"I saw this movie today that's going to give you an aneurysm." That's what A.O. Scott said to me one afternoon last year after he had seen Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel for the first time. "It might not be up your alley, really." That's what an actual cast member of the film said to me when I told him that I intended to finally see the thing today.
Geez. You'd think that my work in the critical realm had marked me as somehow aesthetically hidebound, or something. On the other hand...well, actually, Scott's recently published New York Times reassessment of The Color Wheel, which I hadn't read until just now, very elegantly iterates quite a bit of what I found myself thinking during my direct experience of the film, and make no mistake, it is very much an experience. The first ten minutes, had me rather wanting to walk out, in spite of the largely admirable black-and-white cinematography. It's not just that lead character Colin, played by the director, has a voice that makes chalk on a blackboard sound like a Mozart piano sonata. It's the way he's wheedling "girlfriend" Zoe into sex by comparing his penis to that which he imagines would be one possessed by an African-American man, and I am so sick of the knowingly meta-thrice-removed-racist-joke-that's-so-confident-it's-gonna-get-a-pass-on-that-accout-but-may-not-really-want-to-get-a-pass-because-what-if-it's-really-racist-which-might-be-kind-of-edgy-and-"dangerous" that I could puke, which is another thing the character played by the director has a tendency to do more than the average human. This is not the first instance of this kind of humor, either.
But I stuck with it, and aside from being struck by the very bravura performance of Carlen Altman (above) as Colin's remarkably non-functioning sister, I was consistently disarmed if not befuddled by just how weird of a movie The Color Wheel is. As Scott notes, it is "full of obnoxious characters in scenes that seem overwritten and under-rehearsed, oblivious to the most to the most basic standard of tonal consistency, narrative coherence or visual decorum." Yes, exactly...and at the same time, I, like Scott, kept getting signals of something else. There's a sense in which the unpleasantness of the characters, all of the characters, is so oppressively overwhelming that one gets a sense of an Ionesco-style absurdism put into a contemporary hyperdrive, with a bit of sneering near-Letterist technical crudity thrown in. The effect, at certain other times, is of a Which Way To The Front?-era Jerry-Lewis-written-and-starring incest comedy directed by Carnival Of Souls' Herk Harvey.
As these associations accumulated in my mind while watching the film, I rather wondered if I was indeed reading too much into it. The relentlessly unironed shirts worn by the main male characters weren't after all that different from what one might find in a Bujalski or Swanberg movie, so was Perry's game necessarily that much more advanced? The performance here by Bob Byington, the director of the thoroughly abysmal Harmony And Me (and also a producer of this film), is an outstanding, even virtuoso bit of unpleasantness, true. Then again, on the evidence of this video interview, one might rather have a beer with Josef Stalin than with the "real-life" Byington anyway.
But then there are the film's final minutes, which trade its all-over-the-map is-it-knowing-or-is-it-not eccentricity for an almost horrifically assured naturalism. It doesn't recall Cassavetes so much as a simulation of Cassavetes based on an interpretation of written account of his work. And it brings the relationship of its central characters...well, it actually makes plausible characters out of its up-until-now completely implausible characters, and then makes them intensely discomfitting...which makes the fact that the film's first shots are actually derived from this sequence, which makes The Color Wheel a kind of loop...well, if the structural intrigue here is in fact Perry's editing-room save from his own fecklessness, my hat is very much off to him. And it's off to him if it's the other way around, too. Damn it.
The Color Wheel plays at BAM's Rose Cinema through Thursday. It really is a uniquely infuriating thing.