No Exit From Brooklyn
BY GARY M. KRAMER | Slightly overweight, nearly naked white guys wrestle homoerotically in slow motion in the opening moments of director and co-writer Rick Alverson’s brilliant and pitch-black film “The Comedy.” This early scene sets the playful, provocative tone for this often squirm-inducing character study about Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a wealthy, aimless Brooklyn hipster man-child.
Swanson cannot — or will not — articulate his pain or real feelings about his dying father and his aimless life. He provokes his father’s male nurse by talking about prolapsed anuses. He and his friends make overt sexual advances to each other and others in efforts to diffuse their anxieties, discomfort, and general malaise. These moments, which include Swanson trying to chat up girls by claiming he sides with Hitler or endorses slavery, are perversely fascinating.
Alverson generates considerable dark humor and dramatic tension showing just how far Swanson goes. Gay City News spoke with the talented filmmaker about “The Comedy” and learned just how uncomfortable things could get.
GARY M. KRAMER: You skillfully wrote and directed a fantastic and fantastically offensive film. What prompted you to make “The Comedy”?
RICK ALVERSON: I was interested in dealing with the gray areas between stereotypes and compartmentalized understanding of individuals, types, and situations — the clichés we feel so safely immersed in. I became increasingly interested in flirting with elements that were more ostentatious, titillating, and referential than some of the tropes that people use to get their entertainment. I had interest in desensitization and taking a look at that. Ultimately, it comes from the exhaustion I felt from the way that films are predominantly placating, self-affirming, and neat.
GMK: The humor is pitch-black. You establish the line and then speed across it. What is the most offensive thing you think you wrote and Tim said?
RA: The way I work is to write a 20-page script — and I defend them as scripts, because they have the mood, the textures of the scenes, strict blocking, etc. — but I don’t work with scripted dialogue. The uncertain way people communicate and the effort of communication is lost in that rigid form. I’m interested in where things get muddy and uncertain. The casting is also incredibly important.
As far as some of the offensive nature, I knew what I was getting into with Tim [Heidecker] and Eric [Wareheim]. They shared an interest in discomfort in their comedy, as I did with my drama. My suggestions were happily dispensed with. I wanted it to be in their voices. Sometimes there would be a phrase like the bit about the prolapsed anus, but it’s Tim’s voice.
GMK: What offends or offended you making the film?
RA: That’s tough. I am too inside it to be objectively offended. I have a sense of people’s limits, but I judge the offense by the rules of society, less so than my own. We talked about things divorced from our physical behavior — pushing the envelope of social cruelty. People are offended by this, but not when they see a film with a half-dozen beheadings.
GMK: What is one of the most daring things you’ve done or what is the most demeaning?
RA: I am a pretty quiet person who keeps to myself. I’m unlike the guys in the movie. But I am interested in irreverence. I have a macabre sense of humor.
GMK: Are you showing and discussing provocative things to take the sting out of a taboo?
RA: To me, a lot of the film is about language and having an individual feel creatively empowered by their interactions with others and the world at large. And that’s where these loaded, ironic, sarcastic, and profane conversations come from –– a deep desire to be personally and idiosyncratically engaged in conversation. Rather than bland Victorian protocol that haunts us in an asinine way. It’s very much about the desire to animate others and one’s self.
GMK: The film deals with issues of class. Does privilege give Swanson the right to provoke?
RA: It’s very much about class and an inquisitive portrait of a progressively idle society. The middle class is much more idle than it has ever been. Looking at this disconnect between the modern personality and its sense of literal meaning and utility. To some degree it could be that he’s got an aggressive, romantic infatuation with the working class and his engagement with them. He’s not able to understand the relationship between his body and the world.
GMK: Do you think the man-child and Brooklyn hipsters are passé?
RA: I confound and contradict a lot of those hipster things. The clichés are dealt with. When they are emblazoned on the screen, they are uncertain and muddied. There are contradictions to hipsters.
GMK: The film’s visual approach is almost in the style of a nature documentary. Why did you choose that format for telling this story?
RA: [Laughs] That’s a great compliment! Cameras can be removed and objective. So many films claim ownership over that. My purpose is to be a viewer and listener and a witness to it, to some degree to control this. I encouraged my DP [director of photography] to think like an animal and not think of narrative, but of movements and bodies and their interaction. I think formally that people should be objectified by the camera. The medium shouldn’t be didactic. We should look and listen.
Rick Alverson and Tim Heidecker will do a post-screening Q&A November 16-17 following the 6:50 p.m. shows.
THE COMEDY | Directed by Rick Alverson | Tribeca Films | Opens Nov. 16 | BAM Cinématek | 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Pl., Brooklyn | bam.org/BAMcinematek