Among the few wholly uncompromised artists working in American independent cinema today, Alex Ross Perry (b. 1984) has written and directed a series of compelling, sharp-edged films focused on unconventional characters whose dark intelligence and vulnerabilities only reveal themselves gradually. The struggling artists deromanticized in two key films best embody the complexly multilayered portraiture central to Perry’s cinema. If the arrogant, narcissistic young novelist in Listen Up Philip and the self-destructive grunge star in Her Smell are unabashedly “difficult” characters of a kind only rarely seen in contemporary American cinema, they are also difficult in unexpected ways that enrich and challenge the viewer’s understanding of the subtly shifting desires and relationships that animate the films. Talented yet insecure, their inability to appreciate elusive success and weather inevitable failure renders both writer and musician unexpectedly sympathetic and especially sensitive to the empty accolades and petty rivalries that are the daily bread of the artistic communities observed askance by Perry, who himself has yet to be invited behind the carefully guarded velvet ropes of so-called “indie cinema.”
As author and songwriter, the chipped antiheroes of both Listen Up Philip and Her Smell make clear the subversive charge given to language and dialogue by Perry’s screenplays, here by using dark humor and aggressive wordplay to detonate expected codes of performance and social rituals, upturning cocktail party banter and intimate conversations alike. The halting rhythm and acerbic understatement refined by Perry’s dialogue aptly captures the queasy tensions girding the familial or family-like relationships that recur across his films; the brother and sister on the road in The Color Wheel, the inter-nested neighborhood couples in Golden Exits, the frenemies of Queen of Earth, the band members of Her Smell. Perry’s breakthrough film The Color Wheel announced his rare ability to carefully simmer inter-relational tensions with a seemingly casual disregard, threading the deadpan waiting time of its road movie story with jittery comedic sparks until its strangely cathartic and uneasy ending. Intimacy cuts deep in Perry’s films, leaving lasting scars and neuroses that metastasize and bloom like hothouse flowers, gifting his characters with dark dimensions only partially revealed.
An ardent, indefatigable cinephile who spent formative years working in New York’s legendary Kim’s Video—alongside his longtime cinematographer Sean Price Williams—Perry channels the edgy, inventive cinema forged by a storied cast of master directors that includes Altman, Bergman, Fassbinder, May, Polanski, Rohmer and Jerry Lewis. While the sweaty, anxious and performatively liberated films of the Seventies remain an important touchstone for Perry, his influences are equally literary as cinematic, with Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon and, above all, Philip Roth, hovering like guiding stars high above the willfully crooked paths forged by his films to date. An open secret to Perry’s steady productivity and consistency of tone and rhythm is his long-term collaboration with prolific cinematographer Williams and, more recently, editor Robert Greene, himself an accomplished documentarian. Shooting always on film, with a striking lyricism and understanding of natural light, Williams shares Perry’s deep commitment to the rigor and poetry of film as film, and to the subtle magic of the photochemical image. – Haden Guest
For his first visit to the Harvard Film Archive, Perry has selected four films from the Archive’s vast collection, personal touchstones and objects of strange cinematic desire offered here as portals into the fertile imagination of a singular artist who draws creative sustenance from the deep well of film history.
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome Alex Ross Perry as a 2019-20 Baby Jane Holzer Visiting Fellow in Film in partnership with the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies and the Theater, Dance, and Media Program.