Director Alex Ross Perry’s last film, Impolex, transposed the literary play of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow into an aesthetic that resembled a film made by a 14-year-old who was somehow endowed with the ability to operate a 16mm camera, to unexpectedly effective, if minor, ends. His most recent film, The Color Wheel, makes something of the opposite move, taking the markers of the fast-decaying “mumblecore movement” — shitty camerawork, non-actors talking constantly about almost nothing, the lives of twenty-somethings, humor of the most uncomfortable variety — and pushing them in a self-consciously retro-literary direction.
Taking the 1970s self-discovery-via-road-trip model as his starting point, Perry sketches a dirt-simple narrative concerning a non-starter of a writer (Alex Ross Perry) helping his aspiring TV journalist sister (Carlan Altman, who also co-wrote the script) out of her ex’s apartment. In classic mumblecore tradition, each are consumed with the most prosaic of relationship problems, and the bulk of the action consists of a series of bitterly awkward encounters conveyed through dialogue that careens from comedic to deeply pathetic, often at the same time. For the majority of the running time, Perry is content to define his characters through their jobs and their tics, with no sign of any inner depth worth speaking of. But at long last comes the film’s vicious kicker of a final twist, and the non-details of the bulk of the film are suddenly reworked into a psycho-dramatic shocker that renders The Color Wheel deeply reminiscent of 70s chamber pieces, both shockingly gonzo and shockingly coherent.
If only it were possible to discuss The Color Wheel without discussing that twist. (An aside: I find that the culture of “spoiler warning” stands in the way of discussion and criticism. I’d love to spoil the whole thing for you all, if only to make a point, but I’ll wait for a later date to wage that war.) For now, it should be enough to describe it as deeply transgressive in a way that’s been, at least to my knowledge, totally foreign to the mumblecore genre up until now. Its implications are wide-reaching, both in terms of everything else contained in the film and in terms of the mumblecore movement as a whole. It brings out the insecurities at the core of the genre in a truly unsettling fashion, laying out a whole new terrain of incisive social ramifications for the generation the movement has documented so attentively.
It’s easy to get stuck on those final minutes because, in some ways, they retroactively justify elements of the rest of the film that initially read as overly mannered (much of the dialogue), pointlessly amateurish (the camerawork, the blocking of scenes), or just plain irritating. It’s certainly true that much of the pleasure of the moment does arise from the realization of the “point” of earlier, seemingly insignificant bits. But a closer viewing offers up many pleasures even in these earlier scenes, from a gorgeous sequence of the sister walking through a park that finds the bleakly emotive heart in countless washed out, lo-fi photo spreads, to the bluntness of a pre-coital conversation: “I’ve been wanting this since eighth grade.” “I’ve been wanting this since two hours ago.” Moments such as these point to Perry’s ability to work the raw materials of ultra-low budget filmmaking into forms that are successful as transient moments of effective cinema — even as he allows the rawness of the form to become enmeshed in a discussion of the implications of that particular mode of filmmaking. Most compellingly, this discussion never takes the form of a meta-narrative, but locates itself in film’s narrative, in its characters, their fears, and their lusts. If it’s a commentary on mumblecore, it’s only because it’s a comment on the sorts of people who populate its worlds.
With its ultimate insistence on character over meta-play, The Color Wheel is oddly retro-modernist for a film that’s being touted as “the cinema of the future” (to quote from Ignatiy Vishnevetskey of Ebert Presents At The Movies), but it’s hard to deny the power of a film that dares to make a bold statement from means and methods that typically devote themselves to the deliberately minor. Especially if it’s also funny.