The Audience Is the Jury: An Interview with Rick Alverson


At Work

Gregg Turkington in a still from Entertainment. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Rick Alverson’s new film Entertainment follows a comedian (Gregg Turkington) on the verge of mental collapse. On tour in California, his routine is simplistic, crude, and lame, the venues are bleak and half-empty. Alone in hotel rooms, he stares blankly at telenovelas. Every night, he leaves a voice mail for his daughter, who never calls back. Alverson intertwines pain and humor, his camera lingering for painful lengths on Turkington’s pale features. The actor turns his popular persona, Neil Hamburger, on its head: an act intended to be ironically vile and loathsome threatens to become legitimately vile and loathsome, and Entertainment evolves into a disquieting portrait of modern-day disillusionment, manifesting in emotional disconnect, misogynist rants, and isolation. 

This experiment in discomfort is a continuation for Alverson, whose previous film, The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker, focused on a group of affluent, aging New York hipsters suffocating in their own riches and irony, a reversal of the mainstream feel-good blueprint that confused and angered many critics and viewers. I spoke to Alverson in Manhattan earlier this month about his thoughts on Entertainment, portrayals of masculinity in the media, and Teletubbies.

This film is very particularly constructed.

When we watch movies, we paste together these narrative threads that are completely inconsequential. I think that’s due to a restlessness in us. The first thing the mind goes to is the credibility of the narrative, and the content. A large part of what I ended up doing in the edit was thinking about what happens after that, with the viewer’s intellect. It became more and more exciting, because I’m an audience as much as anybody. We’re taught to be unaware, or think that these events are disposable or superfluous, but we’re really vulnerable when we watch media. Especially in dark rooms. 

People also don’t want to identify with characters they find frightening or upsetting or tragic.

There’s something engineered in the stimulant event of movies, in that we have sympathetic and empathetic access to the protagonist as our surrogate. This pulls us into the content, and we occupy that space and experience the world vicariously through them. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how troubling the sympathetic character is—somebody we can relate to. I even had a woman ask at the Virginia Film Festival, why I didn’t make the character from Entertainment more sympathetic. I mean, the character is entirely pitiable. The film operates by those rules, to some degree. But to not have any sort of culpability in that, or any sort of conflict in that event of sympathizing—I don’t think I can do it. The scary thing is, we have a particular demographic that goes to particular movies, that has particular surrogates. It’s like an engineered bigotry. Watching movies, you train yourself to look around, out on the street, and find your surrogate, the person you might identify with. It doesn’t teach us how to contend with flat surfaces or repellent narratives or individuals who are unlike us.

The Comedy was an experiment in having a repellant protagonist at the center of the movie and having the sympathy fall around into the sides. You move through the thing, and you sympathize with everybody in the movie besides the nuclear center. It’s combustible.

I’m interested in these very deliberate confrontations of form and narrative. How do you write something like that?

The script is a fifty-page working document. None of my movies have used traditional or written dialogue. What needs to be conveyed, or is essential to the narrative or the tone that I’m trying to achieve—the subject, the content of the exchange—is in the body of the scene description. I’m not interested in dialogue driving the narrative. If it’s cast right, there are a lot of different things that can be said. I typically only do three takes or something—it’s either working or it isn’t, and I’m not going to try and engineer certain exchanges. I’m interested in the way they fail. I don’t even typically listen to the content. I’m more listening to the tonality of them.

How it feels?

Yes. The cadence, the energy between the individuals. The narrative and the dialogue aren’t telling the audience how to interact with the movie. If anything, it’s misdirection. Editing is an extension of me, of the writing. You deal with the limitations of the thing, what you’ve achieved, and you’re attentive to how it failed, and what it offers. That’s where collaboration begins. I’m forty-four, and I’m only learning now that there’s a lot of listening that needs to be done. I was reared on sitcoms. I was profoundly introverted. Much of my social behavior was gleaned from exchanges between people and watching relationships play out in sitcoms, made-for-television movies, and Magnum P.I. I certainly was aware of spending a large part of my young adulthood and my twenties unlearning all of that behavior, and the really frightening thing to me, ultimately, is that there’s an arbitrary nature to what was being taught. Sort of like the Teletubbies. They famously used a behavioral science about language between infants, and so these young toddlers had this relationship with the Teletubbies and believed that there was a language intercourse occurring, but they didn’t know what was being communicated. So there’s a general recklessness. We’re wielding something potent that we’re unaware of. Children, with cartoons, recognize what’s real and what’s not real. This muddy flirtation with naturalism that occurs in all of our popular media is really dangerous. I certainly play with it, in keeping with that, but maybe to different ends. I’m not trying to satiate people.

Gregg Turkington in a still from Entertainment. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The Comedy really angered a lot of people. Do you think that was just because they didn’t understand it, or it frightened them?

The movie is messy, thematically, and it doesn’t have the architectural rigor of Entertainment, where I’m playing a bit with myself as an audience. The Comedy is ugly in a lot of ways, but I think there’s a formal event in the interruption of authorial trust. It’s not a comedy, it’s about irony. It’s labeled in keeping with the tone and subject matter, which to me was a silly device. What else would it be called? What I learned, which was ultimately incredibly fascinating, is about that vulnerability we talked about. People would storm out of theaters and yell at me. There’s nothing really gratuitous in the movie, besides these uncomfortable events. The violence of the passivity of Heidecker’s character, when he’s on the boat watching the woman having a seizure, I mean—put that side by side with any graphic content of popular movies or television, and it just doesn’t even compare. If somebody is trying to see it as a comedy, they’re forced over and over again throughout to contend with their reading of it. I think people felt betrayed. It becomes something that’s challenging, when it was supposed to relieve them of something. Instead, it complicates their lives. Then they become angry.

There’s obviously a difference with people who have access to education—the luxury of the safety of pushing their intelligence into dangerous places. Most people don’t have access to that luxury. That’s what The Comedy is all about. There’s an individual in this dystopian nightmare who has achieved the American dream, and the luxury of idleness. That person has unlimited options. Frankly, I don’t think we’re built to have unlimited options. It’s a fantasy, but there are people in free-market societies who have achieved it. For me, The Comedy was a search for limitations, a desire for limitations, and to understand where experience and identity begins and ends.

Did you take any of your experiences with The Comedy, and the reaction to it, into consideration with Entertainment?

Yes. It’s a continuation of things that started with The Comedy, as far as the way we watch movies—audience, spectacle. This utopian thing has been the underlying theme of everything I’ve done, the fantasy of unlimited options, all-possible futures, that is the engine of American growth and export. Our brand around the world is a serious problem. It’s a complete disconnect from the facts of life. There’s something inherently sad about that, because those facts are the structure and architecture of life. Limitations make up our forms, and they’re beautiful. Instead, you can’t talk about them. Things are possible, but they aren’t necessarily plausible all the time. Entertainment sees this exhaustion with that very thing.

Do you feel this issue is specifically male?

Yes. There’s an obsession with male behavior in our society—there’s this mechanism at work where men own an identity that is forced on them. There are certain attributes of maleness, things men do, ways they’re expected to behave, and these are engineered all around us. Men take a kind of ownership of those things when in fact there’s an entity under them, which is vulnerable. Having to contend with stoicism, indifference, all of these clichés—my films look at this patriarchal identity as something crippling and destructive for everybody.

It seems that you’re not imposing anything on the women characters in Entertainment.

I’m over-sensitive to it, probably, because there were these oblique charges of misogyny for The Comedy, essentially because there was no reckoning for Heidecker’s character—no outcome that we desired as an audience. This was also a part of the experiment. What happens when the author doesn’t condemn the behavior of the protagonist? It’s so foreign in popular narrative. We want retribution because it’s a cathartic event—it releases the spectator back to their world without being burdened or culpable in the enjoyment. The way I’m approaching it, if you show aberrant behavior, it feels aberrant. You’re doing a justice. People ask me, Why is this language used toward women in the film, why is there this cruelty? There’s a formal thing happening, a collaborative kind of condemnation in which the reaction of the audience brings clarity to the awfulness—the audience is the jury. It’s not just a one-dimensional spectacle.

Rick Alverson. Photo: Susan Worsham, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Entertainment is currently playing in New York, and On Demand. It will open in LA on November 20 and continues to roll out through January 2016.

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.