by Seth Colter Walls
Whenever I belatedly discover an American master, I feel a pain inside. A guilty pain. A pain related to an understanding that the celebrity-media complex has indeed been “winning.” And then I put on some sunglasses and remind myself: It’s not personal, babe. It’s just late capitalism doing what late capitalism does. (Then I flip myself off in the mirror.)
Mark Rappaport is the man behind Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Those two films, which were sold and distributed during the indy-doc craze of the 90s, weren’t true documentaries, but found-footage essays of social-crit wrapped up in sheaths of savvy sound-and-image humor. They amounted to good crash courses in underground culture — or at least I thought so when I was still in middle school and still had yet to know that a word like “heteronormative” existed, or what a “Rock Hudson” even was. Today, those two quasi-docs are the only films of Rappaport’s currently available on DVD. (Because they were actually, you know, distributed.) Rappaport’s half-dozen underground feature films from the 70s and 80s — which were independent before “independent” was a marketing niche — are lost now, even in our long-tail world of putative uber-availability. (In what amounts to knock against the import of criticism, it seems not to matter these films were heralded, at the time, by critics as diverse Siskel, Hoberman, Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum.)
Which is the whole reason we should be glad to have Anthology Film Archives, here in New York. Only they can put on a show like this week’s Mark Rappaport festival, which features new-ish prints of those early 16-millimeter pieces, courtesy of the George Eastman restoration house. If you have any affection for the American underground, this is the very definition of a “don’t miss” engagement. Break your plans. You actually won’t be able catch up on Netflix.
I caught 1977’s Local Color on Friday night, and it was like discovering where the (allegedly retiring! Again!) Steven Soderbergh of Schizopolis was born. Right down to its humorously layered (and confusing) nest of characters — including a philandering dentist who liaises with his patients — it became plainly obvious that Hollywood’s reigning experimentalist has long been aware of Rappaport’s career. I won’t ruin the dentist’s best gag in the movie, but I will say I haven’t heard a voice-over joke go over that well with an audience since I went back in time and saw Annie Hall in the theaters before I was born. How many movies from America’s experimental-film undergound are this funny? (I don’t mean “chuckle-in-your-oh-so-sophisticated-head” funny, but like legit LOL.) As a dedicated surveyor (and defender!) of the mullingly ponderous, I have to say I think their aggregate number is maybe single digit.
Rappaport described Local Color’s emotional wheelhouse as a collision of “flamboyant melodrama in dreary, desperate lives — operatic passions ground underfoot by the crushing flatness of daily existence. It is melodrama stripped bare, drained of the heavy breathing we associate with soap opera…. In a sense, the movie is the plot and the plot is the movie. Except that the plot is irrelevant. Suffice it to say, there is enough of it to choke a horse.”
Says Ebert: “a strange and wonderful movie.”
At any rate: sorry to do it like this, but Local Color — which Rosenbaum calls his favorite Rappaport movie in this fine essay — only screens once more during Anthology’s one-week festival. That would be tonight at 7 p.m.. (Short notice, I know, but I had to see the first screening before I could tell you how unmissable tonight’s final screening is!)
Later on this week, I’ll mostly interested to catch The Scenic Route and Chain Letters. The second and final screening of Impostors, from 1979, is on Thursday. Here is Siskel’s old summary of the film’s plot — “Sinister, silly, and sometimes murderous twins named Chuckie and Mikey track down an Egyptian treasure while performing a magic act with their assistant, Tina.” Right?