Dir. Joe Swanberg
Styles: thriller, soft-core
Others: You're Next, V/H/S, Drinking Buddies
Links: 24 Exposures - IFC Midnight
Billy (Adam Wingard), a bookish photographer who at some point learned that if he asked for what he wanted — that is, naked women covered in blood that are willing to let him photograph them in compromising positions — he would get it. This isn’t because the women that he photographs are jumping at the opportunity to work with him or interested in his subject matter; mostly, it seems like they’re just curious, and they’re young and attractive and want attention, which he provides. And he’s trying to convince the pretty and bruised Rebecca (Helen Rogers) to let him photograph her, and she doesn’t understand how his work isn’t pornographic, how it’s “fine art,” as he calls it. He says that’s not his problem, he doesn’t have to worry about that. “I’m the irresponsible artist, which all good artists are,” he says. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Joe Swanberg (writer/director) speaking through his characters; he makes movies ceaselessly, always, without filter, a creative fount that spills gracefully and often and sloppily in all variations, all the time.
Most movies that I don’t like make me angry. They waste my time, or, worse, convince me that they’re worth my time when they actually are not. They try to tell the truth but instead lie, or tell some version of the truth that I don’t like or don’t want to acknowledge. 24 Exposures is a bad movie, flawed at its core and ringing outward, with dumb characters who say dumber things, who have nonsensical impulses that they cannot and don’t want to defend. But it’s hard to write a bad review of 24 Exposures, a movie that didn’t make me angry, because there are so few artists like Swanberg in movies — artists who are always able to cajole their friends into starring in and working on their projects, brought from inception to completion in only a few months, moving onto the next thing, the next idea. The things that most people weed out, he leaves in; we’re all full of bad ideas, bad writing, bad creative impulses, but the best of us catch them before they flounder from our minds out of our mouths. The courageous and irresponsible of us, like Swanberg, don’t let that happen.
The press release says that the plot is about a photographer and a homicide detective (Simon Barrett) whose lives come together when a model shows up dead, but the reality has much more to do with Billy negotiating between his relationship with his girlfriend, the models he wishes were his girlfriend, and the feelings all of them have towards and against each other. And, more, it is about the homicide detective, isolated, with small scenes I still can’t make heads or tails of, where, early on, he puts his gun into his mouth and thinks about pulling the trigger but doesn’t, or when he hears people in the room next door to his in a hotel having loud sex and he masturbates to it. He’s lonely, he doesn’t smile — is that all that we’re getting at here?
At the end, Swanberg shows up playing a literary agent, reviewing a manuscript written by the detective about the murders and the unravelling characters that make up 24 Exposures. He tells the detective that his story doesn’t work, that nothing gets resolved, and that none of the events or relationships seem to have any meaning. “I don’t mean to suggest that your life is not interesting. I also don’t mean to suggest that the truth can’t be interesting,” he says. “These are the kinds of things that happen in real life but don’t make for compelling commercial books.” This, too, I can’t make sense of; is this the film’s reach at some kind of concept, significance, intellectualism? It’s criticizing itself, and rightfully so, trying to fill its own holes sloppily, trying to hold water so ardently and viciously. It is puzzling, but not like the mimed tennis match at the end of Blow-Up, the spiritual antecedent, maybe, to 24 Exposures: the former confused audiences because it had meaning, the latter because it does not.
I admire the lovely foolishness of someone who can rush headlong at any idea with complete abandon, because I imagine it is a lot of fun. That is the way that I would like to live my life, freed from the confines of worrying about the judgment of others. Reviews, I presume, mean nothing to Swanberg except that they determine the budget of his next movie to his investors. And if you live that way, you’re bound to make things that don’t work — the scraps. This is one of those, interesting in that it is part of something larger, but taken on its own, a crumpled mess.