THE BLACKEST ‘COMEDY’

The Comedy doesn’t look as abundant as it feels. Insistent enough and caustic enough to be great, it’s one of those films that looks like it hopped into the cultural river at the same moment it leapt out. Its inspiration is so fresh that The Comedy has the opportunity to legitimately comment on the culture it sprang from.

It’s also that film that some will hesitantly call a “character study.” I think character studies are mostly named such by the most innocent type of detractor: the type who intends praise. I don’t think I’m alone when I say it’s hard to get excited about what, your friends have told you, is a character study. But I understand grabbing hold of the phrase, once you see that The Comedy is being called a black comedy. I’d like to think that’s true, because that genre sometimes looks, lets face it, downright anemic: starved for a home run.

And The Comedy could be just that, a home run, a perfect entry. But if The Comedy is a black comedy, its a lot more of the black part. For a comedy it’s sometimes very thin on laughs. Like I said, the word is ‘caustic.’ But The Comedy is also uniquely corrosive. Corrosive to what exactly? To the culture. It corrodes the mainstream from the margins. It’s extreme in a way that confirms our suspicions about what’s missing

Tim Heidecker turns in a shockingly earnest performance as Swanson, a disaffected Brooklyn… is he a hipster? He’s 35, if he can be trusted at all (Heidecker himself is 36) and spends his life engaged in an endless, wandering provocation, that you– dear viewer– can experience 94 minutes of. I won’t lie to you. I won’t tell you that these 94 minutes will be painless: they’re frequently excruciating, and, as many have already noted, as antagonizing to the viewer as they are to the victims of Swanson’s antics. Swanson can be found, nursing scotch, loudly imitating a plantation owner, musing about using the skin of slaves to make furniture.

Which is (kind of) funny (strange,) because, most of the time we’re situated firmly with Swanson. It’s a special kind of humiliation: a cocktail of guilt-by-association, criminal apathy, self-loathing and cruelty. But, yes, a lot of humiliation. You could conceivably cut-down on the humiliation by drinking yourself to Swanson’s preferred stupor before viewing. I recommend PBR for this. I recommend scotch for this.

I haven’t really gotten around to what makes The Comedy so valuable though. It cuts through so much bullshit so quickly that you may not even notice what’s being destroyed until somewhere in the middle. The Comedy deconstructs irony as a credo by experience rather than logic. It’s an exhilaratingly cinematic approach. The only action Swanson can bring himself to take in the world comes in long, suicidal monologues: often thinly-veiled bouts of hate-speech. These monologues work on us experientially, rather than narratively. They bury us; we do not decode them. They do not describe; they are. This is the type of “language as action” that has been sadly absent from the cinema and historically abundant in the theatre. But of course, Rick Alverson’s approach is anything but theatrical. 

Alverson has founded a dialogue-heavy cousin of contemplative cinema, wherein we have time to contemplate because the content of whats being said is so steadfastly subtextual, so much a manifestation of being. Put another way, the monologues are so reliably thin in explicit communication of any internal state, that we can’t help but contemplate. If you can’t get past the antiheroics of The Comedy‘s “hero,” then this film will punish you. That’s why you can guarantee a lot of haters.

And Alverson is a great director in a lot of ways. He pays attention to detail. And you don’t get any of the tennis-match, anal-retentive shot-reverse shot dialogue that might absolutely destroy this kind of commentary. Instead the camera often commits to the victim, and then commits to Heidecker, and then, well, the sequence is over.

What he’s interested in is the way that the hipster credos of irony, critique (and maybe the craving to “be interesting!”) can be false gods. Taken to their extremes, they permit the worshipper nothing “real.” For those that choose to eschew every ideal, there’s nothing left to love, and hating everything isn’t exactly going to light up your life. It’s a type of nihilism that’s not as cool as it sounds. Maybe amoralism is the better word.

One deliciously relevant scene has Swanson talking to a group of black bar-patrons. Responding to their looks, he says that he looks like a “yuppie.” Even invoking the word yuppie has to remind us that Swanson is a million miles from yuppie-dom. He has their presumed soullessness to work on, but he’s working as a dishwasher for $7.75 an hour. When people speak disparagingly about the hipster, its usually for the same reasons they would speak disparagingly about a yuppie. The two are perceived as binary, but in reality there’s a superficiality implied by any lifestyle defined by its “look.” You’ve got to care about something real.

-Max Berwald

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