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NEXT!: Uncle Kent

Director Joe Swanberg continues his cinematic exploration of the cyber with a film that puts our rapid-fire relationships on pause.




The Internet is not an inherently cinematic medium. The most important development to occur in media in the modern era, it is nevertheless extremely difficult for it to be incorporated easily into a film. However, as “digital native” audience members begin to come of age and look to see the world they grew up in represented in movies, films will be beginning to represent the world of computers, and the net, to a greater degree. Pictures like Catfish and The Social Network both addressed the social impact of Facebook, albeit from greatly varying angles. Antonio CamposAfterschool, released in 2009, was a masterful exploration of the impact of YouTube on the lives of teens.


In 2006, Joe Swanberg was a bit ahead of the game—he was already addressing the concerns raised by a rapidly digital-izing of our social lives, in his mumblecore second feature, LOL. That film—which may be remembered, for posterity, as the film that discovered Greta Gerwig—featured an interlocking storyline dealing with characters who utilize different contemporary technologies to communicate.




Five years and a few features later, Swanberg is back with another exploration of the intersection of technology and socializing—Uncle Kent, a portrait of a 40-year-old children’s show director (Kent Osborne) who has a friend he met over Chatroulette (Jennifer Prediger) stay over at his house for a weekend. It’s fitting that the uber-contemporary picture—described by Swanberg as a “contemporary period piece”—premiered via IFC VOD simultaneously with its Sundance premiere.


I had the chance recently to speak over the phone with Swanberg about the picture.




Tribeca: What are your thoughts on the relationship between the Internet and loneliness? Do you think the Internet lessens or exacerbates loneliness?

Joe Swanberg:
I think it’s probably a matter of how much time you spend on it. I think if you’re just on it a little bit, it probably lessens it, but there are diminishing returns the more time you’re on there, you know? If I’m busy, and social in my real life, and I’m checking in on Facebook or something for ten minutes a day, then it’s kind of fun to see what everyone’s up to. If I’m spending the whole day editing, inside, checking email and stuff, then I feel really terrible by the end of the day.


Tribeca: There’s a weird sense of “Where did the time go?”


Joe Swanberg: There is something about that constant glow of the computer screen, and the sense of accomplishment without having to leave your chair.


Tribeca: Do you think there’s something particular about the appeal of the Internet to artists? Both are about immersing yourself in an experience for a period of time, and I was struck by the parallels in the film between the shots of Kent working on his storyboards and surfing the ’net.


Joe Swanberg: I think that it’s getting harder and harder for people to focus on one thing for a long time. One thing I’m seeing is that people have to turn off the Internet in order to focus on something. Operating systems are making it tougher because they’re actively reaching out to grab your attention, by making noises, or having icons pop up. It’s really difficult to even find that level of deep concentration. I think artists are especially susceptible to getting lost in the vortex because they’re the kind of people that can focus hard on something. I feel like the same person who has the ability to be extremely productive is capable of just being lost for weeks, surfing around.


Tribeca: That came across. So how did you conceive of Kent’s character’s relationship to this paradigm?


Joe Swanberg: I think a lot of it came from just having discussions, talking about the sort of thing you and I are talking about right now—noticing it in ourselves and amongst our friends. I feel like I started talking about that in LOL, and I feel like, in many ways, this is the sequel to LOL, only this was made five years later and everything has gotten much more pronounced.


When we made LOL, we were shooting it in 2005; we were trying to be funny and over-exaggerate everything, but if you watch the movie now it’s almost understated, the level of reliance on technology. So that’s kind of twisted. In order to revisit those themes now, you have to go really deep into the ideas of loneliness and isolation. It’s easy to send a rapid-fire series of emails back and forth with someone, and you really feel like you’re sharing a lot of thoughts, you’re really connecting with someone, but as soon as you walk away from the computer all that connection seems to just disappears—it’s almost a little embarrassing or something.


And communicating with people over the ’net allows you to be a little more open than you might otherwise be, so people are sharing things that are beyond the level of what they might share in person, and then when they do meet in person, it’s almost a little shameful. So we kind of took Kent Osborne, and then made him a character rather than a real human being—we took some aspects of his life, and really amplified them in relation to what we wanted the movie to be about.



Tribeca: It’s interesting—this sort of thematic content is starting to be addressed more often than it has been in recent years, but it’s kind of surprising that it still isn’t addressed more commonly in films.


Joe Swanberg: Well, it’s tricky to deal with because a lot of the Internet is inherently not cinematic. It’s so interactive, you don’t experience it in a straight line the way you do a narrative story. So I feel like a lot of screenwriters are hesitant to dig into it because it’s so hard to get. I feel like the people who are dealing with it are dealing with it on a more visceral level, telling the kind of stories that don’t necessarily have to flow in a straight line.


It also really dates your movie, it’s the sort of thing that I think a lot of people really want to avoid; they want to create art that feels timeless. That’s never been something that’s interesting to me. I like the idea that my movies are time capsules, that they’re hyper-specific to when they were made. We had to cross that bridge with LOL, because we were like, how do we deal with showing or not showing this technology? And we just decided to make it exactly like now.


One of the things about LOL was that YouTube hadn’t really taken off, and people weren’t really using Facebook outside of universities, and it’s crazy to think about how these things that are so present now—I mean, that was only five years ago! The Internet that we were making a movie about in LOL was a totally different one from the one Uncle Kent is about.




Tribeca: You think about other world-changing technologies, like trains—it took trains decades to really move from inception to the transcontinental railroad—yet you think about how AOL started only what, 16, 17 years ago? The velocity is crazy.


Joe Swanberg: It’s crazy to deal with the same themes such a small amount of time later, and have all this new stuff to talk about. And something like ChatRoulette is just mind-boggling. I think the technology is totally amazing, that you can just connect with a complete stranger, and hit a button and connect with another complete stranger, but I also love that it was just immediately co-opted by guys jerking off.


It’s so incredible, you take this amazing idea, and then it’s used for the most base purposes. We tried to get at that a little bit in LOL, with the characters sending naked photos back and forth, but it’s so much more extreme now.


Watch Uncle Kent now on VOD via IFC's Sundance Selects.


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