Much like the work of generational cohort Michael Robinson, Alex Ross Perry’s films are steeped in a viscous cultural past—yet they demand that we find ways of talking about them that aren’t simply reports of how they alienate us with familiar citations. Robinson makes this challenge almost impossible; his shorts are mushroom-cloud collages of recognizable material (Thompson Twins hits, Little House on the Prairie clips) that intend to first intimidate and then disorient us with our own memories of the ‘80s. But Perry’s goals are less impish. Like the cartoon voice actor who might invent a new dialect by poorly impersonating a celebrity, Perry’s films start out as vague—maybe even shoddy—interpretations of other narratives before deteriorating into something that looks more like self-portraiture. I say “looks” because even if they’re devoid of autobiography, Impolex and The Color Wheel are authentically twentysomething circa the 2010s: part entrepreneurial, part self-loathing, and thoroughly bewildered.
The bewilderment is key, as it mimics our discomfort toward the looming literary and cinematic hand-me-downs we must now try to outgrow. Impolex poked fun at poking fun at Pynchon; Perry’s new The Color Wheel is lightly empowered by the precedent of Philip Roth’s discursive angst. The story of a bro/sis road trip to pick up the remnants of the latter’s latest broken relationship, the movie also reads like a nearly incestuous and temporally compressed When Harry Met Sally…, particularly in the screeching, third-act swerve into sibling acceptance. And a ramshackle high school reunion toward the end of the film unfurls like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as helmed by Mexican-era Luis Buñuel.
But Perry echoes these earlier films and books with comical clumsiness, as the aspiring writer-cum-couch potato he portrays, Colin, might ape William Faulkner or David Foster Wallace. (Perry’s self-casting is, by the way, one of those “entrepreneurial” attributes.) Indeed, the movie’s stylistic regressiveness is continually out-beaten by the protagonists, whose goals and follies are unspeakably old school. Colin wants to write, but can’t even seduce his girlfriend with words. His hilariously self-sabotaging sister, JR (Carlen Altman), wants to be a news anchor, but can barely get through a single expository sentence without a flub; she even disastrously dates her beige journalism professor in a paltry attempt to buoy her career. And yet these siblings aren’t insufferable or clueless. They stick up for one another as desultorily as they put each other down, they’re aware of how pathetic they are, and their quips are risible. (JR, after a meal in a diner: “I look like I had an abortion on my shirt.”)
The movie’s aesthetic similarly partners each of its most glaring missteps with an oxymoronic rejoinder that trumps it. Perry and Altman often sound like they’re either reading from teleprompters or going off-script and breaking character. The black-and-white 16mm cinematography and laissez-faire mise-en-scène struggle to emulate French New Wave stereotypes while the digital fonts and esoteric vintage music (the Lovelites!) signal 1970s exploitation flicks. The characters barely develop (they finally admit to not being disgusted by one another’s company after being humiliated in front of old classmates), but the film’s tone is the dynamic party here, warping under the steam of Colin and JR’s unnecessary suffering. This contrapuntalism is Perry’s way of rhyming form with contemporary human drama.
I get the sense that Perry is smithing a still-unfinished language—the digital and the analog are still too compartmentalized, for example, and his characters’ mannerisms might be too specific, too dated. But for some these handicaps may prove resonant. In the 9-minute unbroken shot toward the film’s end, Colin and JR bond over petty vocational insecurities and their mother’s scent-free vibrator, and the manner in which they un-ironically find common ground feels transgressive—effectively reversing the self-pity of Perry’s like-minded, like-aged audience into repulsively visceral sincerity. After the shock wears off, you might feel self-confrontational, as I did, and try to fix yourself outside the range of Perry’s judgment, but inside the breadth of his forgiveness. It can’t be done: that’s life. Perry may act confused about the past whose bounty he draws upon so freely, but he’s determined to confront the present, and to compel us to confront ours.