Rick Alverson‘s “Entertainment” is a bit like a Rickroll, only instead of the video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” popping up on your browser unexpectedly, the breezy film ushers you into a world of deserted nightclubs where the universe’s most aggressively terrible comedian recites jokes to an audience that only becomes hostile when they can be moved from indifference. Fans of Neil Hamburger‘s anti-comedy will recognize Gregg Turkington‘s purposefully abrasive stylings, but when that act, which Turkington has been honing for more than twenty years, typically ends when the lights come up, “Entertainment” follows the Hamburger character offstage, where his life is even more miserable and unsettling than you’d expect. Like the director’s previous “The Comedy,” Alverson’s “Entertainment” attacks and eventually disintegrates the boundary between satirical discomfort and full-body agony; you don’t want to watch, but you must.
The discomfort of the film is obviously intentional, but in conversation, Alverson seems less like a provocateur than a social scientist; there’s no malice in his philosophy, only an attempt to push people past what he calls the “engineered feel-good opiate event.” If Hollywood movies are opiates, Alverson’s are like ingesting powerful hallucinogens, followed with the day-after hangover making you question whether you ever want to do that again. The Playlist spoke to Alverson recently for the following interview.
It seems like “The Comedy” isn’t a comedy, and “Entertainment” isn’t conventionally entertaining.
The two movies are related for me. They have formal similarities in that they both use comedians in a dramatic context, and there’s an evolution of certain practices from the first into the second —this interest in audience-spectacle relationships and exactly what drives narrative and what our relationship is to films and media. They’re both experiments to some degree. “The Comedy” was an admission of the event of using comedians in the context of the film, and also an absolute admission of the element of irony central to the contemporary way these characters spoke. “Entertainment” is for me much more sincere, although it is still tinged with a flair of irony in what we consider entertainment, but I don’t think the title has the same blanket aggression that the title of “The Comedy” had. Also, it’s very one-dimensionally accurate in that entertainment is the subject matter.
“Entertainment” is a funny word: It’s like when people ask if you enjoyed a movie, and sometimes even with a great film, it’s hard to say yes.
I prefer any day to be engaged, troubled and moved by something rather than to simply consume it. That engineered, feel-good opiate event —there’s so much disposable in our lives right now. In the past, I have equated “entertainment” with that disposable narcotic fantasy of cinema, the whole question of what that is is wrapped up in the motivation of making this movie.
One of the things that’s great about “Entertainment” is the experience of seeing Neil Hamburger, or a Neil Hamburger-ish figure, perform in front of an unsuspecting audience. The character is premised on being this terrible, hate-filled comic who’s constantly bombing, but if you actually see him live, everyone is in on the joke.
The imaginative experience of seeing Gregg on stage outside the world of the film is significant. I think people take into consideration on how those jokes land on the reactions of people that aren’t indoctrinated into the cult. But it was important to both me and Gregg that the comedian in the movie could exist independently —although it’s tangentially related, in that the onstage performances are lifted from that character. Offstage, he becomes something else.
It would never occur to anyone to think “what’s Neil Hamburger really like?” because the character only exists in performance. Even though the character in “Entertainment” isn’t precisely him, it’s like getting a chance to see him when he’s offstage.
It’s like visiting that character in purgatory and then coming home to your comfortable bed.
Who’s your ideal audience for “Entertainment”? Do you want people to know what they’re in for, or would you prefer a viewer who says, “Hmm, ‘Entertainment,’ that sounds like fun” and is completely blindsided?
That’s part of the universal design of the title, to occupy a space where it can be approached as a lot of things. The movie’s just as much engineered for people who are unaccustomed to that character and interested in their experience as it is for people who are accustomed to that character. And they should be able to exist independently. It can be a driver to that, or it doesn’t need to.
One big difference between “Entertainment” and “The Comedy” is that the new film takes place in a world without hipsters. There’s no one who sees The Comedian onstage and goes, “oh, I get what this guy’s doing.”
That sort of male-centric, entitled dystopia of “The Comedy” is a place that I don’t want to hang around in for two movies. It’s a horror show. I think both movies look at utopian bents in the American psyche. The idea of “The Comedy” was a fruition of everything that we’re promised —the unlimited options of the American Dream. What happens in that paradise for the individual? And we saw a kind of restlessness and a desire for limitations in the character. In “Entertainment,” we see an exhaustion of the act of identity. “Entertainment” is also built on metaphors, symbolism, all the tropes of American popular cinema, the expanse and the promise of the West, all these sorts of things. It also looks at the bankruptcy of the more ephemeral elements of that process, which have been the misdirection of the fantasy of character and the recreation of cinema.
There’s been a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” being exhibited in ultra-widescreen 2.75:1, but “Entertainment” is the second-widest movie of the year, in 2.66:1. Why did you end up using that aspect ratio?
It’s the uncropped anamorphic. Traditionally, those lenses have a lot of distortion on the side, so you get a cropping that’s recommended for a pure image. We shot on these ’50s Russian anamorphic lenses called Lomos. Carlos Reygadas used them on “Japon.” I got along with my DP, Lorenzo Hagerman really, really well, and we both had an interest in a sort of hyper-formalism to the image and bringing almost an artificial awareness to the visual/structural components, the symmetry of the thing and the cleanness of it. I was really interested in how loose the dialogue exchanges were in this hyper-controlled cinematic environment. It was also necessary that it very much look and feel like the way we’ve idealized movies to look and feel —not in a satirical way, but as an indoctrinating component to the form of the thing, in the hope that it would let audiences in. You asked about people stumbling on the movie: I want it to be seen by as many diverse kinds of people as would see it, and I’m curious about their relationships to it.
That kind of pure discovery, where you see a movie without knowing anything about it beforehand, seems increasingly rare. There’s so much to watch, people inevitably use trailers and reviews to help them pick a film, and even if it’s just a recommendation from a streaming service, it’s because it resembles something they’ve already watched.
Yeah, I think that’s a part of our exhaustion. There used to be this necessary arbiter of the clerk at the video store or the distributor in a way that there isn’t any more. I’m not saying we should turn around, but I felt an exhaustion, a directionless sort of panic in the swamp of things with the advent of the MP3. I put out records for 15 years [he released several records on the Jagujaguwar label, most recently in 2007 with the band Spokane], and it almost felt superfluous at that point, like I was contributing to a glut or something. There were other people doing things indistinguishable from what I was doing. It’s a strange time.
How did Dean Stockwell end up in “Entertainment”? You almost wouldn’t know he’s in it unless you watch the credits, since you keep him in long shot and barely let us see his face clearly.
Based on “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” alone, Stockwell is an icon. But he’s also a ’70s America wandering cinema icon, and I was interested in those associations for the movie, knowing that we bring all this baggage of association that we’re not supposed to admit to movies. It was supposed to be this Hollywood party, and there was an idea of filling it with a diversity of celebrities but not treating them like a person would expect they would be treated in the framing or the coverage, treating them more like extras. Ultimately, Dean was the only person who showed up, bless his heart. He’s in some other deleted scenes that are going to be on the DVD. I hope he wasn’t too disappointed with the lack of coverage.
Something else that got deleted from the film is the response by The Comedian’s daughter to the voicemails he leaves her throughout the film. You apparently shot that but didn’t use it.
I shouldn’t have said anything about that. There’s a certain kind of necessary safeties in the script. I know things are going to get cut and that there’s going to be a radical rethinking of certain elements —I expect that now. At this point, I’ll write in directives for safety in case the other thing is necessary. It quickly became apparent to us that the inclusion of the daughter was in violation of the entire tenets of the project. The power of the idealized female presence and the stereotype of that as a cinematic trope totally outweighed, and is frankly far more interesting than the concept of a resolution, however failed it is. I did the same thing with “The Comedy.” There was a retribution scene where Tim [Heidecker]‘s character is beat to a pulp. As I saw the footage, I was like, “This can’t go in the movie. It violates everything that the movie’s trying to achieve.” When that absolutely cathartic moment in movies, the epiphany or the retribution, happens, we’re relieved of the burden of the thing. We dump it off and we walk out the door, throw our popcorn containers in the can and skip away into the horizon.
You’ve mentioned “Two Lane Blacktop” as a movie you admire, and “Entertainment” has a similar sense of being lost in time, of visiting the parts of the country where the world as people know it in big cities or on the coasts hasn’t taken hold.
That certainly is true. Even though we have exposure to all this media, there is a strange contemporary event of people believing that urban areas are not just cultural capitals and nuclear centers, but they believe in the actual validity as such. That’s where reality is, or that you can equate the ephemera of media and culture with worth and validity, and that these other things are just detritus out in wastelands. Even me, I’m subject to that. In that desert, it was really foreign. It was like being on the moon. Initially, I found it really repellent, and then I started being intoxicated by it.
“Entertainment” is now on VOD and playing in limited release.