New Directors/New Films 2015: 10 Notable Selections From An Impressive Slate

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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As this year's edition of New Directors/New Films, co-programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, winds up (it closes tomorrow), the festival once again confirms its stellar reputation for introducing New Yorkers to audacious and vital new talent. Even the most jaded moviegoer could find plenty of fresh perspectives and approaches to filmmaking. 

Below are 10 of the most notable titles I was able to catch at this year's festival. For more information, and to purchase tickets for the remaining screenings, visit the festival's website.

ENTERTAINMENT (Rick Alverson) *CLOSING NIGHT

The name of the film is Entertainment, and yet, for long stretches of Rick Alverson’s fourth feature, it seems that what the filmmaker resolutely refuses to do is to entertain us, at least in the normal sense of the term. However, in its stead, Alverson leaves us with something much deeper, and much more disturbing and unsettling, than mere entertainment.

In fact, this film acerbically interrogates the very notion of what it means to entertain, and shows us what a performer goes through in exposing him or herself to the whims and the fickle tastes of an audience. The result is a vision and a cinematic worldview that is as uncompromising as it gets, and one that most definitely will not appeal to everyone.

Entertainment is built around the persona of Neil Hamburger, the nom de stage of lead actor Gregg Turkington, an anti-comedian character that Turkington has been performing as for two decades. If you’ve never seen him in action (as I hadn’t before watching this film), this will serve as your introduction. The act, which is performed several times in the film to increasingly violent results, is something that truly must be seen to be believed. Turkington/Hamburger gets into character by oiling his thin, stringy hair into messy, glistening clumps, which he spritzes with hair spray for good measure.

Dressed in a cheap suit, and precariously balancing three drinks and a microphone in his hands, he unleashes a torrent of querying non sequitirs that are deliberately off-putting and vulgar in the extreme. Here are a couple of examples of his bon mots: “What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag? It would be wrong to piss on the American flag.” “What’s the worst thing about being gang-raped by Crosby, Stills, and Nash? No Young.”

The Comedian (as he’s called in the film) comes across in his stage act like a vaudevillian gone completely rancid, deliberately provoking his audience into hatred. And that he often gets, from the sparse crowds at the seedy dives where he performs. He returns their hatred with a string of invective aimed at the audience, especially those who heckle him. It’s an act that is so unfunny, it comes out on the other side to actually become hilarious.

The offstage person is a rather dramatic contrast to the Comedian’s stage persona; he’s a taciturn, withdrawn, seemingly depressed man, aimlessly wandering the California desert, desultorily joining and deviating from tourist groups. He encounters a number of others along the way, such as his cousin John (John C. Reilly), who voices support for his act, but gently suggests he tone it down to appeal to “all four quadrants” of a potential audience, maybe by not referring to semen so much. The Comedian frequently calls his estranged daughter, who never returns any of his messages.

As events become increasingly bizarre and surreal, the film suggests that Alverson could be this generation’s Samuel Beckett, giving us disturbing visions of an absurd, godless universe where any attempt at finding meaning or a purpose to it all proves to be a foolish pursuit. In the final shot, the Comedian finally laughs, but it’s a laugh divorced from any sense of happiness or mirth; instead, it’s an expression of complete resignation to the futility of his existence.

(March 29, 4pm and 7pm)

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