The drunken Brooklyn slacker is bored.
A trust-funder in his mid-30s, he spends his time in a recreational daze, wandering the city with equally aimless friends in search of thrills.
Tonight he’s invited a young waitress onto his sailboat for whiskey. He feels a dull spark of connection between them, if only through the casually offensive jokes they employ in nearly every conversation. Below deck the couple sits half-undressed, smoking pot out of a tiny glass pipe. A first kiss seems imminent.
Suddenly the woman arches her back in a violent epileptic seizure, her eyes rolling back in her head. The man doesn’t move at all to help or even look mildly concerned. Instead he watches, chomping his ice, while the long, torturous moment unfolds. We never see what happens next. The director cuts to a scene of them returning silently to shore on a little skiff against a cold night.
Welcome to “The Comedy,” the polarizing 2012 film by Richmond writer and director Rick Alverson that marked his breakthrough to wider national recognition. Today he’s not only one of the most important artists to watch in Richmond, but also one of the most uncompromising American directors of his generation.
The film, starring popular comedian Tim Heidecker in a dramatic role, was financed with help from Indiana-based music label Jagjaguwar, founded in Charlottesville in the mid-’90s. (Alverson has released nine albums on the label with his folk bands Drunk and Spokane, the last coming in 2007.)
Label founder Darius Van Arman has executive produced all four of Alverson’s movies: 2010’s “The Builder” (partly shot in Richmond), 2011’s “New Jerusalem” (shot entirely in Richmond and Chesterfield County), “The Comedy” and the forthcoming “Entertainment,” picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures.
“He challenges the audience of his movies unlike any other contemporary director,” Van Arman says. “You can’t watch and remain a bystander.”
As it made the festival rounds, “The Comedy” had some critics praising its singular vision, others slamming its lack of moral condemnation, and industry types walking out of Sundance screenings — not all that unusual — hastened by the director’s lack of proper attention to commercial viability.
A Chicago Sun critic on the late Roger Ebert’s site wrote: “The strength of this film is that we have no idea where it will go. The problem is that we might not care where this film will go. … Nevertheless, the movie did get me to think, and that is a success and almost a redemption of its own.”
There’s no “almost” to anything the 44-year-old does. Alverson is a bold and driven filmmaker who above all else wants his audience to think. Like other rising American filmmakers such as the Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”) or Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”), he aims to revitalize cinema as an art form by focusing on its formal elements — lighting, scoring, editing — as well as disrupting preconditioned audience responses. In interviews he often explains that by making the audience uncomfortable he hopes to force a more active and critical viewing experience.
Hollywood industry types see him as a talented cult filmmaker. But his work is steadily earning the respect of well-known actors — veterans John C. Reilly (“Boogie Nights”) and Michael Cera (“Juno”) have parts in his latest, as well as fellow directors and world-class cinematographers. Oscar-nominated Lorenzo Hagerman shot Alverson’s new film using Russian anamorphic lenses from the ’50s to provide more texture.
The forthcoming “Entertainment” is a bleak and surreal road movie through the Mojave Desert. It follows the touring life of a small-time, aging comedian played by real-life small-time aging comedian Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger. Opening Nov. 13 in limited theatrical release and On Demand, it’s having a pre-premiere of sorts at the Byrd Theatre on Nov. 8 as a fundraiser for the planned Bijou Film Center.
In addition to promoting his new film around the world, Alverson is working on five other projects simultaneously.
Foremost, he’s casting a long-gestating film set in the Reconstruction era about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan titled “The Well-Dressed Man.” He calls it his “passion film” and a form of rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s infamous “Birth of a Nation.” It’s been in development for six years.
There’s also “Modern Age,” about the fall of a popular American lobotomist, which will star in-demand young actor Tye Sheridan, who appears in “Entertainment” as well as films by Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and the upcoming big-budget “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
Also he’s writing a capstone to the trilogy begun with “The Comedy,” as well as a psychological thriller titled “The Couple” about a woman whose behavior is dependent on a dog’s actions.
On a wet fall morning at Lamplighter Coffee’s Addison Street shop, Alverson looks like a cross between an art school professor and a hungry carpenter — with a penetrating gaze straight from a rusted Civil War locket.
In most photos, Alverson wears a dour expression like one of his brooding film characters. But he’s a natural conversationalist and warms up quickly, his features becoming livelier with each idea he expresses.
I half-jokingly suggest that maybe this story could mirror his aesthetic.
“And how would that look?” he asks, curious. “My aesthetic in language is Beckett. Nameless nobodies crawling through the dirt questioning what their limbs are for. … That should just about sum it up.”
Samuel Beckett. Thomas Bernard. Robert Creeley — for whom Alverson traveled to Maine to record one of his last poetry readings. These literary influences first intrigued him with their theories on language and grappling over form and content. In his movies, Alverson denies what he’s called the “narcotic” comforts of predictable film narrative, namely a protagonist who engages increasing hurdles and ultimately changes by the end. Instead the beginnings and endings of his films seem almost arbitrary, more like life. He has the ability to look at any environment with the eye of the outsider, which might stem from his itinerant childhood.
Alverson was born in Spokane, Washington, descended from German, Italian and Swedish ancestors. His father worked with Bechtel, an infrastructure energy company similar to Halliburton, and would move the family every few years to larger projects that often were bad for the environment, he says. Alberta, Canada. Green River, Wyoming. Midland, Michigan. Frederick, Maryland.
All the moving made him profoundly introverted. “Crippled,” he says. “I barely spoke and that lasted into my early 20s.”
In northern Canada, his mother became president of a skating club in Fort McMurray where her young son accompanied her daily. By the time he was 7 he started competitive figure skating. The sport taught him discipline as he prepared for the inevitable dream of the Olympics — which in retrospect, Alverson says, formed an unlikely parallel to the “postponed utopia of heaven” in his Catholic household that still used the antiquated Baltimore catechism.
“I didn’t go to lunches, or dances, or gym classes,” he recalls, adding that he spent six hours a day in the skating rink from ages 10 through 19. “More than anything else there weren’t many other male skaters. I spent most of the time alone in the locker room. On the other side of the rink there are 50 young ladies. To say that I was confronted by questions about masculine identity and gender — being a male figure skater in the 1980s — that was a given.”
There was escape at the movies, though. As a young man, he recalls being entranced by early Steven Spielberg and George Lucas blockbusters.
“The immersion that happens in the theater, the transportive nature of it, was disorienting and intoxicating,” he says. Alverson recalls walking out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and feeling that his own face had become Harrison Ford’s. He says he was frightened by the medium’s power early on. That hasn’t changed.
By high school, his family settled in suburban Norristown, Pennsylvania, birthplace of stop-motion animators the Quay brothers. Alverson was “the artsy kid” and recalls having a lucrative side business painting the backs of jean jackets with whatever album cover was in vogue.
At 19, he was visiting his older sister in New York when he discovered foreign cinema by the likes of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Herzog and Bresson at theaters such as Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives.
“Seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker,’ because of the lack of information and ambiguities, it creates a restlessness in the viewer,” he says. “Once you get over a threshold, it becomes revelatory and you realize there’s something going on with your relationship to this thing. That planted a seed.”
In 1991, he attended New York University’s film program as a part-time student, where he learned production basics for one year.
During this period he met an Irish-American writer named Colm O’Leary in a neighborhood cafe and the two bonded. O’Leary later became his writing partner and the magnetic lead actor in his first two films. For a nonactor, he’s shockingly good.
Back then, Alverson was writing a lot of language poetry — “very dense, amazing, microprose pieces,” O’Leary says. “You couldn’t enter them through reason or rationality. You had to enter the cadence of it, its own internal logic. It wasn’t going to explain itself to you. You had to enter it on its own terms.”
Still in his late teens, Alverson was self-educated and had found his artistic inspirations on his own, not through any institutions, O’Leary recalls. He believes the most revealing thing about Alverson’s champion figure-skating [past] is how driven it made him, and how hard he still works today.
“Skating you fall a lot and get back up. He’s tough, he can take his lumps,” O’Leary says. “But his ambitions have always been artistic ones. They were never about success, but rather about life.”