Silver Bullets/Art History: Berlin Review

A tedious double-whammy of scrappy, mid-length, no-budget indie movies on the navel-gazing theme of scrappy, no-budget, indie-moviemaking.

Mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg's "diptych" efforts, "Silver Bullets" and "Art History" suggest his prominence is more due to relent production and self-promotion than any noteworthy talents as writer, director, cinematographer or editor.

BERLIN — Of all the directors associated with the much-discussed Mumblecore Movement in recent independent American cinema, surely none is as prolific, persistent or publicity-savvy as Joe Swanberg. His "diptych" efforts Silver Bullets and Art History — world-premiering here as an ill-advised, taxing 145-minute double-bill — suggest his prominence is more due to these handy attributes than any noteworthy talents as writer, director, cinematographer or editor.

Each featuring Swanberg himself as a shoestring indie director — we often see him in extended close-up, hunched over his computer's editing suite — the two films don't really complement each other to a significant degree. So each stands a greater chance of exposure as a stand-alone effort.

Even then they will surely struggle to break out of festivals specializing in edgy, hipsterish, off-radar U.S. fare. Their best prospects likely lie via Internet exposure and distribution with copious nudity and fairly explicit sex scenes may boost appeal in such sectors.

Taken together as a double-bill, they offer an overdose of self-referential, self-reflexive self-indulgence, unappealing to look at and listen to with their rough audio and low-grade video visuals. Along the way, we do obtain some very fleeting insights into the creative process, and (especially in Art History) into contemporary personal relationships, but overall this is hard work for limited reward.

In Silver Bullets, Swanberg is joined on screen by several other directors who are well-known within the independent scene, including House of the Devil's Ti West playing a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, toiling on a werewolf movie. The female lead in the film-within-a-film (appealing Kate Lyn Shiel) finds herself drifting into an affair with her easy-going director. It's easy to sympathize with such a move, as her boyfriend is a self-doubting indie filmmaker played by Swanberg with consistently whining dialogue.

"Movies don't make me happy," he mopes. "Their success doesn't make me happy, and their failure doesn't make me happy ... I have no goals ... I don't care." Of course, for audiences who know that Swanberg himself is playing the role, this is all part of an interlocking series of intricate meta-fictional gambits and in-jokes, which may provide occasional moments of mirth.

Even so, his choppy cutting between different layers of film-within-film (presumably with the intention of exploring interfaces between reality and fiction) yields diminishing rewards. The nadir comes in a particularly shoddy climax, featuring a gory werewolf attack and concluding with Swanberg's alter ego considering a drastic, permanent solution to his sea-of-woe artistic dissatisfactions.

Throughout the film, ominous strings-heavy music by Orange Mighty Trio is deployed in an excessive attempt to unify the disparate storytelling modes.

Despite its pretentious, never-explained title, Art History is (perhaps inevitably) more focused and disciplined than its predecessor. The talky "action" almost entirely unfolds on a single set as two actors perform in what could be a porno movie, or perhaps a misguided art-movie with porno elements. And whereas the actors in Silver Bullets were little more than pawns in Swanberg's overall design, here Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne at least do get to explore their characters to a significant degree in performances of brave self-exposure.

Whereas their "fictional" lovemaking is cumbersome and eminently non-erotic, their intimate chats between takes -- during which a genuine romantic spark seems to be developing work quite well as examples of extended improv.

Swanberg can't resist undermining his film's own momentum, however, repeatedly puncturing the mood with shots of himself pondering the editing process. If Swanberg is to progress further, he should bring in an external editor, who would surely take a more ruthlessly objective approach to such ungainly raw material.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Swanberry Productions

Silver Bullets
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Amy Seimetz, Larry Fessenden, Jane Adams
Director/sceenwriter/producer/director of photogrphy/production designer/editor: Joe Swanberg
Music: Orange Mighty Trio
Sales: Swanberry, Chicago
No rating, 69 minutes

Art History
Cast: Josephine Decker, Kent Osborne, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Kris Swanberg
Director/producer/production designer/editor: Joe Swanberg
Screenwriters: Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Kent Osborne, Adam Wingard, Kris Swanberg
Directors of photography: Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard
Sales: Swanberry, Chicago
No rating, 74 minutes