Rick Alverson's New Sundance Movie 'Entertainment' Explores the End of the American West
The director's latest movie is a haunting deconstruction of a small-time performer's psyche as he travels across the desolate Mojave Desert.
There are fewer laughs in Entertainment than there were in Rick Alverson's last film, The Comedy, but that's only part of what makes it a grimmer character study than its predecessor. Gregg Turkington stars as the Comedian, a weary stand-up comic doing nightly gigs throughout the desolate Mojave Desert, en route to a visit with his presumably estranged daughter in Los Angeles. We hear the voicemails Turkington leaves for her, but never anything from her end of the line.
The Comedian's crass, celebrity-themed jokes don't get a positive response from the barflies half-listening to his set, and many of our own laughs arise out of nervousness or discomfort. His brief interactions with the hecklers (Amy Seimetz), randos (Michael Cera), fellow entertainers (Tye Sheridan), and family members (John C. Reilly) he encounters on his journey do little to abate his loneliness. All of this makes for a haunting deconstruction of a small-time performer's psyche— Entertainment is as incisive as it is unsettling. I spoke with Alverson over the phone on the eve of the film's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
VICE: As I was watching the film, it almost struck me as a reversal of The Comedy, which had a lot of over-the-top humor with moments of surreal drama. This movie's the opposite. Was that an intentional approach, or how it came about naturally?
Rick Alverson: It's definitely an inverse of the approach to The Comedy. There was something of a negative center at the core of The Comedy, and we flirted with this unsympathetic character and this problematic nucleus with sympathetic characters all around him. It's a bigger inverse of that, but other than that the movies are not really linked in my mind other than that it's a reversal of the attraction-repulsion with the lead character.
He delivers a lot of jokes onstage that don't really land. Do you think it's more difficult to write off-putting, alienating humor than something that everyone's meant to genuinely laugh at?
The jokes are entirely Gregg Turkington's. We borrowed a character of his for the Comedian, [Neil Hamburger]. For me, it was more of a tonal thing. I knew and appreciated what Greg did, and we just used that as the onstage character and worked against it offstage, so there's this sort of explosion of an exhaustion of identity up onstage. And offstage there's a gaping void, sort of.
Something else that stood out to me was this idea of entertainment, and especially this kind of entertainment, as being a give-and-take: The performer gives something and the audience gives something back. But no one seems to give the Comedian anything, and it wears away at him more and more.
Yes, I think the downward trajectory of the protagonist is something more complex than his relationship to his audience.
Since Greg had such a strong role in crafting the character, was there a lot of improv?
I haven't used scripted dialogue in any of my films. All the conveyance from character to character and the tone and everything is traditionally scripted and blocked and highly composed in that way. But I've never been interested in the convention of dialogue that facilitates narrative—it's always sort of bored me. I find myself zoning out just listening to cadences of voices and tonality and this sort of thing.
Much like when the Comedian's onstage, for me it's a tonal thing. I'm interested in what the voice is doing. These things are facilitators of mood for me, so a lot of different things can be said, and there's not, frankly, much dialogue in the film. Some of it was written, like the Michael Cera scene and some of these things, just as a matter of efficiency because of a lack of rehearsals or scheduling and that kind of thing. But that was new to me, and exciting in its own right. The movie flirts with a lot of conventions and a lot of clichés, both cinematic and narratively, so it was kind of fun to play around with scripted dialogue in that mix.
Is that what drew you to the Mojave Desert—the way it evokes a similar kind of mood and tone?
The desert is this mythological, bankrupt metaphor for transformation or revitalization, or the end of something and the end of the American West. With all of these things, it was just absolutely necessary to go there and dive into that, because the movie does flirt with a lot of these things. I have a real issue with metaphors and think that they're a cheap way out, but this movie kind of embraces them and plays with them. For me, it asks what you're doing and what that kind of grammar does to us and how we read films and how we read symbols and what use there is. So it really lays some of those on the table and lets them kind of sit there and allows us to start doubting them. That's really what it's about for me.
The idea here too was that the western expansion is obviously very, very, very over—it's just sort of lapping backwards now—and it felt like you hit the coast and you just lapped back into the desert. The people who live there out of necessity or love of the place are somewhat foreign to me. Coming from the east coast, the landscape felt very foreign to me. Initially I didn't like it, and then I grew to be sort of intoxicated by it.
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