Don’t Believe The Color Wheel’s Promise to “entertain you with wit and charm the entire ride”
It’s hard to think of a movie more undeserving than Alex Ross Perry’s ultra-indie narcissistic exercise ‘The Color Wheel’ having finagled even limited American theatrical distribution. In the most obvious of many student film-style missteps, the physically off-putting Perry casts himself in the lead as Colin, a going-nowhere 20-something living comfortably with his parents in suburbia, who is coerced into a road trip by his flighty sister J.R. (Carlen Altman), who’s out to get her stuff back from the professor she’d been sleeping with. These siblings don’t like each other much. Or do they?
Though Altman is credited as co-writer, the movie swells with Perry’s grating pathology. J.R. is purportedly Colin’s foil and antagonist, but increasingly she becomes only a vessel for the director’s wish fulfillment, and ultimately a literal mouthpiece for his not-so-secret fantasies of self-worth.
With his flaccid face and scaly, scrotal voice, Perry challenges the viewer to remain in the theater. Is it intentional sadism, or just self-absorbed cluelessness? Either way, viewers are subjected via frequent close-ups to his damp, misshapen mouth vomiting witless dialogue, vomiting vomit, and gnashing on several women’s lips in an activity his character describes as “making out.” Perry wants to disturb you with his story’s transgression, but really he just grosses you out.
The problem isn’t ugliness itself, and it isn’t isolated to Perry’s movie. ‘TCW’ is another in a line of anemic American indies (some more-or-less sitting under the “mumblecore” banner) that feature physical ugliness, but give it no meaning, no relationship to beauty (as, say, with the romantic grotesques embodied by Lon Chaney in ‘Phantom,’ or ‘Hunchback’). The idea of beauty being in great part a social construct is not questioned (as with, say, ‘Muriel’s Wedding‘); it’s not even absurdly relativized in ugly duckling fantasy (‘She’s All That‘). In this new desiccated branch of American movies, it’s as if beauty does not even exist, does not need to exist, is beside the point, is in the way. These movies deny beauty’s very existence, as a ploy to escape the responsibility to aspire to it. If ever there were an evil strain of American cinema, this aesthetic atheism is it.
The movie’s misanthropy is all pretense. It resorts to tactics so facile they might be found in a Matthew Perry movie, such as a funk-music montage of the two leads splashing one another from a park water fountain and clumsily laughing on cue; It’s right out of first-year film school, the group camera exercise that doesn’t even make the graduation reel.
Critics who pass ‘TCW’ off as legitimate alternative art, or as a fresh amateur vision, are lazy, fooling themselves, or both. It’s more than just incompetent: it’s a hostile attempt to make audiences complicit in the director’s own self-enamored delusion. It’s blatant ego fascism. But as with parents who submit to the domination of their entitled children, if you enable this kind of behavior, you create a monster. What does history tell us about the consequences of indulging a disgruntled narcissist’s attempt to make the public complicit in the virtual reality of his own ego fantasies? Whether the setting is personal or political, that story never has a happy ending.
The fact that the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York could recently sanctify its movie screens with epiphanic Bresson and Zulawski retros, only to smear them now with a full week’s run of this tripe only goes to demonstrate how haywire and scatterbrained 21st century film culture has become. Maybe the most appalling thing about Perry’s movie is his obnoxious swipe at a truly great American film artist, Julian Schnabel, by conspicuously associating the character of a fatuous “broadcasting” professor with a book of Schnabel’s paintings. A more egregious act of misplaced arrogance is hard to imagine.