The Color Wheel (2011)

21 01 2014

Maybe it wouldn’t be unwise to start a review of The Color Wheel by contextualizing my generation as especially cynical. Generational characterizations tend to be stupid, thinly veiled insults thrown from our elders, but cynicism is at least reflected in the attitudes of young American filmmakers. Let’s not dance around the word: mumblecore. There, I said it. The Color Wheel looks like it could be tagged with such a term, but doing so would ignore the discourse of what the genre or movement constituted. Yes, it’s a film about young people but its distance eventually becomes the thing that pulls an audience in closely, perhaps too close for comfort. It’s a film that acknowledges the work that came before it, but also suggests that attempts to find the profound in the banal have yet to be successful. I hesitate to call it a masterwork, but it already feels like an important movie.


JR breaks up with and moves out of her professor’s apartment. She enlists the help of her brother, Colin, to help move her stuff of the apartment. The two don’t particularly get along. They seem repulsed by each other, and Colin’s claims that their parents don’t care about JR seem true enough to sting. JR is critical of Colin for his lack of aspiration. He has a unremarkable job and lives with their parents, still. His stability is sad, but JR’s lack of it is equally upsetting. Separated from her professor, she doesn’t actually have anywhere else to live and her dreams of becoming a television anchor seem illogical. After moving her stuff out, the two get invited to a party hosted by childhood friends.


It seems like an oxymoron to claim that the mumblecore movement ever had any iconography since it clashes with the original logistics of making such a film. Still, I would claim that there are icons of the movement and they’re mostly white, middle class, 20-somethings. The adjectives listed by Bill Sage in Hal Hartley’s Theory of Achievement, incidentally set in Brooklyn, acted as a guideline for constructing the ideal protagonist of such a film. There is a little resistance to this in The Color Wheel but it be a mistake to claim filmmaker Alex Ross Perry has simply followed the mold. Filmmakers will continue to be interested in what they can relate to, so inevitably we get a ton of independent filmmakers making movies about this very limited group of people. That’s the excuse at least, but Perry deserves credit for making a film that acknowledges this convention and criticizes it.



Interestingly, none of the reviews I’ve read have seemed to focus on JR and Colin’s casual racism. Why would they? It’s not suppose to be a big deal. This is, unfortunately, how a lot of white people talk now a days, but it is interesting that their “ironic” racial humor is grounded in an experience that has no diversity. The only confrontation the two have with race physically is in Jim Crow-era figures in an antique shop. They’re not repulsed but amused by the offensive nature of the products. Later Colin compares his perception to black women to gay men’s perception of all women. The audience of such a film, which likely matches that of its characters, is not going to be particularly offended by these moments but their placement seems more than just casual banter to me. The world Perry shows, despite incorporating  Boston and New York City, is entirely white. However, it might be the first of these such films to realize this limitation and call attention to it. How can Colin even make such a statement about black women when there’s none in his social circle? The film is unified by the idea that JR and Colin have closed themselves off from the rest of the people in their group. Those outside of it don’t even stand a chance.


There isn’t a profound commentary on race relations nestled away here, but instead a dull pain that pokes at you reminding you of its painfully white context. The social interactions that alienate JR and Colin and eventually lead them into the film’s jarring (yet also fitting) conclusion is one birthed of separation itself. The party they attended is, of course, all white but more importantly populated with sharply dressed individuals who impress each other with their promising careers. JR and Colin are  lost something reflected in the surreal and cruel manner in which Colin is treated. Immediately upon entering the party, a man pours wine in his shirt pocket as if to mark him as fuck up. While much of recent American independent cinema has foundation in characters who are struggling. This suggestions sounds weird, but these typical protagonist find solace in their broken hearts. Their concerns tend to be failed romances and the constant effort of moving on. In this context, one must look at the end of The Color Wheel as the opposite. Sure, mumblecore was inspired by the rhetoric of Ray Carney and the uncomfortable nature of truth, but this truth has repeatedly been represented as awkwardly fumbling your words in front of cute girls. It resonates but seems inconsequential, an almost fetishization of the banal.


The tensions in The Color Wheel seem to build up like an infection, until Perry finally takes a needle and pokes at the area, letting the puss run out. This illustration is gross, but it kind of underscores the sensation of the film’s incestuous finale. On a formal level, the sequence is astonishing, a single take of JR constructing an alternate universe in which Colin is a teacher. All of the unpleasant parts of JR and Colin’s personalities become their tragic fall. Throughout the film, JR articulates herself in a stylized, sarcastic voice. One that attempts to remove any sincerity from the discourse. It has built a wall, protecting the two from the outside forces that seem to do nothing more than hurt them, but in the process it has shut out the possibility of them connecting with anybody else. Their embrace is jarring, sure, but also the only logical step for two people so actively opposed to reaching out. Perry says American cinema needs to be more cynical, but I think the word he’s looking for is pragmatic. He’s deromanticized the films that his echoes and in the process, shows something really ugly. I’m still partial to the life-affirming quality of Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, but Perry elegantly articulates why reverie is not always good.





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