I Like to Watch: Joe Swanberg Takes It Easy
His new Netflix show finds honesty and openness winning the day
We would like to believe that with maturity comes kindness, that there is a way to transmute youthful intensity without mellowing it. Netflix's Easy proves it can be done, and well. Joe Swanberg's eight-episode collection of loosely connected half-hour short films about the sex lives of artists in Chicago gives us a look not just into our evolving culture, but an evolving artistic spirit.
If there's an arc to Swanberg's career – from mumblecore DIY shorts to mumblecore DIY features to more polished films like Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas, and Digging for Fire – it is in their burgeoning compassion. The speed at which Swanberg produced his earlier projects – six films in 2011 alone, including at least the brilliant Uncle Kent – gives us a unique vantage on the development not just of an artist's craft but his philosophy, his inherent being.
Likewise, the mumblecore obsession with the "truth of the moment" means never quite letting go of authorial intent: another vector through which to observe the young director, as that truth changes. By the same token, not even in the fast-turnaround work schedule Swanberg advises, each film financing the next, can he – or we – afford to dispose of what came before? What all of this adds up to is a long-term autobiographical corpus, less problematic than Woody Allen's and less stilted than Truffaut's, in which the normally intangible (or at least, artistically off-limits) human qualities of the creator become the most interesting parts of the enterprise.
Compare Swanberg's earliest efforts and you'll see the same young men (earnestly and beautifully horny, honestly and deeply caring, red-faced about their selfishness) and women (inward-turning, indulgent and inventory-taking by turns, pragmatic and honest and real) but ever since 2013's wonderful Drinking Buddies – a decent attempt to analyze and detoxify the "nice guy"/"friend zone" place young men love to park and have a cry in – the rancor and resentment that attended sexual disappointment is gone.
Swanberg's boys have learned to talk, his women are relieved and grateful, and the object of desire's consent – whomever he or she happens to be – is now less a tantalizing bar-to-entry, and more the realistic part of satisfying human interaction adults know it to be. The story has stopped being about what happens when the guy doesn't get laid – even, often, about how cool the guy is about not getting laid – and started being about the immense backlog of thoughts, emotions, connections, and history that lies just behind the question of sex for all of us, and always has.
What we find – the hidden grace, the beauty – in these eight stories is a moment, a hinge in the conflict, where honesty and openness can win the day. When something entirely too difficult – and not without pain or bravery or humility, or loss – becomes something else entirely.