New York

Mark Rappaport

Collective for Living Cinema

During the ’70s Mark Rappaport directed a number of films that can be seen as comedic homages to misinformation, missions impossible, and mistaken identities. Though varying in narrative specificity and construction, these films seem to coalesce into a continuous stream of visual and verbal gambits which seem intent not on telling us something but on telling us everything and nothing. Eluding characterological particulars and conventional closure, they stick together pieces of stories and act like thesauri of circumstances—crazy quilts of mismatched paragraphs strewn amid the lives of their characters, like the Scrabble set that ate New York. This odd kind of storytelling plays with the sanctity usually granted verisimilitude, and, not unlike “real life,” turns the “truth” into day dreams and “lies” into anthems.

In The Scenic Route, 1978, one character comments to another “I wouldn’t even tell you a lie, much less the truth,” and leads us on a wild-goose chase through ill-fated relationships, postcard vistas, and baroque tableaus. Like all of Rappaport’s films, The Scenic Route’s meandering exposition renders a conventional plot summary useless, but suffice it to say that duos disperse into triangulations and conspiracies are hatched and crushed in one fell swoop. In Casual Relations, 1973, a dozen or so characters get their stories told via a kind of serial vignetting which pictures them in situations ranging from bad drug trips to watching TV all day to getting kicks viewing old newsreels of catastrophes. This string of portraiture allows Rappaport to indulge his affection for both anecdotal accountings and deadpan disclosures. Druggies tumble to the floor repeatedly as Little Eva belts out “Do the Locomotion,” a man and a woman give varying descriptions of a crime, a film-within-a-film segment shows us a parody of a vampire flick, and a porno model’s foot snuggles on a sofa like a paw or a hoof sheathed in sultry mesh stockings. In Blue Streak, 1970, we see a roomful of naked people; as they chatter and gesture a voice-over expels a litany of “dirty words.” This interior view replete with “blue streak” is alternated with color shots of a landscape over which female and male voices read a porno text. But in a smart reversal, the female voice recites the male point of view while the man describes the woman’s experience. This gender shift connects with the conflicting crime reportage in Casual Relations and foregrounds Rappaport’s interests in sexual ambivalence and placeless points of view.

Impostors, 1979, comes closest to conventional narrative while still keeping its distance Rappaport’s repertoire of variable backdrops, framed images, and theatrical maneuvers attains a new refinement here, allowing him to indulge the fluencies of artifice while still retaining his obvious affinity for circuitous speech-writing and parodic counterpart. Ostensibly about two twins named Mikey and Chuckie who are searching for an Egyptian treasure, it also involves the assistant in their magic act. Tina, and the man who is obsessed with her. But the story, of course, soon diffuses into a bunch of mixed messages, cul-de-sacs, and soap operatics.

Rappaport’s linguistic ease is in high gear in Impostors, but it makes its presence clearly known in all the films included in this retrospective. Welcomed in Europe for their intelligence and eccentricities, they have had a tougher time in America, where it is notoriously difficult to operate in the terrain between conventional studio product and artisanal film work. In spite of this Rappaport continues to make films that join the “creative” dispensations granted art-world production with the accessibility of the theatrical film.

Barbara Kruger