I recently had the dubious pleasure of watching The Color Wheel, Alex Ross Perry’s ultra-indie, ultra-incesty road trip movie. I say dubious, not because of the “shocking” climactic scene for which it has garnered renown/infamy, but rather because, up to this moment, I found it to be little more than a substandard bit of posturing by a bunch of posers trying to make a Mumblecore movie while still wearing their Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and Vincent Gallo influences on their sleeves. Sort of an American indie movie version of Kasabian – mildly diverting but infuriatingly unoriginal. But, as somebody predisposed towards The Stone Roses and Britpop, I could never truly hate their inferior imitators from Leicester. In that vein, I still found something to enjoy in a 2011 American movie shot on black and white 16mm film stock about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her nerdy brother taking a road trip. With inevitable quirky consequences. Obviously.
That’s not to say that up until the now famous climatic scene The Color Wheel is entirely without merit. As unoriginal and obvious as its appearance might be, the black and white does look great and evokes an appealing, albeit self-conscious, indie sensibility. And there is an element of pathos underpinning the party sequence in which JR, the female protagonist, tries to convince her former schoolmates that she is a success and on her way to being a news anchor and is not simply an unemployed loser.
Nevertheless, the self-conscious quirkiness does begin to grate after a while and the clearly improvised dialogue is unconvincing at best and embarrassing at worst*. One particular scene, in which JR taunts a middle-aged, respectable looking lady who she and her brother heard having sex in an adjacent motel room the night before, is so amateurish and unfunny that it’s hard to understand how anyone could have thought that it would be a good idea to keep it in the final edit. And one of the characters during the party sequence does a pretty shameless Chris Eigeman impersonation that made me both squirm with embarrassment and wish that I was watching Metropolitan, Barcelona or Last Days of Disco.
This brings me to the “shocking moment”. I don’t wish to spoil the film for anyone yet to see it but suffice to say, it is shocking. Believe me. I think that most people that have seen it, myself included, are vaguely aware of what is going to occur. This perhaps adds to the impact of the scene. I’m not sure. Still, it has an incredible tension that builds and builds as the audience gradually realise what is about to happen. The build-up makes for an unbelievably compelling piece of viewing – particularly when we take into account the unremarkable seventy odd minutes that preceded it. I am convinced that this scene, of no more than five or six minutes in length, elevates the film from a piece of indie fluff to a genuinely interesting and original bit of cinema.
Anyway, the experience of watching The Color Wheel got me thinking about other films that are predicated on a moment at their end. Those movies with narratives that are structured in a way that could be described as the opposite of front loaded. I don’t mean twists in the conventional sense. Right at Your Door, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense are enhanced by the revelations that they are building up to but ultimately these twists are just narrative tricks designed to shock the audience. Far better examples are King of Comedy and the Hong Kong cop movie, Expect the Unexpected. I previously wrote about Expect the Unexpected here and it is a film that is structured entirely around its penultimate scene. King of Comedy is an even more fascinating example of this type of film. In the final moments when we finally see Rupert Pupkin perform his routine, everything that has occurred up to this point now makes sense. Not only does it reveal that he actually is a talented performer but the undercurrent of tragedy in his routine indicates the possible source for his previously borderline sociopathic behaviour.
As a protagonist Pupkin tests the patience of the audience. His dogged persistence, ambition and refusal to be browbeaten by society’s conventions of normal behaviour do challenge our sympathies as he continues to put himself and those around him in precarious and dangerous situations. But this routine is such an unexpectedly positive and revealing moment that it completely alters our perception of this trying and unusual anti-hero.
One might also consider The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo’s much maligned 2004 effort, to be of this type. Like The Color Wheel, Gallo’s second effort as a director garnered attention for a shocking climax, which involved Chloe Sevigny performing seemingly unsimulated oral sex on Gallo. This is followed by the revelation that she was already raped and killed at a party attended by the two of them a year earlier as he looked on, unwilling and unable to come to her aid. The oral sex segment and the following revelation that she is already dead follow an hour and a half of the camera following Gallo essentially just driving around. What is interesting about this ending is that the film does not appear to be heading in this direction. For ninety minutes it’s a meandering, mood piece before becoming a sexy potboiler in its final moments. Anyway, it’s an interesting movie and one that was unfairly maligned by critics. But if you do watch it for God’s sakes don’t just skip straight to the blow job scene!
I guess when you think about it though, most movies are like this (i.e. the ending is always important). Which would make most of what I’ve written complete bollocks. Oh well.
*According to Wikipedia the dialogue was entirely scripted and not at all improvised. I remain unconvinced.