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The Middlebrow Rebellion of Alex Ross Perry

Among his generation of late-millennial filmmakers, Alex Ross Perry is one of the hardest to get a read on. While his late-30s New York contemporaries often fall into neater categories, Perry is difficult to pin down because his influences are so broad, his style so unique, and his decisions so unpredictable that he resists easy labeling. Trying to follow the plot of his career is tricky- how exactly did the guy who made acidic no-budget comedies about nuclear war and [REDACTED]  write a movie about Winnie the Pooh? 

Perry is nothing if not an iconoclast, and his unashamed reference points are all over the map. The domestic dramas of Rohmer, Cassavetes, and Bergman, carry just as much weight as the literary worlds of Pynchon and Philip Roth; he’s spoken at great length of his love for both Nora Ephron and Paul Verhoven. Perry’s casts are eclectic- they include prestige TV stars, Wes Anderson favorites, Beastie Boys, and in one infamous example, himself. His dialogue is far from naturalistic, and the word salad he puts his actors through sits in opposition to the camerawork of Sean Price Williams, Perry’s DP on all of his films and a vital piece of his puzzle. Williams’ camera is usually hazy, soft, and close, keeping any of the heady verbal sparring from feeling too stately. 

Perry’s films often work in spite of themselves, both in the watching and in the making- Perry is notorious for touting his ability to work with small budgets, and even threatened to retire after the financial failure of his most recent film, 2018’s Her Smell. This dichotomy is the best summation of all that makes Perry fascinating- his rebellious streak is one that cries out for something traditional, lamenting the death of middlebrow mid-budget cinema and his place in it with the fervor of an arthouse zealot. It’s here that I find something exciting, and something to latch onto in his unique career- I can only hope that perhaps you’ll find that too. 

An Essential: Her Smell (2018)

All Parts: A Review of Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell | Newcity Film

Her Smell is the best Alex Ross Perry film by a good margin. This is not to knock any of his other films, but it would be silly to ignore this film’s power and its status as the culmination of Perry’s career so far. It’s a whirlwind story about a fictional grunge band helmed by Elisabeth Moss at her most unchecked, combining over the top scenarios with a neat five-act structure. The unraveling of an unwell woman becomes the undoing of a lifetime of pain and a career of success, as Moss’ Becky Something sucks everyone around her into a harrowing vortex. Perry’s best idea was to focus on a fictional band, eschewing the facts of any one person for the larger spiritual truth of a moment in time and the universal truths of damaged people with large stages. 

Moss gets to be both Courtney and Kurt, and she’s also tapped into a larger cinematic tradition as well, especially channeling Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The film zooms in on individual moments, cutting away needless context or exposition in favor of letting us infer the painful events that occur between sections. The film bears a few similarities to Uncut Gems– both late-10s portraits of powerful and dangerous people, both intent on stressing you the hell out- but Perry diverts from the Safdie brothers by both redeeming the protagonist and setting it up so that you don’t want that to happen. Some critics asked what exactly was the purpose of the film, but if you’re intrigued by intimate character studies, bold acting, and backstage music drama, the overall experience of the film is nothing to question. 

Next Step: Listen Up Philip (2014)

Listen Up Philip review | Sight & Sound | BFI

Perry’s breakout starts out as a ridiculous farce at the expense of petulant intellectuals and New York City writer types before melting into a slow and somber look at emotional isolation and the danger of following your indulgences too far. The loaded cast (Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter) and sepia-toned visuals set the stage for brittle comedy and intrigue, while the structure undercuts the expectations of festival-friendly indie films, a favorite trick of Perry’s (more on that later). Eric Bogosian’s narration sets up a charming and spry little black comedy, but when the perspective shifts from Schwartzman’s Philp to Moss’ Ashley, the film morphs into something more emotionally curious and sentimental. 

A Deep Cut: The Color Wheel (2011)

The Color Wheel,' Directed by Alex Ross Perry - The New York Times

Perry’s second film is the only one to star himself, and the darkness and unlikeability of both his character and the film itself brings to mind a legend about why Martin Scorsese cast himself as the horribly racist freak in Taxi Driver– the answer being that he didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else to say those lines. Perry and Carlen Altman, the cowriter and costar of the film, play a brother-sister duo who are completely unlovable, both abounding in casual racism, cruelty, and open disregard for social niceties. Perry creates a brilliant and caustic portrait of family bonds and emotional sickness that knowingly inverts the types of road trip rom-coms that get eaten up at Sundance, creating a transgressive and upsetting experience by doing what he does best- stripping the core from a well-trod exterior and replacing it with something broken.