April 30, 2007
The film I was most eager to see at IFFBoston was Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. I’m a fan of his previous films and a big supporter of his style of working, which is to entirely improvise his films in conjunction with his friends. There is no script, and the scenes merely grow out of lots of lengthy conversations with his friends/collaborators. For this latest film, he says he rented an apartment in Chicago for one month, had everyone sleeping on the floor, shot the movie every day and edited it at night. He says it was a “magical” month. And I’m sure it was. I’m a bit envious of the depth of connections he must be making in the course of his work. But also inspired.
Which is why I am having trouble saying that the film left me a bit underwhelmed. I haven’t quite placed my finger on why, but it might have something to do with the tiny groan I emitted when, after the screening of the film, Swanberg said that it only took a few minutes of meeting his lead actress, Greta Gerwig, to know she could carry a movie. It seemed a particularly male comment to make–not simply because she’s quite fetching, but because her charms are the kind that really only work on men. I have very much liked all of Swanberg’s films, but I like Hannah less so, primarily because I found the actress so irritating.
She’s damn cute, for sure, but she is constantly projecting an awareness of her cuteness and an awareness of being watched and admired for her cuteness that makes me want to *shake* her. I kept waiting for her to drop the giggly act and get real. Even in scenes with other females, or in scenes where she was crying, the tone I got from the scene was “I know you think I’m cute when I’m crying.”
Perhaps it’s not her fault though, perhaps it’s the fault of the filmmaker’s gaze, which clearly adores her. To me, the film was about the relationship between Greta and the camera. It felt oppressive to me, and I really wanted it to back off. I wanted to know more about some other characters. I wanted to breathe; I wanted Hannah to have a chance to breathe. In one scene she’s dancing crazily to some loud music and the camera holds her in a medium closeup as she thrashes her arms and fists wildly, and I like to imagine she is trying to break free of the camera’s frame, its gaze. I have always felt that all of Swanberg’s films have a very male perspective, but it has never bothered me until this film. It felt, overall, like nothing more than a chance to get Greta on film and stare, stare, stare. And for her to enjoy being stared at. And being female, that just doesn’t speak to me.
It’s part of a greater problem I’m having with a lot of indie film, especially the “Mumblecore” movement Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski have been lumped into. It’s a bunch of white twentysomething guys and their gaze. It’s a smarter and more sensitive gaze, but a gaze nonetheless. In and of itself that’s not a problem–they make great films, and I look forward to more from them. I guess we just need more female filmmakers. Lots more, to balance out the gaze. (I’m working on that myself…)
I’d love to hear from any other women who’ve seen the film–did you feel similarly? I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but my feeling is that most men will love the movie, while women will find it a bit lacking. Judging by the questions asked at the Q&A after the film, that’s probably right. Only men asked questions, many of which gushed over Greta’s “luminosity.” The film was speaking to them, and they heard it.
UPDATE–From this Salon article about SXSW and Hannah Takes the Stairs: “An entire row of Austin women in front of me got up to leave about half an hour in, and I almost ran after them to hear their reasons.”