I should mention that I’m friends with Rappaport. I helped him with his fight with Ray Carney and gave the push for him to publish his absolutely delightful book of fiction and essays The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much in the native English it was written in. I sought out his acquaintance because of the admiration for his work I express in this essay, and therefore I don’t feel there’s a conflict of interest. However, such connections should be noted.)
Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.
Mark Rappaport, though retired from making films, is still busy at work recombining images and impressions of films past in his photo collage work. Despite this, he is the very short list still for the greatest living American filmmaker because of the absolutely essential work he did, first in his early fictional narratives from 1974’s Casual Relations up through 1985’s Chain Letters, then in a second phase of fictional autobiographies of movie stars that have an utter lack of use for the tenets of realism that’s inspiring, especially seeing how they were made parallel to the dire trend in more commercial US cinema of “realist” (re: swearing and torture scenes) genre films that proliferated in the early 1990s.
Rappaport’s stance on the narrative and “psychological” shibboleths that loiter, tired but possessed with insidious powers of seduction, in the dire waiting room of the vast majority of American and world cinema collecting gilded dildos and money in a manner that inclines one to agree with the psychoanalytic tendency to trace the origins of such tendencies to the infant’s urge to play with feces, is revolutionary because it doesn’t violently reject such things in search of the real, but deflates them so they’re no longer gods to be venerated or scorned but half-remembered scraps in the junk pile ghost story of consciousness. While often screamingly funny, they’re just as often uncomfortable as listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Frequently in the same segment.
While his early shorts are amusing, especially Blue Movie, the best place to come to an appreciation of Rappaport’s distinctive style is his first feature Casual Relations, a collection of around 12 shorter meditations on the place of boredom, apathy, and in-between moments. It doesn’t have quite the same Jamesian complexity of his later narratives but is, as these sorts of things go, straightforward, hilarious, and more digestible. Casual Relations establishes Rappaport as perhaps the only American filmmaker to understand the artistic potentials and the specific textures of what’s been crudely dubbed “the postmodern condition”-he’ll use outdated stylistics for his own purposes and switch them out frequently and without concern for reveling in or directly and narrowly commenting on them-they’re language, and language is a tool that he’s free to use however he sees fit and established style something he can pick up or discard at whatever tempo he chooses. An especially memorable sequence superficially resembling Rashomon perhaps best sums up this peculiar film whose greatest asset is its lack of a center. A stabbing or shooting occurs, and we see it in various states of revision until it comes up against the void of meaninglessness and becomes more and more absurd. Pluralism isn’t the keyword but rather the emergence of something more sinister, more given to dangerous laughter, something more all-encompassing, a trap perhaps…it’s no accident the film ends with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” playing over a blank screen and then credits…
The later films tie their strands together in more complex ways than simply a shared theme make them more complex. It took me three failed runs through his later Local Color before I could allow myself to be ensnared in it’s internal logic, but on the third time it was sheer delight, dread and awe that the movies could do such things. The film, his third (I’ve yet to track down a copy of Mozart in Love though it’s now available on Fandor and I hope to review it here soon) is his masterpiece, though in a body of work this good that means it’s a split second finish. A story of incredible complexity and one of the only, maybe the only, besides Rappaport’s own The Scenic Route, film to take the innovations of the greatest post-war writers in prose, the Pynchons and Barthelmes and Gaddises, and employ them to film on the same level to and sometimes even surpass them. To recount the plot here would be to miss the point; the plot is so byzantine and winding that it seems so on purpose so as to force the viewer in being overwhelmed to let go and stop reading it the way they’ve always read films; as things with characters who have goals and represent eternal melodramatic forces. Nothing is so cut and dried here. Character isn’t a matter of surface level coherence but of self-contradiction, petty urges with unknown origins, layers of masks draped one over the other like thatch over a pit. Attempts have been made to imitate the power and unusual tone of this film in later films to such dire effect it would be insulting to Local Color to mention them here. Some of these attempts were by filmmakers I’m not even sure saw Local Color, maybe the impetus came to them half-digested in dreams. Such things happen…
This is getting long, so I’m going to split it up into two articles. In the second installment I hope to go over his later shorts and fictional documentaries/autobiographies.