Great American Directors – Alex Ross Perry

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Twitter explodes.  Potential Prime Ministers are deposed.  Fury rages across cyberspace.  Named and shamed regardless of action or intent.  Injustice prevails.  We attack each other, playing into the hands of those who seek to oppress us.  They want us to blame each other rather than them.  People shout abuse at you in soaking wet car parks.  Chatter, chatter.  Half-arsed conversations at photocopiers about uneventful weekends.  Lies told to make life easier.  Talk and talk and talk.

Dialogue is the cheapest thing to film.  Place it into the hands of even halfway competent actors and it becomes the greatest special effect cinema can hope to offer.  Art and artists.  The failure of auteur theory, increasingly irrelevant in the modern media landscape.  And yet…and yet….

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Impolex (2009)

Artists forced to defend their art; presumably in deference to the almighty consumer.  Why isn’t this art like I want it to be?

Alex Ross Perry explains his art.  He’s the latest sort of film nerd director – the one who grew up on commentaries and boxsets.  He talks about his own art; he talks about the art of others.  And it becomes increasingly hard to separate ourselves from all this chatter.

It’s becoming harder and harder to have an original thought.

Perry occasionally writes about other people’s films.  He has broad tastes, and is quick to defend minor works by celebrated directors.  As are we all.  There’s an article where he writes about Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) and claims that Crowe produces “rare films that examine emotional duress from a masculine perspective.”

It says a lot about a person when they think that a masculine perspective is rare in the cinematic landscape.

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The Color Wheel (2011)

Wouldn’t it be great if all the directors shut up?  Barebones releases like Woody Allen.  But who would ever want to be like Woody Allen…

Allen is a touchstone for Perry.  Obsessive chroniclers of a myopic perspective.  He has dabbled in the multi-hyphenate performer-director-writer and survived, though it doesn’t seem to be an experience he wishes to return to.  Perry has been able to rise above his progenitor through a sense of empathy; there’s a twenty minute or so section in Listen Up Philip (2014) where the story takes a break to follow Elizabeth Moss’ character.  It’s a sequence which could never be found in a film by Allen (especially one that shows such consideration for a woman) and it just allows Perry to break through the great wash of Allen-imitators that swamp the cinematic landscape.

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Listen Up Philip (2014)

Perry has listed Allen, Polanski, Roth, Fassbinder as inspiration…so I guess he’s unconcerned with separating art from artists.

For Perry, conversation is key.  His films are centred on the face, as conversations spring back forth.  The conversations in his films are amplifications of the utter toxicity of our relationships; passive-aggressive sniping, aggressive-defensiveness, casual unpleasantness.  There is not comfort or solace, just the slow degradation of others to make you feel better about yourself.  In The Color Wheel (2011), this is played more for laughs, but it remains an uncomfortable experience.

There’s a misanthropy to Perry’s work.  He chronicles the lives of deeply unpleasant people.  For them, their punishment comes in the form of poor mental health.  Depression, alienation, a crumbling grip on reality afflict his protagonists.  In Queen of Earth (2015) – an unsettling work by a director constantly striving to push himself – Elizabeth Moss suffers from imaginary slights, conversations and impediments as she spirals into self-destruction.

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Queen of Earth (2015)

His characters pursue art; often with single-minded focus.  Yet there is no reward.  No satisfaction.  And little admiration.  For Perry, art has no nobility, it has little worth, it is a simple means of self-expression.

There is cacophony of noise in our culture.  It is easy for the filmmaker to get caught up in adulation and self-explanation.  Perry can often slip into this.  He could well learn from his characters, and avoid their catastrophes.  But his most engaging picture remains his sophomore feature.  In The Color Wheel we follow a brother and sister as they go about a short road trip.  They criticise and antagonise each other.  They perform for each other.  They believe they are better than anyone else around them (and they both are and aren’t because everyone is garbage.)  And it’s extraordinarily entertaining in the way that bitchiness often is.  But there is an act of incestuous desperation that occurs at the end of this long-take, grainy, black-and-white film that is so surprising and shocking and wonderful, that it transforms the film into a grasping, clutching attempt of meaning in what has previously been presented as purposeless lives.

Perry’s inquiring mind is purposeful and a little bit glorious.  In years to come he will continue his exploration of the fragile grip our psyche imposes on the chaos of reality.  And make a film about Winnie-the-Pooh.

Perry writes about Cameron Crowe at: http://thetalkhouse.com/alex-ross-perry-listen-up-philip-talks-cameron-crowes-aloha/

He can be found discussing Woody Allen and his own cinephilia at: http://www.thecinephiliacs.net/2014/11/episode-48-alex-ross-perry-husbands-and.html

And discussing the importance of celluloid at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr6NdyP4y-k

and

http://www.indiewire.com/2015/08/alex-ross-perry-indie-filmmakers-can-afford-to-shoot-film-58871/

A little seen short film by Perry is at:

http://www.ludlow38.org/thesixthyear/

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes beautifully about The Color Wheel at: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-lower-depths-alex-ross-perry-and-the-color-wheel

There are many more interviews by Perry online.  Despite finding them a frustrating example of the adherence to auterism, he is an entertaining and intelligent individual, who is a committed cinephile just like us.

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