Nights and Weekends

Hey, you know Greta Gerwig, director of last year’s biggest movie, BARBIE? Whose two previous films LADY BIRD and LITTLE WOMEN were also great and also best picture nominated? Do you remember that she used to be an actress in no budget talkie film festival movies?

It’s cool how quickly we can adjust to those transformations. They seem so strange at first, but then they stick. Stuff like “Bradley Cooper, Oscar nominee” seems unlikely and amusing at first, then pretty soon it’s the most normal thing in the world. At first Gerwig was this rising star of indie movies, she had cool hair, played adorable space cadets, seemed like somebody I would’ve wanted to be friends with or had a crush on when I was younger. I don’t think I saw LOL or HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, the two Joe-Swanberg-directed movies that got her started, so I first knew her from BAGHEAD and THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.

In my review of GREENBERG I called her “a more naturalistic version of a Zoe Deschanel type eccentric sweetheart.” I remember thinking “Oh wow, she’s doing movies with Ben Stiller now.” And when I saw FRANCES HA it was “she’s co-writing with Noah Baumbach now” and soon it was “she’s directing now” and now she’s had three award-winning bangers in a row and it’s conventional wisdom that it was crazy not to nominate her for best director for BARBIE. She’s one of Hollywood’s top guys.

But there was a step along the way that I missed, which was that way back in 2008, while still hanging out with that microbudget crowd, she got her first directing credit. It’s very different from her other ones not just because it’s her first try, but because she co-directed, co-wrote and co-starred with Swanberg. I prefer not to use the word people use for this movement, because it’s a dumb one, but it’s Swanberg’s type of homegrown, low plot, handheld, improvised, naturalistic relationship exploration movie. Fellow indie directors Jay Duplass and the late great Seattle legend Lynn Shelton also have bit parts in it, but most scenes only involve Gerwig and Swanberg as Mattie and James, two post-college young people in a long distance relationship, which we see chronicled in three segments: 1, she comes to visit him in Chicago. 2, he comes to visit her in New York. 3, he comes to visit her in New York again a year later when they’re not together but still have complicated feelings.

I can already feel some of you getting ready to tell me how much you will not ever watch this movie based on my description of it, and that’s fine. Of course you would hate it. It’s not doing any of the things you want movies to do, it’s doing different things that these two were interested in at the time, as is their human right as possessors of the camera. I enjoyed it.

It opens with Mattie first arriving at James’s apartment and the two scrambling to pull each other’s clothes off to have sex on the small, cluttered floor. It’s cute how clumsy and completely unromanticized it is. There are no candles lit or sexy songs playing, and it takes forever to get everything removed even though they’re in such a hurry. It’s not, like, super hot, it’s just very normal.

I hesitate to bring this up, but it’s relevant: there are a couple scenes here where you see his, uh… part, in a state that normally means an automatic X rating. Nothing is happening here, don’t call the cops, but it’s surprising, because it’s a thing you basically never see in non-porn. You know how they say before PSYCHO they never showed a toilet in a movie? It seems kind of like that. With the approach they take it really doesn’t feel prurient, like THE BROWN BUNNY or anything. It just feels honest. They’re just a couple doing what couples do.

It’s an intimate movie in other senses too. So much of it is these two sitting or laying on mattresses, beds or floors, in small apartments, hotels, a hallway. They’re eating a bunch of fast food or talking about random things, usually inconsequential – childhood memories, opinions about dumb things, like Mattie thinking it’s gross to see another person eating a banana. Things you might have the energy to talk about at that age, before you owned a bed frame.

They do go outdoors sometimes. They do small, fun things together. They use a coin operated photo booth. Later, at another time in their lives, they end up in a professional photo shoot for a magazine profile or something. In both cases they’re sort of testing out and playing the part of a couple they might wish to be.

I definitely get the sense that although Gerwig and Swanberg are playing characters, they’re at the very least bringing a large portion of themselves to it, speaking the things that go through their heads, so with that theory in mind it’s funny to watch Mattie teeter between lovable space case and maybe a little too much. Back then you wouldn’t have known how full or not full of shit she was, but now we know she’ll be able to turn those whimsical notions of hers into gold.

It seems almost like a trust exercise where the two actors try to talk on camera about embarrassing, self-indulgent thoughts you might say to a new-ish partner but not anybody else. They are simple but fearless performances, especially in a key scene that involves a painful transition from horniness to messy, confusing emotions. It’s not a heavy movie, but it feels so true to life that when things are souring it stressed me in a way few movies do. The fights they have are never over the normal things you put in a story for drama. They’re over things so small and ambiguous you know it’s really not about the thing they’re talking about, it’s other things building up over time. And you stare at James closing up and not saying anything, Mattie getting upset and then saying she’s not upset, James bringing it up again and prolonging it when he had an out. We’d all become their couples therapist if it went much longer.

I read that the one year later portion really was filmed one year later, which seems evident just looking at them. Maybe it’s a small thing, you could obviously just give them different haircuts, but it really feels like things have changed a little and they’ve had some distance and now they’re coming back to each other and it’s exciting but weird. That’s something you can work into the schedule when you’re making a tiny movie, might as well take advantage of it then.

So now I wonder what kind of practice Gerwig got out of co-directing her first feature. Everything she’s done on her own has been far more ambitious and sophisticated in ever department – camera work, characterization, an actual script and story, sets and costumes, in one case an elaborate fantasy world. NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS forgoes all that and zeroes in on natural performances, speech and emotions that seem raw and authentic. But Gerwig and Swanberg are getting that out of themselves, so I’m not sure how much it applies to directing other actors (though does get universally great performances from her casts). My guess would be that this just gave her the proof that she could do it – she could put together a complete movie experience with very little resources. So she knows underneath all those other cinematic elements that she ended up being so good at, there’s some kind of basic, primal ingredient to fall back on.

Or something. Anyway, I’m glad she got out of that world without seeming like a totally different person. This is an interesting origin story.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 13th, 2024 at 7:29 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Responses to “Nights and Weekends”

  1. Interesting review, but the movie you describe sounds insufferable and boring — i.e. it sounds like a Joe Swanberg movie. I understand he didn’t direct this one, but his improvisatory style of writing and directing really sucks. It sounds like his process is very rewarding for his actors (/friends), and he can’t be asking for big time commitments because his movies all look and feel like they were made over a weekend, so I get why his casts are usually so good — but to watch something made by Joe Swanberg is almost always a huge chore.

    Joe Swanberg has made one good movie, and that movie is ‘WIN IT ALL.’ I started watching it not realizing it was one of his and when I saw his name I expected to hate it, so the fact that I loved it was a huge surprise. I probably liked it even more than I otherwise would have, just because of how pleasantly surprised I was that it turned out Swanberg made something good and that he was capable of making something with stakes and creating suspense and making me hold my breath at the end. I looked it up after to find out what happened, and it turned out the answer was pretty simple — that time he (and Jake Johnson) wrote an actual script instead of a Curb Your Enthusiasm-like outline for him and his actor buddies to aimlessly riff on in his backyard.

  2. Wow, surprised to see a review for this one pop up! I watched it many years ago, but don’t remember much about it. (I think it was the first time I saw/took notice of the Chicago “bean.”) But I dug many of the m********e movies I watched back then, with their improvised-but-witty dialogue, naturalism, casual filmatism, frank depictions of sexuality and the human body, and refreshingly short runtimes. I still think of Greta Gerwig as the girl from these movies. It seemed crazy when she was starring in stuff like the ARTHUR remake, and crazier still that she has become a big deal Hollywood director. But she’s got the juice.

    It may be worth revisiting/reviewing BAGHEAD. I remember that one being pretty effective at shifting the tone from murmuring indie to slasher flick and back again.

  3. Nothing has changed as far as who Greta Gerwig is or what she looks like. But man, did I have a crush on her back then. And House Of the Devil… There’s that scene where she’s in a baseball shirt, murdering a greasy slice of pizza… A part of my heart is still in that scene somewhere.

    Swanberg is interesting. He seems like an irritant in real life (talking about his nudity in here made me recall some unfortunate episodes I’ve heard about the dude) but he was really of that school of naturalistic no bullshit indies. “LOL” is one I remember liking a lot, but it’s kind of an outlier, very experimental, very “how we live now”. Sadly, of that moment, I don’t think he had the talent of his contemporary, Andrew Bujalski. But he was a reminder that if you wanna make movies, you should grab a camera and just do it.

    “Drinking Buddies” was shit, though. Don’t make me reevaluate that one.

  4. Vern, did you like BAGHEAD? I folded it into my horror marathon in October and was surprised how much it won me over. Not sure if I hated every single character or if I just recognised versions of them from my own life.

  5. Yeah, I think I kinda liked it, but I saw it when it was new on video, so it’s been a while. When I wrote this I thought I had written a review, but when I went to add a link I couldn’t find one.

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