Alex Ross Perry and I are at the tail end of a long discussion about his career when I finally ask him why his movies are so obsessed with loneliness. And then we talked about Paul Schrader.
Perry, 30, is speaking to me on the eve of the release of his third film, Listen Up Philip. Which is to say, he’s speaking to me on the eve of what will be one of the defining moments of his career as a popular artist: After two earlier films that met with acclaim but not audiences, Perry now has Philip playing nationally (the film opened in New York last Friday and debuted on VOD today.) Philip was also part of the main slate for the 52nd annual New York Film Festival (where it was declared by many critics one of the best of the fest) and gained early traction after a lauded world premiere at Sundance. It’s entirely possible that more people will see this movie within a couple weeks of its general release than have seen Perry’s first two films to-date. This hardly seems the career’s peak, either: During our conversation, Perry makes reference to multiple upcoming films he has planned, including one, Queen of Earth, that he’s already in the process of editing.
To hear him tell it, Perry’s path to this milestone was one riddled with rejection, marked consistently by setbacks and dissatisfactions, and characterized by an almost complete lack-of-support. It’s not entirely unlike a Paul Schrader narrative.
A lifelong movie-watcher (He recalls using eBay to track down the complete Hitchcock canon during his first year in high school,) and student filmmaker (he also created a weekly video program with his friends during those high school years, working “three hours per day after school” on the amateur movies), Perry attended NYU film school only to find both the devotion of his peers and the insights of his professors sorely lacking.
“In 2006, what they’re teaching at NYU is a model of getting yourself in the door that I learned, very quickly, was already 10 years obsolete,” Perry recounted, talking about how little the school did to prepare him for the filmmaking career to follow. “Which is: You’re going to make your 15-to-30-minute thesis film, and this is it for you. If it’s perfect, within two years you’re making a $4 million indie. And if it’s a disaster, then you’ll never get that chance.
“At this point, I had nothing else to believe other than, If this thesis is perfect, and if I have a feature-length script that expands upon it, then my path is easy. That’s what they taught us—because, up until 2001, that was probably true. By the time I’m a senior in 2006, though, it’s not true—but then, no one teaching there in 2006 knows that, because they’ve been sitting in a classroom for the past ten years teaching.”
In need of an alternative career path, and no doubt attracted by the expanse of its archive, Perry began working at the iconic NYC video store Kim’s. And if there’s a buck in this loner-artist narrative we’re concocting, this is where it happens: It was at Kim’s that Perry—as a customer, and later as a fellow employee—became acquainted with Sean Price Williams, a cinematographer seven years his senior. Williams eventually invited Perry to a showing of Frownland, an indie film he had photographed. Invigorated by the concept of micro-budget filmmaking (at the time, Perry was hardly immersed in the American independent filmmaking scene, so this mode of working was indeed a revelation to him), Perry quit his job, collected a budget from friends and family, brought Williams and a number of other Kim’s cohorts on board, and directed his first picture.
The resulting movie—Impolex—is a 70-minute forest-set comedy, surreal and absurd in a purposefully ramshackle sort of way, that borrows narrative cues from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and an overwhelmingly green visual aesthetic from Godard’s Weekend. It’s also the first artistic manifestation of Perry’s continued interest in the melancholically alone. Overly ambitious by design, the film seems to revel in its own inscrutability: Perry, who now describes the undertaking as an act of “blind youthful arrogance and ignorance,” was certain that the quasi-adaptation would instantaneously find a cult audience ready to vibe on its purposefully obtuse literary rhythms.
“I was absolutely convinced that this was a movie that the world needed to have,” he explained. “[I believed that] people would really benefit from me creating this film. That it was my duty to make this film a reality. [My thinking was,] Of course. This is going to be a huge, widely seen cult film. Everyone’s going to love it.”
Everybody didn’t love Impolex, because nobody saw it. Though met with positive notices at a number of small and “underground” film festivals, Impolex—which the world seemed to need so desperately!—was never distributed to the general public. (Perry, undoubtedly proud of the movie, still works to get the film–which he refers to as a “great stupid idea”–out to the public. Though currently unavailable commercially, it’s likely to show up as an extra feature on a future DVD.)
Lacking in attention though not in confidence, Perry moved directly onto his second film, undaunted by the unrealized ambitions of his debut picture. Having traveled the festival circuit with Impolex, he now had some context regarding the American independent scene that he found himself a part of. That gave him ideas.
“The Color Wheel,” Perry says, referring to his second professional feature, “was my snarky rebuttal to the clichés I saw being celebrated – large and small – in independent cinema. It was a rebuttal to what people think passes for relevant and interesting independent cinema.”
Categorizing The Color Wheel as a satire-of-the-indie-scene is easy enough, but it doesn’t manage to get at what about the film shocked critics so. That would be the “unwinking-but-conscious, devil-may-care Moulletian shoddiness” of its ragtag aesthetics, to borrow a sentence from long-time Perry advocate Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. If Impolex allowed Perry an entry into the world of Weekend, then let’s say that The Color Wheel was his Breathless: A grainy, black-and-white portrait of aimless youth, shot with all the energy and vigor that its complacent main characters (Perry himself and Carlen Altman, as a pair of 20-something siblings equally alienated from the workaday worlds of their peers) seemed to lack.
“I saw these goofy, charming, bicker-y, twee comedies really hitting a chord with people. I thought, I want to do one of those. [The Color Wheel] will be my take on that genre. Which is, you know, an atrociously grainy, retro-throwback kind of movie. One that starts with those indie clichés – which I have no tolerance for or interest in – and then quickly takes a left turn into unexpected territory … I was amazed what movies people were getting really worked up about. I wanted to do something that people would think was like one of those [feel-good] indie movies, until all of a sudden, it’s not.”
The Color Wheel–perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the above-quoted description–also failed to find significant distribution. The film doesn’t meet its creator’s own high standards, either: Perry often remarks that he’s dissatisfied with the finished product. (“We just didn’t have unilateral coherence on Color Wheel,” he noted after our interview, via email. “And also, I was 25 when I made it, so naturally it is full of decisions I can no longer justify or even watch without squirming.”) Which isn’t to say the film’s release didn’t bring with it significant professional upsides. To wit: After Wheel, HBO retained Perry to work on a series of 13-minute shorts for them, collected under the title of The Traditions.
Originally slated for a digital release, the shorts—which starred Perry himself and regular collaborator Kate Lyn Sheil—were eventually shelved by HBO, leaving the project permanently unreleased and unfinished. (Perry has shot seven mini episodes of varying length, and the narrative, as it stands, ends on a cliffhanger.) Months of work ended up rendering itself as nothing more than a practice session. A valuable practice session, though: Perry now positions Traditions as a “warm-up” for Philip; a venue through which he developed his techniques up to an “A-level.”
”In no real way are they similar, but at the center of both [Philip and Traditions] is a couple that has a lot of arguments. And we tried some ways of shooting and blocking in Traditions that, to me, seemed totally solid. And they did not all sync. It was not elegant. So I was really glad, when we started plotting out Philip in pre-production, that I had gotten some of these impulses out of my system on something that, at that point, I knew nobody was going to see. Because otherwise, they all would have ended up in Listen Up Philip. And it would have been less exciting had these B-level ideas ended up in a film that I think has nothing but A-level ideas. It was good to have a warm-up.”
Philip, which concerns the narcissistic actions of the titular author and his older mentor-slash-cohort, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce,) is another study of the pathology of the lonesome-minded. The film watches, with admirable patience and understanding, as its twin male narcissists compulsively eliminate all remaining interpersonal relationships, most of them with once-loved women.
As for those A-level ideas: Working with Williams, Perry uses Philip to establish a visual language of isolation. As his eponymous main character goes through the script’s action, traveling down streets and passing through bedrooms, Perry and William’s camera bobs and weaves around him, occasionally stopping to hang in silence on the faces of the women he so often leaves stunned in his wake. There are maybe two or three total minutes of the film where multiple characters share the frame. For most of the time, Perry instead leaves everyone hopelessly alone, trapped in isolated worlds of their own making, visually and otherwise. (To indulge one of those X + Y comparisons that film writers enjoy so much, Philip feels like a François Truffaut script as filmed by John Cassavetes, with lingual grace and a humanist worldview offset by nasty behavior and violently immediate handheld visual compositions.)
“It felt like the natural fit for a movie about claustrophobic New York City-induced anxiety. Somewhere along the line I remembered that’s how Husbands and Wives looked; we looked at that. We said, Let’s do our version of this. Because this is what it feels like to be trapped in a small apartment, in a city where you’re on top of other people, [even] when you walk down the street. Let’s give the movie claustrophobia, [and] a shaky messiness. Because that’s what New York feels like to me. That’s what the movie should feel like for people. Because that’s the world Philip is trying to escape.”
Like Impolex’s Tyrone S. and Color Wheel’s bitching siblings before him, Philip is another typical Perry ‘protagonist,’ driven by his own loneliness and verbal fury into a self-destructive state of emotional detachment. Perry’s chief talent is not the comedy he mines from this mindset, but rather the grace with which he understands the reasons for its creation and continuation. He doesn’t revel in Philip’s tossed-off insults or misanthropic aphorisms, he diagnoses their cause. Which brings us back to Schrader, and to his parade of lonely men.
“Paul Schrader is one of my favorite directors,” Perry tells me, answering the query mentioned up top with a studied monologue on the filmmaker’s work. “He has this concept that he talks about, when he’s discussing Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Mishima … he’s drawn to this Bressonian concept he calls the ‘man in a room.’ This is a big thing in A Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest, and other Bresson films. [Schrader’s] drawn to the concept of the man in the room, which is to say: A person alone in an environment of their own making. That concept that was very alive to Bresson for very spiritual reasons, and to Schrader, who had a religious background as a Calvinist.
“I have no background like that, yet this is a concept that really excites me. When I hear Schrader articulate that, I realized: Yes. This is why I am drawn to these films. This is a concept I relate to. Maybe it goes back to me being 9 years old, and watching tapes alone in my basement, but it’s something that’s always felt very alive to me. The most cloistered, uncinematic thing, [yet] it’s endlessly alive.”
Perry continued, “I read an interview with Schrader from 30 years ago, and I realized: Ike [Zimmerman] is a man in a room. Philip is a man in his room. This is a concept that just blows my mind. That’s why his films mean so much to me. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it. Maybe it’s because I’m [always] at a movie theater, or at my house, or in a small editing room … I do find myself in enclosed spaces that are all beautiful and poetic in their own ways. And when I’m out on the street, it’s uncomfortable. And unpleasant. And that loneliness seeps everywhere.”