Interviews and reviews

Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg

Medium Hot: 'LOL'

The voicemail with no purpose is perhaps the best message of all. Certainly the one that Greta leaves for Chris in LOL makes for some sort of ideal, a heartfelt prose poem for his ears only, that must struggle just a bit not to touch base, plan a rendezvous, leave a number, or any of those things we're supposed to do after the beep. "This is like art," she says at one point. "It doesn't refer to anything but itself." And in doing so, it expresses nothing more or less than giddy love and the joy of having the beloved's number programmed into your phone.

Even as a fan of director Joe Swanberg's first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, I wasn't prepared for such lovely emotional intensity, so it was practically the first thing I asked him about following the screening. "As we were working on the story, [co-writer C. Mason Wells] said he had these pictures and cell phone messages from his girlfriend that he'd saved, and I was like, 'I don't know about this.' But we did a day where he came to the house and we hooked his phone up to ProTools. Some were stupid, and some were breaking my heart, and I was just really nervous and uncomfortable about using real, personal, emotional relationship stuff ... but he and Greta believed in it, and it fit in as a really wonderful part of the story."

So, it was real. The shock I experienced at learning this actually had a lot to do with not finding reason for shock. It would seem that to plug in such a private, real-life expression of affection, a fictional story is crossing a line. After all, isn't artifice supposed to act as a kind of filter for experience and offer the illusion of intimacy with characters, not the thing itself? Shouldn't this be some kind of love snuff? It just isn't done, right? Well, at the risk of offering grounds to justify all kinds of indulgent emotional regurgitations that don't work, I'd say it should be done more often. Swanberg and company are off to a good start, and other artists would do well to take after his emotionally and conceptually responsible lead. "That's fiction," he says. "It's the most exciting place to be. When the goal is to make the best film possible, the rules go out the window. You have to mix up the true and the fake."

The director/cinematographer/editor, his co-writers Wells and Kevin Bewersdorf, and their team of collaborators and contributors from Chicago and around the country (including Funny Ha Ha director Andrew Bujalski and Four Eyed Monsters team Susan Buice and Arin Crumley) have seized on the new tools available to storytellers to do just that. Using any recording and transmission medium you can think of to pull together a crazy-quilt drama on the effects those very technologies have on three young men's senses of masculinity, the film weds form and function to honestly critique how people use and abuse their tools without becoming another self-defeating jeremiad against an age of digital disconnection.

"I'm telling the story of a bunch of young people in Chicago who have so totally adopted technology that it's impossible to tell where they end and the tech begins," Swanberg notes. "That's the kind of story that should be captured by light-sensitive chips and transported as ones and zeroes between hard drives." Named for the message-board shorthand for "laugh out loud," which reduces an often complex emotional response to what looks disturbingly digital in lowercase, the cool title belies the hot emotions that run beneath its surface. Whether it actually makes you laugh out loud or squirm, love is the everything and nothing these characters and collaborators are after.

"It's so hard to make something from your real life and then have a real life, too," Swanberg says. "You live in the real world, and you take away whatever chance you have at living in some guilt-free artistic world where your choices don't have real-life consequences."

9:45pm, Austin Convention Center

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