Rick Alverson on Jeff Goldblum with Tye Sheridan in The Mountain: "He is using the boy as a refractive mechanism to validate himself, to show his worth."
In the final instalment of my in-depth conversation with Rick Alverson on The Mountain, he reveals that he is a fan of the films of Robert Bresson, Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont (Bernard Pruvost in Li'l Quinquin), and Claire Denis, and why Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker and John Cassavetes' A Woman Under The Influence are "huge" for him. He names Udo Kier as Frederick being the body of The Mountain, Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Fiennes the mind, and Denis Lavant the spirit, with Tye Sheridan's Andy as the son, and credits Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies as an influence for one of the numbers in the film.
Rick Alverson on The Mountain: "Essentially, the film is separated into mind, body and spirit." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The Mountain, co-written with Person To Person director Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O'Leary (The Comedy), shot by Lorenzo Hagerman (Entertainment), follows a boy called Andy (Sheridan) from life with his father (Kier), a demanding ice skater, to becoming the photographer/assistant of Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum), travelling lobotomist, on to meeting shaman Jack (Lavant) and his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross). The encounters on the road resemble those of an ancient fairy tale and the heightened, faded images are beautiful and eerie.
Kier, Goldblum, and Lavant are never less than fantastic in their portrayal of modes of crazed, unreliably self-assured masculinity. The car radio croons "Baby my heart is calling you." When Andy trails the doctor into the ferns and moss, distant thunder is rumbling once again. Perry Como's voice will take you to the Home on the Range.
A hotel, all red and claustrophobic, opens up to a breathtaking lake view. There is so much promise in locations, and Alverson uses them effectively as a lure. You may find yourself wondering, if the mountain is a holy mountain and what on earth that could mean.
Anne-Katrin Titze: The main character played by Tye Sheridan, you surround him with three men.
Rick Alverson: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Tye Sheridan as Andy in The Mountain
AKT: The Holy Trinity, wow. Who's who? The three actors are fascinating. There is Udo Kier singing "Am Brunnen vor dem Tore", being an ice skater, having his Busby Berkeley scene. He is God Father?
The second one, Jeff Goldblum, falling from grace every step along the way. I'm mixing the imagery here completely. And then there's Denis Lavant as the shaman. How did these three come about? How did you construct them?
RA: Me struggling with metaphors and reading of cinema. Cinema is just so … we read it to prevent ourselves from being vulnerably changed, which is, I think, what we truly deeply desire. But it's difficult. So we prefer to intellectualise and read a film. And go through a checklist of: Is it safe? And is it conforming to my expectations of a genre or a certain kind of consumer promise?
And if it does that, then we become vulnerable and we have a great ride. It's like an amusement park. People become very angry when they become vulnerable and then it doesn't conform to those promises. So this idea of reading a film, of saying this is that, this is that, and then intellectualising it, saying okay I got it, and then compartmentalising prevents us from having an experience.
Susan (Hannah Gross) being examined by Dr. Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum)
AKT: The Holy Trinity was nowhere in my notes. You said it.
RA: Because me struggling with metaphors and reading films like literature, I started to realise, oh it's a grammar, it's a default, we're conditioned to do this. It's part of the material now of cinema, so I have to work with it. It's silly not to work with it. So it is constructed with these sort of naive rudimentary structures and metaphors.
Essentially, the film is separated into mind, body and spirit. Specifically, body, mind, and spirit. Each of the men represent the two surrogate fathers. The body of the film being Udo, and the mind being Jeff and the spirit being Lavant. That was part of the approach there.
AKT: And all of them impossible fathers.
RA: They form a mountain, a peak that is unknown. Mathematically, you know. There are three points in it.
AKT: And for women, the choice is, you are either Margaret Hamilton or Dina Merrill?
RA: Ha, ha, ha. Yeah. He's [Goldblum as Fiennes] compartmentalising.
Rick Alverson on Udo Kier as Frederick singing Schubert: "That was a childhood song of Udo's."
AKT: Jeff Goldblum's performance - how it develops, how it envelops us is great. His womanising, hand in glove with performing the lobotomies. And the impact on the boy, I just like to call him the boy.
RA: Yes, that's good.
AKT: The boy sees how this surrogate father is acting on the road.
RA: He is also performing for the boy.
AKT: Performing masculinity.
RA: Yeah, he is using the boy as a refractive mechanism to validate himself, to show his worth. And when the boy discovers the fractures in his worth, he becomes increasingly problematic.
AKT: The physicalness, the tap dancing, I loved those scenes. Also later on Denis Lavant's spiritual dance.
RA: Oh good.
Rick Alverson on Tye Sheridan as Andy with Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Fiennes: "When the boy discovers the fractures in his worth, he becomes increasingly problematic."
AKT: They pulled me in, the way a great musical can. Although this is so much the opposite, your Busby Berkeley number. It's not the comfort that you were talking about, that I felt.
RA: It wears those clothes and masquerades as the comfort.
AKT: Yes, it masquerades as the comfort and shakes you.
RA: There's so much content out there and it's so validating and so reinforcing and so intoxicating and so anaesthetic. It isn't problematic, it isn't dysfunctional in the way that life is. I think it's necessary for our exposure, for us to wrestle with something. That's why I got into this business to begin with, is because I saw films that I struggled with and that stuck with me and that then I used as sort of the equivalent of REM sleep.
They were lessons about how I was exorcising my - in the safe privileged space of the theatre or the living room - exorcising the disconnects and the muddy waters of interacting with the world. And it felt like vital and useful. It's like a real tool that's a shame that we don't use. We just use it as a comforting mechanism.
AKT: What were some of those films for you?
Rick Alverson on Bruno Dumont's films: "They're subversive." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
RA: I mean, Stalker was huge for me because all of its …, [Andrei] Tarkovsky's Stalker. A Woman Under The Influence is huge for me. Because of all of its dysfunction, socially and formally. The thing is a mess in a way that feels very alive. A lot of that sort of stuff.
AKT: Any others than those two?
RA: I'm a big fan of Bresson. In recent years, the past like 15, 20 years, the whole French extreme kind of cinema interested me a bit. Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, and Claire Denis, and these sort of folks.
AKT: Bruno Dumont's musical scenes - there's a similarity!
RA: I just watched Li'l Quinquin and those for the first time.
AKT: Aren't they wonderful?
RA: I love 'em, yeah.
AKT: Dumont's films in a way, at their best change how you interact with the world.
Susan (Hannah Gross) with Andy (Tye Sheridan)
RA: They're subversive. I mean, like [Bernard] Pruvost, the actor who plays the commander [Commandant Van der Weyden] in Li'l Quinquin. His form of Tourettes, I guess, his ticks, they just tickle you in this very human way.
And he's so beautiful and vulnerable. And suddenly he's a bigot. And we are culpable, which feels very vital, that sort of thing. For us to be in the shoes of a bigot, is something that only this sort of privileged space of cinema and television can do. I think it's useful.
AKT: One of my favourite scenes in Li'l Quinquin, I don't know if you remember, it happens early on, is when the grandparents throw the dishes in the house.
RA: Oh yeah, that's great. I love that.
AKT: There's a shot in front of one of the hospitals they, Andy and Dr. Fiennes, visit, where you placed the patients on a rock, scattered like mushrooms.
Dr. Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) in the woods of The Mountain
RA: I find it kind of grotesque that we have historic dramas that pretend to give us access to a period. Even though we say this is just a film, people speak about it like "Oh I know that period" and they can even argue about that period, based on these fantastical recreations. Because they were so saturated in the intoxicant of dramatisations. You're totally in the thing, trusting it and being shaped by it.
We believe that we've seen the past and we believe that we've been in these hospitals. I sort of wanted that to break down. I wanted it to feel like a wax museum, or paintings. It's more in the dream space. I wouldn't dare and recreate the hell in those institutions. It would be a disservice to those people. I mean, Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies, we sort of reproduced one of the - for all intents and purposes - one of the numbers that's in that film.
AKT: I know of it, of course, but I must admit I've never seen it.
RA: It was his first film, kind of pushed aside because institutions didn't want anybody to see it, till '92 or something. It's a pretty accurate depiction of what's left over from that period in American institutions. It's harrowing.
Rick Alverson on Catherine Breillat's films: "In recent years, the past like 15, 20 years, the whole French extreme kind of cinema interested me a bit." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: At the beginning of The Mountain, there is this trope of German-ness through Udo Kier. He sings the Schubert song. The painting of the mountain landscape. Is there a special meaning? They eat porridge for breakfast, he has it with blueberries, the son without. Is there some forest fairy-tale longing of German Romanticism?
RA: I mean, there's definitely something about the old world. I have German heritage. My great-grandparents came from Baden-Baden. There's something about that.
AKT: Did you know the song? Did they sing the song to you?
RA: Udo sang it. That was a childhood song of Udo's. We went over a bunch of things. He had a lot of access to it. It was great. Sort of romantic for him.
AKT: So it's the personal connection, nothing more?
RA: It's sort of the idea of the old world. The majority of the DNA in America - you look at the maps of the imprint, and it's all Germanic. I mean every state, it's crazy.
AKT: It was rumoured that German was almost voted as the official language of America, once upon a time. And English won. [This is the Muhlenberg Legend - and legends always have to be told as truth] You've never heard that?
RA: Wow, no.
AKT: It fits into your argument. Use it!
Read what Rick Alverson had to say on Denis Lavant's threshold move, Disney, interrupting the trigger, and music in The Mountain.
The Mountain is in cinemas in the US.