Starting today, the reRun Gastropub Theater gives a weeklong run to Impolex, the 2009 first film by the Brooklynite Alex Ross Perry (Tisch ’06), whose Philip Roth-influenced The Color Wheel just garnered quite a bit of positive attention at BAMcinemaFest. Impolex is pretty clearly his Pynchon movie: it’s a shaggy-dog story about an amnesiac, banana-scarfing GI named Tyrone S., in search of an elusive V2 rocket—and furthermore, the film has that Pynchonian sense of American history, and its cultural representations, as a fathomless, perplexing and sinisterly interconnected warren of scabrously funny nonsequitur.
Unshaven, red-eyed Riley O’Bryan plays Tyrone, helmet askew as he stumbles through a forest with a black and white checked rocket under his arm: Laszlo 0001, and he needs to find 0000, or at least he thinks he does—he’s having trouble remembering his mission. He trips over branches and his own shoes, drops the rocket at semiregular intervals, and sings improvised lyrics: “You… and me… and paranoia makes threeeeee” (while the soundtrack plays scratchy big-band ballads like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). His obsession—his increasingly existential quest for the roots of the nuclear arms race—is undercut repeatedly. He wears a pig’s mask sometimes, and burns documents for no clear reason; the film embodies its madness with random, silly jokes, getting at the feverishly unhinged everything’s-mysteriously-connected logic of the all-encompassing quest without taking it seriously.
The woods are pretty clearly upstate NY or Pennsylvania, shot from different angles and at times of day by DP Sean Price Williams in mobile, tree-dodging long takes—it’s resourceful, but also proudly amateur: when the cast plays double roles with different accents and faces obscured, it’s perhaps something of a joke on the gee-whiz backyard war movies made by enterprising young genre geeks, as well as a weird little cul-de-sac of Tyrone’s unstable perceptions.
The people he encounters are, at least partly, psychic projections: an eyepatched Brit who explains the rare-earth hypothesis (avoiding eye contact, O’Reilly mutters, Good theory, good theory) and later reappears to recite the wikipedia entry for ambergris; a rifle-toting Eastern European rocket scientist; and a talking, bubble-domed octopus, voiced by Eugene Mirman, whose interactions set-up the film’s best parodic dialogue, and O’Reilly’s best mumbly improvisations: “We’ve met before,” the octopus intones, tentacles suctioned to a rock, head inflating and deflating, at their second or third meeting. Tyrone mumbles that yeah, yeah, he seems to recall.
His most persistent vision, though, is a woman, always in a different outfit, played by Greenpoint’s current microindie axiom Kate Lyn Sheil. At first dismissive (“You’re going to blow this.” “Oh, like a bomb. Clever.” After she’s already tried the joke out once and gotten no response.) she increasingly appears as an embodiment of the life, and people, left behind.
Late in The Color Wheel, Perry trains the camera close on his costar and cowriter Carlen Altman, and she delivers an occasionally halting, eloquent monologue commingling her romantic past and fondest fantasies—it’s a sort of structural self-flagellation, giving the female lead a chance to rebut the film’s male self-exploration and indulgence. Here, at the hour mark, Perry cuts abruptly from the forest to a park bench, O’Reilly and Sheil in blazer and sundress in front of a field of day lilies. The two talk, defensively, about their memories of life before he enlisted; intriguingly, the dialogue mixes memories of a WWII milieu, about 18-year-olds signing up to help the effort, with contemporary phrasing and young urban memories, like trips to the beach. O’Reilly looks down and drinks from a glass of water, Sheil stumbles over her words—the dialogue builds logically, it feels very well-structured, but also slightly improved, O’Reilly peppering his speech with caveats and “My point is this”—and scratches her legs.
Then Perry cuts to a very close close-up of Sheil, who, with her long, fair, freckled face and cascading hair, looks not so unlike a very young Meryl Streep without the WASP-y polish. She makes only halting eye contact with her scene partners or the camera—and this is a wonderfully expressive and constant feature of Perry’s films—seems shy, but her shyness is maybe a gradual storing of thought and energy, so that her speeches, when they come, seem to come from a powerfully deep, thoughtful place. And she kills her monologue, a recollection of a night when she stayed up at home waiting for her boyfriend to come home from a movie—and dinner? a drink? drinks? with friends—thinking of scenarios as the hours move by, not even getting up to pee so that she could be there, on the couch, when he finally came home (it’s a parallel, she considers, with having a lover off to war, in another uncanny association of the classical and contemporary). It’s almost fearful to watch Sheil discover the depth of her emotions, and her own comprehension of them.
It’s hard to say anything definitive of Impolex, the film being a wildly unusual mix of sloppy, inspired, inside-jokey and sincere. But even more than Perry’s subsquent The Color Wheel, it’s the leakage of a voracious mind, and very much worth soaking up.