Gravity’s Grayscale: Alex Ross Perry’s Cinema of Deaffirmation

The Color Wheel

By Michael Sicinski

One could make a long, sad list of everything wrong with American independent cinema today, but one of the worst things about so much of it is just how desperate it is to be liked. There’s an ugly tendency to simultaneously flatter an audience’s supposed good taste and breeding (“look at you, arthouse patron!”) and elicit its pity (“you wouldn’t hit a film with glasses on, right?”). Enter Alex Ross Perry, a young writer-director whose films exhibit the pungency of a ripe red radish, chased with a shot of Slivovitz. Thing is, Perry’s not above packing his wallop in a Scooby-Doo lunchbox. It’ll take a few minutes to realize just what hit you.

New York-based Perry has completed two feature films, both quite different, but united by a defiant sense of idiosyncrasy and stealthy rectitude. They represent the pursuit of less-than-apparent aesthetic agendas that embrace aspects of narrative cinema typically considered fundamental—character, continuity, story arc—in order to undermine their usual functions. This poses significant challenges to viewers and festival programmers alike, both of whom are more used to films that play either by mainstream or arthouse rules. By contrast, Perry’s cinema takes much more time and indulgence (i.e., more than ten minutes in the DVD player, in the case of programmers) than either is accustomed to affording even “difficult” films.

Consider his debut, Impolex, which world premiered at New York’s Migrating Forms festival in 2009. To an extent it is the story of Tyrone S. (Riley O’ Bryan), a US soldier assigned to scout around and retrieve unexploded German ordnance after WWII. But the film also operates as both a fantasia of memory for the lost, mentally “unstuck” Tyrone, and a kind of waking nightmare of flattened sameness. While ambling through the forest he sees his girlfriend Katje (Kate Lyn Sheil), whose spectral presence recalls a vernacular Solaris (1972). Tyrone also meets a (possible) fellow soldier (Ben Shapiro), a pirate (Bruno Meyrick Jones), and a talking, pulsating octopus (the voice of Eugene Mirman).

Some of these motifs may be sounding familiar right about now. Impolex is in fact a highly unconventional riff on (by no means an “adaptation” of) Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Perry zeroes in on specific elements and passages within Pynchon’s text and attempts a visualization that, though knowingly doomed to fail in some conventional respects, absolutely conveys the hard, immobile poetry of Rainbow’s prose. Endlessly fascinating yet never giving an inch, Impolex is the kind of film you’re not sure whether to put up for tenure or run away from in the bus station.

In a rather jarring about-face, Perry’s second film, The Color Wheel, adopts many of the outward trappings of the “Sundance” indie comedy/road movie. There’s a basic set-up: estranged siblings Colin (Perry) and J.R. (Carlen Altman) end up stuck together in unfamiliar surroundings when J.R. needs help retrieving her belongings after a nasty break-up. But, of course, don’t be fooled. The trappings of normalcy are the prompt for a very different journey. Like Impolex, The Color Wheel was shot in 16mm, although this time Perry opted for crisp black-and-white images, all the better to consign the title to near-total irony. The title is never addressed in the film, leaving it wide open to any number of possible readings. Given the film’s concern with endogamous vs. exogamous social relations, I’ve understood it in relation to crises of mixing and blending, the treacherous waters of like vs. unlike. (Perry says it’s actually the name of the first film he ever saw; however, upon investigation, there is no record of its existence.)

At first, The Color Wheel appears to be a kind of contra-mumblecore effort. The presence of certain post-mumble luminaries (Bob Byington, Ry Russo-Young, C. Mason Wells) definitely gets one thinking about the great lo-fi intertext. Over the course of the trip, we discover that Colin and J.R. are not your typical wisecracking 20-somethings in a snarky SXSW comedy. Plus, for the first reel or so, their attempts at humour mostly fall flat. Part of what distinguishes The Color Wheel is its focus on Colin and J.R. as a fraught social unit—their deeply awkward brother/sister rapport, which keeps getting thrown by circumstance into some rather unsibling-like scenarios. This tension is contrasted with their comic and disturbing encounters with the larger world: a redneck motel manager, some old high-school acquaintances, and a Kafkaesque cocktail party. We soon begin to recognize the real pain these two are carrying around. Their pathologies, the film argues, are unique; those all around them are crushingly typical. By the end of The Color Wheel, J.R. and Colin are somewhere well beyond the reach of cultural or cinematic domestication, as is the film itself.

Cinema Scope: Initially I was struck by the major differences between The Color Wheel and Impolex, and we can discuss those a bit as we go along. But eventually it occurred to me that they share at least one vital similarity. They perform the basic gestures of their respective genres (“the Sundance film” and “the literary adaptation”) in aggressively wrong ways. That seems to be the crux of their intervention.

Alex Ross Perry: I’d like to think they have more in common than botching their genres; maybe more accurately I am intentionally making a goof on the ideas of both of these tired, cliché-stuffed archetypes. I promise, there were hard decisions made!

Scope: Oh of course! Let me be more specific. The first time I saw Impolex, I didn’t know that you were working with tropes from Gravity’s Rainbow. But once I learned that, and went back, it was clear that you were specifically avoiding the elements that viewers have come to expect from an “adaptation.” Instead, your film operates like a set of blurred riffs on Pynchonian fragments that you thought could, in themselves, contain a larger world.

Perry: I see a lot of movies, and am very dismissive of many. I love conventional films; I love the clockwork precision of movies like that, but for the life of me I couldn’t force myself into such rigidity. It is more fun than anything to watch, but less fun for me to have to write, shoot, and edit for two years. What becomes more interesting to me, especially on my second lap around with The Color Wheel, is taking a type of film I can identify and understand and then filling it with enough nonsense that it becomes idiosyncratically personal. That’s a much more satisfying way to live with something for as long as it takes to finish one of these things.

I’d like to hope it does seem to hint at a larger world. I like to think that I can present viewers with a strange little movie that has all the trappings of something they are comfortable with—somewhat clear narrative, a character or two, locations, dialogue—and then take this sense of stability away from them and let them do some of the work. So I take two types of movies—an absurd WWII comedy and a young-people-road-trip—and remove almost everything that is like a safety net and leave people with the faintest of elements to feel familiar with. Now I have a movie I can spend several years of my life on, watch 60 times, and still feel excited about doing something else new.

Scope: Impolex has proven quite divisive, and I’ll admit that I really struggled with it at certain points. Over time I realized this was because of your perfectly appropriate cinematic approach to Pynchon’s prose style. Gravity’s Rainbow, in conventional terms, is “unfilmable.” But that’s only because Pynchon’s writing has a thick, sentence-to-sentence refusal of basic narrative motility. It moves in architectonic slabs, not in paragraphs or phrases. Similarly, Impolex is a film that, in its use of time and duration, feels incredibly “stuck.” Scenes hang, they don’t push us along an arc, and they refuse gestural sweep. That’s very different from The Color Wheel, which provides a convincing illusion of free movement.

Perry: I think an important thing to consider with regards to both films, but maybe Impolex slightly more so, is that I am not really working with the text of a specific author, but making a film in the style of an author whose work has been dismissed as “un-adaptable.” It’s true, you couldn’t make a film of most Pynchon novels. But I thought you could make a film with his comedy, his sense of structure, his appreciation for the inexplicable and the absurd, and I set out to do that. I did the same thing with The Color Wheel with another “un-adaptable” author, Philip Roth. People say you can’t make an honest film from one of Roth’s novels because it would be nothing but people talking, characters who only live inside their own heads, followed by unforgivable and reprehensible sex. Which is basically exactly what The Color Wheel turned out to be.

With the Norman Mailer films, specifically Maidstone (1970) but also Beyond the Law (1968), you get to see a film made by an immensely talented, singular author. Pynchon and Roth never directed films, but I like to think I learn valuable lessons from their novels regarding a uniquely literary way to tell a familiar story. Still, if Impolex were really in the spirit of Pynchon, it would have 40 characters in 73 minutes. I took only what I needed to tell the story the way I wanted to.

Scope: One of the aspects of Impolex that was hardest to struggle with, at least for me, was the fact that its putative protagonist, Tyrone S., is just as “lost,” if not more so, than any viewer would be. He mumbles his way through this series of semi-connected events—searching for the rockets, his encounters with Katje, Adrian, the octopus, etc. While we can draw lines and tangents between those events once we’ve seen Impolex in its entirety, Tyrone is not a guiding subjectivity. He’s not the “link,” psychologically. He’s just constantly there. Does this speak to some kind of anti-interior “theory of character” in your work, in some broader sense?

Perry: I guess so. You have just described more or less how I feel almost every day of my life. I think this sense of being simply “there” comes across as well in The Color Wheel, especially in the party scene. Colin is a closed book. We learn very little about him, his life, or anything, but I do still try to get viewers to sympathize with him. Maybe he seems sadder than Tyrone, or just more well-rounded. Either way, people don’t seem to care whether or not he’s in a room. The thing about loneliness as it pertains to Impolex is me trying to explore something like what it feels like to be abandoned, as though you could cease to exist without anybody knowing or caring. I think this is also a pretty nagging fear for both Colin and J.R. in The Color Wheel.

Scope: The comparison is quite telling. Whereas Tyrone (and the WWII-picture logic of Impolex) navigates this isolation by “sticking to the mission,” even when his mind becomes fuzzy about what the mission is, Colin and J.R. try to plaster over emptiness with sarcasm or worse. One of the things that tells us, early on, that The Color Wheel isn’t going to follow the carefree, hugging-learning Sundance road-movie template is Colin’s offhand comment about the size of black cocks. He keeps dropping this casual racism throughout the film, and you realize, “Oh! Maybe I’m not really supposed to like this guy…”

Perry: That is the way most people react to it, yes. I think somebody who speaks their mind and is comfortable enough to make off-colour jokes should be heralded as a hero, not ostracized. But yeah, I think that is the fifth line of dialogue and a good point for people with narrow minds about a young person talky movie to turn it off. Being able to fill the void with whatever kind of humour made Carlen and I laugh did make me wish I had given Tyrone a friend to wander around with and talk to. Like an old-timey ‘40s-style newsboy or something. Anyway, I don’t really care about or understand the compulsion to create characters that are likable or relatable. That would imply that people I meet in my life are interesting or know anything about likability, whereas they are usually empty abstractions, like Tyrone.

Scope: Well, just because Colin isn’t necessarily likeable doesn’t mean he’s not interesting. In fact, this is the point when The Color Wheel lets you know that it’s not going to be a typically ingratiating film, like a Michael Cera vehicle. I could liken the effect to the motel scene, when we see J.R. wearing the tacky “Who Farted?” T-shirt. The discomfort is thrown back onto the audience, since we have to question our own taste, and what we think is funny (or are willing to acknowledge that we think is funny). The effect is a bit like the faux-Asian buckteeth in a Jerry Lewis masterpiece, or Groucho’s joke about “the darkies” in Duck Soup (1933). And in The Color Wheel, eventually these “cringe moments” just keep building until they achieve a critical mass.

Perry: I’m attracted to the idea of forcing someone to question why they laugh at something. I think all of my favourite comedies of the last ten years, like the British version of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, does this in spectacular fashion. And yet when you try to do it with a somewhat lo-fi aesthetic, it’s suddenly not allowed. For some reason, an expensive sitcom can get away with more than a no-budget movie that was made for fun. Curb Your Enthusiasm has lots of amazing racist jokes, including a buck-toothed gag, kamikaze jokes, loads of insensitive black humour, yet I put in a joke where my character says that his sexual preference is only for white women, and of the 15 screenings of the movie I have been to, zero people have ever laughed at it. This probably has something to do with the liberal, PC crowd that attends festivals and their inability to laugh at something so insensitive, but the large black penis line tends to elicit some laughs.

Regarding the scene in the motel, though, I think there is something honest about a scene where two Jews are in a motel with a framed photo of Jesus above the bed that a brother and sister are being forced to share while they listen to loud sex in the next room, the sister wearing a tacky souvenir T-shirt and the brother wearing a 1983 Phillies world championship shirt. As you say, it builds up to something.

Scope: You raise several very pertinent issues. Although there’ve been a lot of different kinds of low-budget American indies in recent years, the mumblecore thing has dominated critical coverage. Even when that work isn’t earnest or PC, it certainly tends toward the passive-aggressive, with an unwillingness to stick strong personalities and tough opinions out there onscreen and let the audience sort them out. My first encounter with The Color Wheel was so bracing, in part because it seemed like a film that adopted outward trappings of mumblecore in order to annihilate them. In that respect, it’s much more like the harsh stare-down of something like Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003). The Color Wheel is aggressive-aggressive.

Perry: Glad to hear it. If there is one thing I really can’t stand in movies, it is utter sincerity. I think cynicism is sorely lacking from independent films. There is an edge that is missing, which confuses me because most of us are making films with no stakes. You can get away with anything when you raise your own budget as a passion project so I’m not sure why people seem unwilling to push things in a more aggressive direction. It’s almost as though they are preparing to be taken to task for presenting an audience with something that is going to make them uncomfortable, or angry, and want to avoid that from the conception of a project onward.

I’m much more interested in exploring a more unrepressed form of emotional expression, with characters who act on their inappropriate impulses, who say and do whatever they want and are willing to annoy or offend. And I don’t mean annoy in the “incidentally annoying yet charming” way that some filmmakers prefer. I mean annoying, in the “this person reminds me of somebody who really bothers me, and now I am thinking about my own life” sort of way. There are people who watch this film and say they find the characters uninteresting or overly irritating. Those people are assholes who either have the most inexplicably charmed lives or a deluded sense of self-satisfaction for crafting a world free of conflict, larger-than-life personalities, or actual human beings.

Scope: Thinking of the horrid yuppies Colin and J.R. meet at the party, those folks seem more “larger than life” than your two protagonists, in the sense that they’re working so hard to be “normal.” In fact, that scene struck me as a kind of funhouse-mirror version of Whit Stillman, an exposure of his films’ underlying conservative values and the way otherwise astute critics are willing to give those values a pass. Whatever shortcomings J.R. and Colin may have, they don’t deserve to swim in that shark tank of smug mediocrity.

Perry: It isn’t and never was meant to be a direct copy or a tribute; you are right to suggest that it is something like a Mobius strip of a film like Metropolitan (1990), or even the preceding hour of my film. That scene comes after about 30 minutes of handheld scenes all shot on the streets, and then I throw you into this rigid world of very even framing, unmoving camera, and the stillness and discomfort of the characters is meant to transfer to any viewer at that point. I think the main point of that sequence is to force the viewer to finally confront the fact that eventually, you are going to have to pity these characters. I think the funniest moment in the film is my pratfall when Colin re-enters the party, is tripped, and falls on his face. Nobody ever laughs at it. They feel for this guy, and that is the moment when anybody with any sensitivity will shift their sympathies. At one screening, somebody was heard to remark, “I think he is going to die” at that moment.

Scope: True, by that point there’s not a lot of ambivalence left. Whereas the scene between J.R. and her professor/lover (Bob Byington), which I think is one of the strongest in the film, is rife with ambivalence. He’s a pedantic jerk, but one senses J.R. has this dressing-down coming to her. Her interrogation at the party, meanwhile, comes off like a bunch of piss-ants rehearsing Dreyer’s Joan of Arc inquisition.

Perry: From a script stage, it was important to force people to come along with these crude characters on a similar journey of ups and downs. We introduce Colin as being very sad and pathetic, but J.R. is incredibly proud and boastful until her professor tears her apart. Some people would think, or have suggested, that 27 minutes into a film is much too late to have your audience finally feel sympathy for your main character. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got until one minute before the film ends to get the audience on the character’s side. Maybe that’s just me, but it is important for the rest of the film that we feel really bad for her. Ideally, at the party scene people are already on J.R. and Colin’s side and the audience can join them in feeling sorry for the pretentious schmucks who are acting so high and mighty.

Scope: So I suppose this brings us to the penultimate scene. As far as generating discomfort goes, the final rapprochement (of sorts) between J.R. and Colin moves in a direction well beyond anything we’d see in Jerry Lewis, or even the “provoc-auteurs” of the moment—people like Todd Solondz or Bruno Dumont. Strangely, you manage to go beyond those guys’ taboo-busting and present the situation as, if not normal, at least comprehensible. There’s no sense of you as a director enraptured with your own ability to shock.

Perry: Carlen and I always said we did not want to be shocking for shock value’s sake. As a result, it probably isn’t shocking to most people. We viewed it as a beautiful connection between two broken, damaged, fucked-up loners. I think by the end of the film, it is clear that “family” is a completely invented idea, and that these two kids have no regard or respect for the societal norms that have been placed upon them.

Scope: So you wanted the moment to feel liberating?

Perry: I think it is the only moment of happiness or unrestricted expression either character experiences in the film, and probably for a long time before it. We should all be so lucky.