Same Old Song
by Jeff Reichert
The Color Wheel
Dir. Alex Ross Perry, U.S., Cinema Conservancy
Shot on grainy, jittery, slate-gray 16mm, Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel is a rare issuance from the lost generation of young American filmmakers in the fin du cinéma age that looks and feels “like a real movie.” Gone are the sub-porn lighting and ratty, carelessly employed DV aesthetic. Also sent packing are characters defined solely along the downward-gazing shoe-shuffling improvisatory awkwardness spectra—Perry’s antiheroes are quick to reach for the well-phrased, biting insult, and even quicker to retort in kind. As well, the now-familiar Casio-heavy friend-rock scores have been ditched in favor of vintage sounds; someone involved in this clearly meager production went to the trouble of choosing and licensing actual tunes that help buttress mood and tone. From the bold serif-y title cards on down to the loose-limbed road-tripping narrative, everything in The Color Wheel’s 83 minutes feels, thankfully, like the result of careful choice, but also—and somewhat regrettably—the choice to further the zeitgeist’s ongoing project of humping much-mythologized “seventies American cinema” to death (Perry’s film also seems to make half-hearted gropes towards nouvelle vague esoterics like Garrel and Moullet for the sake of variety). This is all to say that the textures here aren’t altogether unpleasant, even comfortable in their cinephilic familiarity, but never particularly surprising.
JR (Carlen Altman) and Colin (Alex Ross Perry) are half-siblings in their late twenties, and their easy physical intimacy and patterned verbal sparring suggest a life’s worth of warmly shared memories and unrepressed disgust. JR’s slightly older, struggling to become a television news anchor, and has requested Colin’s assistance in moving her things out of the house she shared with her lecherous broadcast journalist teacher before a recent falling out. For his part, Colin, who once wanted to be a writer, before deciding that aspiring to anything is a posture worthy of ridicule, has settled down with a lame girlfriend, Zoe (rendered in too-broad strokes by Ry Russo-Young), and a job as copywriter for focus groups. He’s rightfully baffled as to why JR needs his assistance moving her things from his former professor’s house, and repeatedly lets her know just how much he, and the rest of the family, “hates” her, but agrees to help out of a feeling of brotherly duty. As he explains to his annoy(ed/ing) girlfriend: “You don’t have siblings, so you have no frame of reference.”
After kicking off with an intimate, obscure morning-after prologue, the film’s first fifteen minutes cleanly crosscuts between the pair driving through the anonymous and ambiguously beautiful landscapes of the middle-Atlantic interstates and JR’s early arrival, which puts an end to his painfully unsuccessful attempt to seduce Zoe before leaving for a few days. The siblings’ immature bickering immediately sets the tone for the stream of mounting annoyances and vituperation to follow. As we’re shuttled between DP Sean Price Williams’s lovely road imagery to the verbal sparring back at the family manse (Colin still lives at home, to save on rent he says) viewers might find themselves pleased to be in the grip of recognizable filmmaking choices, even if the moves themselves may not be particularly spry. At the very least, the sharp cuts suggest a richer, more obviously cinematic sensibility.
As The Color Wheel progresses, it lapses into the kind of conversational longueurs that have become the hallmark of that mini genre-which-shall-not-be-named—and of which, it should be acknowledged, The Color Wheel only shares scant bits of DNA, and mostly in its less carefully scripted sequences. A flubbed line reading from a non-actor in a motel leads to a (hopefully) improvised showdown between JR and her douche-bag professor, and before long Perry plunges into the kind of awkward, riotously unconvincing party sequence that’s been oft staged in little films shot nationwide from Portland to Williamsburg. (One wonders in these scenes why so few filmmakers seem to have considered the benefits of sound design—movies don’t need to sound like five people in a room even if that’s all they are.) Perry’s film works best when its talky bits stick to a rapid patter that feels the result of careful improvisation (Altman shares with him a co-writing credit), as opposed to being the filmed improvisations themselves, or when it breaks into reverie—JR wandering in a sun-dappled park, in large sunglasses, looking like a real movie star (with her manly voice and quick wit, could Altman grow into our Mae West?), provides a welcome respite as the film grows increasingly slack.
By the time JR’s lost her childish final argument with her professor (the most tiresome scene), and she and her brother exit stage left cloaked in defeat, it might be clear that Perry’s investment has never been in tying up this ostensibly central narrative thread. (Further evidence: note just how empty the—count ’em—two boxes Colin’s been recruited to help move appear to be as the pair descends the stairs.) In fact, it’s at about this point that the film seems to lose its slender grip on reality. The Color Wheel is more preoccupied with sex, and for those who’ve been paying attention, it’s something that’s also been dogging JR and Colin all along: from the Christian motel owner who demands the pair kiss to gain entry as a “married couple” to talk of first erections, molestation, sperm counts, vibrators, perverted pseudo-uncles, and more, it’s all the pair seem to be able to discuss without sniping at each other. [Spoiler alert] You might not find it wholly surprising, then, that the sibling reconciliation Perry feels this family road trip drama requires takes the form of wholesale drunken fucking, even though this attempt at some kind of queasy genre subversion registers less as valid provocation than an outburst of juvenilia. To quote a recent New York Times profile, “Mr. Perry admitted that he took a sadistic pleasure in ‘making a goof’ on a clichéd genre and ‘abusing the expectations’ of audiences.” (If Tilda Swinton’s offspring from We Need to Talk About Kevin had, instead of filling his classmates full of arrows, earned a degree from Tisch, this is the kind of misbegotten decision he’d pepper his work with.) It’s deflating rather than jaw-dropping.
Though Perry’s brother-sister duo seem pathologically addicted to loathsome behavior and constantly spit hurtful words at each other, there’s a studied airlessness throughout The Color Wheel that keeps all the jabs from landing too hard. It’s not exactly that Perry pulls his punches—more that, in the end, it seems like his heart’s not really in all the vitriol, a feeling enhanced by every romantically lingering image of a hangdog, doe-eyed Colin gazing upon the sister he’s clearly loved for years. Swanberg’s preening douches and Bujalski’s feckless weenies are treated more dispassionately, and for all the critical praise centered around this film’s unrelenting irritative qualities, it could learn a thing or two about trying an audience’s patience from Dustin Guy Defa’s recent, obstinately one-note Bad Fever. In its ultimate affection for its oddball, damaged, aspirational characters, The Color Wheel isn’t so much the reactive, oppositional fable its creators might imagine. And in its incestuous finale, Perry has merely checked off yet another hallmark of the contemporary American indie film: after time spent meandering, finally introduce a potentially interesting and perhaps irreconcilable complication, and then slink quickly into the credits.