what turns out to be a performance/theater piece protesting the BP oil spill. Cut to a naked Caitlin in a bathtub, engaged in an argument with Swanberg about nudity and bad playwriting (though for a film that starts with a defense of nudity, Swanberg’s film is uncharacteristically genital-free). Their heated discussion opposes the performance artist’s work-in-progress aesthetic with the filmmaker’s desire for a finished product.
Yet Caitlin’s urge toward experimentation appears to hold sway, mirrored by the film’s lack of segues or continuity between scenes, which feel arbitrarily sectioned off as self-contained setpieces; it’s impossible to know from the desultory dialogue how much time elapses between segments. In her on-again, off-again relationship with Swanberg, Caitlin manages to intensify mumblecore’s patented social awkwardness into something resembling open-ended theater.
Aside from a couple of casual (if awkward) sexual encounters involving guys portrayed by mumblecore helmers Frank V. Ross and Spencer Parsons, the pic features few members of Swanberg’s usual eccentric troupe. This leaves the thesping chores to Swanberg, never the most charismatic screen personality, and Stainken, whose very self-possession, even when mired in doubt, offers few points of entry; the lack of assertive personalities further divorces the scenes from any sense of linear narrative.
Swanberg’s newfound interest in aesthetic formalism forces the humans in his compositions to vie for dominance against, say, an enormous wind-tossed willow tree or an abstract painting in the dead center of the frame; overall effect is to isolate the human figures in limbos of their own making.
“Caitlin” marks Swanberg’s sixth feature this year (with “Uncle Kent” and “Autoerotic” joining the aforementioned three). Apparently the filmmaker’s answer to creative doldrums is increased productivity.