AFI Fest 2011: The literate anxieties of 'The Color Wheel'
If the film media have been abuzz over the unusual brother-sister dynamic in the upcoming "Shame" or the resolutely incorrigible main character of the new "Young Adult," wait until local audiences get a look at the odd match-up of gratingly abrasive people in Alex Ross Perry's "The Color Wheel." The young critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, tapped by Roger Ebert for his revived "At the Movies," declared the film "the cinema of the future, I hope."
In the film, Colin (Perry) receives a call from his semi-estranged sister, J.R. (Carlen Altman), asking for a favor. Soon they set out on a wayward road trip to pick up her stuff from the apartment she had been sharing with a former professor. Along the way one bad interaction with other people leads to another, and soon the pair realize that, as much as they can't stand each other, they can't stand everybody else even more.
This ruefully acid-dipped send-up of the indie family comedy plays Saturday and Monday as part of AFI Fest. It will also screen on the UCLA campus on Tuesday as a double bill with Perry's first feature, 2009's "Impolex." (I will be moderating a Q&A with Perry at the UCLA event. It's free!)
"In a perfect world, I'd like to be able to hook people in and get people who are interested in a slightly transgressive film that's not a goofy, silly road-trip comedy," said Perry, 27, from his apartment in Brooklyn, "but I'd also like to hook people in who think they're going to get a very familiar, standard type of thing and sucker-punch them with something that they are not prepared for and are not prepared to be comfortable with."
The film, shot in shimmery 16-millimeter black-and-white by the talented cinematographer Sean Price Williams, takes place in a series of timeless diners and motels, an offbeat Americana still found off local highways. As the siblings bicker and banter, they reveal themselves as self-centered and snobbish but also surprisingly tender and sensitive toward each other despite their differences. Perry and Altman display a chemistry that could presumably not be faked, seeming to grow increasingly annoyed with each other.
"It's not not part of it," said Perry of whether the pair, who share screenplay credit, actually made each other a little nuts. "There was a specific set of sensibilities that we could come together on and a certain type of awkward comedy that we had together. If nothing else, it makes the characters seem like they do have a history together. And that works, ultimately."
"I guess we did drive each other crazy," added Altman, 28, in a separate phone call from elsewhere in Brooklyn, "in that we were just really anxious about getting it done. It did kind of feel like he was becoming my brother during the process. It felt like a bickering relationship, but it was a means to an end. I accepted that the process was kind of stressful."
Where Perry's "Impolex" was directly influenced by the Thomas Pynchon novel "Gravity's Rainbow" — "It's my book report on what scenes in a certain novel mean to me," he explained — for "The Color Wheel" he extrapolates the oeuvre of Philip Roth, looking to capture the same sense of literate sexual frustration and articulated anxieties. (Perry even commissioned a graphic designer to create a typeface for the credits and poster based on the covers of early editions of Roth's novels.)
At a time when movie-making is coping with technological changes and new developments at all levels, there is something radical about a young filmmaker choosing to shoot on film and making cinema as a response to literature.
"Both times I was reading a book and thought, 'I haven't really seen a movie that feels like this,' " Perry explained. "And that was as good a starting point as any. Roth's books are hilarious, first and foremost as comedy, and they are incredibly sad and very depressing. They are full of powerfully written language, beautiful monologues and internal monologues and conversations between people that are devastating, full of titillating, risque elements that are kind of exciting.
"I can't really think of a movie that has all of these things. It was interesting to say, I would like to watch that movie."
— Mark Olsen
Photo: Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman in "The Color Wheel." Courtesy of AFI Fest.