My Own Worst Enemy: The Cinema of Alex Ross Perry

I finally watched Her Smell, the latest from Alex Ross Perry. I had missed it in theaters to my own detriment, it only played for like a week though, in my defense. But I finally got to watch it this week, and I just had the same thought I had after watching every other Perry film I’ve seen: “Why isn’t this guy a bigger deal?” I’ve often described Alex Ross Perry as what Noah Baumbach would be like if Noah Baumbach didn’t suck. His films are similarly wordy works about neurotic, self-destructive characters – but they’re actually good and his characters and dialogue are actually good and informative about the characters. What a concept, right?!

The first film of his that I watched was Queen of Earth, and it was one of those films where as soon as the first shot happened, I knew I was going to love this film. It’s an intense close-up on Elisabeth Moss’s character as her boyfriend breaks up with her after the death of her mother. It’s all one take, the camera never cuts to the boyfriend, we just focus on her as she experiences one of the lowest moments of her life. And because it’s Moss we’re looking at, it’s captivating. The rest of the film is just entrancing and gripping, you’re watching two great actresses in Moss and Katherine Waterston just go blow-for-blow for 90 minutes. Over the years I’ve watched some of his other films and like any great auteur, you can identify the common themes and ideas flow through each one. Perry makes films about characters who are vain, self-destructive, can’t fight their worst impulses and quite simply are their own worst enemy.

I still have to watch his first two films, The Color Wheel and Impolex, but his other work supports his auteur status as they explore the many ways humans just can’t help themselves from their worst impulses. Listen Up, Philip is one of those films that I deeply relate to and it’s probably not a good thing that I deeply relate to it. Jason Schwartzman’s Philip is one of the most vain and self-indulgent characters I’ve seen this decade, and he and Perry make the film just hilarious as Philip awaits the publication of his next novel while trying to find the creative space to worship himself. As much as you want to hate this guy the whole film, you’re having such a great time laughing your ass off the farther Philip goes up his own. Golden Exits is Perry’s only ensemble work, and creates a diaspora of characters trying their best to not follow their worst impulses while intellectualizing their thoughts in wordy dialogue. Her Smell follows Becky (Elisabeth Moss), a self-destructive punk rock idol who falls further into depression and addiction as she tries to mount her comeback in a punk scene that has passed her by. My only knock on Her Smell is that it’s really fucking long (2 and half hours), but at the same time, I don’t know what I would cut from it. It all belongs in there. Perry writes Moss some of her wordiest, draining dialogue that she just chews through in such magnificence. She makes all these intellectual, deranged ramblings sound authentic and off-the-cuff as if she improvised them on the spot. In a better world, she would be a lock for a best actress nod at the Oscars this year.

Perry and Moss are perhaps the most underrated director/actress pairing working right now, having done three films together now with Moss in the lead for the last two. He does his muse justice unlike Baumbach. Greta Gerwig is a terrific actress (and now an exciting director!) that has gone to waste in terrible roles for Noah Baumbach films. Moss is without a doubt one of the better actresses right now, she has never mailed in a performance, not once. Perry has worked with her on some of her best work, truly allowing her to be the powerhouse force of nature that she is. I don’t want this whole column to be about how much better Alex Ross Perry is at making films than Noah Baumbach, but I could go on all day about it. After every film from Perry, I’m just stunned we don’t throw this guy up into the same sphere of fame and notoriety and success that Baumbach occupies. I just don’t get it. Sean Price Williams is Perry’s longtime cinematographer, and is always delivering fantastic work while becoming one of the best working DPs (He shot Good Time as well and should have gotten an Oscar nod for it). His mastery of the grain in 16mm and 35mm film is exhilarating to watch, his camera flowing around aimlessly or grounding in focus to conjure a sense of terror.

My main point here is, write down Alex Ross Perry’s name. Check out his work. If you watched a Baumbach film and thought “Gee, this would be great if it didn’t suck.” I got a filmmaker for you. As an added bonus, he continually works with one of the best actresses and cinematographers around! His films are these talky character studies that remind of some of prime Woody Allen in how they dissect and attack these characters who can’t help themselves against their deficiencies and make it all relatable, entertaining and gripping. Perry is one of those filmmakers I’m always down to watch, I’ll always be in line for what he does next, and I just hope you’ll join me there.

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