Mark Rappaport is the best-kept
secret in American film. More hilarious than the Coen brothers, weirder
than Hal Hartley, deeper than Woody Allen, and more deadpan than Steven
Wright, he is one of America's most original and unclassifiable comic
geniuses. But his work is more than funny. For more than thirty years,
Rappaport has been mapping the ever-expanding frontier of American unreality.
He is a geographer of our fantasies, dreams, and obsessions, and one of
the greatest celebrators of the transforming power of love in the history
of film. He is a genuine national treasure.
* * *
What do vampires, Hollywood
melodramas, porn films, the countdown of golden oldies, and drives down
the highway with Mick Jagger on the radio have in common? Casual Relations
knows. In Rappaport's dazzling and bizarre feature-length debut, he
focuses on states of imaginative possession and dispossession, demonstrating
how impossible it is to separate fantasies, dreams, and realities. The
point is that we are all vampires–or being vampirized. We are
all obsessed–or the object of someone else's obsession. We are
all under somebody's thumb–to quote the Jagger lyric Rappaport uses–if
we're not thumb-wrestling ourselves and pinning ourselves down. The short
film within a film, A Vampire's Love, is one of the most brilliant
(and hilarious) brief sequences in all of Rappaport's work.
* * *
Mozart in Love is a
deadpan, lip-synch, parody opera. Scored with the music of Mozart and
loosely based on events in the composer's life, the movie plays with illusions
and reality to the point of utter confusion. Rappaport is not knocking
the nuttiness–but celebrating it. He reminds us that the clogging of
the imaginative arteries we associate with the twentieth-century was as
present in Mozart's day as today. In other words, the self has always
been an onion or a pearl. There is no essential center, no heart, no core,
no reality to get to–only layer after layer of processing, packaging,
and costuming. As Gertrud Stein said, there is no there there. There is
only the assembly line that manufactures our emotional experiences. There
are more things in Rappaport's heaven and earth than Milli Vanilli ever
* * *
Though we imagine ourselves
on the cutting edge of the future, Local Color shows what a creaky
old house we live in, haunted by melodramatic ghosts, reverberating with
imaginative echoes. There is (in Rappaport's own description) enough plot
to choke a horse, but the real subject is how unimportant actions and
events are. Everything that matters happens inside. Local Color has
the ironclad logic not of life, but a dream. Everything means something.
Everyone is connected to everyone else. Fantasies migrate from one person
to another. Characters think each others' thoughts. They think with other
people's brains, feel with each others' hearts. For Rappaport, we are
all tuning forks vibrating to dog-frequencies we can't even hear. The
song plays us; we dance to its rhythm even when we think we're conducting
the orchestra. At the very moment we imagine ourselves to be most unique
and original, we're revealed to be whistling an old familiar tune.
* * *
The Scenic Route is
a bizarre dream film of a movie that tells the story of two sisters who
share the same lover without realizing it. Rappaport crafts a zany anti-melodrama
about female imprisonment in romantic dreams, delusions, and anxieties.
He reminds us that raw experience is a myth. We live in a culture where
our food is processed, our possessions manufactured, and our entertainment
market-tested. Why should our fantasies be any different? They are as
mass-produced as our automobiles; our emotions as synthetic as designer
fabrics. And as quickly in or out of fashion. Run, run, as fast as you
can; you can't keep up with the Gingerbread Man. In Rappaport's power-saturated
vision of life, individualism has gone the way of the vacuum tube radio.
We are antennas resonating to a surging force field of cultural energies.
Our identities are as artificial as our art, our love affairs as elaborately
conjugated as a Latin verb.
* * *
Chain Letters is Rappaport's
most deliciously lush and Byzantine work, It poses a mystery, but while
most mysteries want us to dive down and excavate secrets, Rappaport
that we ice skate the fractured, opaque surfaces. Strange puzzles, symmetries,
and coincidences abound. Doppelg"ngers and mirror-image anti-types
lurk around every corner. But you would have to be paranoid to try
the dots. Or would you? Could there be a key that unlocks the mysteries
of life? Or is that the real mystery? Can you break the chains of code?
One character in the film believes all of life is a plot orchestrated
by a vast government bureaucracy, but Rappaport tells us that the bureaucracy
of the imagination puts that of the Pentagon to shame. The real plots
are in our brains–the plots that form the haunted graveyard of Western
* * *
Brecht said drama should always
be performed with the house lights up so that that the spectator never
forgot he was watching a play. Rappaport wants to remind us how artificial
realism is, and how unreal our lives are. In this house of mirrors of
one-size-fits-all, wash-and-wear identities, where is "reality"?
In this echo-chamber of recycled one-liners, where is truth? What would
it mean to escape from these permanent-press, ready-to-wear straight jackets?
What would be left of language, thought, and emotion if we freed ourselves
from the systems that we claim limit us? Life may be an elaborately coded
charade, but what would expression be without the codes? We'd be invisible
men if we took off our imaginative leisure suits. Rappaport takes his
place alongside Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, as an all-American explorer
of the unreality of reality. It's fitting that avant-garde theater pioneer
Charles Ludlum is featured in one of the leads.
* * *
Rappaport's three short films
provide an ideal introduction to the longer and more challenging work
of one of the greatest, and most surprisingly neglected, of American independents.
This is Rappaport at his most playful and accessible. His most deceptively
In Mark Rappaport: The TV
Spin-off, the filmmaker conducts a guided tour of his work that explains
everything....and nothing. Rappaport shows himself to be the cinematic
equivalent of Penn and Teller. The more he explains, the less we understand.
The more the veil is lifted, the deeper the mystery gets.
Post Cards hits the
road to depict a long-distance romance played out in pictures. Post cards
leave almost everything to the imagination, and so does Rappaport. But
that is the point. The real stories of our lives take place in our minds.
Not in the world, but in our hearts and souls. As every tourist knows,
what matters is not events, but the view. It's not where you go, but who
Exterior Night presents
characters who go back and forth in time to re-live parts of each other's
lives. It dramatizes a mystery as loopy and endless as the Mobius strip
of recycled postures, one-liners, and images from old movies that it is
It is impossible to stabilize
a tonal relation to these scenes. These works combine the trademark Rappaport
comedy with deeply moving drama. As with all of his films, what looks
cool and mannered on the outside is throbbing with feeling just under
the surface. An ice mountain to the casual view; a thermonuclear explosion
Commissioned for the video
release of Rappaport's complete work by VideoActive Releasing.
This page only
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