November 13, 2019

Alverson and Goldblum Bring Emotion in ‘The Mountain’

The Mountain, photo courtesy Kino Lorber

There’s a small refrigerator magnet on my frig that says, “Never apologize for your art.” It’s framed by a Jackson Pollock painting, the paint madly splashing all over the canvas. I live by that sentence. I suspect so does the brilliant and controversial director Rick Alverson. I had the pleasure of speaking to Alverson about his new film just out this week, “The Mountain.”

It’s a difficult, brilliant, emotionally draining film. It tells the story set in the ’50s of a wacked out lobotomist whose controversial procedures are increasingly disputed. However, Dr. Fiennes continues to cavalierly sever the nerves in his patient’s brain that gives them life and vitality and individuality. After the procedure, they shuffle along, a shadow of their former selves.

His younger assistant, Andy, has a job photographing the patients before and after, and journeys with him on his travels. Andy has his own problems. One parent is dead, the other having mysteriously succumbed to the treatment of Dr. Fiennes years ago. The film follows them along this twisted path, and had it not been for the delightful and charming presence of Jeff Goldblum playing the lobotomist, I may not have been able to emotionally tolerate the film.

Despite the highly unsympathetic doctor role he plays, Goldblum brings life and fun and interest to this dark journey. It’s funny, you know the doctor is a complete monster, yet with Goldblum playing him, you go along quite happily and willingly for the ride. That is one hell of an actor. The casting throughout is spot on.

This film, while brilliant, is frankly not for everyone. If you like dark, strange, twisted stuff, great. If you are interested in Avant guard, cutting edge filmmaking, it is just your cup of tea. But if you want to be entertained, and want an easy, escapist movie, head for the multiplex. Or better yet, stay home and watch TV.

This is not entertainment, this is art. Director Alverson implies we are all being slowly lobotomized, drip by drip, with the constant drone of “Make America Great Again” and the crap the Russians, even according to Mueller, are still doing to our elections and our country. This film uses film itself to expose this. Though it may not always be easy to watch, it is an important narrative on the entertainment industry and our culture as a whole. For that reason, it has merit, and importance, and is not to be missed by the courageous, freethinking hearts and minds brave enough to bear its message.

Jeff Goldblum, of course, is the wonderful Jewish actor and personality. He is charm personified. You will likely never see a more appealing sociopath on film.

Director Alverson, the director, is another matter completely. Born in Spokane, Washington 48 years ago, he is a director of import and singular vision. His prior films include Entertainment (2015) and The Comedy (2012). He also conceived, co-wrote and co-edited this film. The writing excels throughout.

Alverson is also a gifted musician. You can hear the unique and somewhat unsettling songs he put together with his long-time collaborator Emilie Rex, the singer/cowriter on many of his songs. Their latest album, Lean Year is unusual and unique, just like his films. Very much worth a listen. Look for the album Lean Year by the band of the same name. More music is coming next summer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Alverson by phone a few days ago. Below are excerpts, edited for clarity, of our delightful, challenging conversation.

I first asked what drew Alverson to this project. He said it was loosely based on Dr. Walter Freeman, the inventor of the lobotomy procedure. Essentially, Alverson said that’s where the historical relevance ends. He’s using the lobotomy procedure in the film to show how movies themselves can make us brain dead.

I next asked how his films are financed. He said they were financed by VICE Studios, the folks that make those great news programs that just break your heart.

Much of the film seems ad-libbed by the outstanding actors. To my amazement, Alverson said the film was mostly scripted. It seems so fresh and improvised! I was quite surprised.

Then I asked if it was emotionally trying to make such a difficult, off-putting, demanding film. Wouldn’t it be easier and more pleasant to make something more palatable to the audience? He said no, it was emotionally not hard, but technically, yes it was. He admitted to playing a tightrope cat and mouse game with the audience, inviting them in, then pushing them out. He said at an early age, he found that experience of being brought in and pushed out to be a very active experience. “Working without anesthesia” he called it. He says this is important for “whatever is left of the possibly dying medium of film.”

I asked about his background. He said he’s of Italian-German Catholic descent. Then I inquired about his interest in music. I wondered what was his primary instrument. He said he plays guitar mostly, and rudimentary piano. He also composes and produces songs as well. Which does he prefer, I asked, creating music or film? He said he likes both equally; he doesn’t prefer one to the other. He did add that filmmaking, like writing, is “torture.”

I asked how Goldblum came to be associated with the project. He said Jeff saw his previous films and they both wanted to work with each other. They are obviously on the same wavelength, as Jeff likes his work very much.

Alverson also has a new album coming out next summer. Check out his sounds that are as unique and original as his filmmaking. The album will be released through the Austin based label Western Vinyl, and will also feature his long collaboration with Emilie Rex, the singer/co-writer on the songs. It is as yet untitled, although Alverson said it might possibly be called Sides.

For the adventurous, I highly recommend this film, especially if you are a fan of the unique, offbeat and Avant guard.

Thanks to Alverson for the interview, one of the most challenging I’ve ever conducted; and for this important, highly unusual, and brilliant film.