Only connect. -- E.M Forster
The phone's off the hook, but you're not. -- X
In Joe Swanberg's LOL, three men -- Alex, an aspiring musician (Kevin Brewersdorf), Chris, a student trying to sustain a long-distance relationship (C. Mason Wells) and Tim, a slightly smug young man in a seemingly-stable relationship (director Swanberg) -- can't quite connect with other people. They've got the tools -- cellphones, e-mail, video -- but they don't seem to have the temperament. Or maybe the tools are the problem -- they've got so many open channels in their life that all they can hear is the hum of the wires, so many sources of distraction they're waiting for what's next instead of looking at what's now.
Articles have been written -- and will, somewhat regrettably, continue to be written -- about how Swanberg, along with similar writer-directors like Andrew Bujalski , Aaron Katz and Jay Duplass, constitute a new movement called 'mumblecore.' This nomenclature suggests an enthusiasm for categorization more hearty than well-thought-out; if Swanberg, Bujalski, Katz and Duplass are a movement, then you and your close friends are a political party. These film makers have affinities, similarities, personal friendships and professional connections; at the same time, if you asked the 'mumblecore' film makers to articulate a Dogme 95-style manifesto, you'd probably be waiting a while for your answer.
With that aside -- and looking at LOL in and of itself -- the good news is that the new DVD release is a strong and well-crafted disc of a strong and well-crafted film. LOL is fragmentary -- overheard phone conversations, snippets of video, voice mail messages, instant message sessions between two people in the same room -- and you get that Swanberg's suggesting the same about modern life. The technique in LOL is mildly distancing at the start; as the film progresses, you understand that Swanberg's making a mosaic out of brittle pieces, and you see the big picture as you step back. It's not an a-to-b-to-c narrative; neither is life. The DVD's extras are extensive and comprehensive. There's one commentary track from Swanberg, Wells and Brewersdorf ; another commentary track features Greta Gerwig and Tipper Newton along with Swanberg, Wells and Brewersdorf. There's also the short Hissy Fits (intended as a test run for LOL's aesthetic) plus video snippets about the post-production process. There's additional music performance footage; Brewersdorff's character's compositions are as pretentious as they are tedious; it's a deadly combination, performed (I think) straight-faced. There are also moments captured from the rehearsal process for actress Tessa Newton. LOL is the first effort from Benten Films -- a new indie DVD label founded by a a critic-blogger duo, Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant -- and while the list of extras may seem on the lengthy side for an 81-minute long film, the bonus materials are neither overwhelming nor unwelcome.
And even without the extras, LOL has merit in and of itself. Informed that a woman he's just met only checks her e-mail once a week, one of our leads is amazed and callow: "I'll e-mail you, and if you don't get it it's your fault.' Chris asks his long-distance girlfriend Greta (Gerwig) to send him some sexy photos; after their long, slightly exasperated discussion of the request, we see the photos -- under a voice message from the character, talking about her real moods and real life in stark contrast to the fleshy fantasies implied in the pics. As the shy Walter (Newton) talks to Alex, her hand nervously plays with the tone knob one one of his home-made musical instruments; we see her interest and hesitant affection plainly, even as he's failing to notice it in the blinding light of his obsession with Tessa (Kate Winterich) an internet pin-up he's exchanged a few e-mails with.
LOL is not ha-ha funny; it's more squirm-inducing, full of scenes that are tough to take. Brewersdorf's wheedling, whining need to check his e-mail when he's out of town in one scene goes from creepy to funny and back again; the relationship between Wells and Gerwig's characters is given more than a little gravity by their actual relationship in real life. With its unforced, shot-on DV pace and erratic jumps between and within scenes, it'd be easy to accuse Swanberg of being a talented eavesdropper with a short attention span. But when a minor moment from earlier in the film comes back with deliberate timing and real intent -- over and over and over, as our three high-tech boys make the same mistakes over and over and over -- and you recognize Swanberg's got something to say and a fresh voice to say it with.
Swanberg's film may be about a fairly thin slice of the community; if LOL depicts a divide of any kind, it's best represented not by the character's Whiteness but by their wiredness. And the characters in LOL may be young, but people still didn't quite connect back in the day of analog handset phones. LOL's buzzy and high-tech, but the problems it looks at aren't technological: Messages that don't say much of anything; attraction without affection; lust without love; relationships where the people involved don't relate. Swanberg's captured a very modern slice of the age-old problem of human communication with a loose-yet-focused style that has the blurry formlessness of the worst nightmares and the precise aim of a knife slipped between the ribs aimed at the heart. You'd laugh out loud about it, if you weren't kinda-sorta close to doing something else entirely, quietly, inside.
(For Karina Longworth's review of LOL from the 2006 SXSW Film Festival, click here.)