Sunday, May 13, 2012

Whole Grain Goodness: Alex Ross Perry's & Carlen Altman's bizarre THE COLOR WHEEL

Winner of the not-so-well-known award for Best Undistributed Film of 2011 from both the Village Voice and IndieWire, and now the winner of the even less known TrustMovies award for Grainiest Beautiful Black-and-White Film We've Ever Seen, THE COLOR WHEEL, from Alex Ross Perry (shown below, who is the film's director, editor, co-producer, co-writer and co-star -- whew!) and Carlen Altman (merely co-writer and co-star), is something else. Does that else mean a winning movie? Highly questionable. But let's start with the good stuff -- of which there is a fair amount.

The grain of this gorgeous black-and-white movie is so amazingly thick and rich that you may want to approach the screen and pluck it off in chunks. Shot on 16 mm -- and then, what, blown up to 35mm for theatrical release? -- the film's press material notes that it was "finished on HDCam," so maybe this accounts for richer grain than I am used to seeing. What-ever, the end result is quite something, and the cinematographer Sean Price Williams has done an amazing job of photographing the two leads (and most everyone else) in tight, unrelenting close-up to achieve an intimacy that is at times almost too much.

As actors, Mr. Perry (above, left, as Colin) and Ms Altman (above, right, his sister JR) are quite good. Initially, they win us over by force of personality, fielding their own dialog like pros. That dialog is often cute, but the behavior that goes with it grows increasingly and terminally stupid. It's when the characters move from a little crazy to completely over the top (all the subsidiary characters seem just as crazy, too) that any sense of reality -- of a world where any of these people would last more than ten minutes before being knocked on their asses, institutionalized or shot at close range -- simply disappears.

Now, some audiences may enjoy this because, yes, it's different. But anyone who demands some trace of belief and credibility to the characters on-screen, vis-à-vis the environment they inhabit, will have given up long before the movie's ace-in-the-hole -- its transgressive, penultimate scene -- plays out. It is this scene, in fact (and I will say no more about it), that I think has allowed The Color Wheel to win the fans it has. Because of it, some viewers will put up with the ridiculousness that has preceded it. Without it, the movie would have long before turned into its own deal-breaker. The earlier "party" scene alone, stuffed with the most obvious and clichéd characters, brings home this point most breathtakingly. Wouldn't the guy who pours wine into Colin's pocket, and later threatens him with physical harm, punch him out when our hero vomits all over him? Well, no, actually, because this doesn't fit the film's immediate needs. Mr. Perry is a sloppy movie-maker -- he doesn't even bother to reshoot (or cut) a flubbed line of dialog -- but evidently, he has other goals.

It will be interesting to see what Mr. Perry does next. If he manages to place his innate talent for "quirk" into an environment that accommodates it, who knows? As an actor, he has a kind of inverse presence that can be interesting, but his voice -- at least the one he uses in this film -- is designed to make you turn the volume way down. It's not that he's loud, but like Woody Allen can sometimes be, he's nattering and offensive enough that you want him to shut up. He finally does, and -- wow -- what a difference. As with any possible love object, in his silence he almost becomes sexy, intelligent, possibly even kind, so that viewers can begin to plant their fantasies on him. Ms Altman, too, could use a good silencing. She's quite beautiful in her way and possesses a genuine screen presence. But here, it's set on turn-off rather than turn-on. In a sense, I suppose, it is daring to offer characters like these as your protagonists. After awhile, though, it's just senseless.

The Color Wheel, 83 minutes, from Cinema Conservancy, has its New York premiere this Friday, May 18, at BAMcinématek. Click here to view other upcoming playdates around the country.

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