I believe there’s at least one point in nearly every auteur’s filmography (yes, I’m calling director Joe Swanberg the a-word) where their work channels the line of self-parody. For Terrence Malick, it was To the Wonder, for Quentin Tarantino, it was Inglourious Basterds, and now Swanberg has Caitlin Plays Herself, an interesting, but ill-conceived, medium-length picture that introduces its few characters in a clunky way, gives them ordinary, indie-film setups, and then expects them to carry the shortest of runtimes with their small, obscure personalities. With only sixty-nine minutes to fill, it’s still surprising that – considering how well Swanberg works with small runtimes – just how dry and redundant this picture can get.
When I begin reiterating the plot is when you’ll see how Swanberg begins to parody himself. The film stars Caitlin Stainken as the title character, an ambitious, but struggling Chicago actress, who aspires to create work with a deep personal message and an even stronger political one. Her latest fascination is with the ongoing BP oil spill, which she symbolizes in her latest piece by being completely naked and soaked to the bone in oil. Her boyfriend Joe (Joe Swanberg) is upset with her being nude in her work, but seems to get over it after they cuddle, kiss, and hold each other enough. Romanticism is always one of the highest themes in a Swanberg movie, and he always makes sure to include three or more scenes of intimacy in all his pictures. Consider Nights and Weekends where the film rests completely on a young, uncertain relationship and see how well that one floats with such a thin plot.
Then come back to Caitlin Plays Herself, which, in comparison, is a film school project shot over the course of winter break. The only potential point of commentary in the film is the erratic, tumultuous relationship of Caitlin and Joe mirroring that of the masses’ relationship with the oil companies such as BP. We constantly bicker about high gas prices, even though we’re not forced to deal with them, end up pouting for a day or so (or maybe participating in one of those incredibly ineffective gas strikes where consumers are urged not to buy gas for one whole day), but then we snuggle with them once more when we are ultimately in need of more fuel for our cars.
As stable and as credible of a justification as that is for Caitlin Plays Herself, it still seems a bit shaky and facile, mainly because writers Stainken and Swanberg erect a very slim story with little characterization and provide no opportunities at illustrating a relationship burdened by ambition or trying to make a political statement. What we end up with is a hybrid, one that occasionally amuses, sometimes fascinates, but often alienates and bores. Some will feel this way with all mumblecore films, which are films characterized by very low budgets, inexpensive camera-work, naturalistic dialog – mostly impromptu – and amateur actors. I very rarely feel this way about such a bold, experimental, and extremely significant movement in modern cinema.
Mumblecore is a hard genre to get into, not because it is characterized by unconventional eccentricities, but because it relies so heavily on character and minimal plot development. If you don’t care for the characters and a few stylistic touches, chances are, you won’t like it. There’s very little actually in a film of the mumblecore genre and unlike in mainstream cinema where’s there’s a lot to look for (cinematography, pacing, plot development, conventions, music, twists, etc), there’s little other than character, themes, and dialog in mumblecore films.
Caitlin Plays Herself has very little in it and the little it does have isn’t very memorable. Stainken and Swanberg are undoubtedly talented people – especially Swanberg, whose 2011 year was the most productive year for any director, as he released an unprecedented five films – but they keep things way too vague to be analyzed here, and rely far too heavily on romantic scenes that slow the progress and keep us away from learning about both Caitlin and Joe. When all else fails, kiss and shut up.
Starring: Caitlin Stainken and Joe Swanberg. Directed by: Joe Swanberg.