Interview: Rick Alverson On ENTERTAINMENT And Other Dirty Words
You can safely say it involves a tacky comedian, aggressive in the poor taste of his vulgar, but still funny material, on a never-ending tour through small town dive bars worthy of his act. You can point to how the comedian in question, insanely portrayed by Gregg Turkington, chooses to entertain himself during his off days, frequenting freakish offbeat roadside attractions. The film's introduction is one good example, set in an airplane graveyard where the carcasses of former air vessels go to die. Another is when The Comedian takes a guided tour through the oil mines of Five Easy Pieces' San Joaquin Valley. Yes, these are primary visuals of the film, but on paper they do little to reflect the experience of Entertainment's calculated imagery and poetic editing.
The breathy construction of Alverson's exquisite frames serve to offer the audience a viscerally dreamlike road film through the outskirts of sanity - a hellish confrontational vision of an American existential nightmare. His show business apocalypse may be chock full of contempt for the premise of entertainment, but that doesn't make Alverson's odyssey of a broken clown any less watchable. Whether or not he's explicitly making this point or not, in Entertainment, one man's nightmare is another audience's gold. And make no mistake, Entertainment is gold.
ScreenAnarchy: Are you feeling the reception of ENTERTAINMENT is warm so far?
Rick Alverson: It feels warm, yeah. It's not combative which is what I was used to with The Comedy.
What would be one of the of the weirdest receptions one of your films has had?
It was the third screening of The Comedy here (Sundance Film Festival) in 2012. A guy stood up after the movie and asked us what we had to say for ourselves and demanded an apology to the audience. Then some other folks stood up and yelled at him and things got very weird.
Have you found anything interesting about the reception of ENTERTAINMENT thus far?
A thing that I found interesting is about context in a way, in that the movie is intentionally ambiguous and has a number of misdirects in it and I think that some people appreciate that restlessness that occurs.
I love it in those moments where you are trying to nail something and I think a lot about the way the movie is structured and what it's trying to achieve is dependent on that restless moment and controlling that energy. But some people are conditioned to fight that.
They look for the most convenient point of stabilization around us. There has been some grasping for context in a couple of receptions. Some of that context involves the people who are involved, like Tim Heidecker and what he does, and Gregg's character outside of the film.
Essentially they're thinking of this as some sort of insincere thing when in fact it's not at all. There's a dance with all kinds of things: cynicism, sarcasm, these things inside it. But ultimately it's an entirely sincere thing we're doing.
I love all the roadside attractions in the film - The Comedian's own forms of entertainment, which are pretty bizarre. I'm wondering what some of your favorite offbeat bits of roadside attraction have been?
Gosh ... I'm really having to reach back in my memory here because this novelty, roadside attractions, aren't something I've explored for a long time. Winchester Mystery House was always interesting to me. It's the widow of Mr. Winchester, rifle man, who built this house with this endless construction and all of these stairs that go to nowhere and this sort of thing.
When I was watching I found myself thinking about the scene in DON'T LOOK BACK where Dylan's talking to the Times reporter. Do you know the scene I'm talking about?
Yeah. Yeah, it's an amazing moment, right?
Particularly the moment where he says, "Who wants to be whipped? And if you do want to be whipped, aren't you still being entertained?" I'm wondering, how you would define entertainment?
I don't know. To me it's always been a dirty word. I know that that's a shallow reading of it but it's always been a reactionary thing for me to think of it as something that is the classic escapist proposal. I just always question its nutrition.
I grew up staring at the television and being sedated by the things I saw there, ultimately, but also this very weird thing occurred to me when I was younger. I was profoundly introverted to almost be crippled by it so I didn't socialize a lot, and I felt like I'd learned everything about human interaction and socialization through Who's The Boss and those reckless things.
I just spent a life unlearning those somewhat arbitrary interactions and false moments so yeah, I think that there is. And even in a contemporary sense there is the idea of sedating an audience and pacifying them, anaesthetizing them. It is absolutely comparative in the commercial form of entertainment.
It's something that I find really problematic because I know that it feels good but it feels good to do a lot of things that might not ultimately be sustainable for us. I'm mostly concerned about what a passive audience does outside of the theatre if we are literally conditioned to accept and contend with stimuli in that way.
It's something we look for. It's a place that we look to retreat to and that's what sleep should be for. In our waking hours we should, especially with all of the different tactile elements of the world, we should be engaged... or at least hope to be engaged. I think that media should make us active and not passive.
Would you say that this resentment towards the concept of entertainment helps to explain, for lack of a better word, your infatuation with comedians that antagonize?
Oh entirely, yeah. I think I've seen two standup comics besides Gregg and Tim and being in those clubs was really horrifying for me. It felt like this really one-dimensional pornographic exchange... insofar as that it was all based upon a single call-and-response baiting. Once the act of laughter is satisfied they move on.
It's the same reason why I find that with Morton Feldman. If my dad were to hear the Rothko works that he did, it would be really problematic because it would feel like an antagonism listening to these marginally atonal passages and stuff. It's the same reason why Punk had some vitality at one point. The Gang of Four record Entertainment! is really important to me.
We should be upset and stirred and knocked off balance. In the controlled scenarios and situations of entertainment and media and these things, that's where it should take place. It's a learning ground for contending with the world, so why not have something ruin your day in an easy chair, you know what I mean? That's where it should happen. It shouldn't happen out on the street.
Looking back on all the performances the comedian does throughout the film, in retrospect, I like that he is best received in prison. He probably gets his warmest reception from a mandatory audience.
Captive audience, right?
Why do you feel that the prisoners give him the best reception?
I think there is, inside the world of the story, there is an affinity or like-mindedness, an understanding of the wrestling with bitterness and cynicism and turning that into something contrary to what a mainstream audience might think is a constructive act and a liberating act.
This is where the roots of vulgarity in humor come from; the liberating act of violating, these silly protocols that we couldn't use language in the recreational sense any way that we choose. These liberties that we aren't allowed to flirt with the boundaries of. It's just like when you were a kid and you first learned to violate those protocols. It's liberating and then you become a potty mouth like I am outside of interviews.
Folsom Prison comes to mind. Johnny Cash playing to the underdog.
That came up. There is a stereotype a bit and there is an iconic thing about a performer going to this place... It's become one-dimensional and I think that that's really interesting to me and it came up over and over again with this film, whether it's the desert or the metaphors or the daughter or the prison or these sorts of things, but it came from a grab bag of tropes.
We were looking for them because that's the grammar that made up popular American cinema for a long, long time and it's recycled. It was really interesting to wade into that and upset the furniture and re-write the conditions of the audience-author relationship in those spaces that are supposed to be safe.
Given that your scripts are fairly thin compared to the final running time, how would you describe the process of fleshing out your scripts?
They used to be thin. I don't really see them as thin anymore because essentially for me I'm hitting 47, 55 pages now and I never have really been interested in dialogue as a facilitator of narrative because there are so many other compositional, formal, and sensorial things going on outside of being literally told the story.
It's a cheap reduction of the medium down to an old form: the literary tradition and the novel and these sorts of things, and we insist on that because that's the safest ground of all to digest narrative in a way that's been established and reached a tepid formula over centuries as opposed to contending with what film can do that's unique.
That's why I love people like Bresson who took an adamant stance against that literary tradition in film and violated a lot of those things in a really beautiful way. There isn't the traditional scripted dialogue and so the scripts are shorter but they're very... I encounter this a lot with The Comedy, but I've always felt I need to articulate and defend really what's happening there because there is an idea with improvisational work that it can be a lot of different things.
It literally can be an exploratory exercise in finding something. Now, while that does happen in some places with exchanges with characters in my movies, it's highly orchestrated in that what's being said and the mood and tone that we're trying to get to - what you see in the frame and the action and this stuff. But there definitely is room in that strict architecture- it's more exciting to let something fall apart.
That is where that discovery occurs, but it's in an enclosed space, so I think it's more exaggerated that way. I love when people become inarticulate and when the effort at trying to communicate is way more interesting than the communication for me. I'm becoming increasingly happy with this system of achieving that little reckless, awful failure of communication.
Since so much of the film is written in post, how would you describe the editing process?
It's an absolute extension of the writing. The film isn't completely written until the cut is locked. Because there are certain ... I don't know, it's just the conversation and reaction to the stimuli of the footage and the conditions during production, and then the contention with if what was captured is really exciting and frightening and all of this stuff.
I love that, listening to it and not insisting on that it do something for me so that there can be an actual discovery and it's something other than a promotional vehicle for self.
Since the film is so open in terms of interpretations and the like, I can't imagine this is a film you enjoy being asked to explain in Q&As.
I like talking about ideas so I think that those conversations I hope that anybody would have. It sometimes frightens me that we grasp for a...
Conclusion or something.
Yeah, conclusions and stop any energy that thing might contribute to because to me that's the vital act of the thing. That's the objective, is to create a kind of energy and confusion so that we are actively digesting the world and the things in it.