Film

Paradoxically Ironic: “The Comedy” by Rick Alverson

Hipsters ’til the End

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I’m not entirely perplexed at the backlash this movie has seen, which I don’t think is backlash at all but outright dismissal—some people are taking the film seriously and others can’t begin to fathom what could momentarily be interesting enough to analyze. And it’s not unwarranted; what’s to be taken away isn’t entirely clear: Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is a thoroughly unlikable character whose greatest achievement is hinting at the possibility of redemption after a series of grotesque exercises in irreverence, the film lacks any recognizable socio-political themes, and all plot points established to possibly hinder Swanson’s goal of wasting life are never an obstacle. Moreover, Alverson’s defensiveness against criticism, particularly A.O. Scott’s scathing review in The New York Times, finds him giving the movie more detail than I’m willing to, and that I’m giving it this much is generous.

The film is a series of short, near-meaningless vignettes-of-sorts of Swanson and crew’s (Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, et al) misanthropic adventures through New York City. Again and again the characters drink themselves into stupors, harass the innocent, and engage in mild delinquency. It’s hard to see much of yourself in any of these characters, and by extension difficult to find anything human in them, which, if you ask me, is the frightening part.

“It is, I think, intended to be a satire,” says Moira MacDonald, “a comment on materialism and on not-quite-young people who know nothing but entitlement, shocking us to make a point.” Only it’s not shocking, and what would be that point? “A character study that tries to make the revolting compelling,” posits Kyle Smith, but insists it fails. “Yes,” admits Barbara VanDenburgh, “it’s a potent depiction of an emotionally stunted man-child, but so what?” So what indeed. A.O. Scott tops them all with the accusation that Alverson must be like his leading character, “nearly as affectless and passive-aggressive as Swanson,” as harsh a criticism as could come. And it’s not just critics who have torn into this, but audiences. When it premiered at Sundance, many walked out before the first scene—a slow-motion pan of portly naked men drunkenly spewing beer on one another—even ended [1].

But I share Alverson’s perplexity to the angry responses, though for different reasons. While he’s happy enough to entertain that widespread derision arises from audiences’ discomfort with a film unwilling to conform to usual narrative arcs or generally unpleasant material, I’ll throw my chips in with the bet that the nay-sayers engage themselves with enough art to have figured out by now that purposefully difficult and quasi-dense films are more trouble than they’re worth to decipher. My own experiences, when confronted with art difficult to decrypt at first go, have left me feeling one of two ways: confusion mixed with a sense of awe, that I must re-experience this piece so as to glean greater meaning; or confusion mixed with confusion and a little bit of resentment. Though neither happened to me here. Confusion, sure, but I wasn’t convinced I was missing anything. Everything the film had to say was there the first time through. That’s not difficult art, it’s mediocre art. Consider that indie label Jagjaguwar, kings of the preciously obscure and ironically sentimental (that’s a thing, really—just listen to Bon Iver, for Christ’s sake), helped Alverson get this film—and all his films—off the ground, and, well, you can understand why both these agents of impenetrability-as-content would make good bedfellows. And given his seeming disdain of expectations of contemporary audiences, that ‘they want to be substantiated and placated by what they see,’ I’m not at all sure he’s aware of who his (very) limited audience is likely to be comprised of [2]. Certainly not the masses, and for obvious reasons.

Okay, okay; I’ll give Alverson the benefit of the doubt, because the film is different and there’s something at work regardless of its affectation or critical degradation. Let’s outline what we know about Swanson: his father is dying, he’s in the position to inherent said father’s estate, his brother is in the ‘loony bin,’ his sister-in-law is attempting in some way to help deal with legal affairs, he enjoys PBR, his friends (if we can call them that) are like-minded and shallow, he obsessively brushes his teeth, he seems to welcome the ass-whooping that never comes his way, he lives on a boat, and he’s a general prick. We know what he thinks of politics and religion and art because he doesn’t think about them. That’s what he thinks. He’s become incapable of serious conversation to the point where every word he utters is backhanded, someone whose interests we can discern purely by what disinterests him; a man defined by negation.

Alverson makes the right move by taking this definition of hipster lifestyle—irreverence for its own sake, that the world and everything and everyone in it are a joke rather than skinny jeans and obscure music—and transposes what’s usually portrayed as a sexy, nihilistic twenty-something mentality into the aging, waist-expanding late-thirties equivalent. No one in the audience is going to find Swanson’s character attractive or sexy—at least not his unplanned bits of cruelness—though he does manage to seduce a few women, albeit ones who are not privy to such acts or the generally pathetic way in which Swanson lives his life. The transposition stands to illuminate the ultimate sadness of a lifestyle spent attempting to evade sincerity, where hints of intimacy at any level with other human beings is worthy of mockery. Such is the case when one character admits to the others that “I need you. I don’t say that to just anybody,” and the attendant silence that follows—is he joking? serious?—before a bout of laughter directed at this character surfaces. Swanson’s boat represents not only his self-imposed isolation and willing disconnection from reality, but the trajectory of his life; the boat may leave the harbor but it never goes anywhere, wandering aimlessly across the bay. He doesn’t keep his boat at the docks; to cruise back and forth from boat to mainland he uses a dinghy, the thin mental strip that still connects and grounds him to the real world, not explicitly leaving him to live in his head. His tendency to brush his teeth regardless of location—bowels of his boat, the sink of the restaurant where he works, a public restroom—signifies his manic, subconscious obsession to purify, as though his incessant brushing will clean the absurdities, lies, and harmful words that leave his mouth. It’s not just Swanson’s life-philosophy that disgusts; everything about him, from his physique to his actions to his words to his annoying childishness, is repugnant.

It’s one thing to take aim at unlikable hipsters (and an easy thing at that), though it’s not only entitlement that’s a problem; young rich kids have always wasted their time. More unique is a social climate that’s produced something beyond snobbish, wealthy youth—people so wrapped in a shell of protective cynicism they’ve lost the ability to communicate with anyone who doesn’t speak their code. Yes, irreverent dickheads with a vendetta against meaningful relationships with other human beings are wasting their time. But without any notes on the environment around them that allows them to exist in the first place—oversaturation of irony in lots of art and media, particularly literature, since the 1960’s, say, and the subsequent devolution into snide, cheap, sneering insincerity as a way to elevate oneself above simple moral truths by dismissing them as juvenile—it falls victim to finger pointing, singling out an unpleasant, albeit small, social black spot and relaying its vapidity like no one had already known about it. An equivalent would be filming a fat sop on the couch, claw halfway down a bag of cheese puffs as he subjects himself to boob tube marathons, and saying he’s missing out on life. Alverson’s next film? Morning Comes to Cheap White Trash. I’m only half kidding. His next film’s about the KKK [3].

Though what might be a social climate critique—if you can call it that; maybe observation is better—comes through in Alverson’s depiction of how the outside world reacts to Swanson. It doesn’t. Regardless of how Swanson and his cohorts attempt to rile those around them, nothing comes of it, and Swanson’s continued ploys increasingly lose effect: the nurse he berates responds to insults with stolid demeanor, the wealthy couple he deceives into thinking he’s the head landscaper grant permission to let him and the other workers swim in his pool after a squirmy dialogue, the guy in the oddities shop brushes off his posing as a clerk without thought, the cab driver with the broken radio allows them to chant about how he won’t receive a tip without blinking, the black patrons in the bar he attempts to engage with for his own amusement find slight amusement themselves in his idiocy, and the many praying in the church tune out his and Wareheim’s and Murphy’s childish behavior in the pews. The one character Swanson makes any sort of connection with is a teenage girl at the restaurant where he washes dishes not out of necessity but boredom, herself a hipster in the making, whom he successfully seduces before she violently convulses on the couch on his boat. And when a boozed-up Swanson convinces one poor cabbie to let him drive for a few miles, the cabbie stays involved in the proceedings only because his job is on the line, not because Swanson’s attitudes interest him. It says a lot about Swanson that when a fight breaks out between the woman he spoke to as a prostitute and the cabbie, Swanson jumps ship and sprints down the sidewalk, never looking back. And how do we react to his behavior? Largely the same way; dismissal. Ay, there’s the rub.

A.O. Scott is annoyed that the film “takes no critical distance from its subject,” while Alverson asserts that the trend in American audiences is “to want to very quickly and efficiently distance themselves from what they’re watching,” and strives in his film to disallow audiences to do so [4]. And thus the paradox of such critiques is they mock a film which sincerely attempts to display mockery of the sincere as empty gesticulating for lacking sincerity, and the paradox of the film is its sincerity must be ironic so as to demonstrate its sincerity toward the subject matter. Yet I’m not convinced audiences are interested in distancing themselves from what they watch; if experience tells me anything it’s the exact opposite. Audiences want a character they can root for, whose disposition is similar to theirs, who they’re willing to stick with despite his mistakes which, if they’re observant, they’ll learn to fix.

Notes:

[1] “Be warned: ‘The Comedy’ stinks,” by Moira MacDonald, The Seattle Times 6 Dec. 2012.
“‘The Comedy’ review,” by Kyle Smith, New York Post 16 Nov. 2012.
“The Comedy,” by Barbara VanDenburgh, The Republic 29 Nov. 2012.
“Like a Sailboat Skipper Without a Destination,” by A.O. Scott, The New York Times 15 Nov. 2012.

[2] “Interview: ‘The Comedy’ Director Rick Alverson On Provoking Audiences,” by Steve Greene, Indiewire.com 9 Nov. 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “2012 Rick Alverson: ‘The Comedy'”

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