If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.
I mention this in case you’re confronted with the movie LOL on one of those evenings when you in fact don’t want an unscripted little semi-plotless handheld film, but instead crave a Hollywood-du-jour mind-destroying offering like those which are currently available at the Metroplex. No sense wasting a tasty little morsel like this one when you really want a Big Mac, to torture the metaphor.
But no, actually, I don’t think that I can spoil LOL for you just by writing about it. On the contrary, I’m guessing that the more you know about this movie before you watch it – the more prepared you are for it – the more you’ll appreciate it. But if you’re the type that likes to screen a movie cold, sans preconception and foreknowledge, then stop reading now and go do something else. Thank you.
Meanwhile, from Joe Swanberg the director: “LOL more than any other movie I’ve shot was a process of throwing things into the pot and seeing what comes out.”
Out of the pot this time came three young men, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), Chris (C. Mason Wells), and Tim (Swanberg himself). The conceit here was meant to be that cell phones, PCs, and other electronic means of communication would interfere, ironically, with the boys’ relationships with women – Alex with Walter (Tipper Newton), Chris with Greta (Greta Gerwig), and Tim with Ada (Brigid Reagan). Modest underlying plot points and arcs to the three stories are provided, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, and still don’t understand at least one of the climatic moments at the end of the film. In this respect, I treated the movie in the same way that I treat those complicated action flicks with convoluted plots. That is, I ignored the details and trusted that if I ever did take the trouble to pay attention, if I ever did truly make a study of the film, then all would in fact make sense to me in the end. But I didn’t.
In my defense on this point, it seems ok to me to watch the movie in the same way that it was made, which is to say, incrementally. Swanberg started out working on a little two-week to one-month film. Bewersdorf was back from Germany for his sister’s wedding and signed up to do the music for the film. Tipper Newton agreed to come over to Chicago for a month. Wells was going to be leaving the city but had some time before he did. So forth. Without a script or shooting schedule, Swanberg went out every day, camera in hand (Panasonic DVX 100, 24p mode, 16×9, standard definition video because this was pre-HD, but nobody at the time was shooting with this except for documentaries, because it wasn’t considered a narrative camera. And at least five guys handled it, depending upon who was in the scene), to see what would develop. So that instead of visiting Beversdorf’s grandmother’s basement once to shoot everything that they needed, for example, they ended up going back ten times. Then Swanberg looked up one day and eight months had passed and he was scratching his head and asking himself how this had happened. Ideas, bits, plot points, and the next thing he knew, he was wrestling with a feature film. Not to say that the results aren’t worthy, but as a viewer I’m ok with letting the finer points of the interior story slide by the first time while I lounge back and take in what bits of invention, inspiration, and invention I can.
I’ve seen the movie labeled by some a comedy, and Swanberg himself refers to hilarious scenes and the laughter of audiences at different spots in it. Although I liked the movie, I never smiled once. I know that LOL was filmed in the summer of ’05, and Swanberg meant for the boys’ techie behavior in the movie to be over-the-top comedic (e.g., video clips and pics transferred between phones, online stripper webcam, beatbox videos, etc.). But that’s all normal behavior now.
Anyway, Swanberg planned to put the three geeky guys in motion and, as they made a mess of their personal relationships, to follow along and record the hilarity that ensued. The movie gods, however, intervened.
Alex, geeky guy number one, misses out on the girl in front of his eyes, the 19-year-old Walter, because, ironically, he is obsessed with Tessa, an online webcam suicide girl. ($5/mo. subscription)
But wait. Alex’s obsession with Tessa and his hopes for meeting up with her are not believable. Not these days. Swanberg says that back in the summer of ’05, such naivete was still possible. No it wasn’t. The immediate effect of this weak setup is to free us from the plot and allow us to pay more attention to the Alex onscreen in front of us.
Or, no, hang on. When I was in college, I myself was obsessing over Freda, a young woman who sat 15 feet away from me in orchestra, holding a cello between her legs. I gave her a lot of thought, way too much thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually approach her. Meanwhile, Sophie was stopping by my dormroom every couple of days to hang out and get high and talk about her boyfriend in Spain. Finally, after orchestra rehearsal one day, our conductor asked Freda and me to go out and put up some concert posters around the campus. We had just started and I was just warming up to finally ask her for a date when somebody ran by shouting that President Kennedy had just been shot. We split up to go watch the TV broadcasts from Dallas and I never did ask her out. Instead, she just kept soaking up my dating psychic energy. I now realize that Sophie and I… Well… She never did get back together with her boyfriend. And there she was, stretched out on my bed night after night smoking dope and eating Ho-Ho’s. What the hell was I thinking? So maybe Alex’s behavior with Tessa and Tipper isn’t so unbelievable after all.
But nevertheless, as for Alex being a geeky loser: first of all, Bewersdorf wrote all the music in the movie and it’s not bad. I knew that up front and for me that knowledge manufactured some serious Alex aura onscreen. Plus, secondly, he had been living and working in Germany, which for me enhanced the aura. Thirdly, he did the A/V beatbox-type montage clips that divide up the movie and they’re pretty neat. Fourthly, his dog Button is present. Alex feeds Button cookies. Must love dogs. Aura builder. Fifthly, Tipper Newton is right there next to him throughout the film and she obviously likes him. Chemistry. Sixthly, he’s got a little Tim Roth vibe going up there. Seventhly, yes he obsesses over the webcam stripper, but she’s Kate Winterich from “Kissing On the Mouth” and I was starting to obsess over her a little myself.
(And, btw, speaking of how the movie evolved, Swanberg called Newton and described the project and invited her to Chicago to meet Bewersdorf and see what she thought about working with him. She flew out and showed up at a party where Bewersdorf was performing. Swanberg filmed her watching Bewersdorf, whom she hadn’t met yet, and then her talking to him, and decided that the vibe was right, so he put that film in the movie as Alex and Walter’s first meeting. If the vibe hadn’t been right for him, Tipper would have gone back to school (she was 19 and in college and can be seen doing her homework onscreen in the St. Louis scenes) and the whole thread would have been dropped.)
So in the event, Alex, the supposedly hopeless geek, builds a screen presence that might not equal Brando in “On the Waterfront,” but ain’t too shabby, either. By the time the credits roll, he’s the man in this film. The way I read it, he wises up on his way back to Chicago from St. Louis, calls Walter, and they push the reset button.
Geeky guy number two is Tim. Tim spends all of his time on his PC and cell phone. His woman fumes. He’s hopeless! What a loser!
But hang on again. This Tim happens to be Joe Swanberg. Of course the dude is working on his PC. Of course he’s on the phone. His woman? Hell, he hired her to be in the movie. You’re telling me that he’s a hopeless geek because he’s acting like Joe Swanberg probably acts at home? Let’s ask Swanberg’s wife what she thinks of the movie. Or go ask Kevin Smith’s wife about husbands online. (Actually, listen to Smodcast and she’ll tell you direct.)
For example, there is a scene at the beach, with Swanberg working on his PC while his girlfriend flirts with a surfer dude. “You don’t look too comfortable out there,” somebody says to Swanberg on the commentary track. “Well,” he says. “I hadn’t been outside in three weeks.”
In other words, Tim and Ada aren’t right for each other. If she was right for him, he’d log off/hang up more often. No way his phone and PC take the rap for the couple’s problems in the sack.
Speaking of which, I’ve had a Blackberry in my back pocket since March ’01. Initially it was a litte thing powered by a single AA battery, with my corporate Exchange account on it and nothing else. Now it’s been replaced by a PPC, a Treo, and a SmartPhone, all of them running browsers, media players, with phones, recorders, cameras, and other options I don’t even know about. In bed before lights out at night, while the spousal unit reads a book, I’m surfing. And who’s on the cell more during the day, my SU or me? Her. Swanberg says that he filmed the Tim/Ada relationship with the idea that the two were almost through with each other anyway, so how to blame the electronics? The two could be any everyday modern couple.
So Tim, the supposedly hapless geek who loses his girlfriend at the end? He’ll find a better fit next time. Or the time after that.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Geek number three, Chris, is winding down his relationship with his girlfriend over the phone. He’s in Chicago and she’s in New York. Greta never actually appears live in the film. Instead, we hear her voice and see pictures of her that she sends over the phone. As the movie progresses, Chris and Greta, onscreen and in real life, spiral downward, relationship-wise. (Swanberg, because he uses non-actors and no script, frequently employs the technique of filming real-life situations.) Meanwhile, Chris gets lucky at a party. I’m not casting the first stone here about that. Chris and Greta are essentially separated. The phone is the only thing left keeping them in contact.
So yes, Chris does ask Greta for some naked pictures. Greta (the real-life Greta) was studying for finals and when Swanberg nudged her to produce, she closed her notebook, went into the college library bathroom, stripped in a stall, adopted a wide stance, took a set of photos, sent them to Swanberg on the spot, got dressed again, and went back to the books – in case you parents are wondering what your kids are doing at school this semester.
Post-movie, I see Chris, like Tim, meeting somebody new, whom he can spend time with in the flesh.
So this result in LOL – that the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless – reminds us that for the millennial generation, so called, as for most kids in their 20s over the years, it’s the time of first experiencing true social connections and intimacy as an adult – life’s greatest adventure, not to get sappy about it. In LOL, the actors and their characters are left free at the end to move on and seek out whatever and whomever comes next for them. In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for it, spending 81 minutes with these young people could be a great idea. It was for me.