By Ray Pride
No one can say what it means in the mutating media universe, but it’s nice to see a theatrical release for “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” the third feature by one of Chicago’s most prolific filmmakers, 26-year-old Joe Swanberg.
“All of the theaters in town passed on the film, and we had to go back to the Siskel Film Center people and really plead with them to give the film a week,” Swanberg tells me. “Getting a Chicago booking was a pain in the ass. I was a little hurt that they didn’t feel like there would be an audience for the film. I hope we can prove them wrong, and hopefully it won’t be so difficult with the next film.”
Swanberg’s first two features, “Kissing on the Mouth” and “LOL,” all extensively collaborative with their casts, have made the festival circuit and are out on DVD. (The “LOL” package is criminally good, the label giving a Criterion-style treatment to a modestly budgeted indie.) Hannah (Greta Gerwig), just out of college, works at a job where the dry-erase boards are dotted with hash marks, the days with corpo-slacking and talk of “pilots” and “blogs.” (Hannah’s explanation to her bantering co-workers of how Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to American is a gem of digression.) The Chicago summer is deathly hot, as is the byplay of flirt and crush and crash. The other actors (all of whom are also filmmakers) include Mark Duplass, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Ry Russo-Young and Todd Rohal. The storytelling is less laconic than floating, with jobs and lives and hopes yet undefined. Characters share half-hearted anecdotes that fade or are broken off halfway through. It’s loitering with intent, to be sure.
Swanberg and his collaborators have always been good at finding the tentative moment, the misstep, the banality that soars: “I don’t feel really soft and tender” is a striking thing from a woman who doesn’t want to be touched at the moment. “Playing in bands didn’t make me happy, working didn’t make me happy, so I’m just going to do nothing for a while and do that really well,” one guy manages to declare, then fusses away at making the sentiment nonsensical.
Physicality also matters: along with the casual dishabille in all Swanberg’s work, much comes from two of Hannah’s suitors fixing upon a scrape atop her bare foot. There’s also a post-“9 1/2 Weeks” scene of ice-cube play that isn’t fun, and is a small classic of portraying discomfort between a man and a woman who are growing apart.
But “Hannah” is a showcase for a tremendously charming, empathetic performance by Gerwig. She offers earnestness and vulnerability and, simply, sweetness. “Greta was dating Chris Wells while we were making ‘LOL,’ where she plays his long-distance girlfriend,” Swanberg answers when I ask how they met. “I never met her while we were making the film. She did her scenes from New York, so she only existed as a voice on the other end of the phone and in cell-phone pictures.”
They met in person in Austin when “LOL” premiered at South By Southwest, which has been one of Swanberg’s biggest supporters. “It was strange, because I already felt like I knew her. I had been working with her voice and her image for eight months and, except for a twenty-minute encounter in a Mexican restaurant at 2:30am the previous summer, this was the first time we were meeting in person. We both felt like we were important in each other’s lives, because we had been working on this thing together, but we had no rapport established. She acted in an episode of ‘Young American Bodies’ that we shot down in Austin that week, so we went from just meeting to shooting a sex scene together in a matter of days.”
Swanberg speaks of working with friends, and Gerwig was a gift. “She’s the ideal kind of person I like to work with. She’s smart, funny, committed and completely incapable of hiding her emotions. Everything she’s feeling is totally visible on her face, and I’m in love with close-ups, so I can leave the camera lingering on her and she can tell a story with her expressions. It’s heaven for me. She’s not precious about her body, which is also nice. She comes from a background in dance, which makes her view her body as an instrument of expression. She’s incredibly clumsy sometimes, but she’s an amazing physical actor. I love watching her move. In general, I respond to some crazy mixture of self-confidence and insecurity. I like people who are confident enough to put themselves out there in front of others, but insecure enough to be interesting to watch. I don’t respond to exhibitionists. I don’t like people who get in your face and demand your attention. I like people who flirt with you a bit and fluctuate between outgoing and shy.”
“Hannah Takes The Stairs” starts Friday at Siskel. For the third season of Swanberg’s online serial, youngamericanbodies.com