The Color Wheel

‘The Color Wheel partially recalls the scathing audacity of The Graduate some 45 years ago.

Jeff Shannon (The Seattle Times)

‘Some will call The Color Wheel daring. Others will remember that it takes more than desperate shocks to add substance to the sloppy diddlings of a dilettante.’

David Fear (Time Out New York)

In the last decade, Alex Ross Perry has carved out a name for himself as a talented independent filmmaker. Her Smell, starring Elizabeth Moss as Courtney Love – sorry – a fictional singer named Becky, may be his best yet.

His second film, The Color Wheel (2011) was made on a significantly smaller budget with Perry giving himself one of the two starring roles. That’s him on the beautifully illustrated poster above together with Carlen Altman, who plays his sister JR.

The pair also co-wrote the script, with Perry producing and editing too.
The Color Wheel is a black comedy and a road movie. In a cinematic landscape where fewer and less fewer risks are being taken, this stood out. In places it’s very funny, but it can also make for some excruciating viewing. Its tagline: An objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.

Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman

Colin lives with his girlfriend Zoe and their relationship doesn’t appear rock solid. His hapless sister JR, an aspiring news anchor, asks him to help move her belongings out of her ex-boyfriend Neil’s place. Colin reluctantly agrees. As they drive there, they instantly begin to bicker incessantly and put each other down.

To save money, they rent a single room in a motel run by a strict Christian. This becomes problematic. Only married couples are allowed to share rooms. Colin and JR pretend to be wed.

‘We have a wonderful marriage,’ JR deadpans, going on to claim that she’s so happy with her husband that, ‘I can’t stop smiling. Most of the time my face hurts.’

Forced to give each other a kiss in order to prove that they are indeed married, Colin spews up once he’s in the room.

The uber-sarky siblings recommence with the hostilities, with JR, instead of showing any sympathy for his bout of ill health, demanding to know: ‘Was it really that bad pretending to kiss me?’ The trash talk maybe peaks later when Colin takes great pleasure in telling her: ‘You make me, mum, dad and my girlfriend sick to stomachs every single time you come up in the conversation.’

Carlen Altman

They arrive at Neil’s place, where he is with a new girlfriend. JR and Neil, an older professor who until recently had taught JR, also immediately begin tossing verbal hand-grenades at one another and relentlessly attempt to point- score.

‘I’m starting to think that we’re not going to have that one last conversation I was hoping for,’ he says, after she’s likened hanging out with him to being in ‘a geriatric facility’.

Almost like a tag-team, Colin takes over from JR. Not that he defends her against Neil’s accusations. He just despises people like Neil, probably because he is more successful and cooler than he is, although Neil’s obviously a jerk too.

What did JR see in him? Most likely, she was attracted to his list of media connections and promises of a job in television, along with the added bonuses of rent free accommodation and never having to pay for a meal.

He got a fantastic looking and much younger girlfriend.

Carlen Altman as JR

Both leads can be deeply unpleasant and their redeemable qualities are few although I kinda liked them but then I have always been drawn to sarcasm. Neither is as monstrous as other Perry creations such as Philip in Listen Up Philip or Becky in Her Smell. They’re also better company than Neil, or their snobbish ex-school pals who they later meet up with for a party. That could be said to be damning with very faint praise, though.

No surprise that JR only goes along to the party for a selfish reason. She’s heard that a TV agent will be there. In Planet JR, success is more likely to come from networking than talent. She demonstrates no interest in the news throughout and it’s easy to assume that the most ‘work’ she’s put into establishing her career is her vision board, which we see in the boot of her car.

Carlen Altman in The Color Wheel

Equally self-centred and shallow, JR reminded me of a number of people I knew back in my bedsit days, dreaming of some breakthrough in their chosen fields (usually music) but much more likely to smoke joints and watch daytime TV than putting in any hard work that might help them to achieve their goals.

As you can see from the quotes at the top of the post, reviews of The Color Wheel were very mixed. ‘There’s handmade and then there’s amateurish,’ Shawn Levy concluded in his review for The Oregonian. ‘This, alas, is the latter.’ The New York Times praised it as ‘sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant.’

Generally, I was pretty much hooked myself although the acting, particularly Perry’s, is a little flat and some of the comedy is of the very average sitcom variety.

Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry -The Color Wheel 2011

Made in super-grainy black and white, I did wonder why it was titled The Color Wheel. In my first week as a student my class had been forced to paint a color wheel. The main idea behind this being to sear into our collective memories the concept of opposite (complementary) colours.

Color wheels are all about opposites and Colin and JR might see themselves in this way. JR slates Colin for giving up on his dreams of being a writer and taking on a boring job. He criticises her for thinking she’s special when she clearly has no talent and not bothering to work.

They’ve both had a dream, though, and they clearly have much in common, from sharing the same family through to their near-identical misanthropic worldviews.

But the real reason for the title has nothing to do with color wheels. When he began developing a serious interest in cinema, Alex Ross Perry asked his parents what was the first film he’d ever seen. He was told it was The Color Wheel. Fifteen years later he looked up the title on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) and nothing with that name was listed.

He’d wanted entirely original titles for his films, and it sounded like a Philip Roth novel like The Ghost Writer and The Anatomy Lesson, so he adopted the name. Perry’s a big fan of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer and read a number of his novels while working on the screenplay for The Color Wheel.

Now, a word on the poster. The beautifully rendered double portrait is painted in acrylic by Perry’s then partner Anna Bak-Kvapil (now his wife). Anna, incidentally, also played Kim Thomson in the film as well as taking on a number of duties such as set decorator and script supervisor.

The typeface is (or closely resembles) Benguiat Caslon, the go-to serif font in the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s for bestselling books like Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Joan Didion’s The White Album and that man Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (which like The Color Wheel dealt with a controversial subject matter). Here is the poster again together with the first edition cover of the Roth novel.

Portnoy's Complaint & The Color Wheel

I did have a quick look on eBay to see if there were any quad posters up for auction but no luck. A pity. It would have looked great on my bedroom wall.

Finally, here’s the song that plays over the end credits. With its mumblecore feel I half expected something lo-fi and quirky. Wrong.

Released in 1972 on the Cotillion label, this is Chicago’s Patti & The Lovelites with the gorgeous Is That Loving in Your Heart: