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Interview: Rick Alverson Talks Entertainment, Gregg Turkington, and More

The Entertainment director discusses his creative aim of destabilizing an audience and his mounting fear of a sympathetic protagonist.

Interview: Rick Alverson Talks Entertainment, Gregg Turkington, and More
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Rick Alverson is an experimenter in the theater of cruelty. Uninterested in cinema’s often steady diet of escapism and store-bought reassurances, the filmmaker opts instead to challenge himself, and by extension audiences, with meticulously engineered cat-and-mouse games in repulsion and attraction. His are movies that are painfully funny, often needling, fairly exhausting, and always singular—which is to say, they are absent of middle grounds.

In Entertainment, Alverson unites with co-writers Gregg Turkington, who also stars in the film, and Tim Heidecker, a collaborator and guilty party in his equally polarizing The Comedy. This new surreal odyssey captures the personal and professional drudgery of a nameless comedian—based on Turkington’s real-life comic alter ego, Neil Hamburger—as he haunts the purgatory of the American West, one painful gig at a time.

Entertainment sprouts from the all-too-familiar trope of a beleaguered man on a quest for meaning in the desert. But soon, that very symbolism isn’t only patiently upended, but driven to its literal breaking point. Recently, I sat down with Alverson to discuss his creative aim of destabilizing an audience and his mounting fear of a sympathetic protagonist.

Watching Entertainment reminded me of how I’ve always longed for more specificity in the English language, for there to be an exact word that describes and captures that moment of simultaneous laughter and crying. We just don’t have it. But, this film might be the closest we get.

[laughs] I really appreciate that. I’m really distrustful of language. Maybe that’s evident in the movie, I don’t know.

Well, in general, your scripts are less dialogue-specific.

Yeah. I have a total aversion to narrative that’s advanced and directed by dialogue. I think that dialogue should be tonal and a little oblique. In the content of it, there can be a variety of things being said. It’s sort of more important to me the way they’re said. We’re all taught from a very young age to read movies in an essentially literary fashion—to unpack them. If the dialogue isn’t telling us how to feel about the movie and what the author is trying to accomplish, then we’re supposed to look for metaphors to read those things. When people are forced to contend with that and think critically about their experience, it’s jarring. For me, Entertainment is entirely about that.

In the aim of destabilizing an audience, is it elemental or even beneficial that viewers enter into the experience with preconceived notions? Are those established notions part of the palette of confusion and muddlement that you’re working from?

For me, in every way, this is the most accomplished movie that I’ve ever done. An exploration of the medium and my relationship to it is what I’m playing with. I’m interested in popular responses to American cinema, media, and episodic forms, because I was reared on sitcoms, made-for-TV movies, and Magnum P.I.. And not just in a casual way. I think, in a way, that I was incredibly vulnerable, and that I was learning social behavior from those things. My first exposure to so many things was between six and nine o’clock at night, sitting in front of a tube television. If you call your movie Entertainment, there are conversations or provocative elements that are inherent in that, especially when you’re interested in challenging audiences to some degree. I’m not just interested in shock or repulsion. That’s only part of this palette, as you said. This movie is built on a shitload of tropes and clichés. I mean, they’re the raw, fundamental matter of the thing—especially the narrative. It’s been told a thousand times: the desert as a place of spiritual consideration, the unattainable idealized female presence in movies, the lonely, white man…

The unlimited potential of the American West.

Yes. The list goes on and on. I have issues with all those things. I’m cynical about them, but at the same time, I now recognize them, and in a way that I maybe didn’t in previous movies I’ve made, as a kind of grammar. Now, I think my bigger problem is less accepting that that’s a grammar than what’s done with that language. Like how we walk out of movies and believe that the event that occurred during this misdirect of symbolism and metaphors in movies was constructive. I think we’re essentially unaware of what happened. We believe that we consumed something, but I think the idea of consumption and experience and the resonance that’s inherent in experience are entirely different.

In Entertainment, there was an interest in indoctrinating the viewer into the space of the movie by these accessible forms, and then letting them essentially fall apart in a variety of ways—trapping them in the thing, but not in a completely horrific sense, even though there’s horror in the spectrum of experience. But in something that’s experiential. You have to contend with your mind being restless, because you’re trying to suss out your experience and, in the course of that, you’re actually having an experience. As opposed to just being intellectually redirected to other experiences you’ve had.

Most movies are interested in the most efficient, palatable form of what we’re talking about, which means you don’t really want anybody to be angry or afraid. You want them to be titillated. It’s easier and more sanitized if everything just points to something. “Oh, this reminds me of this thing.” Crying in movies, this idea of nostalgia, it points to something. The experience of crying and nostalgia in movies is very funny because that’s entirely a mechanism of remembering and experiencing the past through some kind of conduit. It’s really fitting that that happens in movies because that’s entirely what they seek to do as opposed to this cumbersome, kind of organic event that the body has in the moment that’s living. I’m interested in movies that make that happen.

When in your process do you start to consider an audience?

I kind of started this in The Comedy, but it’s much more refined here, I think. This idea that I’m not trying to tell people something. I hate when movies are trying to tell me something. It just feels so intentionally indirect, and that kind of manipulation just feels insulting, because it’s basically hidden messaging. There’s an objective that I’m unaware of. Now, if the objective is to make audiences skeptical and critical and to engineer experience, then that feels more constructive. With both The Comedy and Entertainment, I thought a lot about audiences. A lot. And that starts with myself as an audience, because I have a ton of my muscle memory ties to these tropes, mostly from when I was younger. Only in my early 20s did I start to watch things that were more in keeping with the event that I wanted engineered. But, that earlier exposure really is the footprint.

I had a recent conversation with documentarian Fred Wiseman. He said that after making 42 films, he still has no idea how to think about an audience. He said, and I wondered your thoughts, that “the only way that you can think about an audience is to dilute the material to meet some fantasy of the lowest-common denominator.”

Wow. Well, I kind of disagree. I mean, it makes sense that he doesn’t think about his audience, but this experiment of Entertainment that we made is a consideration of what movies do to us in the popular sense. I think that there can be a constructive consideration of the audience, but in opposition to the lowest-common denominator, to this sort of consumerist mentality of making palatable movies that work on people’s terms. I think that there can be a counterweight approach to consideration of audiences.

And audiences have certainly had polarizing reactions to your films.

Well, that’s inevitable because that’s on the spectrum of the thing. We’re incredibly vulnerable when we watch movies. I think we’re unaware of how vulnerable we are, which, to me, is the scariest thing. In a dark room or in a theater, we open ourselves up to a temporal event that acts on us physiologically in ways that we’re unaware of. I think that’s why if there’s a misdirect, or if people feel that they’ve been deceived by the labeling of a movie, the reason they’re so insulted is because they felt violated. That just goes to show how vulnerable we are in that space, which is something I learned from The Comedy. Frankly, after learning that, I was surprised. But, I think that there’s something more delicate at work in Entertainment.

Was this idea already germinating before you met Gregg Turkington? How did this collaboration come about?

I was trying to develop a couple of other movies. I loved working with Tim [Heidecker]. The Comedy was really exciting to me, but it was also prickly in ways. The provocation and misdirection of working with comedians in a dramatic context is really interesting to me, but I didn’t know if I could continue it because I didn’t want to be doing the same thing. But I saw Gregg performing and realized over the course of an hour watching him do his [Neil Hamburger] routine that the repetitions, cadences, and subversions of expectation, albeit to a comedic end, are also really similar to the way that I’m making movies dramatically. So it became increasingly interesting to me. I asked him if he’d be interested in doing something with the character in a different context than what you would expect. People have asked him to do gag comedic movies with that before and he’s had no interest. But he was game to do something outside of the box.

How do you run that fine line in those brutal scenes? The scene with Amy Seimetz as the barfly and the comedian’s particularly harsh interaction with her comes to mind. How do you portray that boorish, aggressive male behavior without glorifying it?

Oh, that’s pretty easy. [laughs] I mean, it’s easy for me. I get that that’s the weird thing. Like with The Comedy, it was instructive for me and confusing for people in a lot of really interesting ways. I was called out for being an advocate of certain things because there’s no reckoning in the movie. I think it’s a real problem when we’re released from the experience of a movie because it’s doled out karmic justice, very neatly. I mean, this is what movies do all the time. Then we walk out and feel a justice in the world that doesn’t exist. The interesting thing for me is that when you see something on screen that you find abhorrent and is patently abhorrent, that event that’s taking place in the audience, there’s an element of justice to that. And there’s an element of honesty. There are all kinds of movies that portray all kinds of problematic behavior in a palatable way. That’s an injustice.

Even in Entertainment, Gregg’s on-stage persona engages with classic elements of misogyny that are steeped in American 20th-century entertainment. Of course, it being a hyperbolic event, it would be unjust if he didn’t include that in this exaggerated exhaustion of the act of entertaining. But in the movie, particularly with that scene with Amy, I knew that you had to feel compromised about your relationship with the protagonist because there’s this idea of the entirely sympathetic protagonist. Recently, it’s really started to scare me. The rules are that you’re supposed to engineer a sympathetic experience with a particular person that you identify with in a movie. Now, if the majority of movies are made by white males and the majority of protagonists are white males, and I’m not saying that a white male protagonist on its own is bad…

No, but in bulk, it becomes something else.

Exactly. So, according to the rules of the game, you’re supposed to engineer this sympathetic experience, where you have access to empathy, in this vulnerable state, with a particular demographic over and over again. That seems to me like you’re engineering bigotry. While in this vulnerable state, we learn responses to the world. So, we walk out onto the streets and then can only empathize with things that are like us. That’s what it’s saying! That’s scary to me. [laughs] The idea of being involved and interested in something that you can’t identify with seems like a really constructive act. I don’t know if movies can engineer volition in audiences, but I would hope that they can—to make people more critical.

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