So my local arthouse has a new series of microbudget American indie movies. They're calling it "Homebrewed," which seems appropriate, I guess. There's nothing wrong with a DIY aesthetic, if that's what they mean to invoke. I mean, George Miller edited Mad Max in his kitchen, after all, though that's probably reaching for an analogue. In any case, I'm going into these movies blind, with no expectations.
The Color Wheel (2011), the first film in the series, unspooled tonight with a Skype Q&A after with director/star Alex Ross Perry. It literally unspooled: the film was shot on 16mm rather than digitally, and there's a fine use of the graininess of 16mm film, particularly in some of the landscape shots. It's not a movie about landscapes, per se. I think the landscapes are even meant ironically, because this movie is otherwise about small, petty human concerns. Very petty, actually. It's a brutally unpleasant movie that asks the audience to spend 84 minutes with a bickering brother and sister who don't even bother couching their barbs in snark. They're a right pair of monsters, and this movie is raw, pulsing id. It's shockingly funny, too. That's good, because otherwise, it might be unendurable.
This is essentially a buddy road trip comedy, in which Colin (Perry) and his sister, J R (co-writer Carlen Altman) drive from Philadelphia to Boston so J R can retrieve her belongings from the home of her ex-boyfriend, who also happens to be her journalism professor. The structure of the movie is a picaresque, in which various stops along the way give the two of them more opportunities to direct their invective at each other and at a world that increasingly seems even worse than they are. This includes a motel where the Christian manager won't rend to them unless they're married, so they feign matrimonial bliss; the confrontation with Neil, her professor, in which JR is laid bare as a climber who only connects with people if they can give her something, though her professor is as unpleasant as she is (maybe moreso), and the most uncomfortable party ever put on film, in which the nicest person in the room happens to be faking a case of polio in order to loaf his way through marriage and where other characters are outright hateful. There's an overall regeneration through emotional violence in this movie, and this all builds to a moment that is kind of a shock (I'll refrain from spoiling it), though kind of inevitable, too.
This is a pretty bare bones production, shot lo fi, but capable of visual panache. This isn't a movie that really needs production values, though. It's a talking movie, and all it really needs is actors and dialogue. The dialogue is highly stylized, which suits the fact that its two leads are only a step above amateurs. They both have a stilted kind of delivery that would foil more naturalistic dialogue, but it works with the cascade of cruelty that stumbles out of them. For their part, they seem to be aware of this and play it up at times. The movies this reminds me of most are the early films from the Prague Spring--Loves of a Blonde, for instance--in which resources are scarce and horror is laced with humor and vice versa.
There's a kind of post-Great Recession anomie laced throughout The Color Wheel. Colin still lives at home. J R is rootless, without a real home of her own. Colin's job is unworthy of his education. J R wants a job for which she has to exert the least amount of effort to either obtain or actually do. Neither of them has a normal sex life, if there even is such a thing anymore. Old-style American values don't apply, and this is nowhere more evident than in the party scene, in which J R is humiliated by her lack of a "real" job by a bunch of people who are even more cruel than she is and in which the "steady" guy in the room turns out to be a bigger fraud than anyone. The people in this movie all look normal, but they're all ultimately grotesques.