Moving Pictures
Jun 04, 2019, 06:27AM

Perry's Folly

Indie director advocates for Disney by setting up false dichotomy between sports and "nerd culture."

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Alex Ross Perry's 2017 film, Golden Exits, is about as niche as American movies get: set in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, the film follows a group of moneyed, middle-aged people with interesting jobs whose relationships to one another are threatened by the arrival of one's attractive young summer intern. We’re asked to care about very selfish and privileged people, and nothing salacious happens—no sex, no hoopla, just scene after scene of nervous, misjudged interactions, and insufferable monologues. It’s not Perry's best, but has a handful of perfectly directed scenes, and is so insulated and of itself—so mono-fixated on this fairly ordinary milieu, and so small—that I still admire it. The movie, which few have seen, must’ve been a nightmare to sell. Perry himself called it "commercially worthless."

Only 34, Perry has directed six features, all of them stubbornly esoteric and centered around aggressively unlikable characters, films that are uncompromising and the opposite of marketable. In a film culture flooded with franchises, Perry’s a breath of fresh air, an untainted and prolific talent and one of the few young American filmmakers to come along to excite people who think in terms of directors, like me.

So you can imagine my disappointment when he wrote a really shitty article that runs counter to his existence.

In “Alex Ross Perry: Why ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Deserves the Oscar for Best Picture," he argues why it’s actually good that franchise filmmaking has come to dominate movies and the discourse surrounding them. The reasoning is so obtuse and the praise of a mega-corporation like Disney so shamelessly effusive, I assumed it was a troll. But it’s not. I’ve read it over, and Perry even mentions his own nominal past work for Disney and has praised that experience elsewhere. It’s just a bad opinion from a confused person, someone who has perhaps forgotten how precarious the life of art is in the movies, and/or harbors what’s an all too common persecution complex regarding pop culture. Or just someone who has sold out.

Perry begins: “Why was I asked to contribute some words about the release of Avengers: Endgame? What is there I could possibly contribute to the discourse surrounding this film that has taken over culture for the last week? I am not a critic, nor do I have any particular insight to this type of film that would make my opinion stand out above all others. Well, sort of. Full disclosure: Avengers: Endgame, like all Marvel movies is distributed by Disney, for whom I worked on the screenplay of Christopher Robin from 2015-2018. So while I know nothing about the inner workings of Marvel, I do know a fair amount of the production and marketing of Walt Disney Studios movies. But also: I know this as a fan. I love Disney movies, Disney theme parks, and Disney clamshell VHS tapes. So unlike (apparently) a lot of people, I actively root for Disney’s success. I am really intrigued that Disney bought Fox. I am eager to see how many of the top 10 grossing films of the year Disney puts out. I have a lot of friends there at the executive and producer level, and I want the best for them.”

To those unfamiliar with Perry’s work, it’s hard to overstate how bizarre this sounds coming from him, a man whose breakout film, The Color Wheel, ends with a man fucking his sister. Sure, any aesthete must have the capacity to enjoy both high and low culture, but here’s a filmmaker praising a corporation whose agenda is a tolling death knell for artists like him.

What Perry omits is that Disney is not just Iron Man, Disneyland, and clamshell VHS tapes, but a behemoth near-monopoly that now owns everything from Marvel to The Simpsons to the entirety of Fox's back catalogue of films. It also happens to be notoriously stingy when it comes to licensing out properties that aren't absolutely guaranteed to generate a more-than-negligible amount of coin. Perry, the cinephile, the would-be industry insider, should know this. "Rooting" for the monster that’s gobbled up and keeps captive so much of what film lovers hold dear is akin to Stockholm syndrome. But at least he cares about his friends.

He continues: “Also, I would like to see Avengers: Endgame win best picture at the 2020 Oscars. Not because I think there won’t be some Q4 movie with artistic merit and inherent filmmaking quality irrefutably higher. (Or, irrefutably lower but likely to win anyway.) I want this because The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King achieved this in 2004, and there has simply been no other accomplishment in the art (yes, it is an art) of blockbuster studio filmmaking since then that could justifiably warrant such an honor.”

How Perry views the Oscars, I don’t know, he doesn’t say (if they have any value it’s in how they may draw attention to underserved filmmakers, like Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele—or Perry). He hedges by limiting his pronouncement to “blockbuster studio filmmaking,” and doesn’t bother getting into what exactly the film offers in terms of content or craft. All he says is that it’s an “accomplishment,” and the closest he comes to explaining why is that, “We live in a world where the Avengers teaming up one final time... is more culturally relevant, exciting and important than the World Series and Super Bowl combined.”

What Perry expresses clearly is that a monoculture should exist, and that it’s less problematic to have that space occupied by nerd fare like Marvel and Star Wars than sports: “What was once ‘nerd’ culture is now the sole remaining representation of anything resembling a monoculture. I was mercilessly picked on and mocked in middle and high school for wearing X-Men shirts, reading Nintendo Power instead of Sports Illustrated while refusing to participate in gym class, and carrying action figures around in my backpack.”

And later: “When people dismissively bemoan ‘the state of things’ culturally and use Marvel/Disney dominance as their primary target, all I can see is a square, flat-topped father drinking a beer in a barca lounger while the game is on, telling his son to quit playing guitar/painting/writing/reading comic books/daydreaming and get a real job.”

Tellingly, Perry likens video game and comic book fandom to an interest in art and "daydreaming," as if outgrowing the pop culture one consumed as a child is the same as abandoning imagination and self-expression altogether. He offers a straw man argument in which any criticism is displaced by an imagined other who rebuffs all artistic pursuits and interests. This is the most frustrating part of the piece, because it talks over the people who are actually upset about the state of mainstream filmmaking—cinephiles, not sports fans, or whoever else.

Also, the assertion that franchise filmmaking has culturally eclipsed sports is dubious. Hollywood, with its competition from streaming services and its increasingly bloated budgets, is arguably more imperiled than the NFL. And Perry doesn’t say what he believes to be toxic about sports fandom in the first place. Aren’t these movies and the Super Bowl similarly militaristic in their aesthetics? And both rank exercises in branding? Aren’t these movies advertised during NFL games precisely because the latter is so popular and because their markets overlap? And aren’t fans of Marvel at least as likely to antagonize their critics, like we so often see on Twitter? Is any of this what Perry really cares about? Or is it just that he was picked on in school?

Perry simultaneously acknowledges that what was once "nerd culture" has become mainstream, while embodying the curious, bitter defensiveness these movies' partisans typify; it's not enough that they've taken over the multiplex, they need to silence any and all dissent, even if it means mischaracterizing that dissent as jocks, "bullies," or something resembling conservative dads.

Or as pretension: “What this points to is a sort of Möbius strip in which somebody like myself, who rejected and decried ‘popular’ things as a necessary act of adolescent rebellion, have seen a reversal, wherein the things I hated have declined in popularity and the things losers like myself embraced have become the mainstream standard. Now, it’s the ones who once had their tastes validated unquestioned standing up and bemoaning their present marginalization. This displeases them. I suppose this is a more fun position to take when you are 14.”

Again, what the critics of franchise filmmaking bemoan is not the usurping of sports or some similarly macho pastime, but the near disappearance of quality mainstream filmmaking and by extension quality filmmaking in general. Perry is conflating valid, good-faith criticism—among it, that these movies are more like episodes of the same drab TV series than standalone works, with each installment serving as nothing more than an advertisement for the next, whose every director is either an indifferent middle-manager monitoring the brand's house style or is reduced to one—with bullying contrarianism. He doesn't cite examples, only vaguely describes some made-up constituency of bros, implicitly stating that there is no such thing as qualified criticism of these movies, that it all comes from a poseurish distaste of anything that's commercially successful. Obviously something is not innately bad because it’s popular, but surely Perry understands that its popularity doesn't necessarily mean that it's good.

And it’s not as if critics have their knives out for these films. They laud every release and write the equivalent of unpaid studio copy with few exceptions. (Endgame currently holds 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) I'm sure that Perry, more than an actual fanboy on Twitter, would countenance a mildly critical review of one of these films, but that's the worst any of them get, and it's not bad enough—they’re graded on a curve, either because the critics fear retaliation or because they’re inured to mediocrity. The films are scrupulously brand-managed and as a result are effectively critic-proof; by design, they are only ever measured against each other and not an independent understanding of what a movie can or should be.

It wasn't always this way. Perry, who seems so hamstrung by nostalgia, once again, should know that. But let’s assume, even though this all sounds like it was written at gunpoint, that Perry’s argument isn’t cynical. He told Entertainment Weekly he loves “seamless, clockwork, efficient studio blockbuster entertainment,” and he loves to see and support it. Whatever you may think of that, fine. But if you claim to care about big-budget Hollywood spectacle or a “monoculture,” and deny that today’s blockbusters pale in comparison to ones made even just 10 years ago, you’re perjuring yourself. Art aside, mainstream entertainment has undeniably gotten worse, and it’s because of the model created by Marvel and other franchises. Every superhero movie is a series of gestures pointing at itself and the other missives in its franchise. Every classic Disney film—the ones Perry had in those clamshell boxes of yore—that’s remembered for its charming and virtuosic flights of animation is being remade as a gruesomely photorealistic, “live action” night terror of itself. And every character from the dustbin of cultural memory, from Pikachu to Sonic the Hedgehog, is being revived and turned into a simpering, snarky little douche bag, farting and making references to other pop culture, other garbage, a depressed pomo feedback loop with an obnoxious tone of voice, sounding in your ear, stomping on your face, forever. It’s at once cultural death and a portal to hell.

One last quote from the article: “Why be so negative about the entertainment that is fully culturally dominant and very pleasurable to millions? This is being a bully, slamming me into a metaphorical locker and screaming ‘nerd.’”

Perry, now likening criticism to violence, is embarrassing himself.

And it’s the things we, the cinephiles, like are that are actually under siege, films that are premised not on prefab enthusiasm and brands but on personal visions. Disney is holding hostage not only the future of filmmaking but a sizable chunk of the canon, and you come to their defense? And against whom?

I’m inclined to believe that Perry’s incoherent on purpose. He’s intentionally obfuscating who Marvel and Disney’s actual critics are and their arguments. The reason could be that Perry, like many fans of these franchises, feels compelled to strike back at any perceived threat to the media that comprise his taste. But Perry’s taste is far from limited to these films, so I find that hard to believe. More likely is that Perry is one of those people who sees an appreciation for something as popular as Avengers: Endgame as a sign in and of itself of their own vast and open-minded—and superior—critical intelligence, that even he, maker of Allen-esque chamber dramas, can find something of value in something as frivolous as a superhero movie, a kind of backdoor condescension bore of misplaced guilt over making films as challenging as his own. Or maybe he just likes those Christopher Robin residuals, and all that convoluted argumentation is nothing but a smokescreen covering his ass.

In an interview with Vague Visages last year, following the release of Golden Exits, Perry said, “I still feel that making a movie is humiliating. That’s not different now. Even Golden Exits is a movie that mostly exists because of favors, which are always humiliating to ask for, and they’re especially humiliating to ask for when you’re making your fifth movie. I didn’t think we would still be having producers ask their friends if we could shoot in their house for, like, no money. I assumed by now I would be past begging for that kind of favor, but I was apparently wrong. Now, I just acknowledge that that’s a fact of life, and I don’t mind, and I move on.”

It’s a fact of life. Movies are expensive, and movies are a business. Commerce will always be hostile to art. Independent filmmakers need to understand this. But Perry either doesn’t understand why this is, has forgotten, or has changed. He has friends at Disney and his next film will be a Stephen King adaptation. This new, more commercial project may be good, great, or part of a "one for me, one for them" sort of a deal, but what about the rest of us? The artist suffers, and is humiliated, because "popularity" and "relevance" are not the same as art. Art disrupts and is messy and hard to pigeonhole. It's rarely marketable. Perry, based on his films, is an artist, so this stings. No one wins, no one but the moneymen.

This is the system we inherited, and I begrudge no one for playing the game. If Perry wants to transition into bigger-budget filmmaking, that's his prerogative, and his work may remain as uncompromising as his indies. But does he have to go out of his way to praise the monster? Does he have to give it a big wet kiss in the press, unprompted? It's a bad look.


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