A friendly recommendation: “Alexander the Last”

I’ve yet to be knocked out by a film from the so-called “mumblecore” school, though I’ve only seen a handful of the more well-known works commonly included under that umbrella. One of the films that genuinely got on my nerves was Joe Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (2007), which was much too busy trying to achieve a noxious level of cuteness to stumble upon any sort of organic charm. I haven’t seen any of Swanberg’s other films, largely because my underwhelming experience with “Hannah Takes the Stairs” was enough to dissuade me from hunting them down. So I was pretty surprised that I felt compelled to rent the newly released DVD of Swanberg’s latest, “Alexander the Last” (2009).

As it turns out, there’s a lot to like about “Alexander the Last.” The most impressive aspect of the film is the self-consciously arty quality of Swanberg’s compositions; this is a major leap from the haphazardly organized, pictorially uninteresting images of “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” For one thing, “Alexander the Last” features some striking trial-and-error with depth-of-field manipulations, like the use of selective focus in the image above. I call this style of composition “self-consciously arty” because it’s so unlike that of “Hannah Takes the Stairs”; can anyone point to a shot from “Hannah” and say that it’s clearly the ancestor of images like the one below?

Critics tend not to say much about the aural dimensions of mumblecore films, but “Alexander the Last” has a really dense and interesting soundtrack. There are several moments in which we hear an event seconds before we get to see it, sounds trespassing upon an image to which they’re only loosely related. Swanberg also includes a few sequences of parallel montage wherein image and sound are shuffled, yielding a short-stack of aesthetic stimuli that can be ordered by a cerebral viewer or left in disarray by a more laissez-faire one.

It’s all too common for critics to compare Swanberg to Maurice Pialat and John Cassavetes. While I don’t necessarily think that these parallels are unfounded, it’s worth noting that “Alexander the Last” has much more in common with Philippe Garrel’s great between-takes portraits (“Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights,” “Sauvage innocence”) than it does with Cassavetes’ backstage meltdowns (“Opening Night”) or Pialat’s behind-closed-doors fireworks (“Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble,” “Á nos amours”). Rehashing the ol’ “art vs. life” struggle is pretty tempting, but, like the aforementioned Garrel films, “Alexander the Last” circumnavigates this tired theme by proceeding as though the line between art and life—no matter where one chooses to draw it—is always false.

“Alexander the Last” strikes me as an especially important film for the mumblecore school (assuming that such a thing exists) because, unlike some of its predecessors, it’s sweaty and it’s funny and it’s meticulously composed and it doesn’t try to effect an air of naturalism by having its characters mutter and stutter their way through subjects that demand a more aggressive and formally playful approach, an approach that seeks to “show its work” rather than just serve up a piping hot plate of ideas delivered by a painfully awkward waiter. Of all the mumblecore films I’ve seen, this is the one that most closely resembles the personal cinema of Garrel and Co.; it’s also the one that’s the most fun to spend time with and the most difficult to digest in the period immediately following the end credits. It is, in a word, successful.

“Alexander the Last” is now available on DVD at Four Star Video Heaven.

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