The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature The Color Wheel (2011) has a tendency to polarize critics – sometimes even the same critic, as if he or she might be suffering from bipolar disorder. The film comes at you with a certain velocity – often from left field. At times it shocks by being in-your-face politically incorrect. Yet The Color Wheel exudes a certain shaggy dog charm, even as it deliberately attempts to disturb and provoke viewers. It bills itself as an “objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.”

The Color Wheel tells the story of an estranged brother and sister, Colin (Alex Ross Perry) and JR (co-writer Carlen Altman) who go on a road trip together, ostensibly to retrieve some of her belongings from her Journalism professor (Bob Byington) with whom she’s had, as far as the family is concerned, a rather scandalous affair. Colin’s girlfriend, Zoe (Ry Russo-Young) questions why he would even bother to help his sister. He responds: “You know, you don’t have any siblings, so you have no frame of reference for what it’s like when one of them asks for a favor.” JR is apparently the black sheep in the family. At least Colin, for his own personal reasons, chooses to portray her that way. This is a case of sibling rivalry that, considering that they’re now in their twenties, seems mired in adolescence. Throughout their road trip, the two of them constantly bicker like a couple stuck in a bad marriage without a divorce option.

JR is something of a mess. Although very attractive, she has low self-esteem. Her aspirations to be a TV anchor lead her to have an affair with her professor, who belittles her for being incredibly immature when she and Colin finally show up at his house to retrieve a couple of boxes of her stuff. She ridicules him for not helping her get a job in the business as promised, while he berates her for never picking up the check at a restaurant. When JR later spots a television personality at a diner, she makes a complete fool of herself by seeking career advice. The woman tells her bluntly: “You know, off the top of my head, don’t interrupt people while they’re eating.” JR is later lured to a party of her snotty old school chums by the prospect of meeting an agent from Los Angeles. After she’s grilled about her career aspirations, JR fibs that she’s actually working as a nurse while auditioning for jobs in major markets. As she performs the role of being a news anchor for several of her former classmates, she proves to be quite terrible by continually flubbing her lines.

On the car trip, Colin gloats over the fact that his parents took him on a vacation to Puerto Rico and didn’t invite JR. It’s later revealed that the family also neglected to inform her about an aunt’s death, lest she might actually turn up at the funeral. Like the Journalism professor, Colin uses language to bludgeon her into submission, but, like a carnival knockdown doll, she keeps popping back up. If anything, JR’s resilience is her major strength. Although Colin relishes his superior position, he has his own serious flaws. For one thing, his writing career apparently isn’t going anywhere either. Both at the professor’s house and party, he rather quickly winds up crumpled on the floor – if he were a boxer, he’d be hitting the canvas before his opponent even threw a punch. He’s also been in a loveless relationship with Zoe for several years, and has his own sexual frustrations, as evidenced by the hand job he angles for and doesn’t receive before embarking on the trip.

Shot on grainy black-and-white 16mm film by Sean Price Williams, The Color Wheel is essentially a highly complex character study that takes the form of a road movie. Colin and JR stay overnight at a motel run by a religious zealot, visit the professor’s house, party with old classmates, and finally take a detour to a relative’s nearby cabin. It’s a journey of mutual self-discovery, but one that’s steeped in humiliation. Their trip involves a sudden realization that their dreams are not exactly working out as planned. This becomes apparent at the party, where Colin shows up carrying a pineapple and the two are quickly relegated to pathetic comic figures. Although the film was apparently fully scripted, the constant banter between JR and Colin feels completely natural, as if invented on the spot. Colin’s spiteful condemnation of JR and her failings stems from his own insecurities that are as vast as hers. And while the barbed exchanges between them are often very funny, the result is actually the kind of laughter that hurts.

Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel cuts much deeper than most independent films, which is its major strength. Although the clues have been carefully planted, the extended climax, which lasts for nine minutes, nonetheless packs the wallop of a perfectly executed sucker punch.

Postscript: I first saw The Color Wheel at the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It opened last week at the BAMcinématek and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York before screening at other theatrical venues around the country.

Posted 28 May, 2012


In Bob Byington’s comedy Harmony and Me (2010), Harmony (Justin Rice) complains to an acupuncturist about his ex-girlfriend, “She broke my heart, but she’s still at it. She hasn’t finished the job. She’s breaking my heart.” He continues, “My heart is a snack. She’s like a bear with a fish in its paw.” Evan Glodell’s wildly kinetic and completely engaging Bellflower (2011) deals with the same subject matter, the absolute pain and misery of a broken heart, but his version is inspired by the Mad Max movies that the film’s protagonist, Woodrow (played by Glodell himself), and his adoring Jughead-like best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), saw on TV and then on VHS as kids in Wisconsin.

Bellflower begins with what at first seems like a prolepsis and may, in fact, be a flashback: shots of a crying couple, various key scenes from the film playing in reverse, and finally a head-on shot of the film’s dazed protagonist before it cuts to black. There’s a quote that references The Road Warrior, “Lord Humungous cannot be defied.” In voiceover, we listen as Aiden lays out their fantasy for the end of the world. The two friends will turn up in a bad-ass, flamethrowing muscle car, “and one of us gets out with a hundred pounds of brass and steel strapped to our back, and just starts torching everything.”

Glodell’s apocalyptic Bellflower is a complex play on the thriller and buddy genres, with the dialogue between the two male characters loaded with sexual innuendo that they seem unaware of, but will cause most viewers to chuckle. Aiden compares Woodrow to Lord Humungus and tells him: “Okay, listen. We’re going out tonight. If I even catch you looking at someone – I don’t care if it’s a fucking guy. You are going to hit on them. You are going to pick them up. You are going to take them home. And I’m going to be right by your side the whole time.” For these dudes, true male camaraderie knows no bounds.

The story is told in chapters. In the first, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” after the two friends nearly finish assembling their flamethrower, they wind up in a bar where Woodrow gets into a cricket-eating contest with an attractive blonde named Milly (Jessie Wiseman). She trounces him at downing live insects, but he ends up asking her out on a date. The next evening, he politely shows up at her house with a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers. Because it’s their first date, Woodrow wants to take her to someplace nice, but she prefers that he take her to the “cheapest, nastiest, scariest place” he knows. “Oh, my God,” Woodrow responds disbelievingly, but Milly’s request sends them on a journey from Los Angeles to Texas. As they lie together in the back seat of a car and he giggles with delight at their blossoming romance, Millie warns Woodrow that she’ll hurt him. A true tough guy, he doesn’t believe it.

While Woodrow and Millie are away, Aiden hooks up with Milly’s best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). At her birthday party, when Aiden drunkenly insults a woman and a huge thug accosts him, Woodrow rushes to the aid of his friend and smashes a beer bottle over the guy’s head, forcing them to split. Woodrow and Milly make love later on, but when Woodrow tells her he’s leaving for a day, their blissful courtship comes to an abrupt and bitter end. This leads to intrigue and betrayals of all sorts, involving the four main characters in the film.

It’s not the plot of Bellflower that keeps us riveted, so much as the film’s visual pizzazz, its golden and fiery orange color palette, rhythmic pacing, comic antics, and the intricate way the love story is interwoven with Woodrow and Aiden’s adolescent quest to build a flamethrower and Medusa car in anticipation of the world’s imminent demise. Woodrow’s broken heart leads to a terrible car accident that leaves him temporarily incapacitated and then to a fury that turns Woodrow into a vengeful monster, who unleashes an inferno that’s been foreshadowed by Aiden’s initial voiceover.

Reportedly made on a shoestring budget, Bellflower was a surprise hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is an obvious labor of love by a collective group of friends (Coatwolf Productions), who dedicated themselves to making this incredibly ambitious project over an extended period of time – without the financial means and against impossible odds. Bellflower definitely calls to mind a number of filmic references, including Harmony Korine’s deliberate degradation of the image in Trash Humpers (2010). And listening to the film’s awkward naturalistic dialogue, it’s hard not to think of numerous mumblecore films:

MILLY: So, who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
WOODROW: Ah, wow! Okay . . . I live around here, but I’m from Wisconsin originally. And I spend . . .
She looks down at his shoes.
MILLY: Oh, my God!
MILLY: Sorry. Your shoes.
Cut to a shot of his tattered sneakers.
WOODROW: Oh, yeah! I need to get new ones. They’re pretty bad . . .
MILLY: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What do you do?
WOODROW: I’m building a flamethrower.
MILLY: You’re building a flamethrower?
MILLY: Fuck you.
WOODROW: No, I really am, and I’m really excited about it.
MILLY: That is probably the weirdest thing I ever heard. I like you.
WOODROW: I like you too.

If the acting style is rooted in naturalism, the performances by Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman, and Rebekah Brandes transcend the style. Dawson, as Glodell’s impish sidekick, causes every scene he’s in to sparkle with his nutty brand of humor, while Wiseman and Brandes are perfect in their roles and would seem to have promising careers ahead of them. It’s hard to imagine how a low-budget DIY film like this could get better acting from a cast of unknown performers.

Not only did the filmmaker and his crew build an actual flamethrower, from parts culled from a hardware store, that shoots a burst of flame 72 feet, but they also spent a great deal of the budget on their flame-spewing Medusa car, which left P. Diddy so impressed he forked over a “grand” toward their project. And they adapted a digital camera with lenses that had dirt smeared on them, which gives Bellflower the antique quality it strives for.

Some people might try to dismiss Bellflower as merely a juvenile male fantasy, but the film deals with a substantive issue – the transformational power of love, and when it goes sour, its attendant dark side. I’m convinced the film provides its own self-critique. The bravado and macho fantasies of Woodrow and Aiden are a way of their overcompensating for their inadequacies. Early on in the bar, Milly insists that Aidan is “a little bit of a bastard,” but Woodrow, of course, defends him. He responds, “Aiden? No, he’s just crazy. Once you get to know him, he’s like the sweetest dude you’ll ever know.” “Sweet” is a word these dudes throw around with abandon, but they seem acutely aware that their fantasies are completely gendered.

As a narrative, Bellflower is far more complicated than it first appears. Two viewings have yet to answer all my questions, which involve its temporal shifts and multiple endings. It’s like Glodell is so in love with his film that he can’t seem to let it conclude. Even after the end of the world, Bellflower somehow manages to play on.

Posted 10 January, 2012