IFFBoston: Hannah Takes the Stairs

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.

hannaandrew.jpgWhich 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.”

10 Responses to “IFFBoston: Hannah Takes the Stairs”

  1. May 2nd, 2007 | 4:30 pm

    I liked Hannah, but I think it’s extremely problematic–as are all of Swanberg’s films, which is why they’re worthy of discussion, but I feel like this one is earning a surprising volumn of blind praise, when what it really needs is thoughtful dismantling like the above. I agree that the film *is* about looking at Greta/Hannah, which is very strange, because she’s such an unlikeable character (unless you want to fuck her, I guess). It might be just me, but I thought Bujalski stole every scene he was in. it was almost as if the camera was actually repelled by him (at least, in contrast), but even when only half his face made it into a given shot, he dominated it.

  2. poppy
    May 2nd, 2007 | 7:39 pm

    I so completely agree with your assessment of this film (and I am also a woman). You put into words the feelings I was having but was unable to express, and it was nice to read because I thought I would be alone in my opinion.

    Personally, I agree with you that staring at Gretta/Hannah is not only the point of the film, but also is presented without questioning/being aware of what it’s doing. To present a differing opinion, though, a friend of mine who likes the film feels it’s purposely presenting a portrait of a girl who is constantly performing, and that this is realistic. And it IS realistic — certainly I’ve known girls like her — but I just don’t know that there was enough awareness in the presentation. My friend-who-likes-the-film says she’s meant to be unlikeable… and yet, if the (male) viewers are liking her, then is the supposed meaning of the film getting across?

    But then again, I didn’t like what I saw of LOL, either (in all fairness, I didn’t watch the whole thing) because I felt it was misogynistic, and my friend-who-liked-the-film said I also missed the point of that one too, so maybe I’m just missing all the points. I really like Bujalski’s films, though. Compare “Hannah” to “Funny Ha Ha,” both with female protagonists, and I think the latter is much more understanding of its character as an actual person. I’m a bigger fan of Buljaski awkward-geekiness than Swanberg coolness, maybe.

  3. May 2nd, 2007 | 8:46 pm

    yeah i thought about that–the idea that perhaps this was all intentional–but i too didn’t get the sense that there was an awareness in the presentation. i liked LOL a lot, and i agree with your friend because that film was very clearly ABOUT men’s objectification of women in images. but this one seems to simply go full into the objectifying without comment or self-consciousness. if it’s all intentional, there is no sign of that in the film.

  4. May 2nd, 2007 | 8:55 pm

    and karina i agree about bujalski, and love the phrase “it was almost as if the camera was repelled by him.”

  5. martine
    May 6th, 2007 | 4:15 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful review. It presents a POV on this film that I’ve never come across before, and I appreciate that very much. I still can’t wait to see the film! -Martine

  6. May 7th, 2007 | 1:04 am

    Cynthia —

    I’ve not yet seen HANNAH so I can’t really respond to your criticism, but I would like to ask commenter Poppy if she could elaborate on charge of misogyny towards LOL.

    I’ve not had the opportunity to discuss the film with too many women, and I’m curious as to what it is that would prompt such a reaction.

    To my mind LOL is all about exposing the “flaws” (for lack of a better word) of its three male lead characters. There’s no hatred towards women, just an unbelievable amount of awkwardness and a healthy dose of boyish immaturity.

  7. May 7th, 2007 | 7:46 am

    i agree filmbrain, LOL was very much about exposing these men’s flaws. unfortunately in hannah it feels like swanberg lost his head a bit over greta and lapsed into those same flaws a bit without realizing it. hopefully poppy will return and expand on her point for you…

  8. May 8th, 2007 | 1:14 pm

    Hey Cynthia:

    While I too had numerous hesitancies about this film, it had little to do with Greta Gerwig’s performance–who I never once thought was unlikable or showy. Rather, my problem developed out of a narrative which failed to explain Hannah’s intentions. I’d rather not rehash here what I’ve already reviewed, but I’ll say merely that the audience was meant to surmise that as opposed to dealing with experiences, Hannah was dealing with inherent problems–depression say–that are never explored. This is utterly divergent from Swanberg’s other films which make mention of the tangible and everyday.

    Not only as a woman but as a person, I have major problems wrapping my mind around this concept. As an audience member, if I’m to embrace an inherent dilemma, I need much more time alone with a character alla Schlutz Takes the Blues or About Schmidt.

    As for the dance scene, that was the only time throughout the film that I felt completely at home with Hannah. I understood that need–as you mentioned–to break out, not as you say however of Swanberg’s adoring gaze but rather out of depression, uncertainty, fear of failure. Those are the things Hannah deals with, but the flaw of the film is its unwillingness to mine those, merely observe them–in perhaps, a male way–from the outside.

  9. May 8th, 2007 | 2:10 pm

    interesting, and i do agree that the film observes “in a male way” rather than mines…however i don’t think we’re meant to think she is actually suffering from serious depression, if that’s what you’re saying. her ‘chronic dissatisfaction’ is very different from the real, clinical, medicated depression that her 3rd man in the film is suffering. she has problems, sure, but hers are, in my mind, much more superficial than that. in fact, i’d say it’s her superficiality that is her main problem. and being confronted with a person who has ‘real’ problems makes her begin to realize that. at least we hope so, as the final image can be read either way–maybe she’s changed and found a soulmate, or maybe that guy is totally doomed like the rest of them.

  10. May 9th, 2007 | 6:26 pm

    Although you’re right in saying that we’re not pointed in the direction of “clinical depression,” the suffering of dissociation from people and surroundings–I don’t think–could ever be superficial. But, that’s just a difference of ideology here. The fact that we both take different sides on it just goes to explain how deeply ambiguous the narrative really is. And, as for poor Kent’s character–I’d doom him for sure, trumpet and all.