August 26, 2016

Explore Director Alex Ross Perry's Dysfunctional Cinematic Universe

It's difficult to classify the style of cinema of director Alex Ross Perry, but one word that comes to mind is "dysfunction."

Though not the most prolific filmmakers of our time, director Alex Ross Perry has made a lot with a little. Aesthetically vintage, character-driven, and slow-burning, his films look and feel different, as if they were created in some other time. And perhaps, in a way, they were.

Fandor video essayist Kevin B. Lee put together a beautiful montage of Perry's four films, Impolex, The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, and Queen of Earth which gives you a short glimpse inside his psychologically unbound world.

https://vimeo.com/179686473

Though wholly and unmistakably original, Perry, a devout cinephile, is very much a product of his influences. As you can see from his Top 10 list of Criterion films, he pulls inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the rule-breaking directors of the 1960s French New Wave film movement, as well as the 1960s-1970s work of the father of independent film himself, John Cassavetes.

His color choices, classic camera techniques, and even his use of 16mm film are a large part of what make Perry's films so distinctive. The Color Wheel, for example, looks like it was shot in 1960s Paris on the street adjacent to the set of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. And Queen of Earth appears to be a tribute to 1970s psychodramas.

In this The New York Times video, Perry breaks down the anatomy of a scene from Queen of Earth, citing (many times) Roman Polanski as a major influence in the look and feel of the film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGLJpkqw0k4

However, Perry's visuals aren't the only things that make him an auteur in his own right. The other major factor is his approach to telling stories—slowly letting the narrative unfold to reveal psychologically unstable characters unravel as they deal with their dysfunctional relationships.

Again, his influences conveniently connect the dots between Perry and this seemingly untethered brand of filmmaking. Included in his Top 10 list are boundary-pushing auteurs Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, and David Cronenberg, as well as character-driven filmmaker Wes Anderson, all of whom appear to have laid hands upon his narratives.

'Listen Up Philip' (2014)

But his use of homage may not simply be a result of being inspired and influenced by great filmmakers, but perhaps instead a creative choice. In fact, in her article for Senses of Cinema, Brigitta Wagner suggests that this is actually Perry's intentional approach to filmmaking, describing it as the "art of citational cinema" and "cinematic déjà vû." She explains:

Rather than hiding in his references, Perry revels in them and wants you to share in the glee. Fassbinder, check. Woody Allen, check. Roman Polanski, check. A pinch, I would argue, of Whit Stillman-esque fascination with affluence. And, as the Scandinavian critics were eager to point out after the press screening, a good dose of Ingmar Bergman. This isn’t what Perry, a gifted original screenwriter, has to doit’s one pleasure that cinema affords: the familiar. Not seeing something once and for the first time, but sensing that you’ve been here, somehow before. Cinematic déjà vû.

'The Color Wheel' (2011)

Perhaps the best evidence of his "citational cinema" lies in the kinds of stories he likes to tell and the kinds of characters he likes to explore. In Wagner's interview, he states:

I’m interested in lonely people, specifically lonely people going through the worst time in their lives. 

We all know that one of the hardest parts about being lonely is the familiar—trying to move forward in hopes for something better, while the past keeps biting at your heels—and maybe Perry knows it, too.      

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