This past weekend, I plunged out of the light and into the dark to see several movies from the 19th Annual James River Film Festival. These included Henley, a 10-minute short by screenwriter Clay Chapman and director/screenwriter/producer Craig Mcneill, which screened along with Rick Alverson’s The Comedy. Both films went to Sundance this past year and got noticed, though The Comedy annoyed some people, and I’ll get to that.
“He’s too busy for us here in Richmond,” Chapman said, chuckling.
The two discussed the glamour of filmmaking: the Lyme disease, the heat, Cumberland Country residents' misunderstanding of what kind of movie they were making (no, it wasn’t porn). And then there was the Virginia regulation forbidding the wrangling a wild deer for the purposes of filming: This required a fortuitous visit to another film set near Woodstock, Va., where a deer trained for film was shot (cinematically) crossing a road. Leading Chapman to say, “You can shoot a deer in Virginia, but you can't shoot one. The New World filmed here though, and they wrangled a whole bunch of deer, so we ended up with something of a loophole.”
Indie filmmaking, no matter the scope, pulls in family, friends and associates. Often the only reward is getting the thing seen on a big screen, like the one at VCU's Grace Street Theater. But Chapman and Corey had some news — there’s possibility that Henley will become a feature film with a much bigger budget.
While Henley involves a young boy whose ambition of saving money perhaps for a trip — maybe to sunny Daytona, whatever that means to him — leads him to somewhat innocently do, er, unusual things, Alverson’s The Comedy is about not-so-young men, in their mid-30s, whose lack of empathy turns them into, well, monsters.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! are among the featured players, along with regional musician Liza Kate, in her second Alverson film appearance.
Heidecker and Wareheim’s comedy is perched on the edge of irony and creepy. Watching the dark picaresque events pile atop one another, it occurred to me that Alverson made a disaster movie. Except the disaster has happened off-screen — Heidecker’s character’s family is a mess — and is carried around within them like an infectious disease. I was reminded of Neil LaBute’s brand of the theater of cruelty: creating characters we begin to like, only to have the rug pulled out from under us by their inhumanity. Alverson cites as inspiration Lars von Trier's The Idiots — either disturbing or disturbed, depending on the critic. "If [The Comedy] had been edited differently, it could've been The Hangover," Alverson told the Byrd audience.
The Comedy, Alverson told me, is a horror movie. It’s about insensitivity, voyeurism, arrogance bred of entitlement.
Alverson is always interested in the audience's reaction. “Some screenings we’ve had, nobody chuckles. It’s just dead silent.” There were laughs from the Richmond audience, but they grew less amused and more uncertain as the movie went on. There’s no real blood, no gore, nothing blows up. Just unthinking, unfeeling people. In a way, the film somewhat resembles a non-costumed, non-sexy version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 18th century novel that during the 1980s was made into two films. Depicting the French ruling class’ enjoyment of degradation and humiliation, the book was written on the verge of the French Revolution but read and enjoyed by royal patrons who didn't see themselves in it. Likewise, Alverson says, some viewers at Sundance and elsewhere didn’t want to admit that these unpleasant people live in their world. But guess what?
I’ll follow up next time with documentarian Ross McElwee and some other observations.