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.