**** (4 Stars)
d – Alex Ross Perry
w – Alex Ross Perry, Carlen Altman
ph – Sean Price Williams
ed – Alex Ross Perry
p – Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Alex Ross Perry, Carlen Altman, Bob Byington, Kate Lyn Sheil
Friendship is a strange, beautiful thing. Its cause and correlation has always been difficult to decipher. If life is a competition to obtain the most prizes, then everyone else you ever encounter should be thwarted at every available opportunity, no? Unfortunately, this method has rarely equalled happiness. That pesky sensation “loneliness” is always hanging around.
This may seem shocking, but of the thousands and thousands of films that have been made in the last 120 years, most are about lonely people. What’s even stranger is the sibling relationship. Most children, upon being informed that a brother or sister is entering their lives, do not immediately warm up to the situation. Yet anyone who has one will be familiar with the primal love that purchases them for the rest of their lives.
To discover something is the desire of the connoisseur. Because my ear is always fiercely pressed against the critical door, it is very hard for someone like me to make said discoveries. The only thing I knew about Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel was that it won the 2011 Best Narrative Feature Prize at The Chicago Underground Film Festival. As I roundup the 2012 year in film, The Color Wheel was just another film on my to-do list. Under no circumstances did I envisage a masterpiece. The Color Wheel is a masterpiece.
It is a great film, now and forever. It is bold, beautiful, funny, tragic, blunt, lyrical, awkward, complicated and brilliant. It is made with such precision, such intelligence, such a fearless and daring eye for the future of the cinema, that it seems as if the film is both epitomising and summating the entire story of the cinema, sometimes within the same scene. On the idea of there being a “story” of the cinema, Claude Chabrol once said: “There are no waves, only the ocean.” He would have liked this film.
27-year-old Alex Ross Perry, the director, co-writer and co-star of the film, has made it with an aesthetic that is hard to describe. The closest thing I could compare him to would be a young Luc Moullet. He has shot the film in grainy, 16mm black and white (by Sean Price Williams), which results in images that are altogether haunting, dreamlike and constantly conspicuous. His characters, an obnoxious brother and sister (Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman), are, to be fair, terrible people. They make no apologies for their behaviour and almost seem to thrive on offending everyone they meet. Their banter, a rapid-fire, cruelly candid brand of derogatory and reciprocal mortification, has been rehearsed with such a tight discipline that it’s hard to believe the film was not completely improvised.
The basic plot involves J.R. (Altman) coaxing Colin (Perry) to accompany her on a road trip to her ex-boyfriend’s apartment so she can collect her belongings. Along the way, they humiliate themselves and each other at every available instance and alienating the audience in the process. What Perry is doing here is something I have never seen attempted before, let alone actualized. The film is just over 80 minutes long and Perry spends 70 of those minutes – with its chalky photography, jittery cutting, incisive dialogue, ugly characters, and general aesthetic shoddiness (one actor early on audibly flubs a line) – balancing on a tightrope of arty admiration and deplorable tawdriness, switching genres, veering from guileless social farce to non-sequitur Surrealism. You don’t like what you see, yet you can’t look away.
All of this culminates in the last scene before the epilogue, which is a harrowing and magnificent 9-minute shot of the two characters sitting on a couch and talking. The fluidity of this scene, the empathy that amasses, the staggering exquisiteness that shrouds it in existential wonder, as if the eye of the cinema is staring directly at you, is a wonder to behold. What happens in this scene will test you; how you react to it will reveal whether you should be apart of the story of the cinema, and also which part you should play. It took my breath away and I hope it does the same for you.
If I were to proclaim to the masses, Mr Perry has made a miraculous achievement that is not for all tastes. Many, many people will despise this film, which is a shame. Spending only 80 minutes of your time with it sounds durable to me. I can’t imagine a future when mainstream cinemas throughout the US and Australia will be showing The Color Wheel, which is downright criminal. But if these kinds of films by these kinds of filmmakers are being made, then all is right. All the film has to do is exist for the story of the cinema to live on, for there are no waves, only the ocean.