Two of the most renowned postmodern films are Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Benoit Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog. These two films provide a censure of hyperreal violence to an audience who are somewhat willing to listen – the arthouse crowd who are challenged and disturbed but not life-altered by the films. It is a shame that the mainstream – the real target of Funny Games and Man Bites Dog – would never watch a foreign-language, post-structuralist film of that nature (even Haneke’s 2007 shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games in English starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth flopped at the box office). Writer-director Rick Alverson’s The Comedy too was a financial failure; its niche is so narrow, resulting in box office earnings of a mere $40 000. Perhaps unlike the aforementioned postmodern films, The Comedy has no delusions of targeting and attacking the mainstream. The only people who would ever watch The Comedy are the people who are being critiqued by the film, which makes it so thematically acute, affecting and economically doomed.
As a result, The Comedy is one of the most underrated films of the 21st Century. Somewhat paradoxically, I want more people to watch The Comedy, but I’m almost certain that most people will find it either pretentiously elitist or unrelated to their lives. Like Man Bites Dog, it is a very funny film, but few people will be amused. More than a simplistic anti-humour one-liner, Alverson makes you choke on your laughter as he postulates a wryly comical setup and extrapolates it to excruciating lengths, deconstructing the vapidity and futility of irony in the face of genuine worldly fears. Tim Heidecker (the titular Tim of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) stars as Swanson, an aging Williamsburg ‘hipster’ on the precipice of inheriting his wealthy father’s estate. Swanson lives on a yacht in the Hudson River, acquires a job washing dishes that pays $7 an hour and engages in activities of recreational cruelty and mock sincerity with his “friends” – a life of infinite jest and eponymous comedy.
Alverson questions whether irony is an excuse for offense as part of his broader, universal investigation into the obscurity of meaning. We live in a pseudomodern era, consumed by the emotional vacuity of social media, in which the tone and intentions of someone’s words and actions are unclear. We constantly have to discern whether the people around us are sarcastic or sincere in their behaviour. This is, as I have dubbed it, the post-ironic condition. There are a number of scenes in the film that illustrate this. At one point, Swanson, speaking in a feigned Southern accent, pretends to be a slave owner, murmuring remarks that, attached to the context in which Swanson instils them, are racially insensitive. We never really perceive Swanson as being genuinely racist; we presume that he is ironically so. And yet this veneer of irony is presented as equally unacceptable and detrimental.
Swanson’s entire life is performed – he is the Hamlet of our post-postmodern society, and he is never excused by the filmmakers. Compare this to the insipid, asinine irony of Martin McDonagh in Seven Psychopaths; McDonagh seems to believe that self-reflexivity excuses the flaws of his films. For instance, the characters in Seven Psychopaths remark about the lack of strong female characters in Hollywood films, but McDonagh does nothing to remedy this by ensuring that all his female characters are flat and disposable. Unlike Seven Psychopaths, The Comedy is not blatantly metatextual, though its self-consciously hypocritical title indeed establishes a narrative expectation for the audience before subverting it. While it was self-awareness that saved the protagonists in Scream and dictated the victory of the perpetrators in Funny Games, the characters in The Comedy are rendered unwittingly nihilistic through their empty, facile interactions. There is not one earnest moment between the friends. Their gatherings involve Pabst Blue Ribbon (of course) and yelling, with depths of sarcasm, about how much they enjoy the company of each other.
At one point, they exhibit their spurious iconoclasm through sacrilege, mocking the sincerity of parishioners at a local church. His friends, played by Eric Wareheim (the titular Eric of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) and James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), start dancing in their pews. For a while Swanson refrains from joining in the disrespect; he is offered a chance for redemption. But he neglects it, ultimately singing in satanic tones “you are in the demon’s house”. When someone is overdosing in front of him, he has the opportunity to rescue her, and yet he observes her near-death experience with a wry detachment. Swanson and his friends, especially by the conclusion of the film, are rendered wordless, speechless and emotionless. Looking through slides of old photographs of each other, with pornographic images spliced in the middle, the companions look on in silence; they have physically run out of their ability for insincere mockery, and they have little left in their lives. Indeed, James Murphy’s beautifully self-satisfied asyndeton in ‘Losing My Edge’, listing the obscure bands whose records he owns, is inverted; he is silent for the majority of the movie.
The film was clearly shot on a 5D DSLR, but the resulting noise, greyscale palette and washed-out aesthetic has strange tonal beauty. Summertime New York is photographed with a hyperdigital harshness and voyeuristic grime that evokes the neon sordidness of Las Vegas as portrayed in The Hangover (a far more banal film about men acting younger than their age starring Tim Heidecker quasi-doppelganger Zach Gallifanakis). Indeed, Alverson’s samples of William Basinski’s ambient ‘Disintegration Loops’ carry a poetic thematic resonance, substantiating his portrait of a city in moral, digital decline. ‘The Disintegration Loops’ consist of a series of albums created from the sounds of deteriorating magnetic tape recordings transferring to a digital format. Basinski put the music to the elegiac footage he filmed of the last hour of daylight on 9/11, with Manhattan crumbling and decaying in the foreground. 9/11 can be seen as the day irony died; when our sardonic rituals were rendered feeble in the face of genuine global threats to our Western security.
The oft-used but ill-defined term ‘mumblecore’ has come to denote a subgenre of smug, elitist films that reinforce the hegemony of Whiteness within a tapestry of low production values and naturalistic dialogue. Alverson, with his neo-sincerity, effectively nullifies exnomination. Swanson is the embodiment of Whiteness, not only through his casual racism and espousal of gentrification. He is a normative, wealthy, White male positioned as the neutral signifier for a fading generation (a generation that is, indeed, losing its edge). Yet the character of Swanson is elevated above mere metaphor, as Heidecker’s extraordinary performance reveals the subtleties and nuances of his complex character. He is gentle and astringent, sharp and disconnected as he glides through his performance without ever indirectly breaking the fourth wall. He is constantly committed to portraying this condemnable, but relatable, New York City dweller.
If you find Swanson’s instruction to a woman to make bread from the yeast in her vaginal infection offensive, then that is exactly the point; it is not the tone that the film is trying to adopt. The characters in the film are smug; the film itself is not. It is an utterly sincere film about a totalising absence of sincerity; the sort of film that may have prevented David Foster Wallace’s suicide.
The Comedy proves that we hate most in others what we perceive in ourselves. Both fable and human story, The Comedy is thus far the only great work of post-ironic filmmaking.