No, Seriously

by Jon-Barrett Ingels

Interview with Entertainment Director Rick Alverson and Actor Gregg Turkington
Entertainment, Director Rick Alverson’s fourth feature, drifts through the wasteland like desert of Southern California following Gregg Turkington as he compulsively tours bars, restaurants, and a prison performing his old Vegas style comedy act. In the early '90s Turkington created a stage persona called Neil Hamburger, a crass, bitter comedian with a penchant for multiple simultaneous cocktails.

“This is not THE Neil Hamburger movie” Turkington enforces. “It steals the onstage act and persona of Neil Hamburger and we sort of riff on that. The offstage character is a creation of the film and it blends in and becomes part of something else entirely.”

The offstage character miserably makes his way from seedy hotel rooms to awkward encounters in florescent flooded truck stop restrooms to questionable parties in dark garages. He moves through this life deriving no pleasure from anything as if it is his curse, his chain to bear.

On stage he throws out jokes like, “What is the worst part about being gang raped by Crosby, Stills and Nash? No Young.” The response is confusion, coughs, and disgust, with fits of rage as one girl, played by Amy Seimetz, hurls a glass at him.

“(The comedian) probably at one point was hoping for a certain career trajectory that didn’t happen. And there probably was a period where the disappointment was something that was being verbalized more and now it has gotten to the point where it is just beyond that and he is very retreated into his own mind. All the hallmarks of professionalism that were once a part of the show, such as showing up in a tuxedo and putting up a Vegas style comedy show, they’ve all started to disintegrate. To the point where he’s letting all his emotions leak out on stage in a way that’s really inappropriate. And then you take that type of a show and put it in a place where there’s twelve people who really don’t care and really don’t like it you’ve got a recipe for the type of disaster that you see depicted in the film.”

The movie has an improvised feel to it: loose, lilting dialogue bantered back and forth.  “All four of my movies haven’t had any traditionally scripted dialogue.” Alverson asserts. “I’m totally disinterested in movies that use, in particular my own, that use dialogue as the driver for the narrative, where we’re literally told how and what to feel and we follow the story through language. For me, it’s one of the least interesting thing film does.” He continues, “I’m often not interested in what the actual exchange is. I’m more interested in the tonal component of the exchange, how that exchange occurs, like how it falls apart, the cadences and tonalities of it. If you cast right,  then I know that I’m gonna be able to expect and exploit certain native interactions between people, or I understand the way that they’ll deliver and accomplish a task of speaking to another person. I’m less interested in what’s said, frankly.”

The cast includes two actors who are well versed in the improvised style of acting, John C. Reilly as a compassionate cousin and Michael Cera as a lonely, maybe creepy patron of a men’s restroom. It also includes the young, talented Tye Sheridon, playing the clown opening act for The Comedian. Turkington called it a master stroke of Alverson casting. “That character was originally written as being older, road dog sort of comic. Rick said, ‘I think Tye Sheridan might be good.’ Ok, sure I guess. And then he just blew me away. I can’t get enough of watching his scenes. I find them the most fascinating thing to look at.”

“There’s obviously a little bit of active misdirection in that casting which is always interesting to me.” Alverson added. “Tye’s obviously a born performer for him to be able to accomplish what he did in Tree of Life at that age and star opposite these leading men… He just turned 18 while we were making the movie, it’s a time in his life where you could tell he wanted to bust out of these maybe prescribed or predetermined kind of conceptions of what he is and what he does.”

The stark landscape and meth fueled hotels, bars, and backyards were captured brilliantly by the film’s Director of Photography, Lorenzo Hagerman. “We got along really well.” Alverson praised. “There’s a lot of chaos in the movie in both the content and some of the formal exchanges of the unscripted dialogue and that sort of stuff. I think that it was necessary to have a really strong container for that, something that indoctrinates the viewer into something that is entirely cinematic in the classical sense.” He adds, “That is fading from the default grammar of American cinematographers quicker than it is elsewhere because we’re, in the States, increasingly a content driven as opposed to form driven society. In some ways this movie is a response to that, in many ways.”

Entertainment was co-written by Alverson, Turkington, and Tim Heidecker, who starred in Alverson’s previous film The Comedy in which Heidecker and Turkington engage in a casual, earnest conversation about the cleanliness of hobo cocks. Heidecker has mastered the style of comedy where the audience doesn’t know if it’s appropriate to laugh. He has found an equal in Gregg Turkington, watch the two pair up in On Cinema on Adult Swim’s YouTube channel.

Turkington lays out, “I don’t really find it funny when people are doing characters or sketches where they are winking at the audience and making sure you understand it’s all a joke because it just takes the teeth out of it. It just turns into bullshit really quickly. I really am attracted to stuff that is one hundred percent committed and doesn’t feel the need to make sure that everyone understands that it’s a show.”

The movie is uncomfortable to watch at times, creating scenes and interactions that build up a pressure to the point where you don’t know what will happen next and you almost don’t want to. “People read into this what’s in their heart.” Turkington reminds me, forcing me to examine my own depraved psyche. I wanted to find the joke or be let in on the joke but it wasn’t there or I wasn’t invited.

“This is a serious movie, by the way.”

I know. I think I know.

 

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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