2018 Film Essays

In the Presence of a Clown: On the Films of Rick Alverson

With only four features under his belt, Rick Alverson has already established himself as one of the most unique voices in modern U.S. independent cinema. In a cinematic landscape marred by over-reliant conventions and an overwhelming tendency to play it safe, Alverson’s films are a breath of fresh, pungent air. He’s unafraid to be abrasive, off-putting and defiantly idiosyncratic. Alverson takes familiar images, milieus and scenarios as a starting point, only to render them alien, jettisoning the usual tenets of narrative cinema in favour of a style that’s far more challenging and hard to define. Yet his cinema isn’t merely a formal exercise, as he’s also willing to explore difficult — and often marginalized — socio-political territory, such as the breakdown of social and communal unity in a post-industrial landscape, contemporary manifestations of classicism, sexism and racism, and the function/limitations of irony. Alverson’s two most recent films — The Comedy and Entertainment — form something of a loose duology, expressing these themes through circular narratives of deeply alienated men for whom humour has become a way of unleashing their anger towards the world.

A piercing critique of millennial amorality, The Comedy takes as its subject one of the most off-putting lead characters to grace contemporary American film. Tim Heidecker’s Swanson is a monster of privilege. He’s ridiculously wealthy and over-educated, yet also deeply unambitious, petty and infantile. With no desire to establish a career, a family or meaningful relationships, his life is defined by stasis: as he waits for his ailing father to pass so he can inherit his considerable fortune, Swanson has nothing to do but trade barbs with his buddies, drink on his sailboat and play provocative pranks on strangers. Swanson’s mean-spirited humour is targeted exclusively at those who lie outside of the insular sphere of straight white male privilege. He throws graphic homophobic slurs at his father’s nurse and jokingly joins a group of Hispanic gardeners only to beg their confused employers to use the family pool. He takes on a brief job as a dishwasher amongst those of a significantly lower economic class so he can messily brush his teeth in the sink, and he pays a distressed taxi driver to allow him to drive for 20 minutes. During the last prank, the taxi driver emphatically tells Swanson “this isn’t a playground, it’s my job,” forcefully underlining the fact that Swanson’s sheltered upbringing has allowed him to perceive everybody outside his myopic purview as de-humanized objects to be played with for his own amusement. Swanson, naturally, uses irony as his perpetual escape route to avoid having to take responsibility for his actions. When he slips into deadpan riff about the population of the third world lacking conscious thought or the joy that plantation owners must have taken in punishing slaves, he takes it for granted that everybody will know instinctively that he, an upper-class college graduate, will understand that he’s being facetious. Yet, crucially, Swanson’s shtick is free of any kind of genuine political or moral perspective. In this sense, Alverson underlines how such an approach to comedy works to reinforce barriers — socio-economic, cultural, racial — which push Swanson (and those of his social sphere) further into isolation.

In a telling scene, Swanson and his friends sit around exchanging a series of mock-sincere declarations of enthusiasm: “I had a great day. I went to the shopping mall” and “I feel so good about spending time with my best friends.” Raised in a media saturated culture, these characters have been so bombarded with verbal clichés such as these that they have become drained of all meaning and value — language, removed from referent and transformed into tired forms, divorced from referent. Swanson similarly views social and ethnic minorities through the lens of pop culture clichés, desensitizing them to their struggles. An approach to life driven by the desire to constantly indulge in humour as a palliative and to view the world through the prism of ironic detachment leads to Swanson’s absolute alienation. At one point, he visits a local Christian Church with a group of moneyed friends. The three jokingly slide up and down the pews, blow out a line of prayer candles, take selfies with a statue of Jesus on the cross and make whale calls to test the acoustics of the space. The sequence ends with an extended shot of Swanson, on his own, staring impassively at the grand architecture. He feels that he should be moved, but feels nothing.

And this sensation of anaesthesia is reinforced through Alverson’s use of form. Phil Coldiron perceptively notes in his review of Entertainment for Cinema Scope that “Alverson’s brilliance lies in his conscious deployment of dead forms,” and the hand-held, shallow-focus aesthetic of The Comedy clearly calls to mind the visual style of mumblecore and any number of digitally shot, contemporary American indie films. But though The Comedy bears the surface markers of this style, Alverson subverts its usual function within the realm of modern indie humanism. Alverson’s use of close-ups don’t invite the viewer to feel a closer emotional and kinaesthetic engagement with his characters, but rather encourages their essential opaqueness. After Swanson has finished a comic riff, Alverson tends to linger on his face for such an extended period that it divorces the image from its narrative function, yet his emotions remain unreadable. Throughout, Alverson keeps viewers at arms’ length from his characters by refusing to provide any clear rationale for Swanson’s behaviour, along with any back-story which might help one to identify more readily with him. Furthermore, the film lacks any traditional character motivations, arcs or cause-and-effect narrative strands. The film is intentionally meandering, structured as a succession of self-contained temporally abstract scenes with no linear progression. As such, The Comedy works against the grain of the conventions of the variety of physiologically realist, humanist urban cinema which the mumblecore aesthetic has become associated with. The film is shot with a hazy, floating sense of unreality, constantly abstracting the frame through pro-filmic materials and purposefully denying phenomenological affect. The Comedy continuously returns to images of Swanson cycling through circular streets and drifting on his father’s yacht, with streetlights reflecting off the lapping waves — subtly disorientating scenes which, in addition to undermining the notion of the film’s chronology and spatial unity, unmoor the viewer from a stable sense of visual gravity and reflects the up-rootedness of this lifestyle. Swanson and his friends play softball in an open-air park, the ambient sounds gradually dialing down while the soundscape becomes overwhelmed by the strings of The Disintegration Loops — the characters are placed small in the frame, with images of the cityscape prominently on display in the background plane. Their game is intercut with interstitial shots of the New York skyline — tall financial towers looming far overhead. Indeed, if there is a single idea that unites Alverson’s filmography to date, it is the sensation of malaise fostered by an uprooted, post-industrial America in which the foundations of social unity and community have evaporated.

Although it explores similar thematic territory, Entertainment breaks radically from the visual style of Alverson’s previous films. Now working in the tradition of the European arthouse cinema of widescreen, Antonionian alienation (with Zabriskie Point seemingly a key touchstone here), Alverson captures the aimless wanderings of Gregg Turkington’s protagonist (named only The Comedian) in a series of carefully composed, static landscape shots — he’s a tiny figure in a barren desert. In this film, the low-fi digital impressionism of Alverson’s earlier films becomes expressionism, with the outside world being a mirror of The Comedian’s inner-state. Alverson plunges viewers into the character’s subjective fantasies, dreams and anxieties with increasing frequency, leading up the nightmarish final act. The Comedian is a tourist in the Mokav Desert, performing to sparse crowds in run-down dive bars and jails. Again, humour as a palliative is Alverson’s focus, though here he zones in on a protagonist who turned comedy into a profession rather than an idle pastime. As such, it adds a new dynamic of private vs public life. When he’s not on stage, the Comedian is wandering aimlessly through the desert, drinking in cheapo motel rooms in front of tiny TV sets, visiting an airplane graveyard and driving down dirt roads which seem to stretch endlessly into the distance. The monotony of The Comedian’s private life is encapsulated in an image of him gazing impassively at an oil pump which, in its repetitive, lulling motion, comes to resemble a drinking bird. The life of a performer is drained of any semblance of glamour or excitement. It is instead a purgatorial state of repetition, making a meagre living from paycheck to paycheck, travelling from place to place repeating old gags with no sense of forward momentum.

On stage, The Comedian’s performance is deliberately abrasive and of-putting. His attire is self-consciously classical — tuxedo, bow-tie, coke-bottle glasses — and his act takes the antiquated form of traditional one-liners and set-ups. The Comedian plays with the comic form by taking a familiar joke shape but denying the satisfaction of a traditional punchline, instead adding a climax that is deliberately witless, though delving into a realm of absurdity and grotesqueness. Example: “Why does E.T. love Reese’s Pieces so much? Why, because they have the same flavour that cum does on his home planet.” This sort of comedy is based on the awareness of a hip audience to understand the joke format being satirized and to appreciate the comedy for acknowledging it and upending it. This is coupled with The Comedian’s deliberately off-putting performance style, affecting a throaty, abrasive voice and coughing up phlegm between every line. He treats his audience with exaggerated contempt, launching into aggressive rants whenever somebody in the room makes a sound and, at one point, miming the act of open-firing on them with a rifle. For the most part, the audience seem to be neither highly amused nor disgusted — they react to his spiel with a modest amusement.

This act is fuelled by the fierce emotions, passions and resentments which The Comedian is unable to express in his private life. Off-stage, he is introverted, depressed, passive and so anti-social that he is barely able to make small talk with his family members. It is only on stage that The Comedian demonstrates any real agency or power. His closest connection is with his estranged daughter, who serves as a structuring absence — the only contact the viewer has with her is seeing The Comedian leave a series of increasingly sad voicemails, never to receive a reply. His isolation is largely self-imposed. He refuses to bow down to the pressure of making his act more commercial, a fate embodied by the scatological, ribald humour of his opening act, a young clown who draws huge applause from miming masturbation and pretending to defecate into his top hat. A recurring image is an absurdist Mexican sitcom that is constantly playing on the TV sets in The Comedian’s hotel rooms, a reminder of the hollowness that constitutes conventional notions of success in the comedy industry. And Alverson abstracts sitcom tropes into nightmarish imagery with as much force as David Lynch did in his 2002 short Rabbits — a laugh track with no apparent motivation, a man with a giant oxygen tank, artificial sets turned into emotionally suffocating spaces. The Comedian’s disdain for such a pragmatic and populist approach to comedy is exemplified in a scene in which he scoffs at his business manager cousin’s attempts to offer him advice on how to draw in more spectators — the word “semen,” he advises, might put some of the more sensitive customers off. Yet, this isn’t a simple case of a principled artist sticking to his guns, as The Comedian doesn’t seem to garner either professional or artistic fulfilment from his act. Like Swanson, he’s a character who has become so numbed to the outside world by irony and contempt that any real values have disintegrated. The Comedian’s act is completely self-contained and apolitical. His on-stage venom is clearly driven by his personal disappointments, bitterness and feelings of failure, though his act lacks the personal or autobiographical element that would make such an outpouring cathartic. By adopting a radically different persona, complete with physical make-up, The Comedian can distance himself from his on-stage actions — and, like Swanson, his comedy often veers into absurdly misogynistic and homophobic territory, safely contained within the veil of irony.

The first half of Entertainment is purposefully repetitive and monotone, as the same scenarios off-stage reiterate with only minor differences, and small sections of The Comedian’s act are shown without any clear progression. Yet, in the final act comes a radical break in the film’s narrative structure and visual scheme. And this is the point at which the film is revealed to be a development of the themes established in The Comedy, not only focusing on protagonist who remains in a position of stasis, but rather charting this character’s psychotic and emotional breakdown. The break in the film’s structure occurs after a disturbing scene which sees The Comedian unspooling a vicious series of misogynistic insults at a woman in the audience after she defends herself from the advances of a barfly during his performance. He shrugs the incident off immediately — after all, to The Comedian, it was simply a case of an absurd fictional character tossing out nonsense words inseparable from the rest of the hateful language he ironically spews out on a nightly basis. When he is confronted by the woman in the parking lot, however, he comes face-to-face with the true emotional harm such language can cause. The privileged, myopic worldview which enables The Comedian to view words like “slut” and “whore” as empty signifiers — divorced from a history of oppression and charged socio-logical implications — becomes punctured. Like Swanson, The Comedian creates humour by playing, to absurd degrees, exhausted types of language which have become circulated so often as to become drained of meaning or context. For the first time, he is taken to task for his words, and this is the point at which the established form of the film breaks down. The character and the audience are plunged into a series of increasingly surreal, oneiric imagery, disrupting the realism of the diegetic world that has come to characterize the first portion of the film. A car overturned by the roadside. A game of Marco Polo played by a single man whose flickering torch is the only source of illumination the image has. The Comedian cradling a stillborn baby. Children making faces on a frosted car window. Spatial and temporal relations collapse, and the hyper-real lighting appears without any diegetic source. This Dantean voyage culminates, however, in the film’s only moment of genuine catharsis, as The Comedian emerges out of a giant cake presented at the lavish birthday party of an unnamed, fictionalized celebrity. After standing catatonic for a while, staring into the vacant crowd, The Comedian collapses into tears. It’s the only outpouring of genuine emotion in the film, and it is after this that Alverson presents us with the film’s enigmatic, haunting final image: The Comedian appears on the set of the aforementioned Mexican sit-com. Alverson cuts outwards to reveal a symbolic shot of The Comedian in the sort of the anonymous hotel rooms that populated the first portion of the film, laughing hysterically at his own antics. It’s unclear whether the image is a sign of The Comedian’s ultimate retreat into solipsism or his first steps towards genuine self-awareness.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year. 

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