There’s a scene in Kentucker Audley’s Open Five 2 (2012) where two characters sit down and edit footage from the first film, Open Five. It’s clever, self-reflexive, but perhaps a bit too inside the head of the filmmaker. Joe Swanberg’s The Zone, which fittingly enough stars Kentucker Audley, runs into the same sort of problem as the previously described scene. Both filmmakers wanted to achieve something personal and arrive on something meaningful about why they themselves make films. However, the process at times feels too self-serving, too aware of its own intended transparency, that I find myself rolling my eyes more than not.
A stranger visits a house, then photographs and sleeps with all three of its inhabitants. This is all just the filmmaker’s (Swanberg) work, though. He wants to produce something passionate and meaningful but in the process, he’s afraid that it will have a negative impact on the relationship between two of his performers, Sophia and Lawrence. His concerns are justified as the centerpiece of his film calls for the two of them to be a part of a threesome with Kate. The tensions between shows up in the scenes for their films, but it boils over into their reality as well. With the scene taking such importance, it becomes a struggle for the filmmaker and the cast to keep their cool.
The first thirty minutes plays out like an update of Teorema without Pasolini’s (tired) commentary on organized religion. Instead, it’s just sort of forced mysteriousness, though once we discover that it’s a film within a film, it’s possible that the forced feeling is intentional. Perhaps the most frustrating element of this whole exercise is that Swanberg does play it out like a twist. We think we’re getting a film about a stranger sleeping with a bunch of people, and we do get that, but then there’s an entirely different film about the process of filming said film. In perhaps the most eye-rolling of all moves, Swanberg ends the film with another reveal. The film was also a film within a film, thus making the original story we watch a film within a film within a film. That sounds so stupid to write out and watching these twists is similarly enraging.
This isn’t a complete disaster of a movie, though. I actually like quite a bit. Swanberg does manage to capture something resembling the great important truth he’s looking for. The aesthetic issues with the filmmaker are perhaps over-documented, but parts of this film look absolutely wonderful. If only he would just make a straight-forward movie with this aesthetic and not the glossy, but casually one found in Drinking Buddies. There is something to at least think about in the shots that are setup to be a part of the film within the film, but then breakdown when one of the actor starts laughing. I’m not sure what there is to be said, except that it’s another example of the filmmaker trying to breakdown the walls built upon between fiction and reality.
Swanberg’s interest don’t just lie in this division between fiction and reality, but also in the division between live performance and filmed one. They’re sort of all interrelated concepts, but I do think he’s trying something more than just replicating Cassavetes’ dramatic realities or even Rohmer’s observational studies. This film, more so than any of his other ones, tries to capture the essence of a performance when it actually occurs and does this by not always differentiating between what Swanberg’s character has filmed or what he himself is filming. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, a filmed performance is a reproduction and thus, loses the spontaneity felt when seen in reality. I get the impression that Swanberg is trying to navigate between the reproduction of the performance and the performance itself. I’m not sure I can say he is entirely successful, but I give him plenty of credit for trying.
The Zone is also a movie about sex, which I actually think perfectly relates the previous idea of filmed performance vs live performance. Sex is, in a way, something of a performance. Perhaps the conditioning of other films (be they porn or not) has influenced some of these performative elements and Swanberg quietly captures this in a wonderful way. The sex scenes in the film within a film are artfully directed, but almost obnoxiously serious. In contrast, when Sophia films Lawrence jerking off, it’s playful, fun, and even funny. The couple never films themselves having sex explicitly (that would be too on the nose, I think) but their foreplay does feel more accurate than the filmed sex scenes. Additionally, it’s observed that Swanberg (the character) has devoted more time to the two heterosexual scenes because duh, he’s into girls. Thus, so is the camera. The aforementioned filmed jerkoff session is being filmed by Sophia. The camera is into guys now.
For someone who is often accused of just filming people talk about their relationships, Swanberg is actually quite heady here. It doesn’t all work and parts of it feel like it’s trying too hard but there is an actually interesting, if not good, meditation on the influence of film as means of reproduction. One could and has accused Swanberg of basically just being horny and spoiled, but he takes this criticism head on. He achingly confesses that he makes film so people will feel less alone. This feels real when he says it, but looking back, he’s playing a character. He’s still looking for truth but he’s doing more than just capturing the mundane. He’s exploring how the mundane functions in relationship to film as medium. I can’t say he’s broken through with a complete masterpiece, but this feels like the most mature, complex, and sincere thing he’s ever done.