The AFI FEST presented by Audi is fast approaching (3-10 November, 2011), and with much of the program already announced, a healthy number of interesting titles are already trailing good word of mouth from other North American and European fests. One such is Alex Ross Perry’s second feature The Color Wheel, winner of the Narrative Award in Chicago: following the oddball backwoods Pynchon riff Impolex (2009), he this time ditches surrealism and heads straight for mumblecore land.
One wonders when exactly American independent cinema became so focused on dislikable, no-hope twenty-somethings. If they fail entirely to engage with the business of growing up, clinging to the self-belief that they are somehow special, it must be in the name of showing us how they really are, yeah, so what? Some people are just like that (some people are also just bored, middle-aged suburbanites with no terrible secrets, majestic dreams or burning passions. Including the desire/need to make a film about themselves).
Perry seems well aware of the failings of millennial, navel-gazing cinema, but dives in all the same, with super-grainy b/w 16mm, the obligatory acoustic guitar-strumming soundtrack, and seemingly a third of the whole running time shot out of car windows. Mimsy sincerity is at least replaced by desperate, defensively cynical humor – witness the private, opaque irony of the title – and the attempt to invest a limp current trend with some backbone is certainly a relief. For this time out, his literary inspiration is the talky east coast self-hatred of Philip Roth (queasy sex obligatory).
Colin is a petulant defeatist; his slightly elder sister JR is a charmless, unsuccessfully-aspiring news anchor, whose unfounded self-belief is near unflappable. They are on a three-day road trip to retrieve her belongings from a finished relationship with her professor. The method is to make these characters as undeserving of sympathy as possible – they don’t even come out well from an early encounter with a creepy motel clerk, and JR’s “Who farted” t-shirt gives an exact measure of how funny she thinks she is; to reveal their obnoxiousness and self-delusion without excuse (Colin’s casual racism is apparently meant to be truthful, acceptable and funny); and then to subject them to encounters with lovers and ex-friends even more obnoxious than they are, as a way to force audience sympathy. To an extent, this actually works, in part for the fearlessness with which Perry denies the pair any redeeming qualities, and in part because Colin’s girlfriend, JR’s ex, and the high school friends to whose party they are by chance invited, are such unpleasant, patronizing people.
This makes slight nonsense of Colin’s seduction by the party fox – one expects her intentions to have ulterior, humiliating motives but no, apparently he was irresistible from the moment he arrived, in the film’s one true lapse of believability. It’s unlikely that Perry simply wanted to snog his girlfriend on camera, but that’s what he does. For he plays Colin himself, opposite co-writer Carlen Altman: lumbering, bug-eyed and generally derided, he’s a fairly appealing dullard, once one gets past the clever-cleverness and annoying voice (put on or not?). Whereas for all that Altman frequently looks like she stepped out of a New Wave movie (some business about a shirt collar clinches it), it’d be a forgiving audience who could warm to her, even in the face of repeatedly merciless put-downs.
Perry might have done well to give himself a little more distance. Evidently enjoying himself, he indulges the pair with plenty of goofing off, in the name of sibling chemistry. Pointed conversations alternate with throwaway nonsense. They’re meant to be antagonistic, and do exchange the harsh words away with which only siblings can get. But no real sense of the dislike or long-borne hatred that can pull against family ties emerges; Colin constantly reminds JR how their parents dislike her, but makes sure to distance himself from their remarkably unpaternal behavior, as reported; whilst JR is given several occasions to exhibit instinctive protectiveness for her little brother.
There’s no avoiding the denouement, signposted throughout the film, as they josh together more like lovers than siblings. It’s the most interesting part of the film, partly because it fails to convince as an act of forgiveness – despite the bickering, they get on just fine. Nor does it quite convince as a desperate act of cathartic self-pity: they both seem more or less inured to everyone else’s derision (Colin even admits as such), and their treatment at the preceding party does not seem that much worse than anything they’ve shrugged off before. The film is too slight (83m, including all those car window shots) to accrue the necessary mass, but the final act is basically the recognition by two lonely, obnoxious people that they are the only ones who can understand – and tolerate – one another.
And that’s the end of the movie. The long-take tension is successfully built, though partially damaged by a wobbly handheld push-in (of an obtrusive piece with some fidgety editing elsewhere), and the decision to downplay the shock value veers too much towards indie whateverness. This is a big deal, but most fatally of all the fall-out – or even silent avoidance of it – is completely elided. JR is allowed brief moments to fantasize, contemplate, and be overcome by emotion, but these are mere gestures. How Colin feels is anyone’s guess. The film skips right to their arrival home, and a flashed shot of the front door reopening closes the picture with cheap suggestiveness. It’s as though Perry wrote only half a film – how the pair deal with this would have been far more interesting than how they got there (as presented, at any rate) and a true test of his ability to have the audience sympathize with unlikable, damaged individuals.