‘You don’t think something can be artistic if it has boobies in it?” a fetish photographer asks in 24 Exposures, the latest from Joe Swanberg, the director of the first-rate Drinking Buddies and a host of squirrelly, shambolic, this-is-how-people-actually-talk micro-budget films, some ace and some curios. Think about that question, and you’ll see that it only could be asked in two situations here in the age of prestige HBO dramas: first, when arguing with some censorious halfwit, which isn’t the case in 24 Exposures. Second, when a young man is trying to talk a young woman into doffing her top for art’s sake, which is the case. That prickish photographer, Billy (played by Adam Wingard, the director of You’re Next), is wooing one of the barista-next-door beauties whose breasts seem to be this mordant meta-thriller’s raison d’être.
The woman (Helen Rogers) seems flattered but doesn’t sign up, yet, and the scene has a flirty, dirty, real-life tingle — it’s one of those loose, somewhat improvised moments that often flower between Swanberg’s characters, a moment that feels like something the director happened to catch rather than orchestrate.
That’s despite scruffy Wingard’s lack of any commanding screen presence. But he’s a tallish guy who makes movies, so you’ll probably buy it when, a scene or so later, his quarry is up for much topless petting with another model in the photographer’s shower. If you don’t buy it, consider this: The scene’s very existence is evidence that guys like this are able to talk women into exactly this scenario.
Nobody’s arguing that nudity precludes the possibility of serious artistic intent, except maybe those dopes who complain that the flesh bared on Girls doesn’t seem to be there to inspire masturbation. 24 Exposures, on the other hand, seems crafted for viewers to watch with their hands in their pants. Yes, as the horny photographer and his girlfriend (Caroline White) hook up with their models, there are clever feints toward parody and criticism of godawful erotic thrillers, but the point of the many nude scenes never feels like anything more than the nudity. Swanberg has made an inspiring career out of rejecting the aesthetic crimes of Hollywood. It’s dispiriting, then, that he so doggedly indulges in its tradition of male gazing. This is strict T&A, in a literal sense — just tits and ass, often gamely fondled.
It’s cheerful T&A, at least, and the women are allowed to be chatty, likable people, their characters always eager participants in their fetishization. If there’s any artistic breakthrough it’s in Swanberg’s reclamation of the humanity of softcore, a project he’s verged upon before: The women who get naked are the kind these indie filmmakers happen to know and like, a different set than the ones usually hired for movie erotica. Expect bobs, pores, nerves, and an affable freshness, and none of the steely, professional determination of the starlets of the Cinemax circuit. And don’t expect to watch these women (all white) suffer acts of violence — there’s none of that feeling, familiar from too many horror flicks, that at some level the filmmakers enjoy seeing women suffer.
Granted, the female cast here all poses for Billy’s crime-scene photo shoots, which involve ripped bras and tights, bathtubs of stage blood, and Laura Palmer–style corpse makeup. Since this is also something of a (gentle, self-referential, dissatisfying by design) horror film, those scenes of play-acted murder get juxtaposed against one that’s meant to be real in the movie’s story. It’s a disorienting fakeout, as graceful as De Palma, and perhaps something of a commentary on the aestheticized sexual brutality of CSIs, SVUs, and every Shannon Tweed vehicle, but the deepest the movie digs into it is Billy admitting that he doesn’t want to think too hard about what gets him off. (That could be the movie’s thesis statement.)
The murder doesn’t add up to much, either, thanks to Swanberg’s principled refusal to indulge in anything as artificial as thriller plotting. Instead, the only wrap-up it (or a couple much more minor incidents) gets is a coda in which a literary agent summarizes the events of 24 Exposures and then points out that such unconnected happenstance doesn’t make for “compelling commercial books.” As a parody of the poker-faced denouement of Psycho that’s pretty funny, especially considering who plays that agent. (I won’t spoil it.) But it’s no justification for not bothering to make this story compelling. After having his book idea rejected, the movie’s cop character (Simon Barrett) slumps home, where a comely young actress awaits, ready to do the one thing the movie requires of her: cheerfully take her clothes off for the audience’s delectation. The credits roll, and that’s the promise and disappointment of 24 Exposures all at once. It’s too high-minded to offer the cheap comforts of genre but too low-minded to skip one last chance to ogle the kind of woman viewers might have a crush on in real life.