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Mark Rappaport:
Snapshots of the Man Wearing the Mask
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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.

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Casual Relations

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.

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Mozart in Love

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 dreamt of.

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Local Color

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.

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The Scenic Route

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.

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Chain Letters

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 insists 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 to connect 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 civilization.

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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.


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Three short films

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 simple.

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 you are.

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 assembled from.

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 in experience.

Commissioned for the video release of Rappaport's complete work by VideoActive Releasing.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.