Getting uncomfortable with Rick Alverson, director of The Comedy

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Alverson (left) with Eric Wareheim, Jeff Jensen, and Tim Heidecker (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
  • Alverson (left) with Eric Wareheim, Jeff Jensen, and Tim Heidecker (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
The Comedy, Rick Alverson's confrontational and deliberately unpleasant independent feature, screens for just two more days at Facets Multimedia. If you don't mind being provoked at the movies, it's well worth checking out. The film is built around the daring idea of casting comedians famous for discomforting humor—Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), and Jeff Jensen—and putting them in a dramatic context that renders their weird behavior doubly strange.

Heidecker stars as a nihilistic Brooklyn layabout whose life seems to revolve around belittling other people. He and circle of friends speak in a sort-of code (a hyperaware version of Heidecker's and the others' comedy style) that masks any genuine sentiment behind a wall of obscenities and would-be irony. I mentioned last week that A.O. Scott has called the movie a "case study in hipster obnoxiousness," and while he meant that pejoratively, it's still the most succinct description I've read of what Alverson's created. His directorial perspective is notably unsympathetic, but it sticks to the subjects with determination to know what makes them tick. In conversation, Alverson comes across as a thoughtful and mature artist—hardly the simple misanthrope the film's detractors have made him out to be. I talked to him on the phone a few days before Thanksgiving, just after The Comedy opened in the Brooklyn neighborhood where it was shot.

Ben Sachs: Where are you right now?

Rick Alverson: I'm down near Houston Street in the East Village. I live in Richmond, Virginia, but I came up for the New York premiere. I'm about to jump on a bus.

The Comedy takes place in Brooklyn, but it hardly takes a romanticized view of that place. Were you trying to play up your outsider's perspective in making the movie?

Actually, I've spent a lot of time there. I lived in the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn in the 90s. A large part of the population consists of immigrants—actual foreign immigrants and transplants from the suburbs. I suppose everybody vacillates between being an outsider and an insider here.

In the press notes, I read that when you started shooting The Comedy, you didn't have a script, only a 20-page treatment.

Yeah, my first two movies, The Builder and New Jerusalem [which plays at Facets next month], had just 20-page scripts with no prepared dialogue. That's the way I've always worked. If I have anything to contribute to this business, it's cultivating uncertainty and ambiguity. I want to leave the [movie] open through every process of production, all the way to the editing.

Do you not know how your scenes are going to play out before you shoot them?

No, I certainly do. I have an interest in exploring certain subjects—in [The Comedy], those were desensitization and a contemporary way of communication based on irony and sarcasm and maybe a reaction against the banality of language. It was just important to me that the movie was open enough that it could be reflective to particular elements at play—the cast, the environment—as opposed to trying to construct a set of particulars, which is the forte of big-budget films. Independent cinema's always at the mercy of its limitations, but I think it should also recognize the utility of those limitations to create a different kind of art.

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In working with your cast, did you have to guide them to address certain themes or did they hit on them right away?

Tim [Heidecker], Eric [Wareheim], Jeff [Jensen], Gregg [Turkington], and I were all on the same page about what we were doing. And they were very gracious. They knew they had to bring a lot of their own characteristics to their roles and trust me to recontextualize them in a fictional context. And they were cast based on certain behaviors in their work, their ability to ride the line between humor and discomfort.

I hope that, if the casting has gone right, I don't have to dedicate a lot of energy [with actors] to their motivation. It's more of a tone that I'm looking for. The narrative is not driven by dialogue, which is more of a musical element for me.

One reason I find the movie so compelling is that it feels like it turns the actors' style of humor against the performers. Their characters never register as likable.

(flatly) OK.

Do you not agree with that?

Well, that's pretty subjective. I think their humor reflects the sensibility of a certain generation. I've been to screenings [of the film] where there's been a lot of laughter. I think the movie can be read as a dark and disturbing horror film or as a comedy that derails into a scrutiny of itself. Different people have different points of access to it.

To what extent is the movie based on things you've observed?

The [characters'] way of speaking—the utilization of obscenity, the ostentatiousness, the degradation . . . that's stuff I've seen all around me in urban areas with people of a particular generation. Having been exposed to all manner of obscenity, whether through the Internet or other media, I think this generation has kind of nullified it. They're desensitized.

The humor of Tim and Eric and Gregg, I think it isn't actually referential. It's just absurdity. And in the movie, I think there's an awareness of that absurdity. I'm curious why some people have laughed at certain parts of the film. Having talked to them, I realize they were laughing at the audacity of [the language]. In a different context, they'd find a lot of this stuff to be reprehensible, as they should.

Yet the movie doesn't seem to critique this behavior. There's no sense of how the characters ought to be living.

Right. I think it's more of an exploration than a straight-on critique. The critique is of the commonality of these things. And I think it comes through in the honesty of the depiction, as opposed to [the behavior] being padded and palatable like it is in so many mainstream comedies. There's similar behavior in an untold number of mainstream films, but it's made easy to digest. It's really important to me that [The Comedy] isn't an active damnation; there's some ambiguity. I hate when there's moral grandstanding in a film. It robs the audience of its experience.

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Is there a mainstream movie you'd cite as particularly offensive in this regard?

I'd rather not. [laughs] There are too many.

Reviews of the movie, as I'm sure you know, are rather polarized. People seem to admire it or very strongly oppose it—and in the latter case, it seems like they can't get beyond their disgust of the people in it. Do you find it satisfying to provoke such strong reactions?

I don't find [the rejections] satisfying; I find them disappointing. It shows that we've been conditioned to watch cinema in such a different way than we look at other arts, which we're inclined to accept on their own terms. I think it comes down to this expectation that the thinking in films should be done for us. There's this padded remove to a lot of mainstream American movies—as well as a lot independent movies. It's still a foreign idea to a lot of people that watching movies can be an active experience.

Are there any films or filmmakers you admire for providing active experiences?

Lisandro Alonso, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont . . . John Cassavetes was engaged in that sort of thing. There are lots.

It's interesting that the first three directors you mention stand far outside American filmmaking traditions. Many reviews of The Comedy tend to situate it within conventions of recent American low-budget movies, particularly those about people of similar age and economic background.

Well, the subject matter is a very active choice. The movie deals with all kinds of tropes from contemporary American films; it definitely plays off of them.

The visual language can be somewhat familiar too. The absence of master shots, for instance, has become commonplace in certain independent movies. Stylistically, I feel The Comedy walks a fine line between critiquing its subject and representing that very thing.

Well, Faces, by Cassavetes, takes place in a pretty claustrophobic space. There's a long history of filmmakers who actively avoid establishing material and hypercomposed shots. I can see similarities in subject matter, but the stylistic choices are up to debate.

I do take your point, though, about there being a gray area around what's being critiqued. It was important to me that there was an ambiguity to the film. I wanted to create a feeling that the thing could destabilize at any time, so that meant not making something that was cold, moral, and wholly objective. I think there's too much validation for the audience [in that approach]. I think it's too easy for the audience when they're objectifying the individuals in the film.

I hoped that there would be enough destabilization and confusion to the vantage point to make the film a visceral experience. I think that's more resonant than purely moral storytelling.

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