“A cat and mouse game between attraction and repulsion.”
Entertainment may be the most disturbing movie about a stand-up comedian since Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. It’s certainly another fascinating film by writer/director Rick Alverson, whose blistering last effort, The Comedy (2012), was equally unsettling.
In Entertainment Gregg Turkington plays “The Comedian,” a sweaty stand-up comic (his Neil Hamburger alter ego) on a tour of prisons and bars in the Mojave desert. His act, which includes off-color humor—often involving celebrities—is met more with heckles than laughs. Offstage is equally bleak. The Comedian tries to reconnect with his daughter, but only leaves voice messages. He has encounters with various people, ranging from his cousin (John C. Reilly), to a bathroom hustler (Michael Cera), and a pregnant woman (Ashley Atwood). Each magnifies each other’s despair. On occasion, he takes tours of airplane graveyards, oil fields, and western towns, but generally he sits in his hotel room watching Mexican TV.
Alverson’s style of filmmaking uses a deadpan approach that forces audiences to react to the characters and events being presented. The awkwardness will get under the viewers’ skin—if it doesn’t get on their nerves.
Gary M. Kramer Do you find Neil Hamburger’s humor funny? And why, or why not?
Rick Alverson I have traditionally not been a fan of stand-up comedy. It’s something that gets under my skin when it shouldn’t. The only stand-up that makes sense to me is what Gregg or [co-writer] Tim Heidecker do—use discomfort as a vehicle for animating an audience. They use it as the ends of humor, but I use it for a more dramatic potential. I do find what Gregg does enjoyable, but at the same time what animates me about it are the cadences, repetitions, and relentlessness—the fact that there’s not much deviation in the structure of what he does. What he does wouldn’t be successful in other hands. It’s the cadence and delivery and adeptness of the performance. Because of that, it becomes transcendent, cathartic. To me, that makes for an active spectacle, which is what I’m interested in for my movies. The audience wrestles with what they’re being fed. They’re willing participants in a collaborative experience. The film is structurally designed to exist between two states: the act onstage, which is repetitious and exhaustive. And then there’s the exhaustion of the blank-slate/negated personality offstage. The film exists between these two polarities.
GMK What prompted you to make this film and use the Neil Hamburger character as the protagonist?
RA I think Gregg and I had no interest in it as a promotional vehicle for a comedian. There are great deviations in the film from his onstage character. We created a different persona for the environment of the film. I think we’re both reluctant to say, “It’s the Neil Hamburger movie”; it’s just not designed that way. For people who know that character, they’ll have access to him in a certain way. But it also works for those who don’t have that prerequisite. This is Gregg’s livelihood. He was cautious. We didn’t want it to be a promotion; it was meant to compliment what he does, and exist squarely in the world I do—a dystopian, nightmare movie that happens to have stand-up comedians in it.
GMK We see The Comedian onstage and off, in hotel rooms and on sightseeing trips, with friends and strangers, and in bathrooms, where interesting things happen. How did you decide on the arc of the story?
RA I am vehemently adverse to a particular kind of cinematic narrative—where the engine is dialogue. I hate the fact that we have, as a people, taught ourselves how to “read” cinema. Essentially, what that does is truncate the experience, especially when it plays through to a necessary conclusion. It’s destructive to our experience. The collaborative component is shot to hell. The ambiguities are equally dangerous. The editorial considerations for those ambiguities are thorny because you take on a responsibility to not lose the audience in something that is superfluous. I like ambiguity in filmic narratives because it creates a kind of resonance that you can shape into the next sequence.
The whole film is a cat and mouse game between attraction and repulsion. The Comedian off stage is flat. On stage he is animated. The viewer should have a spectrum of relationships to the content. It’s difficult to talk about the literary narrative, the plot, or the backstory. The intended information is the tonal experience of the movie. That’s entirely what I’m thinking about when I’m shooting, and cutting, and writing.
GMK Your films are polarizing, discomfiting. I love that The Comedian tells a rape joke to prisoners. Why continue to take this daring approach?
RA It’s the process that’s satisfying. It’s difficult to watch these films. Entertainment is the first I’ve made that’s “accomplished.” My first two movies can be considered in the neo-neo-realist movement. It may be a coincidence. They used non-actors and are quiet movies about immigrants in America. They are linked aesthetically by pacing and the score. In The Comedy, I had a conversation with the cinematic medium itself—it was loaded with things I despise—but my fascination with a more universal [cinema] grammar—with tropes and building blocks and metaphoric narrative—those elements are all in Entertainment: the idealized, unattainable female presence of the daughter; the desert as renewal and spiritual transformation. They’re clichés. But I think I’ve become aware that this kind of grammar is necessary for people to gain access to the film. We use that grammar to captivate the viewer... I hate metaphors in movies—they feel like a misdirection. The experience is not being experienced. You read it and comprehend it, then move on. So I use these elements to trap a person in the movie and then have things break down.
GMK There are scenes in which The Comedian or his audience are bored. Viewers may be fascinated or frustrated by Entertainment. I think your point is we all need amusement and find it in different ways. What can you say about how audiences will respond?
RA Entertainment is a more inclusive movie than The Comedy. It has a sympathetic character in the center, which I think is what an audience wants. It validates and elevates the viewer. We all want to feel better, myself included, as a viewer. I don’t think the film is going to keep everybody in that space, but if somebody feels restless or insulted, that’s a result of the attributes of the film and what it does to the viewer, what it requires of the viewer.
I think this film, and The Comedy, more than my others, share the same structure as horror films. Entertainment finds the elasticity of the suspense—how long is the tether between the audience and the experience? When will it break? That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m shooting and cutting: How elastic is that connection between the viewer and experience?
Passivity—we are all taught to be viewers. I watched TV and learned social protocols and behaviors through sitcoms. I had to unlearn that. What was so entirely frightening to me was that there was an arbitrary nature to what I was learning—it wasn’t social propaganda. There was a reckless innocence, but behaviorally, I wasn’t taking it that way at all. The screen was thinking for me. When it does that, it is a learning appendage, and that’s really dangerous. The passivity we’re taught inside cinema and our computers extends out into the world—the voting booth, for example, or legislation. There is an opportunity in the dying art of the narrative feature film to nurture active relationships with media in the world.
GMK What can you say about the element of celebrity? The Comedian isn’t famous, but he is heading to a celebrity’s home; the oil tour guide references Five Easy Pieces; the jokes mock Courtney Love, Elton John, Elvis, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young; there are impressions of DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Pacino in Scarface, etc. What are you saying about our fascination with and disdain for celebrity and entertainment culture?
RA It elevates us and validates our aspirations. It’s very dangerous and hugely problematic, but it’s commonplace and something akin to talking about a mutual friend. It works in different ways in the movie. Gregg’s character, Neil Hamburger, in his stage performances, is fascinated with riffing on corporate and celebrity culture. That’s largely the content of his show. In the world of the movie there is a lot of the cultural purgatory and a plateau, where the people have ceased to grow collectively because of this outsourcing of their experience to an ephemeral world.
GMK I think the film is very much about observation and participation. The Comedian is acutely aware of what he sees, and his reactions to it are rather telling. You put audiences in the same observational position. There are many scenes where viewers have to fill in the blanks. Was this your strategy? To coax viewers to react?
RA I’m definitely not interested in shock value. I’m not trying to prod the audience into feeling something. Hopefully there’s access to that thing. I don’t know. It bothers me that my experience as an individual in the world is so different from characters I see in films or sitcoms, or in any kind of entertainment. There’s an arbitrary nature to our experience in the world. I love Cassavetes. His films feel unhinged, unbalanced, and threatening—and that’s just in the relationship between the characters. That’s recognizable to me. It’s stimulating in that petri dish of my living room, or the theatre, to work through that experience. It feels constructive.
I have become profoundly depressed by feel-good movies. They feel insulting. There’s a chasm between the experience with media and movies and something that a large percentage of the population prefers, or have been taught to prefer. I’m very self-aware of my experience watching movies. I can watch very little now.
My dad has been supportive of my work, but he may be disappointed by it, too. I think that the relationship that he was taught, and that exists between him and the screen, is comforting and validating. When it acts in another manner it feels like an intrusion. It’s really unsettling. When people walked out of The Comedy and yelled at me in the lobby, it shocked me. When we sit in front of screens we are very vulnerable, but we like to be vulnerable in very particular way.
GMK It seems that the environments in the film, from the airplane graveyard to the oil fields, hotel rooms, bathrooms, and even the optometrist’s office, are all freighted with meaning. How deliberate were you in creating these settings for the action and how did you select them to magnify The Comedian’s emotional states?
RA In the optometrist office scene there is a focus on the phoropter device, which adds to the mask The Comedian is wearing. What happens is impulsive. We know he is getting an exam—but the gravity of that obstruction invigorates things. The scene becomes about that prop, that formal attribute. The tours are scripted, but walking through the belly of a dismantled and antiquated hull of a plane is something we improvised. It’s important to find things while shooting. I react to the necessity of formal shapes, sizes, frames, and the depth of the environment.
GMK Likewise, there are surrealistic moments in the film—a game of Marco Polo, or a kid pressing her chocolate covered mouth up against a car window. How did you construct or incorporate these elements, and what do you want audiences to take away from them?
RA I think the beginning of the film is naturalistic and believable. Toward the end, there are elements of the surreal, though my objective is the naturalism we’re used to. As we move through it, our relationship becomes dismantled. So we wanted to find these slippery moments where we became divested and stopped processing things in an unfeeling way. In the edit, Michael Taylor and I had enough test audiences say that there were places they suspended disbelief and stopped worrying. At times, you can move into the tonal, anarchic madness and feel like you are the protagonist; that you are, in fact, in sync with him. You feel the insanity present in him that is present in us. That’s the objective.
GMK I am very curious about your use of language. How did you work on the script with Gregg and Tim, or with the actors John C. Reilly and Michael Cera? Did you tell them what you wanted and they improvised, or let them decide how to play the scene?
RA Traditionally, there hasn’t been scripted dialogue in my films; I don’t want to be language dependent. I barely listen when the actors are talking—I’m listening to the tonality of what is being said. It’s scripted for tone and what happens in the scene. If you cast right, you don’t care what is being said, just that it is said in a certain way. Entertainment is the first film I’ve done with scripted dialogued. Cera’s scene, which was fun and interesting, had clarity. I trust the actor. I encouraged Gregg to speak in [Neil’s] voice, and use the instinct and language that is most efficient for him, and find the dynamic of that and the pitch.
GMK There is a very fine line between laughter and crying—a line you show in a particularly moving scene in the film. What do you think is the division between humor and despair?
RA [laughter] That’s a big question. I think they both aim for catharsis. A really good, potent, pure despair is as cathartic as laughter.
GMK What do you think makes The Comedian tick?
RA Content questions are difficult for me. There’s a purgatorial element to his experience, and we’re dropping in at a moment where he’s constantly being refreshed by new content, or in a circuitous hell. The whole thing feels like a feedback loop. He has rote responses to the world. His softness offstage is complimentary to the exhaustion onstage. He’s not involved in his life. He’s stripped of the capacity to be engaged—much like the American audience.
GMK Last question: What is fun, or entertainment for you?
RA [laughter] Oh boy, that is tough. Me and my co-writer on The Comedy, Robert Donne, have this fantasy to be racquetball players. That’s a fun fantasy.
Entertainment is in theaters and on demand tomorrow, November 13, 2015.
Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.