Friday, February 12, 2010

Just Be Yourself

Chameleon Street(1989)
Directed By Wendell B. Harris Jr.
"Chameleon Street" is a film based on the real life of a black con man from Detroit who specializes in being a master of plain-sight disguise. Doug Street can enter a room and upon meeting someone understand what they want to see reflected back, and after cutting through the “emotional baggage” of his own personality, assume the role like an actor taking a part. Throughout the course of the film he becomes a surgeon (going so far as to perform 36 successfull hysterctomies!!!), a lawyer for a human rights organization, journalist, athlete, and a French exchange student. Between these shifts in identity he goes through a botched (through sheer stupidity, and not on his part) attempt at blackmail that leads to instead of jail, 15 minutes of fame as a local celebrity. He does however later take a stint in jail, but there he is able to survive by becoming an un-analyzable patient for the prison psychiatrist, a comic book fan to a fellow inmate, and a seizure victim to a would be rapist. His greatest role and the one he seems to struggle with the most throughout the film are the roles of husband and father. These he only seems capable of, as long as he has another more exciting identity to supplement his “real life”. The film is considered to be far ahead of its time in it’s critique of the performative and transformative nature of identity, race, and class, a sort of spiritual cousin to Samuel R. Delany’s short story “Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones” . Wendell B. Harris Jr. (who wrote, directed, and stars here in his first features) like Delany does not give into the temptation of the usual social realism/identity politics cocktail expected of black film makers, the kind Spike Lee has made his stock and trade, at least not in the usual didactic sense.
Race does matter in the world of “Chameleon Street” from the introductory discussion between two men about “good hair” to the closing request from Street that two books be retrieved for him from his desk, one of which and I only noticed this looking at a screen shot later is a copy of “Enemies: The Clash Of Races by Haki R. Madhubuti”.
These post-modern multi-cultural ideas at play, and the sometimes antagonistic relations to whites (both at hilarious dinner scenes), are hardly what makes this worth watching, instead it is Harris’ high command of film making at all levels, especially narration that makes the movie so compulsively watchable. From a photographic stand point his film has some of the weaknesses that bog down many first time directors, especially those on a limited budget. While some scenes are brimming with quick POV pans, flash backs, dead pan jump cuts, and close up’s of disembodied faces floating darkness, others are purely utilitarian and just run-of-the-mill. In old Rosey-bums words (his only less than enthusiastic ones he has for the film), “there’s also a lot to be said for Harris’s eclectic directorial style, which doesn’t always sustain itself but is brimming with inventive ideas.”. as a character is a clever anti-hero, similar to, but less psychotically unpredictable than Alec Baldwin is in “Miami Blues”, but infinitely more entertaining than Leonardo Dicaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”. Street survives by his wits and chance, and has an unconcerned Dandylike air about him. He quotes Oscar Wilde,the divine Wilde” and refers to “Vivaldi, Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Sex Pistols, and Ipso Facto” as “the classics” he listens to on his newly fashionable (at the time the film takes place, in the early 80’s) walkman. Essentially he follows in a long tradition of the charming rouge, only viewed through the mind of a clever black man in the early 90’s (hence the po-mo, multi-culti stuff). Several people who knew the real Doug Street as one of his persona's, including the Mayor of Detroit, appear in the film playing themselves, adding another layer of identity confusion that Hsiao-hsien Hou’s “Puppetmaster and Jason Rietman’s “Up In The Air” would similarly use to greater acclaim. Harris has a voice reminiscent of Orson Wells, especially when he narrates, which is for most of the film, and has matching ambitions for a first time director. Harris wants to include everything he’s ever thought or felt into a single film as if it would be his last. In fact this is his first and only film, so better too much, than not enough.
When James Baldwin wrote his “Malcolm X” script, the scene when the young Malcolm meets the number’s runners he would fall in with, revolved around the gangsters recognizing his naivete as a "country boy", by the time Lee had finished his adjustments of said script Malcolm get’s into a fight with someone who says something about his “mamma”, and is ushered in thanks to his credentials as a bad-ass. A subtle difference, inconsequential perhaps to some (Baldwin’s heirs requested his name be removed from the script due to that and other changes), sticks out like a sour thumb if your cognizant to subtle stereotypes and “dramatizations”. In a bar scene in “Chameleon Street” when Street encounters an angry drunk hurling racial invective, he lectures him for several minutes about his improper grammar and use of the word “fuck”, and is then knocked unconscious for his trouble. The difference may only be that Street is clearly a wimp, but Harris gives him that permission, to not be the street smart tough guy; the freedom to fail and to be complex. And besides it’s a comedy and it’s funny if he get’s to play the plucky underdog. I can’t really express how refreshing it was to see something like that on screen, like watching “George Washington” for the first time. None of that is really why I enjoyed this movie. I enjoyed it on the critical grounds which are seldom a defensible position for argument, but usually the reason people fall in love with movies (perhaps laymen, more than cinephiles) because I identified with a character, and found the experience edifying. Street manifests for himself, the need to be someone else that so many of Charlie Kaufman’s character’s neurotically wrestle with in one form or another from film to film. Here is an interview with Harris about the re-release of the film (where he discusses among other things his thwarted Roman Satire Epic "Negropolis" where a Black ruling elite would rule over white slaves): easy designation of social relevance (race, class, etc.), Street’s chameleon like behavior is in microcosm the way everyone behaves at a certain basic level, learning to read the people and situations life brings us to, often playing them to our advantage (maybe more than we are even fully aware of), and only occasionally putting our foot down to announce what we are not, at those times when we either cant or refuse to cut through the “baggage of our personalities”. You can’t be everything to everyone, and the film asks even if it’s possible to be yourself to yourself. There is a French Revolution themed costume ball, that Street attends posing as Beast from Jean Cocteau’s film, where sucked up in by the praise of “the moment” he makes an impulsive choice he later comes to regret. Staging such an important scene in a such a fitting setting, paranoid hallucinations of being captured/exposed and all, is as brilliant a choice as anything I’ve seen from well seasoned directors/writers. “I don't know you and I know you don't know me so let's agree to disagree if you want, but as far as I'm concerned, most people have maybe two or three great moments in their entire lives. So get it right. If the moment calls, give me the phone. If the moment drops by tonight, let him in. Make him comfortable. Set him up in the easy chair, give him a cup of coffee 'cause I am definitely into the moment!” –Doug Street In that moment we realize what he does not until much later, that Doug Street plays the role of Doug Street. He does so because that’s the character he wants to see, a charming shiftless hero is as satisfying to his self image, as a doctor, lawyer, or student might appear to others. His narration throughout the film is the story he recounts to amuse himself, creating a pleasant illusion to stave off his own boredom, impatience, and dissatisfaction with being, on top of intelligent enough to perform surgeries though luck, mimicry, and quick study) poor black, lacking a high school diploma, working in his father’s burglary installation company and living in his parents house in Detroit. Why go to school, why get a job, when you can be senator tomorrow, or a police officer, or anyone you can imagine (quite literally) with the right combination of confidence and creativity. “All the world's a stage…And one man in his time plays many parts.”…that old chestnut. “Chameleon Street” is not a perfect film, not the funniest ever, or featuring the best cinematography, no one is going to clamor about the use of soft-focus, shadows, mood, blah, blah, blah, and it will not be praised for it’s soundtrack (typical of it’s time and unimpressive), but like Hal Hartley, Bill Gunn, David Blair, or Mark Rappaport, Wendell B. Harris Jr. is sui generis in his sense of style, focus, and concerns, and if nothing else deserves praise as a great neglected American auteur. There is more personality in this one movie than in some director’s entire ouver’s. Personally, this is my new favorite film the kind you watch twice back to back because you can’t believe what you’ve seen, and pick up your jaw up off the floor hours later. The kind you rant and rave about to everyone you know, fully aware most wont like/get it/care about it. It’s okay if you don’t like this as much as me, I can’t expect you to. If you don’t, tomorrow is always available for you to take on a new personality, perhaps one with better taste.


Darryl James said...

Got dammit! You saw this before me! I gotta see it soooooooon. Weird how I found out about this film, though. It's sampled in one of my favorite Black Star tracks:

Joe Sylvers said...

I had never heard that, but I think they sampled "Sun Ra: Space Is The Place" too. I heard about this from reading an Armond White interview actually.