Gregg Turkington in Entertainment (Magnolia Pictures)
In their respective fields, Rick Alverson and Gregg Turkington have established and self-propagated reputations as iconoclastic troublemakers; the former as the agit-auteur director of 2012’s painfully self-aware indie The Comedy, and the latter as the misanthropic maestro behind bilious stand-up comedian/performance art character Neil Hamburger. As such, it stands to reason that their first feature-length collaboration, the mischievously-titled Entertainment, would be every bit as raw, abrasive and, indeed, inspired as its creators.
The film follows an unnamed comic (Turkington) as he takes his obscene, Andy Kaufman-esque stand-up show on the road through the barren ghost towns of blue-collar California to surreally disastrous results. Damaged and cynical, the comic struggles to face his personal demons while foisting his hard-to-swallow postmodern act upon a series of increasingly ambivalent podunk audiences. Dotting this grim odyssey are a number of encounters with oddball locals such as a condescending cousin (John C. Reilly), a dead-eye chromotherapist (Lotte Verbeek) and a creepy rest-stop hitchhiker (Michael Cera), all punctuated by the comic’s desperate attempts to call his estranged daughter, whose presence looms large over the proceedings though she is never seen or heard.
Though all this pathos and misery might connote anything but entertainment to your average mainstream movie-lover, the picture’s creators are adamant that their intention was always to challenge their audience, not punish them.
“These are fictions,” states director Alverson. “Behavioral science says people who listen to death metal are some of the happiest, most relaxed people in the world.”
Star Turkington echoes the sentiment, stating: “The movie is an accurate depiction of clinical depression … sometimes doing this is like throwing up a bad meal. Digging around in the muck of this stuff can be healthy.”
What might seem repulsive to some holds a certain allure to Turkington, who still regularly tours dumpy dive bars like the ones seen in Entertainment, despite his relatively high-profile draw.
”I play these kind of venues when I can because I think it’s good for the character of (Neil) Hamburger,” claims the performer. “I go out of my way to book stuff that’s gonna flop … it keeps things honest and interesting.”
Similarly, Alverson shows open disdain for the repugnant Brooklyn hipsters at the core of his previous work, The Comedy.
“I took a a genuine interest in a lot of things that I’ve hated in the past,” argues the director. “It was an embrace of that stuff … from visual horror down to the most flat tedium of audience disinterest.”
The word “horror” comes up a lot in conversation with Alverson and Turkington, both in discussing the formal elements of their film, as well as its more abstract inspirations.
“I’m a fan of horror films,” states Alverson. “I cherish Halloween for all the moments nothing happens except for a man who walks very slowly … as an audience member I like squirming [and] the restlessness and animation that happens when you’re uncertain.”
Co-signing this claim, Turkington insists that “[Entertainment] is more of a horror film than a comedy, for sure.”
Indeed, the worlds of humor and revulsion intersect often in the duo’s work, and this dissonant connection seems to be sparked by a kind of shared anger-cum-anguish at the cultural homogenization of contemporary society.
“I enjoy the parallel between an audience watching this wretched comedy show [in Entertainment] paired with how I feel when I go into Albertsons to buy cat litter, and this horrible music is playing at loud volumes that, to me, is like a personal assault on art,” remarks Turkington. “It feels like I’m being stabbed … it’s so shallow. It’s putting the nails in the coffin.”
Alverson groans his agreement: “if you want to talk about getting meta, some people see my movies and say I should be able to go to the movies and not be assaulted … but to me, it’s better to be assaulted in the luxury and safety of a cushy movie theater by something completely fictional than it is in the supermarket aisle.”
Though Turkington denies that his intentionally grating comedy is designed as a means of fighting back against the blandness of the 21st-century content-machine, he admits that appeasing average-Joe viewers is not his first consideration as a creative.
“They’re gonna go most of the time and say, ‘Oh, that was funny. I guess.’ Meanwhile I watched these movies on the plane that were like, ‘oh my God, you’re fucking killing me!’ I make this shit, and I take it personally. It’s hard for me to have sympathy [for someone] who has a bad evening at this movie …if you don’t like it, then leave.”
Meanwhile, Alverson takes aim at the critical hegemony which, to his mind, wrongly deigns to pick apart and analyze abstract films in an clinical, objectivized manner informed by traditional narrative structure.
“This movie attacks the idea of unpacking themes,” he purports. “People who would say this movie is a failure are correct in that its a failure on delivering on their [traditional] expectations. But if a person feels activated by this, that’s a success unless they want an IV full of sterilizing liquid that turns them into a corpse. Resolution is just satisfying a pre-requisite – it’s a disservice to culture at large …[there’s] this spastic awfulness of how I’m supposed to be ‘reading’ this experience with criticism online. We’re totally missing out on the event of organic experience whatever it might be – horror, humor or something kinder than both.”`
The duo’s righteous animus also extends to the PC culture-wars, which have recently seen many an edgy comedian forced to tone down his or her content at the behest of millennial social-justice-warriors. While performing as Neil Hamburger (and, for that matter, as the comic’s bizarro-world double in Entertainment), Turkington has taken excessive flack for his virulently offensive strain of black humor, which touches on grotesque scatology, sexual deviancy and even that most taboo of topics: rape.
“People are so knee-jerk about this stuff,” he shoots back. “I got in trouble for telling a joke that goes: ‘Why don’t rapists go out to eat at T.G.I. Fridays? Because it’s hard to rape with a stomach ache!’ Someone confronted me about it, but it’s not a rape joke! It’s a joke about T.G.I. Fridays that just has this word in it. People need to think about the content more carefully.”
Turkington goes on to lob a pointed jab about about the hypocrisy of family-friendly comics.
“As we found out recently, you can have a clean act and not use these words and then be a serial rapist beyond anything we’ve seen before,” he says. “There’s no one more unhealthy than Bill Cosby. [And] then for someone to advocate that we clean up our language? Maybe advocate that people clean up their lives! Devote your energy to actual horrors taking place instead of attacking language that makes people feel better for a few minutes at a show. People should be able to say what they want – that’s what America is all about for God’s sake.”
With unhindered certainty, Alverson backs up his collaborator’s assertion.
“You can’t advocate censorship and call yourself a progressive,” he declares. “You’re kicked out of the club.”
Nevertheless, despite their polarizing perspectives, Alverson and Turkington are ultimately proud of their work. Both men hope Entertainment is received by a large, welcoming audience and yet both too are well-aware of the somewhat stringent limitations imposed upon their commercial appeal.
“The tragedy is that I want reach a larger percentage of the audience,” cops Alverson wryly. “(But) it’s probably impossible.”
Meanwhile, Turkington remains cautiously optimistic as to the film’s support network.
“I’m prepared to have most of the people not like it … [but] I would hope that some will tune in to the particular thing that I want to do,” he maintains. “There are still so many people on earth that even a … tiny percentage is still plenty of folks. It’s just a question of getting through to them, finding them. We can’t exactly go knocking on doors, you know?”
Entertainment is now available on VOD and in limited release at select theaters.