In a Q&A held in 2011 at SXSW, Rick Alverson speaks to the inspirations that led him to become a filmmaker, he recalls his childhood interest in Steven Spielberg’s films. He finds his then fascination with Indiana Jones as both disturbing and horrifying in the power of a movie and it’s impact on his childhood identity. Alverson then recalls when he first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker at The Film Forum when he was a young adult.
It would be this film and it’s maker that would ultimately inspire him. Rick Alverson states that he discovered a whole new way of approaching cinema that intrigued him.. “‘Active Cinema‘ has potential for the audience to be a part of the experience as opposed to that of recipient or passive role of viewer…” It was within Tarkovsky’s 1979’s film which is most noted for rejection of traditionally rapid editing and storytelling for a purposefully slowed pace and re-examination in how cinema speaks to “reality.”
Indeed, when viewing Stalker the audience’s understanding of reality is limited to the slow and high contrast of brown sort of monochrome colors and rules. It is only when the film’s characters are forced into The Zone of the story where the banal and monotony restrictions of brown tones are left behind and normal rules of reality are no longer applied.It would later be in his highly controversial, debated, hated and deeply admired 2012 film, The Comedy, that he would most fully explore his opposing interests which grate against the accepted grain of American Cinema. Or as Alverson as accused typical American Film as carrying a “numbing” effect, impact and ramification. It would be difficult to not stand back and agree with his viewpoint. Most American film work is mediocre, predictable and a reflection of a culture that is at once rage-filled and complacent in following and falling into what often feels like a sort of void of tedium predictability.
When Rick Alverson’s The Comedy first came out it created reactions ranging from high praise to condemnation. At the time, I was quite perplexed by AO Scott’s dismissive review. I found a great deal of “interesting perspective” on not only the main character but also the limited views I was offered of his pals. And regarding Scott’s review, there is no “critical distance” to be found in Alverson’s film. That is largely the point. The film presents white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. With an amazing cast of realistic and effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions.
We might not like “Swanson” or any of his friends. Actually, I hated them. But viewers would need to be as equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness displayed. There is nothing “funny” about The Comedy. It is an effectively disaffected and provocative character study of disconnection, anger, and sadness that appears to be rendering Swanson and his “friends” into a state of sociopathic cruelty. To add to the audiences’ conflicting feelings is the style in which Alverson delivers his film.
Rick Alverson is a brilliantly skilled Cinematographer. Nearly every shot feels planned and subsequently artistic in composition. The “style” of The Comedy works in opposition to the ugliness of the characters’ interactions and actions. At times his cinematography offers a counter-meaning to what we “assume” is actually taking place. The opening scene is unexpected as it appears to depict some sort of erotic wrestling or messy sexually hedonistic gay orgy. As the style lets up and the frame adjusts, what appeared to be sexual in nature is just several drunk/stoned male friends “showing off” for the females who seem as uncomfortable as amused. It is a “party” gone somehow wrong. Yet no one on screen seems to realize this. Later, three of these friends gather inside a Catholic church. It is unclear why. Are they there to mock the ideas of religion and faith? Or is there some need for the comfort provided by those ideas? Either way, these men are left only with the ability to form a child-like game of moving themselves across, around and over the pews.
I don’t like labels. They are too easy and lazy and tend to reduce the idea of “categorization” into a form of negative judgements toward specific groups of people. And applications “labels” can often restrict understanding of what life and art offer. I’m not sure that it was Alverson’s intent to make a sweeping cultural commentary. And, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that The Comedy is horrifyingly realistic.
I know some of these men and the women who always seem to be attracted to them. I’m willing to be that most of us under the age of 50 do know these characters in one way or another. When Swanson takes a job as a “dishwasher” for an upscale restaurant, it is not out of need for money but a result of boredom. When he attempts to humiliate and rant at a stunningly beautiful waitress, she responds in kind.Their interactions are tinged with cruelty aimed at the other.
This becomes flirtation which leads to one of the most awkward and disturbing “date” on Swanson’s small houseboat. Kate Lyn Sheil plays the waitress, and like all the female roles in this film, she is nameless. Sheil is an expert actor. When her character slips into what appears to be an epileptic seizure, Swanson just watches her partially nude character convulse. He shows no sign of concern and attempts to do nothing to protect her head or tongue. He simply watches in passive interest. As he brings her back to the docks from his anchored home. He shows no clear sign of any emotional or logical register. The unnamed woman simply walks away.
Alverson’s film offers no opinion or goal. He doesn’t need to. We have become a part of the comedy. It is disturbing, sad, tragic and more than a few different commentaries on male-entitlement, rape culture, human cruelty and the way we all seem to play into it. Like the waitress we are not sure how to interpret this world. We simply interact with it as best we can. There is no joke. This idea of “comedy” does not fit. A viewer does not always need to “like” or “empathize” with a character to find value in what is presented.
Profound, unsettling and unforgettable, The Comedy is a masterful film from all perspectives.
How could a Film Critic as intelligent and “tuned-in” as A.O. Scott is not discover this within the movie? Perhaps it is just too grim. The joke or comedy is on us. It is a bold and subversive idea. One that most likely was just too perverse and real for many to “digest.” Over 3 years later, cinephiles still discuss and debate this film. I suspect The Comedy will always cause mixed feelings and reactions. This seems to be a part of Alverson’s intention. It worked.
At the time of The Comedy‘s release Rick Alverson stated that the audience doesn’t want to believe. In fact, as he points out the audience almost refused to accept “the legitimacy of the thing that disturbs them. If there is even a small moment when you believe in the thing as an actuality and not as a film, if some actuality creeps in and not something that you’re accustomed to seeing on film because it is too real — it is disturbing. That’s why John Cassavetes’ films are so disturbing. I mean, Woman Under the Influence is like a fucking horror movie to me. That is why I love it. Because there are moments when ti is so uncontrolled it becomes real and he had the depthness to actually keep that in the fucking thing as opposed to throwing it on the cutting room floor.”
If we look back Rick Alverson’s 2010 feature-length directorial debut, The Builder, which emerged from a collaboration with the film’s lead actor Colm O’Leary — we can see many pieces of Alverson’s vision taking form. An immigrant construction worker pursues building his perception of the ideal American house. His pursuit quickly grows to the point of obsession. Alverson provides almost no context in which we can place this builder, his desire, his obsessive focus and bewilderment when the “structure” fails to take form. It seems as if the builder takes a nose dive into isolation, financial ruin and depression.
Colm O’Leary has an interesting presence, but Alverson’s film refuses to give viewers enough information about the character to actually understand what is happening. We know that The Builder is an immigrant, we know that he has a professional reputation of sorts, we see him proceed with his goal of building this home and we begin to sense that his “idea” of the resulting construction is something far deeper than it first appears. He breaks off contact with his girlfriend, he scams some money from his mother and then turns to a friend’s generosity as more than a simple “layover” — it almost seems like our builder is hiding.
The inner-turmoil and intensifying depression within his head is never fully articulated. We are given very limited “clues” to understand his actions or his lethargy. Artfully filmed in under 90 minutes, The Builder is not without value. When I first say it I walked away unsatisfied. It was too vague for me. I could find no way of validating a film that for some reason did fascinate me. This might have been the point. But it struck me as film without any form of “solid structure” about a “Builder” and his dream.
However, Alverson has said the reason he so loves The Builder is “because I could lose myself in the thing I could react to viscerally to the environment that made more sense to me than in my brain. The director’s responsibility is to look naively, not callously. The director’s responsibility should be to listen and to look and to look at things naively.”
There is an interesting cinematic logic here. When looking back at The Builder, our main character isn’t just reacting to what is happening to him, but maybe even more importantly — this lost man is reacting to the encroaching challenges of his environment. And this environment is far more open that to the limitation of the land on which he is trying to build. The Builder’s environment takes it all into account. Even still, nothing can change the fact that this beautifully-shot film is challenging.
Less than a year later another collaboration with Colm O’Leary would led to New Jerusalem.
Alverson’s film offers a study of two very different men trying to form a friendship for two very different reasons. The film is intimate, intense and disturbing. It is also oddly, but effectively ambiguous. Both are employed at a tire station. Their work is labor intensive, but oppressively mundane. Colm O’Leary plays an immigrant new to the US via a stint in US Army in Afghanistan. He is clearly being pulled deep into depression. It is not entirely clear if this related to PTSD, the challenges of adjusting to life in a new land, loneliness or combination of them all. Will Oldham plays a Born Again Christian who is determined to connect with Sean and convince him that the key to life and resolving depression is faith in Jesus Christ. Or is it? Oldham’s character’s intentions for connection with Sean seem suspect.
As a forced bond begins to form, it comes with intensity as the two begin to feel conflicted regarding the intimacy of this friendship. This is an uncomfortable exploration at male bonding. While Alverson is focused on these two specific characters, it raises challenging and largely repressed ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving this tension and conflict. This is an interesting choice. On some levels, Alverson’s stubborn refusal to offer further insight is smart. But it also presents a challenge for the viewer.
The audience is left with a film that manages to convey sadness, loneliness and isolation, but fails to offer any sort of emotional or narrative pay off. The viewer walks away with a great deal to think about it. The problem is that I’m not sure I was given enough information to actually feel like my thoughts are grounded to anything more than the way I perceived the limited information I was given. Both Oldham as “Ike” and O’Leary as “Sean” are exceptional in their respective roles. And Alverson’s cinematography is particularly effective. But the viewer is likely to be as confused as the two characters. It is a risky proposition as a from of cinematic satisfaction or enjoyment. Sometimes that risk pays off.
This was my viewpoint of New Jerusalem when I had first seen it, but Alverson has discussed the film at some length. His idea was not to study “male-bonding” — the idea derived from a symbiotic relationship in which both men need the other. During a SXSW Q&A held in 2011, Alverson is asked if Ike loses his faith. Aversion’s clearly states that Ike needed a receptacle for his faith so that these doubted views might reflect back to him. And Sean as receptacle refuses to provide that reflection back.
Alverson goes on to explain that both male characters reach a conclusion that “they do not want the other person to become true reflections of themselves. The believer needs the disbeliever and the disbeliever needs the believer.” Here we are given a unique perspective on how people bond. What might at first appear a need to help or teach is actually a misunderstanding of actual need. Ike would only be disappointed if Sean agreed with him. This on-going struggle is a part of the reason they both reach for the other. They are both lost and need the other to validate their own separate but equally conflicted identities.
Which brings us to Rick Alverson’s latest and most full realized film, Entertainment. Magnolia Film is distributing and it will be released soon.
The film also marks the first time Alverson has surrendered the duties of Cinematographer to another artist. The film’s look is starkly different than his first three movies. Lorenzo Hagerman has applied a sometimes neon-like, deserted and mirror-reflected world which is clearly Alverson’s vision, but also recalls a new influence for the filmmaker. There is something very Stanley Kubrick about Entertainment. It is difficult for me to articulate, but both in look and tone I sense some Kubrickism going down. It works to good impact in Alverson’s new and strange and experimental cinematic vision. The link to Kubrick is most-likely very lose as there is no way to not realize we are watching a Rick Alverson film as it unspools. It has a most definite Surrealism running through it. This is reality, but it is skewed by loneliness, isolation and the fragmentary trajectory of the comedian’s tour of the road.
Gregg Turkington is a failing and aging comic. He is in the midst of a tour that seems to be trapped in the California desert. Run-down venues, tacky Negative-Americana tourist attractions and the eccentricities of this world are aimed full force at “The Comedian.” He pushes forward in what is most likely an unattainable successful chance at a career in Hollywood. He tries in vain to regain a connection to his daughter. His point of view, reasonings and his jokes continue to come against the clash of audiences, family and friends. Each encounter and experiences seems to escalate his Existential Crisis as well as formed into further Surrealism that threaten to pull him loose from the grip of reality into delusion.
The only comfort he can find is to more and more take on his exaggerated onstage persona. Constantly struggling for center stage, acceptance, success and connection he is pulled further and further down a sort of rabbit hole. Entertainment was formed by a collaboration between Alverson and Tarkington (AKA Neil Hamburger.) This is an interesting, but unsurprising collaboration. Rick Alverson has always seemed to have a connection to the underground comic movement. And as Gregg Tarkington’s work is largely tied up in on-stage persona comic-art-pieces the resulting film makes sense. The stand-up ideas come directly from Tarkington, but all else appears to be coming from Alverson. This is an enchantingly twisted, surreal, odd and encaging sort of horror-comedy. All of it seems largely rooted in the role of performer, identity, isolation and above all else human loneliness.
In an interview conducted earlier this year for Beyond Cinema, both Alverson and Tarkington were asked, “What was the seed of this movie?”
Alverson didn’t seem to need to even think about it: “A mutual disdain for certain things and curiosity as well as like-minded interest with trouble-making.”
However, Rick Alverson goes on to explain that with Entertainment, was largely a way for him to take “cinematic tropes” or cliches one all too-often sees reflected in film. Not only does he not like them, he feels this type of cinema minimizes what art should be intended to maximize. In other words, Alverson is seeking to subvert the ideas of recurring, rhetorical devices, motifs and other cinematic cliches in Entertainment. As he pointed out to Beyond Cinema, using a depiction “of a desert as a place of spiritual transformation or renewal is ridiculous and problematic. I hate metaphors.” He adds with a spark of energy, “I use them in this movie like building blocks in contending with all these ideas of representation,” Rick Alverson seeks to upset our cliched ideas.”
The Mojave Desert, a doppelgänger, a recurring use of mirrors, reflections, self-reflections all point to loneliness and the horrific idea of losing your identity within a made up character. It is a dark and cynical viewpoint. Ultimately our Comedian views his audience as his enemies who seem to have played a major role in his formation of his persona. But we are not as easily deceived as The Comedian. This persona is an invocation of his own addiction, depression and self-loathing. Assistance from a chemo-therapist who presents a world that only leads him to an even darker view of the world. Cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, utilizes different lenses of color to further throw everything off balance.
The Comedian‘s opening act or performer seems to taunt him with his youth and seems to be hellbent on stealing the show from his headliner. As the movie along we meet The Comedian‘s obsession with Mexican Soap Operas, an awkward reunion with his cousin, played with a comically-confused-state-of-consciouness by John C. Reilly, or getting a tour of a celebrity home, an uncomfortable situation with a stranger played by Michael Cera and to the film’s most disturbing and deeply odd scene which takes place in a roadside public bathroom.
Best not to discuss this scene until the film arrives in cinemas. Let’s just say it takes us to level of the grotesque one will not easily forget.
Rick Alverson dismantles our “Cinematic Tropes” with ease as The Comedian‘s world begins at a panic of about a 4 till we reach the truly nightmarish level of panic screeching off the charts. In the end, the only possibility is an escape into a damaged mind’s imagination. Entertainment is unforgettable. It should not be missed. The thing to keep in mind, once you let this movie “in” you’re not likely to shake it off very easily.
As John C. Reilly’s seemingly “drug-challenged” character awkwardly observes The Comedian, “Yer tryin’ to tell jokes and make people happy. That’s what’s important.” Within a few minutes screen time John C. Reilly’s character pushes The Comedian, “Where are ya at? Where is this leadin’ you? Where’s the growth potential?” But The Comedian’s cousin is really only partially there.
In my head our protagonist is roaming the heat and cold of the desert trying to figure out “Why?” and “What’s so funny?” This time around, I’ve a feeling that Alverson’s vision is going to be a better fit into the minds of audiences. At least I hope so. I’m not the only one waiting to see where Rick Alverson will take us next.
Rick Alverson’s Entertainment will be officially released on November 13th in limited release to cinemas and iTunes. Don’t miss it.
Matty Stanfield, 8.7.2015