The Color Wheel
Road trip far off the beaten path
Alex Ross Perry is a filmmaker who should make us feel good about the altered state of American independent movies. He’s 27. He shoots in black-and-white on 16mm for, what to my eyes, is no money. He has ideas. He’s working outside the system. He’s what independent movies once were, idiosyncratic, creatively pure. His debut claimed to be an adaptation of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” It was called “Impolex,” shot on video, and was to “Gravity’s Rainbow” as snow peas are to snow.
His second movie, “The Color Wheel,” is a road trip involving a graduate student named Colin and his estranged younger sister, J.R., respectively played by Perry and his co-writer, Carlen Altman. It culminates with them lying together in momentary defiance of platonic fraternity. So “The Color Wheel” is a comedy with incest, but what precedes that moment is a collection of sparring scenes between Colin, J.R., and whoever they meet in their travels. (The movie was shot in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Vermont; Perry’s from Bryn Mawr, Pa.). Their sardonic banter, blunt putdowns, and attitudinal everything refuses to relent — they usually banter at the same time. It’s like watching two blogs drive each other crazy.
Altman is a brunette with big, wide eyes. In Perry’s black and white, she has the smoky, evocative beauty of an actress in 1974. It’s more important that Altman’s manic, naturally caustic, loquacious approach to comedy works. She’s original — the obnoxious sexpot. Perry has the mewling, adenoidal voice of some NPR hosts. It’s imbued with Michael Cera’s preadolescent sweat. You don’t hear him talk about “the massive black-man-size erection I made just for you” and think about sex. You think about running your hand over a box grater. (J.R.’s snide ex, a journalism professor, is almost unsexier.)
I’m not entirely sure what Perry’s thing is as a filmmaker. He wants to impart discomfort, be it with a cheeky espousal of racism or taboo sex or laugh lines about abortion, molestation, or turning on perverts. “The Color Wheel” is as much about articulating some piece of himself as it is about how an audience receives him. You can feel the movie building away from the whiny comedy and toward something more emotionally raw then something sexually weird.
The incest isn’t funny. It’s serious — and sensual, and the one moment the filmmaking and ideas and verbal jabbing achieve something bold. These two bickerers are trying to plug the hole in their relationship with sex. It’s a nice conceit. Sadly, the movie keeps throwing the inevitable in our faces. Plus there’s a prevailing shallowness to these people that feels more like a shortcoming of vision than any generational commentary. Even so, when the inevitable happens, what’s shocking is how tender it is.
The enthusiasm for Perry feels idealized, romantic, and nostalgic. There aren’t enough of these truly independent movies anymore. “The Color Wheel” is practically walking itself around to America’s art houses. In The New York Times on Sunday, Dennis Lim reported that the movie was rejected by Sundance and South by Southwest, which, it must be said, is a badge of honor. Thousands of directors practically kill themselves to get in. But some spurned films might be more watchable than the crud and grist and fodder that wind up on the schedules. At this point, a rejection could be part of the marketing (“Too interesting for Sundance!”). That’s how certain studios used to get us to see movies — by bragging that, say, they were banned in China.
However, it must also be said that were I some festival programmers, “The Color Wheel” might have me at a loss. It’s an almost-iconoclastic mockery of some of the pseudo-independent stuff they show. In that regard, Perry should be commended and encouraged. You now just want to see where else he can take that fidgety iconoclasm.