Overhauling the Philosophy of Filmmaking with 'Entertainment' Director Rick Alverson
In his follow-up to the oddly dual-natured character study The Comedy, Rick Alverson's latest film Entertainment highlights the anti-comedy of Gregg Turkington and his complex character Neil Hamburger as he wanders in a desert of lost potential.
We sat down with Rick Alverson at SXSW to discuss Entertainment!
NFS: I'm a filmmaker myself and sometimes it feels really weird to be press. Sometimes I feel like a vulture in the desert picking your bones.
Rick: Yes, I owe a movie review to Nick Dawson from Talk House. I am finding it very difficult to cross over that line because it has a public interest aspect to it that feels treacherous as a filmmaker.
NFS: Do you feel a lot of pressure to do press and stuff?
Rick: I think in a more philosophical way, people desire the idea of the author and they want the context for the work and I think context is fascinating and important, and it's sometimes necessary, but then others, it can be disruptive. Whether it's media or promotion or criticism or just banter around the bar, in the unpacking of things we tend to go to the most accessible source. We want to know what others are thinking; we want to know what the filmmakers tells us the film is about.
NFS: "Just tell me what it is!"
Rick: It just has to do with short attention spans and the restlessness of contending with something. We don't want to contend with subject matter, we don't want to contend with form, it's a restless pursuit; it's uncomfortable.
"I am adamantly in opposition to this trend about acquiring compact meaning in narratives."
NFS: I thought The Comedy was the perfect movie. The first time I watched it, I was rolling on the floor with laughter. The second time I watched it, I was just empty inside. Just horrified by the characters.
Rick: Both The Comedy and Entertainment are meant to be seen multiple ways by multiple viewers. It's strange because they were two experiments in viewership for me. There's a lot of art and there's a lot of film that's made from a more subjective vantage. I tried to approach these two movies -- though it's impossible to approach them objectively -- but to consider the objective ramifications of it and the way audiences respond. It's almost a formal exercise in that.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about the evolution from The Comedy to Entertainment? How do you make sure that you're evolving filmmaking? Is that something you even think about?
Rick: The concept of and the fundamental necessity of approaching form first is, I think, something that can be lost in our obsession with content and culture. You read reviews of many, many films and the last thing that they talk about is what the film looked like. Was it chaotic, was it busy, did you fixate on colors, was there awkwardness in the body movement or the composition or the aspect ratio? These things have fallen by the wayside because in that desperate effort for us to compartmentalize and easily order our experience we say, "What does this film mean? What is it telling me?" I am adamantly in opposition to this trend about acquiring compact meaning in narratives. I think it's problematic. It reduces the experience down to a logline.
I'm deeply inspired by Robert Bresson and he called out the idea of literary narrative as something that needed to be departed from. Cinema is temporal and we're engaged in it in a sensorial way, visually, orally and temporally. The written word does something else, it's referential, it points to meaning, it points to suggestion and ideas. But cinema is experience, so if it's reduced down to that literary necessity of being referential, then it's lost.
NFS: I think it's really important to have filmmakers out there taking that line, that viewpoint.
Rick: It's a bit commercially dangerous, though. There are certain trends and certain tropes of the mainstream in cinema today and in the past that I'm flirting with a little bit because I find it interesting. Being a filmmaker is an opportunity to have a conversation with not just a medium, but with subject matter and composition and the thing on the other side of the camera. So, it was really interesting to obscure my prejudices and actually have a conversation with something that's outside of myself. I think that's the most exciting thing for me about making movies.
I find characters in The Comedy as reprehensible as, hopefully, some of the audience. I find humor in the depiction, but I also find horror in it. But I'm like you, the idea of obscuring my moral position is necessary, because otherwise it becomes propagandistic for self and grandstanding and the message again becomes the form which I think is the sad reduction of it.
NFS: A lot of the friends that I've grown up with, the generation that I belong to is influenced by this kind of jaded sensibility, this feeling that everything is over, everything has been done, it's a desert out there, quite literally.
Rick: I don't know if it's my generation or just my personal experience, but I'm aware of the feeling that we've hit the ceiling in so many places in culture and there's this re-circulation and I think something in Entertainment is about that. I hate metaphors in movies, but Entertainment uses metaphors as raw material -- it's the sympathetic character, the journey toward home, the idea of the daughter and then even the father-daughter kind of distance and the desert as a place of reckoning and spiritual transformation and the unlimited potential of the American West and all this stuff.
These are tropes, these are clichés, but I wanted to use them as raw material because I know that those things, even though I hate them, they're actually utilitarian to some degree. They give us access to something. Once these metaphors are engaged in Entertainment, I think they're perverted to some degree and they're turned on their head. So, it ends up being an access to experience rather than a reduction of it.
"I don't believe that we, at any age, can actually unpack what is contrived and what isn't contrived."
NFS: You're still meandering on a desert and you're still trying to find some sense of purity or innocence that's left and the daughter seems to be that thing that's out there somewhere, that's pure still, that's still protected from this onslaught.
Rick: I think all of my four movies have been, in some way, re-approaching my same issues. As an American, I think there's this idea unlimited potential is really problematic for me. It's problematic; it's becoming palpable -- In an environmental sense, but we refuse to look at the fact that there are ceilings and limitations to everything. It's not just counter to the American ideal and the American spirit, but I think it's a threat to the commodities and the corporate acquisition of the American spirit.
If you talk about limitations and you talk about the fact that there isn't enough wealth to go around, suddenly what good is a Coca Cola? It isn't just about quenching your thirst for a moment and filling you full of corn syrup, but it's like the idea of liberation is disrupted. The daughter in Entertainment deals directly with that -- deals directly with this fixation with the aspiration in America that is not compatible with the "facts on the ground," as they say in military words.
NFS: I also think there's this really interesting thing about entertainment especially I guess in America, but probably all over the world, that just garners this automatic respect. Like being an entertainer or being in show business there's this automatic gravity or magnetism towards it even if it's not necessarily what should be given so much attention. I just love the John C. Reilly character because he seems to just exemplify that sort of naive magnetism towards entertainment in any form.
Rick: I think that's just more of that fixation with the ideal -- the idea of the celebrity isn't a fixation with the other. It's a fixation with the self. In The Comedy there's a deeply problematic central character that you have difficult access to. A lot of people were really turned off by that because one of the tenants of the idea of celebrity in Entertainment is the sympathetic character. I even think it's more profound than that. I think we love to, particularly in movies, we love to pity our characters because it aggrandizes us and it not only validates our positions and our lifestyles, but it elevates us, so we walk out and we feel like we're bigger than something. So, we explored that in Entertainment. The idea wasn't just to have a central character that was sympathetic and that had traditional access, but a character that was capable of pity.
To some degree, that is manipulative, but it's using that toward an end and the end is the perversion of that event, what happens after that event of access. So, all of these things were superficial, formal and contextual ideas to get the viewer engaged and then there's also a cat and mouse game that goes on, the thing with threshold of attraction and repulsion and stuff.
"Anybody that can spend their time being a voyeur rather than a ditch-digger should be pretty fucking happy."
NFS: So many of my friends who are really funny, really funny people are just drunks and are just miserable and are really talented. What is it about that kind of person that is like that and what do you find attractive about casting those people as actors and what do they give to the screen?
Rick: You develop projects based on materials that are available to you, and your connections. I hadn't anticipated on doing another movie that collaborated with comedians, but I love what Tim and Eric and Gregg do and I find I understand it and I deeply respect it. But, in a larger sense, the comedic world is inaccessible to me. It's not really my thing. It's more idiosyncratic to Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington and his character Neil Hamburger that interests me. Some of that incompatibility with the world and their discomfort. Neil Hamburger is a very complex character that Gregg built, the idea of taking this onstage character and developing a very reasonable and complex human being offstage with him in a dry sense was really interesting to me.
NFS: Do you think visual literacy is dying or evolving in our media landscape?
Rick: I find it problematic with all of our experiences in life that are being reduced to a very simple form of meaning and reference. Everything is necessitated to be compact and digestible and our attentions necessitate that even further. I don't think we're actually looking and listening anymore -- we're just reading. I don't believe that we, at any age, can actually unpack what is contrived and what isn't contrived. I think that we think that we can -- our intellect jumps in and says, "This is what's happening."
We're sensorial creatures and I think that ultimately we're animals like any other and this stimuli triggers us and we remember it and we operate off of it. The strange thing about it is we read more now than we've ever read. We don't read in the same way we used to read, but we're constantly taking in language and not just images. But the way that we read is superficial. I think that there's a danger to language in so far as that there's a danger to metaphors, in that there's a certain amount of misdirection and thievery happening from experience. Yeah, I don't know -- it's a frightening world.
NFS: What things, at this point in career after several films, are you struggling with?
Rick: What am I not struggling with?
NFS: Hah. But really it's quite a privilege to be a filmmaker in this world, how do you handle that privilege?
Rick: It's a great privilege and I think there's a certain duty to take it very seriously, even if it's comedy which I'm not directly involved with, but I think that the comedians that I've worked with take what they do seriously and seriousness isn't all frowns and shrugs -- it's a kind of attentiveness. Anybody that can spend their time being a voyeur rather than a ditch-digger should be pretty fucking happy. I have a daily routine of struggling with how to make the movies that I'm making in an industry that has developed into a culture that finds them -- if not problematic -- then threatening, maybe.
I'd rather be making experimental films. Instead I'm dancing around the threshold of what is consumable. But that sort of interests me because it plays with ordinary people and I'm an ordinary person, too. I think a lot of times the arts forgets that. I'm interested in the mainstream even though I find it very hard to cross that threshold.