On the Limits of Irony: Thoughts on Rick Alverson’s The Comedy

Tim Heidecker in 'The Comedy' (2012)
Tribeca Film

The 2010s were one of cinema’s most transformative decades. While the movie business has always been reliant on technology and commerce, never before have both domains seen so much disruption at once. With the popularization of cheap cameras, smartphones, crowdfunding platforms, social media, and new methods of distribution, more movies are made now than ever before. Streaming companies are displacing Hollywood as the industry’s center of gravity. Our devices spy on us, quantifying our delight, shaping new methods of consumer research and content production. And blockbuster tentpoles—sequels, adaptations, franchises—continue to suck up most of the air, sparking debates about the nature of movies and proclamations about the death of cinema’s middle class.

Only very big and very small movies seem to be thriving. Each extreme pushes the other; with so many tiny screens competing for our attention, theatrically-released movies grow bigger, louder, and more epic. I’m reminded of the first time cinema was threatened by new tech, when “Hollywood films [attempted] to meet the challenge of television by the astonishingly simple expedient of expanding in size,” as Pauline Kael put it in 1956. “Like a public building designed to satisfy the widest concept of grandeur, the big production loses the flair, spontaneity, and rhythm of the artist working to satisfy his own conception.”

It’s this “flair, spontaneity, and rhythm” we increasingly look to small movies for. And in the last decade, no commercial filmmaker has staked a claim against contemporary Hollywood’s “addiction to the fast, loud, and ostentatious” as persuasively or damningly as Rick Alverson. He’s a stubborn, disarmingly sincere filmmaker whose movies attempt to peel back the layers of comfort cinema by demonstration in content and form, pinpointing social phenomena, and exploring ways media affects our collective tendencies to confuse fantasy for reality.

His first two films—2010’s The Builder and 2011’s New Jerusalem—are micro-budget character studies about men suffering from feelings of alienation. Both films have intentionally rough edges to keep viewers at arms length. Their impact is limited by the purity of their own design; neither permits itself to overtly manipulate its audience. Alverson’s third film, 2012’s The Comedy, marked a new chapter in his career. His austerity is juxtaposed with the comedic talents of Tim Heidecker, creating a fascinating tension. It has more famous faces, more jokes, and a wider range of cinematic techniques than his previous work. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a piece of filmmaking that critiques the very game it plays.

The Comedy’s protagonist, Swanson, is an aging Brooklyn hipster whose psychological development has long been arrested by money, comfort, and seemingly limitless options, and the story takes place just before his inheritance of even more wealth. His material resources have long invalidated the necessity of personal growth, and he is left hunting for the kind of pleasure-relief promised to all of us by pop songs, action movies, and soft drink commercials.

The film’s episodic, meandering narrative follows Swanson as he floats through New York City like the avatar of a videogame populated with non-playable characters, treating others as if they exist only for his own hollow amusement. He has a one-night stand with a young woman and the next morning kneels over her sleeping face, using thumb and finger to peel open her eyelid. He berates his father’s nurse, sister-in-law, and taxi drivers. He wanders into a Black neighborhood bar to “represent” his home of Williamsburg and suggest to a group of men that they are “from the hood.” He pokes and prods at his environment with the exploratory detachment of a toddler, testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in pursuit of his own center of gravity.

At one point Swanson meets a quick-witted, bitter waitress. She recognizes his mockery for what it is, reciprocates it, and addresses the intelligence of the man behind the banter. Suddenly Swanson’s schtick is cast as a defensive and lonely charade. It’s the first time he shows interest in anything outside of himself. But when she has a seizure on his houseboat, the light in his eyes fades. He sits watching her body convulse, not helping, once again behaving like a solipsistic tourist. It’s a chilling moment that invites the question: is Swanson desperate for others to see, validate, and engage with him? Is his acting out a cry for help, an attempt to escape his own misery by demanding attention?

“We see it in children [and] that’s not happiness,” said David Foster Wallace in a 2003 interview. “The feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to be a strange kind of slavery.” Wallace connected this phenomenon to the commodification of human attention by advertising and popular media. “The parts of you that are selfish, self-centered, and want to have fun all the time, that’s the best way to sell you things.” Ads encourage us to listen to our innermost cravings, to prioritize our own comfort, and to follow impulses that lead to purchases. Swanson is the perfect character to explore this idea taken to nightmarish extremes because he has the means to follow his every impulse, chase every pleasure, and reject the world of necessity which the rest of us cannot afford to ignore.

Hannah Arendt believed in what she called “the social problem of leisure” which is the idea that exhaustion and consumption are two parts of a cycle that can be thrown out of whack. In The Human Condition she theorized how money and freedom can lead to unhappiness because of the problem of “how to provide enough opportunity for daily exhaustion to keep the capacity for consumption intact.” Without exhaustion, discomfort, and a sense of purpose, mood-lifting products and activities can become boring and depressing. In severe cases, they can be self-destructive.

Psychologist Colin Wilson took Arendt’s argument a step further and wrote that boredom, passivity, and stagnation are the foundations of “mental illness, which propagates itself like the scum on a stagnant pond…Human beings need amount of challenge, of external stimulus, to stop them from sinking into the blank stare and blank consciousness of an idiot.” That’s why Swanson role-plays as a day laborer. Early on, when Swanson spots a group of landscapers working in a neighbor’s yard, he strips off his shirt and starts planting bushes alongside them. Later, he takes a job washing dishes in a restaurant, pretends to work in an antique store, and offers a taxi driver hundreds of dollars to let him take the wheel. He treats the necessities of others like costumes, objects of fetishization he can never truly own.

Arendt suggested that in a society that reveres labor, a person who doesn’t meaningfully exert themselves is seen as “an animal,” pressured by others to occupy themselves with “animal matters.” Maybe that’s why Swanson’s feeble attention span routinely collapses back on itself, returning to its most immediate object of focus: his own body. Swanson burps, sings, spits, and farts his way through the city. He cracks jokes about “cum-swallowing” sisters and “famous anus cookies,” escaping the banality of the present moment, seeking refuge from the featureless passage of time. No other person is more important than the sounds and functions of his own flesh, and this conviction pushes others away, perpetuating his solitude. He has “no connection to church, government, family—the structures of society,” as Tim Heidecker put it shortly after the film’s premiere. “[He] can’t relate because [he’s possibly too] intelligent enough to realize how meaningless all that shit is. So [he’s] just kind of left out to dry, in a way, and there’s nothing [he] to cling to that’s genuine.”

If reality can be understood, like Arendt defined it, as consensus between human beings, and one’s sanity depends on accordance with that consensus, then Swanson’s misanthropic behavior may be understood as a kind of illness—or, as The Comedy suggests—an epidemic. Wallace described the erosion of our collective trust in the reality of life. He believed this erosion could be partly attributed to systemic quirks in the structures of our economies and cultures. Companies selling products are incentivized to hold our attention in the immediate present, the time it takes to earn a click, like, share, or to buy something. And movies, music, television, and social media make us think that in some faraway place, life is “quicker, denser, more interesting” than in our own day to day existence. In these ways, societal, technological, and economic forces work to gradually corrupt the sensual power of the present moment. And it’s easy to understand why the rich would be most at risk of this kind of spiritual bankruptcy. They have the resources to chase meaningless abstractions.

The more I think about Swanson, the more depressing our world looks. But for a director with so bleak a worldview, so damning a regard for our culture’s relationship with leisure and fantasy, Alverson is an optimistic filmmaker. He trusts his audience in ways that are very heartening, and The Comedy shows his optimism in three key ways.

First, consider how Alverson trusts us to stick around. The Comedy is not a funny movie and its title risks misrepresenting the film. This functional bait-and-switch is brave of filmmakers and financiers; it misguides audience expectations in service of its own mission. Its Brooklyn and Manhattan coffee shops, restaurant kitchens, hospital rooms, and houseboat; its color palette, photography, and editing work to create a sense of the claustrophobically mundane. Cuts are delayed to keep us locked in the oppressive present. Music cues are few and far between. Like the journalist who remains silent after an interviewee answers their question, moments are milked for secrets hidden in plain sight. This frustrating stasis plumbs introspection on the part of the audience.

Paul Schrader called these techniques “distancing devices” in his essay on transcendental cinema, and what’s most interesting about Alverson’s Bressonian practices is his handling of Heidecker’s performance. Shots linger beyond the moment when Swanson’s face signals the expectation of a cut. To study Alverson’s philosophy of coverage is to learn how to edit comedy by subtraction; while the efficacy of humor in movies depends on harmony between performance and edits (think of how many gags live or die by the timing of a cut away from, or to, a character’s expression) Alverson holds steady, capturing the feeling of emptiness in Swanson’s environment long after the joke has passed. This creates a tension which, as Schrader says, “the viewer must resolve.” Jonathan Rosenbaum called these moments “pedal point[s]…When you hold a [musical] chord for a long time [it] becomes meditative, because it gives you time to think and almost makes a demand on your imagination.”

When Bresson used “pedal points” in his films, he had the advantage of a semi-captive audience. He used the power of the theatrical experience to fruitfully frustrate expectations in order to make a point; to direct his viewers’ attention back at themselves. But Alverson doesn’t have this luxury as a 21st century filmmaker. He simply trusts we will surrender to the experience, even if we watch his film on an iPhone. This is very optimistic.

Next, Alverson trusts us to care. To make a film about a man paralyzed by the comforts of his own fortune is a big ask. To shoot this film in New York around the time of Occupy is a bigger ask. And to hinge the efficacy of an irreverent character study on the audience’s capacity for detachment is a leap of faith. Empathy for rich kids is in short supply, and artists often throw their characters under the bus for fear of uncharitable interpretations. But The Comedy is admirably committed to its aims, and asks us to look at Swanson not as a villain but as a canary in the coal mine.

Finally, Alverson trusts us not to receive the film sarcastically. The Comedy’s worldview may seem puritanical or alarmist to many. Worse, it may seem preachy and earnest, two qualities that make me squirm. Over the course of writing this essay, I’d often bump up against my own defense mechanisms and feel the urge to dismiss The Comedy’s core subject of inquiry. I’d run across interviews with Alverson talking about the harmful influence of advertising, fantasy, and mass-produced entertainment. As someone who believes movies can and should be fun, I’m inclined to dismiss any moral condemnation of the “narcotic effects” of movies I love.

But then I’d think of Wallace’s observations on how consumerism relates to irony and dismissal. “Indifference is actually just the contemporary version of frugality,” he wrote. In an economy that buys and sells attention, withholding it becomes an act of power and a matter of self-preservation. But as The Comedy illustrates, it can also be destructive when taken to the extreme. “Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function,” Wallace wrote. “It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. [But it is] singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”

Earnest works of art are uniquely ill-equipped to storm our present-day defense mechanisms. Never has our media landscape made it so easy to dismiss the sincerity of others. We should therefore cherish opportunities to let down our guard to artists we trust.

When a filmmaker like Rick Alverson comes along—someone with so singular, strong, and consistent a voice—it’s rewarding to lean in and meet his films halfway. This is how great, stubborn movies get under our skin; we let them in. And once they take root, they enter our language in ways few things can. They hold the capacity to stand as reference points to the previously invisible, name the unnamed, and draw our increasingly distracted attention to that which is right under our noses.