Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

The Post-Mumblecore Brilliance of “The Color Wheel”

After hearing so much positive buzz about Alex Ross Perry’s new film “Listen up Philip”, I decided to give his second film, “The Color Wheel”, a spin. I had the opportunity to watch the film a while ago, but passed it up, writing it off as just another mumblecore film about aimless twenty-somethings. And I’m so happy I was wrong. “The Color Wheel” is a pitch-black post-modern comedy that responds to the mumblecore tradition, but also exists outside of it, in a self-aware post-modern limbo. The thing that I liked the most about “The Color Wheel” is that it actually has ambition to be something, and it definitely marks Alex Ross Perry as a talent to watch.

Before I get into “The Color Wheel”, I should probably talk about mumblecore a little bit. The word mumblecore is an imaginary umbrella term devised by critics to describe a series of American independent films and filmmakers emerging in the early-to-mid 2000s and continuing on to now. Although mumblecore is a term invented by critics, and its not an actual defined movement, there are certain characteristics common to nearly all of the mumblecore films, and I will continue to use the term because it makes things easier. On the technical side, mumblecore films are micro-budget (often under $1 million, never more than $10 million), naturalistic (shot in the real world, little music and no special effects), generally feature non-professional or unknown actors (although this varies) and are almost always shot on cheap digital cameras.

Artistically speaking, the films are often comedies, often have low-key stories which focus on sex and relationships between twentysomethings, are very dialogue-heavy (often improvised, sometimes mumbled), and generally are very stark visually and free of stylization. The most prominent mumblecore filmmakers are Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, Lynn Shelton, and depending on who you ask, Lena Dunham. The values of these filmmakers are influenced by the French New Wave, the Dogme 95 movement, and the films of the Dardenne brothers.

The mumblecore movement seemed to have its peak in the late 2000s and early 2010s, with many of the prominent filmmakers churning out several acclaimed films. The movement has grown in stature mainstream acceptance, and over time as more and more actors and producers became aware of mumblecore, budgets began to steadily increase and professional actors got involved. At this point, the movies made by the mumblecore directors are hardly recognizable from the grainy, poorly lit films which defined the beginnings of their careers. There is a world of difference between Joe Swanberg’s third film, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” to his most recent, “Drinking Buddies”. The same can be said of the Duplass brothers’ low-key feature debut, “The Puffy Chair,” versus their Jason Segel-starring “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” But even with the glossier look, professional actors, and wider distribution, mumblecore films remain grounded in simple stories about young people navigating the ins and outs of friendships and relationships in the 21st century.

I’ve seen a handful of mumblecore films in my day, having gone through a brief phase where I watched probably around a dozen or so in a short amount of time. The Duplass brothers’ film “The Puffy Chair” was my gateway, and I was taken by the film’s low-key naturalism and down-to-earth plot, even if the production values were lacking. Probably the most appealing thing about them was that they felt like something could make, something achievable. These were people who just grabbed a camera, some friends, and said “fuck it, let’s make a movie”, and I admired that do-it-yourself attitude. “The Puffy Chair” led me on a spree to watch the rest of the Duplass bros filmography, along with some Lynn Shelton, Aaron Katz, and Joe Swanberg films. I made it a conscious effort to watch as many mumblecore movies as possible, but my enthusiasm didn’t last long.

As I began to see the patterns emerging, the aimlessness went from refreshing to grating, the twenty-something characters and their dialogue went from relatable, vulnerable, and realistically flawed, to just plain whiny, and the seeming disregard for any sort of aesthetic beauty went from ugly to downright unwatchable. Of course, I don’t mean to be too harsh. There were quite a few films which I did enjoy, and I still respect the filmmakers’ willingness to go out an just make a damn movie, whether it’s good or not. It’s just a bit difficult to take in so many of these movies at once, and I’m sure I’ll watch more mumblecore films, past and present, pretty soon.

So where does “The Color Wheel” fit in to all this? On paper, the movie looks like a typical mumblecore. The premise is that aimless twenty-something Colin and his aspiring newscaster sister JR go on a road trip to move JR’s things out of her boyfriend’s house. Doesn’t sound like anything special. But from the first grainy, black and white 16 mm shot of the film, it’s clear something is different. For one thing, the fact that it was shot on film instead of digital is a clear aesthetic choice, and something that made me sit up and think, “Hm, maybe this film is actually trying to do something different.” The comparatively liberal use of music also sets it apart from other mumblecores. And as soon as the characters are introduced, it really becomes clear that the film has a lot more going on upstairs.

One of best parts of “The Color Wheel” is it’s raw, uncompromising, unconventional sense of humor. Colin and JR are nasty, morally reprehensible people, and their dialogue is filthy, profane, sometimes questionably racist, and above all, hilarious. The characters ooze irony and detachment, and every interaction with other characters paints Colin and JR as the ultimate outsiders and misfits. The first encounter that Colin and JR have on their trip is with a concierge at a dinky little Christian motel. Colin and JR want the cheapest room in the hotel, but it’s a single room, and the hotel policy is to not let “coeds to co-habitate unless they are married”. Colin and JR quickly switch their story from being brother and sister to pretending to be married, in a kind of reverse “Days of Heaven” scenario. The scene has a palpable sense of awkward tension, and something about the exaggerated acting (almost in a surreal, Tim & Eric-esque way) it feels incredibly fresh. The way that JR’s first line of dialogue as she walks into the room is “I have to pee,” the fact that the concierge casually stumbles over the word “sinful”, and the hand-drawn sign that reads “I need to see all married couples kiss.” Are all small touches that make the scene a winner.

The script and the deadpan delivery are what makes the movie really shine. Even if the deadpan delivery is reminiscent of mumblecore, the difference is that every line of dialogue in “The Color Wheel” was scripted. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell though, because the movie is full of mundane non-sequitur lines, including such gems as “I burned the roof of my mouth on a piece of toast, I didn’t even know that was possible,” “I don’t actually know what the clap is, it just sounds old timey and itchy,” and “Do I look barely legal in a mature way?” The conversations flow at a rapid back and forth pace, with Colin and JR bouncing laconic lines off of each other in a way that makes them feel real and hyper-real at the same time. Sometimes, their conversations are even interrupted by lines like “Oh my god, you just spit in my eye.” Writing it out in blog form doesn’t really do the hilarity of the film’s dialogue justice, it’s something that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

For all the low-key hijinks of the film, the focus is always primarily on the character dynamics of Colin and JR. At first glance, they seem to be the archetypal aimless twenty-somethings which populate most mumblecore films. But as the film goes on, they reveal themselves to be a sort of deconstruction of these very archetypes. Colin and JR are perpetually stuck in their adolescence, never moving forward towards the professional and personal goals they once held. When looking at herself in a mirror, JR declares, “I just feel like, I don’t know, without these, like, funky bangs, how are casting directors gonna know that I’m the type of girl who likes music and art and like cultural stuff, you know?” The humor in the self-aware shallowness of the line masks a greater sentiment about the defeatism of this generation. They’ve been crippled by the irony and detachment of post-modern life, and I noticed a lot of similarities with 2012’s “The Comedy”, another deconstruction of millennial ennui.

But “The Color Wheel” has more sympathy for its leads, despite their status as generally despicable people. The ending of the film feels both shocking and, in retrospect, inevitable, as it shows the logical conclusion of Colin and JR’s close-minded worldviews. Luckily, the socially-aware, post-modern bent of the film does nothing to diminish the genuinely hilarious comedy that pervades the film, and it in fact enhances it. The self-aware deconstruction of millennial irony and the crippling detachment it causes, which most mumblecore films seem to perpetuate rather than examine, is what ultimately makes “The Color Wheel” a “post-mumblecore” film. It’s really hard to describe what makes the film so great, but it really does feel like a breath of fresh air. With so many other millennial mumblecore directors making independent films that come and go without making any sort of impact, the acid of “The Color Wheel’s” sense of humor and sense of style will burn itself into your memory. Alex Ross Perry is an auteur to be watched, a film-literate director with a real voice and something to say with it. “Listen up Philip” can’t come soon enough.

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