Much like how the past three years of popular music have inspired a lot of fatigue, resentment, and confusion brought on by the ubiquitousness of inane genre labels such as “chillwave,” “dubstep,” and “witch house,” American independent film has its own buzzword-that-won’t-die in “mumblecore.” On the rare occasions that I’ve heard it thrown around in real life conversation, it’s usually in a derogatory manner, implying that the film in question is about boring people with boring lives doing boring things and that the filmmaker is a bandwagon jumper who can’t resist the fastest, most effortless track to modern indie acceptability, i.e. have his non-actor friends sit in a kitchen and improvise (for maximum authenticity, of course) and possibly get naked, if he’s a big Joe Swanberg fan. Or get naked with the filmmaker, if he’s an even bigger Joe Swanberg fan (maybe change that to “he or she” so as not to slight Lena Dunham.)
Which is certainly understandable. I can’t begrudge moviegoers for wanting to come away from a feature-length viewing experience feeling like they have been rewarded with interesting stories and images. But due to some fairly obvious bias, I’m also not about to consider any and all cinematic depictions of directionless 20something white people’s banal first world problems to be worthy of dismissal, and so I can’t help but roll my eyes most of the times that I hear “mumblecore” delivered in a derisive tone, as if it’s even a generalization that is worth making in the first place. A lot of these movies are total garbage. Some of them are kind of transcendent. Rarely can these distinctions be chalked up to subject matter and subject matter alone.
“The ‘m’ word” comes up a lot in discussions of The Color Wheel, often in reference to how Alex Ross Perry’s work reflects qualities of the genre-that’s-sort-of-not-really-even-a-genre by opposing and subverting them. Dwelling on The Color Wheel‘s place in the recent independent film landscape admittedly doesn’t make for the most constructive analysis, sure, but I’m not looking to give away the good jokes or set you up for what plot developments to expect. And I probably could ruin close to the entire movie for you, since I’ve seen it four times already and will hopefully be making it out to another screening tonight.
But dwell I must. Like many mumblecore protagonists, siblings Colin (Perry) and J.R. (co-writer Carlen Altman) are in purgatorial states of “figuring it out,” seemingly unable to give themselves over to conventional notions of adulthood. Colin and J.R. are unrelentingly vocal about the disdain that they have for how the other has chosen to live life, all while stubbornly justifying their own choices. And if you’re like the woman whom I overheard state, “That was the worst movie I have ever seen” following my fourth go-around, Colin and J.R. will come across as self-absorbed, unlikable idiots whose bickering isn’t worth subjecting one’s self to for ten minutes, let alone over an hour.
There’s a lot more to it than that, however. Aaron Katz’s excellent Cold Weather, also about a brother and sister who must learn to tolerate one another, was lauded for reconfiguring aspects of mumblecore into a “genre picture” (a detective story, in that case.) If Cold Weather pointed the way out of stasis for a certain type of modern low-budget filmmaking, then The Color Wheel should be recognized as a downright jarring, head-spinning achievement. Watching it doesn’t bring to mind cinema that is merely a product of current trends, but rather that which is conscious of history and the independent artist’s freedom to manipulate it. And the latter is roughly a thousand times rarer (and in this writer’s opinion, more engaging) than the former.
Before mumblecore became something to complain about, Andrew Bujalski’s now decade-old debut Funny Ha Ha was introduced to the world, and while it is now cited as kicking off that so-called “movement,” Bujalski never embraced what would become those convenient trademarks of digital video and improvisation. Instead, Funny Ha Ha was meticulously scripted, shot on 16mm film, and edited on a flatbed. Watching it, I get the sense of an artist’s refined ability to translate the mundane, “un-cinematic” concerns and social awkwardness of a certain class of people into a series of moments that actually manage to carry dramatic weight. The naturalism is carefully orchestrated, and in ways that are the result of deliberate (yet often subtle) choices.
What does some guy’s knack for appropriating “vintage direct cinema aesthetics” for his own use and how that makes for a unique viewing experience have to do with anything? Because it’s cause for celebration when a cheap, ugly little movie appears from out of nowhere and does things its own way, all as a means of enhancing the insight into its subjects. I can’t and don’t want to imagine a less talky Metropolitan, or a less minimalistic Stranger Than Paradise, or a Cassavetes film that isn’t exhausting to sit through. Like Funny Ha Ha, Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore effort is a lot closer to innovation than something that simply follows in the wake of innovation, i.e. “mumblecore” that it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with.
For much of its duration, The Color Wheel might appear to have been edited in a way that is as abrasively annoying as its characters, but as their dimensions are revealed, so is Alex Ross Perry’s control over his film’s tone, which somehow manages to transform from cleverly misanthropic comedy into something quietly apocalyptic, bittersweet, and unexpectedly moving. It works because Perry is an artist and a humanist before he is a sadist. His choices don’t suggest contempt for his audience, just for its members who refuse to align their ideas about what film should be with his, which reflect an affinity for the novels of Philip Roth, the photography of Robert Frank, and the films of Jerry Lewis, Vincent Gallo, French New Wave, and the bottomless well of whatever else Perry absorbed while working at the now defunct Kim’s Video and attending countless screenings around New York City. It makes one wonder why more artists haven’t figured out that one of the key ways to create work that possesses a “timeless” quality is to thoughtfully hybridize a bunch of disparate stuff that few others are letting themselves be influenced by (the grainy 16mm black and white film stock doesn’t exactly hurt, either.)
The Color Wheel was inspired by its creator growing apart from people that he once felt a kinship with. He and his NYU classmates shared creative aspirations, yet apparently no one else managed to actually pursue the dreams that they talked about. Not only is Perry’s film specifically about what he calls “an epidemic of malaise amongst young people,” but its fast-moving success has positioned him as an inspirational figure for anyone suffering from said epidemic, young or old. It’s playing today at 7:00 and 9:00 and that’s it.
As a bonus, here’s a wonderfully comprehensive interview between Alex Ross Perry and the former owner of Reel Life South, a Brooklyn video store that was forced to close its doors earlier this year. If you are at all interested in the death of video stores and/or seeing the trajectory of the practically dead DVD business put into perspective (both of which Facets has triumphantly survived, of course!), then said interview will keep you occupied for an hour or more. Or just press “ctrl + f” and skip right to the Facets shout-outs.
– Garret Kriston