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Racking Focus: Alex Ross Perry & The Counterintuitive Logic of Success

"Dance with the one you came with" is good advice not just for dances, but for art as well. Here are two examples from this week.

For many great artists, doing one thing repeatedly - and well - is all that is necessary to create an enduring legacy. Look at Woody Allen, or Alice Munro, or any number of the creatives who continually plow the same (fertile) thematic soil over and over again. What makes such artists able to find success time and time again without varying their delivery? 

It's understandable for independent filmmakers to feel concern if "their thing" isn't exactly à la mode

While there are plenty of shape-shifting artists - David Bowie and Steven Soderbergh immediately come to mind - who can do a variety of styles with proficiency and ease, the vast majority of talented artists tend to have a singular take on the world that they revisit and refine, coming back to their unique perspective each time they bring a new work into the world. Trying to push oneself beyond this comfort zone can be met with varied results - while some truly great artists can ultimately find a new home with a very different style (Gus Van Sant's Gerry-through-Paranoid-Park period comes to mind), most find that sticking to "their thing" is the ideal stance to take. It's understandable, then, for independent filmmakers to feel concern if "their thing" isn't exactly à la mode - if the stories you're passionate about telling don't fit within the accepted parameters distributors are interested in, you can surely have a difficult time finding a home for your work. 

Perry's narrative stance makes no concessions toward traditional narrative expectations whatsoever

Yet there's something to be said for the fact that a singular stylistic viewpoint, executed well, will always enthrall, regardless of how far out of the mainstream it may be. Two stories from this week illustrate the point well. The casting news was just announced that Alex Ross Perry - whose features Impolex and The Color Wheel have been festival hits over the past few years - will be directing his third feature, Listen Up, Phillip, with stars Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss. (Perry also will soon have an HBO Go series up, titled The Traditions.) Perry's narrative stance makes no concessions toward traditional narrative expectations whatsoever, and the storytelling of The Color Wheel - a brother-and-sister road trip movie unlike any you've ever seen - fiercely adheres to nothing but Perry's specific ideas about how he wants his subject matter to be approached. (The impressive film - too complicated to fully go into here - is well worth watching.) Shot on grainy 16mm film on a shoestring budget, The Color Wheel is (superficially) hardly what seems like the obvious route toward directing films with stars or projects with HBO, but Perry's exacting confidence in his vision has won him many admirers. 

One also can't discount the enduring success of Woody Allen, someone who has been remaking - in one form or another - the same film his entire career. (Or at least since Annie Hall.) Utterly unconcerned with the ways in which his works recall one another, Allen keeps revisiting the same material with a dogged faith in the importance of his pursuit. The result of that conviction is that, once again, he's made a fantastic film with Blue Jasmine - which will surely net Cate Blanchett an Oscar nomination, if not the statuette itself. At a moment in which too many independent filmmakers make concessions to the dictates of "genre" for the sake of an ostensibly greater chance of landing a distribution deal, it's crucial to remember the (seemingly) counterintuitive point that often, the less conventional approach can translate into greater conventional success than the quote-unquote commercial route. 


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