NEXTFEST 2015: DAY 2 @ Ace Hotel - ENTERTAINMENT, or: If I Only Had a Heart / by Samuel B. Prime

When you spend half a day sitting in your jammyjams and writing about the film you saw the day before, you inevitably have less to offer in the way of exciting contextual details or exaggerated nonsense inspired by real events. You have to make up for it somehow. The only answer was to depart the Theatre at Ace Hotel around 10:15 PM and hop from one club to the next for the next five hours. Was this a wise decision? Certainly not. Was it great fun? Assuredly. Should I refrain from getting ahead of myself and instead actually talk about Rick Alverson's ENTERTAINMENT (2015)? I suppose that is the only proper way to justify the aforementioned evening's detour.

As with Friday's screening, the festivities began with a music video - or, rather, an 'album trailer' (which as far as I am concerned is a relatively new thing that I've seen artists and bands begin to do in the recent past). Unlike Friday's artless offering, Saturday's album trailer was by Pablo Ferro for the band Health's upcoming record release "Death Magic." The trailer begins with a shot of a low-res, but deep orange sunset. The sun slowly sets over the course of probably a minute and a half or two minutes underscored by an elegiac tone. When finally the last bit of sun drifts below the horizon line, the film explodes in a rage of heavy metal, Ludovico-style subliminal words, and what Ferro terms "supergraphics" - a new kind of living, breathing style of graphic imagery that looks just like tiny organisms squirming about or being fed with electricity. The result is an undeniable success. Without knowing anything about the band other than what I saw in the trailer, and not usually being a fan of the genre, the sheer quality of Ferro's work made me want to follow-up on when to expect the album and give it a chance.

Rick Alverson's THE COMEDY is one of the best films of the past decade. Rarely have I been so rattled by a film in its final moments. THE COMEDY is a film that is deceptively easy to write off without having seen it, or without paying proper attention, as a cynical work of art seeking to condemn a certain predominantly white and mumbly type of American independent filmmaking. The real enemy, however,  is irony: creative content with a paucity of meaning. With ENTERTAINMENT's major players - Alverson alongside Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington (in the starring role) -  the same as in THE COMEDY, I expected a similarly highly successful mix of sincerity and satire but refocused on show business. From its very first moments, ENTERTAINMENT adds a somber note that never existed in the previous, follows through with a sincere approach to a serious subject - the loneliness of the open road, broadly speaking - with elements of satire achieved between the perceived versus actual reality of performing alone, traveling alone, and - ultimately - being alone. But on the whole the picture is not a success.

ENTERTAINMENT has more in common with Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE (2010) than it does Alverson's previous work (full disclosure: I have not yet seen NEW JERUSALEM or THE BUILDER). Someday the two pictures will make an agonizing, but profound, double feature. I have met Alverson perhaps twice, and though I would not presuppose familiarity or claim to know him, I feel instinctively that this comparison would come as no surprise. Both pictures in their own way deal with the loneliness that comes with celebrity. In SOMEWHERE, Stephen Dorff's Johnny Marco character is at the height of his fame, an A-lister who lives - and lives it up - at the Chateau Marmont. In ENTERTAINMENT, Gregg Turkington's The Comedian (a not at all disguised version of himself and his onstage persona Neil Hamburger) manages a lower level of celebrity, a kind of niche appreciation that allows him to tour, while his audience remains in hipper scenes where "alternative comedy" is not exactly understood, but appreciated. Despite the difference in social status, both characters yearn for what they lack - a family. Both have daughters - though in ENTERTAINMENT she is neither seen nor heard, rather talked to in voicemails and about in conversation - but their career gets in the way of being the perfect dad. Marco and The Comedian lack that basic support structure, that group of people who love you no matter what, because you are family. What these films unfortunately share is a reliance on (obvious) symbols and gesture to create meaning. Whether these are deliberately broad strokes against a canvas or incidental achievements does not matter. I love the ideas in both, the meditation on loneliness and the truth behind it, but their execution leaves me frustrated and cold.

THE WIZARD OF OZ comes up in conversation at or near ENTERTAINMENT's midpoint. It becomes more or less clear that Turkington's character - whose act consists of a kind of heartless hack comic insulting his audience for not appreciating him carrying his jokes such a great distance to arrive at their ears - is in need of a heart. He is the Tin Man. The film's opening shot of Turkington crouched inside the belly of broken, abandoned 747 makes this abundantly clear. He is a shell. The problem is, I don't fucking care. Films don't have to - and shouldn't - add up like math equations. During one particular tense onstage exchange, Turkingston's persona says, "I am literally plucking these jokes from my heart..." And though he sounds condescending in his delivery, that's the act. What he says is true and what he means (aside the indelicate metaphor) is that the distance from his heart to the pitiful audience at hand is nearly insurmountable. He is giving of himself and - as in MISTRESS AMERICA - that is all that he can offer. There is some other baloney about colors having healing powers and promoting happiness, vitality, and other positive states. Like everything else, its inclusion is gestural and emotionally on the nose in the same way that expositional dialogue is absolute death. I get what Alverson is going for, but I don't have to like it.

After the credits scrolled to an eye-rolling "Ave Maria," Trevor Groth came back onstage and - again, adorably - said: "Well, that was ENTERTAINMENT." Laughs and groans in equal measure, but both in a forgiving manner. He introduced the surprise (?) guest Neil Hamburger who told some jokes, then introduced Sharon Van Etten, who played some piano and guitar tunes. My compatriots schemed to leave sometime soon after the movie and so we all departed in the middle of her second or third tune. It was very important, we decided, to spend the next five hours club-hopping around Downtown Los Angeles, from the skeezy Galaxy Ballroom on Olive / 9th - a down-and-out pool hall and arcade (TEKKEN 3!) where middle-aged Latino men take numbers and wait for chubby girls to have "conversations" with them - to tragically hip The Lash on Winston St. where on this particular night a "Magical Unicorn Party" was taking place, and finally a very, very crowded walk-up apartment and rooftop party where I engaged in a wildly improvised tribal spellcast dance with a sweaty, dreadlocked white girl from London.

We returned home as the clock struck 3:00 AM. It had been a good night. And, as far as I know, nobody died.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon