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Morality Tales on the American Malaise: the Films of Rick Alverson

Still from “The Builder.”

Each November and December NYFCO members like me receive dozens of DVD screeners from film studio publicists that are meant to help us decide on our yearly awards. In order to help me participate meaningfully in the deliberations, I prioritize the films that are likely to be finalists, namely the big-budget Hollywood films from Sony, Fox, et al. This has meant that the kinds of films I prefer to cover get left in the lurch, particularly those that are sent from Magnolia, a conscientious distributor of quality films for various art houses around the country. I invite you to visit their website, which for a modest $4.99 per month allows you to see some first-rate films like “Entertainment” that was included in the 2015 batch that I only got around to seeing recently. To get straight to the point, Rick Alverson, the director of this dark character study of a middle-aged comedian playing to tiny and indifferent audiences in forlorn Southern California towns, is a major talent that deserves far more attention than any of those forgettable Hollywood blockbusters that routinely get awarded. He is a 47-year old Richmond native who has his fingers on the pulse of a dying civilization and is not afraid to tell the truth even if it is one that might not soothe you like the typical Saturday night escapist fare. Indeed, the last two films made by Alverson might be understood as a morality tale on how comedy itself might be key to the malaise that has gripped America for decades and shows no sign of letting up.

What follows is a survey of all of four films that have been made by Alverson since 2010, all of which are available as VOD. Having seen them over the past week or so has left me feeling like I have been through the mill, just like the four men at their center. Despite having a different life experience than theirs, I can share the existential crisis that has overcome them all, against a backdrop of a country that Robinson Jeffers described in “Shine, Perishing Republic” as settling “in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire”.

The four films break down into two categories. The first two star Colm O’Leary as a working-class Irish immigrant trying to stay afloat economically and psychologically against all odds. O’Leary also co-wrote the two films with Alverson, who told an interviewer that they were inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky starting out.

In my view, “The Builder”, made in 2010, as well as the 2011 “New Jerusalem”, show the influence of Kelly Reichardt, whose early (and best) films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” capture the experience of young people cast adrift in uncertain economic times. With the leading character an immigrant, Alverson and O’Leary double up on the sense of alienation. Unlike the Irish immigrants of the 1860s, the Irishman of an Alverson film has no community to meld with. Driving along in his beat-up Jeep, we hear him singing along to what sounds like an ancient recording of John McCormack singing “When you and I were young, Maggie”, a sole reminder of the character’s roots and hardly of use to fend off anomie.

Additionally, their screenplays avoid pat solutions such as the lead character finally having an epiphany about the USA that can leave liberal-minded audiences feeling vindicated. The tendency in all of Alverson’s films is to leave things hanging, just as is usually the case in real life.

In “The Builder”, an unnamed carpenter living in Queens has purchased a plot of land three hours north of the city where he plans to build a house modeled on those lived in by settlers two hundred years earlier. Much of the film depicts O’Leary’s character going about the daily tasks of cutting wooden beams to fit each other, conceivably by wooden pegs based on his fidelity to traditions that have little to do with today’s world. For most of the first part of the film, he is on his own like Thoreau at Walden Pond and appearing to be achieving his dream.

Without explaining why, and conceivably inviting the audience to fill in the gaps, the builder is forced to abandon his plans. Since the film was made during a collapse of the housing industry, I surmised that he could not find work. He retreats to Richmond, Virginia where he relies on the help of old friends who put him up in a spare bedroom while he begins working as a dishwasher. Since O’Leary—a non-professional–and Alverson met in New York City in 1990 at a restaurant on St. Mark’s Place where they both worked, I imagine that the dishwashing scenes could be based on experience.

It is almost as if the Irishman of the first film joined the National Guard to solve his financial problems since “New Jerusalem”, the next film, tells the story of essentially the same character working in a tire shop in Richmond once again, where he is suffering from severe depression. Like “The Builder”, much of this film shows him doing manual labor in an utterly realistic manner, something not frequently seen in American films, either indie or Hollywood. His character, named Sean, is seen as a rescue project by a fellow worker named Ike, who is a born-again Christian who reminds me a bit of myself when I was a Trotskyist trying to save the souls of fellow programmers 40 years ago. Ike is played by Will Oldham who was memorable in Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy” as an aging hippie just one step above dishwashing himself.

Sean’s depression has nothing to do with his service in Afghanistan, where he worked far from the fighting. Instead, it is an all-consuming depression that leaves him on the verge of tears most of the time. Ike is convinced that Jesus is the answer and brings a skeptical Sean to church services (a real one) and to visit his pious father for dinner. Later that evening, he pressures Sean to allow him to wash his feet in the same way that Jesus urged his disciples to wash the feet of those they would save. The film ends abruptly just as does “The Builder”. You can’t escape the feeling that religion is not the answer to Sean’s depression, even though he has been helped by Ike’s ministrations as well as the heavy-duty anti-depressants he has been taking.

In a Q&A at the SXSW 2011 Film Festival, Alverson is asked about what the church service he filmed with O’Leary and Oldham sitting alongside the actual congregants meant to him, especially in light of his statement that he “left that experience with more questions about liberal America than conservative Christianity.” His reply should give you some indication about the degree to which he has tried to understand the national malaise, especially how it relates to what Hillary Clinton called “the deplorables”:

The observation that liberal America relies solely on disparate cultural events and forms to supply/provide a platform for community. There is no single construct that is the equivalent of the church, no umbrella, no glue for the social experience. We are unmoored because of it. The village is a relic and the pub, besides relatively absent from the states in it’s traditional incarnation, has always been primarily a man’s escape. My belief is that the majority of non-denominational Christians In the states, particularly in poor neighborhoods, are responding primarily to the social infrastructure, the emotional pillow provided by the church. It is a failure of progressive, liberal society to provide an equivalent to the church which keeps the church a vital, necessary element in 21st century society.

Karl Marx put it somewhat similarly:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

In what might appear to be an abrupt shift thematically, Alverson’s next two films are about comedy, both amateur and professional. I should add that there is nothing to laugh about in the two films since beneath their ostensibly light-hearted titles—“The Comedy” and “Entertainment”—are stories that are as grim as anything written by Dostoyevsky.

Made in 2012, “The Comedy” was co-written once again with Colm O’Leary and with Robert Donne, a Richmond musician who comes out of the rock scene that Alverson started out in as well.

The film is a character study of a rich and sadistic creep named Swanson, who lives in a yacht in the Hudson River and who spends most of his time hanging out with aging hipsters like himself who enjoy humiliating people beneath them on the social ladder. While I doubt that Alverson cast comedian Tim Heidecker as Swanson because of his nearly perfect resemblance to Steve Bannon, including a massive beer belly, I can’t imagine any filmmaker thinking about adapting “Fire and Fury” casting anybody else for the role of Bannon. Indeed, Heidecker himself does his own killer impersonation of Bannon on his website.

The film begins with Swanson sitting in a chair next to his father, who is on life-support in the bedroom of his huge mansion that his son will inherit. As a male nurse tends to his father, Swanson begins baiting him about how he likes cleaning his father’s anus, an explicit reference to gay sex that constitutes the remaining portion of his “comic” riff. The nurse looks at him silently the whole time.

Swanson’s posse seems to have the same malevolent attitudes as well as the time to act on them since they all seem independently wealthy. Most of their time is spent drinking and carrying out MTV “Jackass” type stunts. They go to a church and slide back and forth on the benches as if ducks in a shooting gallery. When they are not abusing people outside of their charmed circle, they abuse each other using the sort of insults heard routinely on shock jock radio, starting with Howard Stern. While I am sure Chapo Trap House has never sunk to this level, I can’t help feeling that the left should reconsider the value of Brooklyn hipster irony starting now.

Returning to the dishwashing scene, Swanson takes such a job on a whim. After a waitress answers his verbally abusive manner in kind, there is enough of a spark to persuade her that a trip out to his yacht might be worth her time. When he begins undressing her—consensually—she suddenly begins suffering an epileptic attack that he watches impassively as if it were a stunt on “Jackass”. This is a man who has lost all connection with humanity, a condition audience members would no doubt associate with his privileged position. Working as a dishwasher was just another stunt, something that he can joke about with his friends.

Although Tim Heidecker has made a living as a comedian pushing the transgression envelope, he understood that despite Swanson and his pals attempt to simulate it, the film was a critique of the entire scene. He told the Los Angeles Times:

The idea of trust-fund guys who live in Brooklyn in their 30s is really interesting to me. There’s a time and a place where that kind of bohemian lifestyle is appropriate, soon after college, in your 20s. But there are people still living that many years later; they haven’t evolved to the next phase. I know people like that. There are elements of me in that. And there’s something very interesting sociologically. That behavior has been validated or seen as a positive thing or a cute thing or a quirky thing. The movie tries to be critical of that lifestyle in a fairly subtle way. The biggest mistake people could make is watch the movie and think there’s any condoning of anyone in it. This character is clearly meant to be grotesque.

He follows that up with an observation that is in sync with Alverson’s about the role of religion:

There’s a generation of people I think without a strong connection to family, to religion, to civic duty. They have a real disassociation from the problems of the world. People we’re talking about live in a “Matrix” alternate reality. I’m not an expert. I hope that there are people interested in a variety of things, in making our cities and world a more livable place, with engineering and science degrees. But film-criticism majors are only going to be so useful in our warming globe.

Let me conclude with comments on “Entertainment” that I consider Alverson’s best, if not the best film by a young director (to me, 47 is young) that I have seen in at least the past 12 months at least.

This 2015 film was co-written with Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, a stand-up comedian in the same sense that Tony Clifton was a comedian. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to call the character that Turkington has developed as Neil Hamburger (only known as “the comedian” in the film) an “anti-comedian”.

Turkington plays an out-of-shape, balding, middle-aged comedian who is suffering the same kind of existential depression as Colm O’Leary’s characters endured in the earlier films. In this case, however, the sadness is more easy to fathom. This is a man who hates what he is doing but incapable of doing anything else. On stage, the slightest offense of the audience, including bored indifference, will likely generate a torrent of abuse.

The comedian’s life is spent in cheap, sterile motels where the only escape from his personal hell would be a conversation with his daughter who never answers the plaintive messages he leaves on her phone. He makes appearances alongside a much younger comedian who goes out on stage wearing a clown’s rubber nose and makes jokes about defecation and masturbation. The audience loves it but the comedian watches stone-faced.

In his spare moments, the comedian goes out on group tours to see Southern California’s wonders, including a museum of retired passenger jets that he wanders through as if looking at dinosaur replicas in the Museum of Natural History. Is this a comment on his own obsolescence or on the “perishing republic” that Robinson Jeffers wrote a poem about? The beauty of Rick Alverson’s films is that you are invited to think for yourself. If you want to leave your brain at home, I recommend your local Cineplex.

All of Alverson’s films can be seen on Amazon Video except “The Builder” that is available on Fandor. You can get a trial subscription to Fandor and watch the film, especially if you are looking for a thoughtful study of the American condition.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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