The latest in a blitz of 2011 releases from mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg, “The Zone” contains little to entice neophytes into his fold. If anything, it’ll actually be a harder sell than the rest of Swanberg’s oeuvre, as it serves as little more than an autocritique of his own filmmaking (or rather, the third entry in an auto-critique trilogy, after “Silver Bullets” and “Art History”). But though this film mostly finds the helmer exploring ever-deeper recesses of his own navel, its moments of genuine insight and knack for pulling out the rug upend some of its faults.
The prolific Swanberg has made something of a mini-empire unto himself with his series of highly amateurish pics containing ample self-referentiality and even more ample superfluously naked young actors. Though his films are frequently ugly, there’s something to be said for the filmmaker’s steadfast attempts to be absolutely modern, to the degree that his points of aesthetic reference hew far closer to the fringes of YouTube (or rather, YouPorn) than even the most low-budget indies.
In a typically Swanbergian touch, the most cogent criticism that can be laid upon “The Zone” comes from the film itself. “You’re complaining about making movies about complaining about making movies,” says the helmer’s real-life wife, Kris, in the most dramatic of several fourth-wall ruptures, before comparing the pic (unfavorably) to “Art History.” Even the director himself finds it hard to argue with her.
“The Zone” is divided into three parts, with only the first being obviously fictional. In this first, weakest segment, Swanberg spotlights three hipster roommates (Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Swanberg regular Kate Lyn Sheil), as each is seduced in turn by a cameraphone-wielding houseguest (Kentucker Audley), in a sort of no-budget re-creation of “Teorema.”
After the last seduction, the narrative abruptly halts, and we see all three of Kentucker’s paramours (all actors playing themselves, though not the same selves they were playing previously) watching the preceding footage with the director (Swanberg). They critique his editing choices and point out his heteronormative bias, then lengthily prepare to shoot an emotionally draining menage a trois scene. As the filmmaking process appears to be reaching the point of complete meltdown, the pic again shifts perspective, and the two Swanbergs (along with a gurgling infant) discuss the faux behind-the-scenes footage that has just played.
Even while lamenting his narcissism (does mumblecore really need its “8 1/2” already?), one must applaud Swanberg’s bravery in providing a glimpse at some of the damage that his style of intrusively intimate filmmaking can wreak on the relationships between his subjects, and between his subjects and himself. The central problem here is that Swanberg remains the focus of the piece even when he tries to allow for dissenting voices, and his own troubles with completing the film, and with justifying it to his audience, eventually shoehorn out the more provocative external questions. It would also help if the film-within-a-film at “The Zone’s” center weren’t such a transparently offhand canvas for Swanberg to play out his particular insecurities — at leastFellini’s spaceship had a beach to sit on.
As usual for the director, the film contains a number of inventively staged, shakily shot extended nude scenes, including one focusing on a very ugly quilt, and another involving a spray-paint sunburn.