Catching Up With The Comedy Writer/Director Rick Alverson

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The Comedy, the new feature film from writer-director Rick Alverson, seems to operate on a principle of misdirection on almost every level. From its misleadingly on-the-nose title to its tenderly dreamy soundtrack, from its nonchalantly naturalistic performances to its somewhat nauseating jerks-gone-wild iconography, The Comedy seems determined to trick you into thinking it’s anything but the kind of cutting critique of American privilege and ironic detachment that it actually is. This misdirection is also inherent to its central character, Swanson (played by comedian and star of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Tim Heidecker), whose consistently obnoxious, rich-boy hipster antics are undercut with unnerving hints that not only does he know exactly what he’s doing—he knows better, too.

For me, the moment where both Alverson and his protagonist lay their cards on the table is when Swanson enters a black Brooklyn bar alone and provocatively plays up his role as a cluelessly racist harbinger of gentrification, diving headlong into a fault line of racial and economic tension that this culture typically steers away from. The Comedy is essentially built around an accumulation of these kind of provocative encounters, and it’s this consciousness of how class and privilege frame its characters’ experiences and behaviors that sets it apart from much of the rest of recent American cinema. The fact that Swanson seems to be aware of all this, too—and, rather than being a witless frat-boy example of such privilege, is intent on pushing it to its grotesque limit—is what makes him such an unnerving enigma.

As The Comedy comes to the end of its run in New York City (and Alverson’s previous film, New Jerusalem, begins a limited run at Brooklyn’s new Videology theater), Paste sat down with Alverson to delve a little deeper.

Paste: One thing that struck me about the film was that it deals with some very dark and unappealing human behavior in a way that arthouse films seem to more typically treat in very austere and distanced forms—Michael Haneke being one of the greatest examples. The Comedy, on the other hand, has a much more intimate and sensual feel, which almost makes Swanson’s odiousness harder to bear.
Rick Alverson: Some of these stylistic choices are impulsive, so it’s difficult for me to analyze them directly. But I love Haneke, and I think there might even be a similarity between us in that we both adamantly avoid certain manipulative techniques—in particular tropes that are commonly used to create sympathetic or accessible characters. Even though The Comedy may be more stylistically intimate in its approach, there’s a shared reluctance to create these emotional fissures that let the viewer in. This creates a moral ambiguity that is very uncommon in American cinema. We’ve had a lot of unfavorable reviews that are coupled with a real snide cruelty and don’t have the kind of critical, contextualized remove that they should.

Some people are irritated that this film doesn’t do what American movies are supposed to do, which is to work on the viewer’s terms, walk them through the experience and present them with moral certainties. I was just reading Michael Haneke talking about filmmakers having a responsibility to maintain a certain remove, to refuse to dictate certain things. I admire him for that.

Paste:The way in which the film treats comedy seems to exemplify this kind of remove. There are certain jokes and games that characters play that, in another context, could feel like the film’s, humor—humor we’re encouraged to participate in. But, instead, there’s a sense in which comedy here is only ever a tool for shielding, diverting or attacking. It’s always at odds with or even struggling against the reality around it.
Alverson: The film very intentionally flirts with the ingredients of popular American comedies: the middle-aged white guy crisis, the objectification of women, the modern predilection for recreational obscenity. I think the intention was to draw on these elements but remove the safety net. And it’s so much about the context and the environment and the framing of the thing.

Paste:Entwined with the reprehensible behavior, there is a real sense of wit and complexity present in the characters, and a certain self-awareness. You get a sense that Swanson is maintaining a certain internal distance from his own “act.”
Alverson: He’s using a kind of coded language. He has intelligence—I wouldn’t even say it’s latent [but rather] that it’s suppressed. The content of what he’s saying is obviously recreationally inflammatory, but it is incredibly apparent, I think, that he has a desire to affect the world and be affected by it, regardless of whether it’s a beneficial or a detrimental exchange. It’s the idea of a desensitized individual endeavoring to create a literal meaning in his life.

Paste: On the other hand, the various characters (mostly working class) who have to suffer his attempts, exhibit an almost stoic passivity in the face of his abuse.
Alverson: There’s passivity throughout the film—it’s in all of the characters. None of the characters are really interested in calling him out. But I think their passivity is a response in its own fashion; they recognize his aggression as a kind of idiosyncratic status quo. Some people have argued that it’s unrealistic that, for example, he wasn’t beaten up in the scene in the black bar. But that’s such an old narrative trope, to think that we should drop in on an individual at a moment of grand epiphany or that there’s some kind of moral obligation for a filmmaker to have the bad guy beaten up. I mean that’s the most juvenile crap, you know? Anyway, he’s just entertainment for these guys, why would they beat him up? He’s a clown.

Paste: Do you see class as an essential component of the character’s predicament here?
Alverson: Yeah, it’s huge. This is an exaggerated, dystopian portrait of an individual that I think is indicative of a larger leisure class—which basically includes everybody who has access to broadband Internet and spends their nights engaging with this kind of alternate reality in which they can sculpt the world on their terms. I think that a lot of us in the Western world are becoming more and more divorced from the literal sense of our body in the world and a comprehension of what use it has. And that is about class. There are still people who are in touch with the sense of their body in the world, out of necessity. There’s a desire of the protagonist to comprehend that. A lot of the sadness of the movie comes from the lack of comprehension of those simple facts of being in the world.

Paste: The film’s treatment of wealth and privilege actually reminded me in a weird way of Cosmopolis, so it’s interesting that you raise this question of the body which is obviously central to Cronenberg. However, technology doesn’t really feature explicitly in The Comedy.
Alverson: No, but we know that these individuals are by-products of that kind of recreational desensitization. They have time on their hands to do so. We all know what it’s like to have ADD and to desire to interact with our iPhones more than with our girlfriends or boyfriends. I think that kind of information is just outside of the frame; it’s a condition of the modern world.

Paste: Was Heidecker uncomfortable at all about using his own personality and sense of humor within the context of this character? I gather there’s a lot of him in it.
Alverson: Given the way that I work, it was absolutely essential to draw on the actors’ personalities. I write roughly 20-page scripts that don’t have any scripted dialogue. Before the shoot, there are no rehearsals, only conversations. I set up these very particular conditions in the script to create a certain tone and mood; there’s a very rigid scaffolding there. Then we go in there and there’s a lot of uncertainty once you set the thing in motion. The idea is that characters are flailing like we flail in life, and attempting to communicate and attempting to find the words in which to do so. Casting becomes very important because you’re utilizing the musicality of a person’s voice and the idiosyncracies of the way that he or she communicates. There’s a lot of generosity and bravery on the part of the actors to allow me to reframe that into a fiction.

Paste: And you shot it in 17 days—was that a help or a hindrance to this method of working?
Alverson: Well, I’m not really interested in language dictating the narrative. I’m more interested in movies as a temporal thing, and the possibilities of texture and tone within that. So if I’ve cast it right and I understand the conditions and limitations of the moment, and I make the right moves with framing and in the edit—I’m fine with one take. Or three takes, max. I’m not going to sit there and beat the thing to death to get it to bend to my will. I’m just not that interested in my will. I’m more interested in what can be achieved through attentiveness and a collaboration with chance, where direction becomes more about composing something out of these elements, than anything authoritarian. It’s not all about chance, but there is a certain amount of frailty and chaos to the thing.

Paste: Apart from the critical response, how have you experienced the reaction to this film? Are the responses of audiences important to you?
Alverson: Nothing I’ve done creatively has gone out into the world this far. Normally, they’re in this little quiet corner of culture. So it’s been fascinating to see how it’s received, especially considering the provocative and formally experimental nature of it. For me, it’s articulated a kind of ceiling to people’s tolerance when it comes to cinema. I have a lot of interest in being destabilized when I go to movies, and being disturbed or changed in some way. That’s why I go to them—I go to them looking desperately for that and I always have. I become very depressed when a movie fails to affect me because it’s just meant to entertain me. If you look at The Comedy strictly as entertainment, it’s a failure—but it wasn’t meant to be that. Ultimately, the hope is that it’s useful. There seems to be a general ignorance of the possibility of cinema as art in America, and I think that’s because people have become conditioned to use movies and media in ways that aren’t really useful. The people who are adamantly hating this film want it to be on their terms, and that’s how they’re accustomed to receiving culture. But for films to have some shred of art left in them, we need to approach them on their terms, not ours. As for the response, it’s been interesting. I like to have conversations about it, but I’m tired of defending it to people who aren’t really willing to engage with it.