According to writer-director-producer-editor Mark Rappport, his film Local Color (1977) “combines the heavy, fruity passions of old cinema with the understated, often unstated, chilliness of the new cinema.” Fusing the handmade with the highbrow, the baroque with the banal, Rappaport’s work — both his experimental narratives and pioneering essay films interrogating star personas and Hollywood ideology — are love letters to cinema that self-destruct in (mostly) 90 minutes or less. The ostensible reason for Anthology Film Archives’s new screening series on Rappaport is a restoration of Mozart in Love (1975), though all six of the fiction features he made from 1974 to 1985 are showing, because they belong together.
Mozart in Love is the story, broadly historically accurate, of the composer’s relationship with three of the Weber sisters (one of whom, Constanze, he married). Shot, like most of his primarily self-financed fiction films, primarily in his own SoHo loft-cum-soundstage, it costumes its cast of four in a mix of modern-day and period dress, powdered wigs and leotards; recitals of Mozart’s and other classic works alternate with analyst’s-couch voiceover and lovelorn dialogue. Rappaport’s usual surface pleasures apply — visual puns and droll dialogue, inventive minimal production design — as he “taunts and charms the viewer with manipulations,” in the words of B. Ruby Rich, in order to “expose the manipulations” of cinema. The deconstructed, modular treatment of sound and image, of private life and public performance, echoes Straub-Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, but Mozart in Love is funnier. The soundtrack unpredictably cuts between the lush recordings to which the actors lip-sync and their own reedy a capella voices.
The distance and artifice of Mozart in Love also evokes the urban ennui referenced by the title of Rappaport’s debut fiction feature, Casual Relations (1974), and the premise of his final one to date, Chain Letters (1985), in which the titular epistles track bed-hopping in AIDS-era Manhattan. Casual Relations is a spaghetti-test debut, drawing from a Downtown zeitgeist of conceptualism and durational performance and structured as loosely as a group show, with spartan, repetition-based vignettes about bad trips and eerie dreams, skin flicks and vampire movies. “Shortly after Susan got up, she decided she would watch television all day,” reads an onscreen title card, and indeed she does, slouching in her armchair like a boneless Whistler’s Mother as stylized Hollywood dialogue emanates from the glowing box. According to Rappaport, the characters are “haunted by fantasies learned, absorbed, and forgotten at the movies.” Chain Letters is more like a real movie, with scouted locations and fully differentiated characters, though it retains his prankish one-man-band eccentricity. The film’s threads of post-Vietnam and post-Sexual-Revolution disillusionment coalesce as a paranoid veteran connects the dots of a wall-sized scatter chart to reveal a pornographic mural.
In Local Color, an atmosphere of marital malaise in white-flight bourgeois Manhattan, like the early scenes of DeLillo’s Players, is the backdrop for “enough [plot] to choke a horse,” as Rappaport put it: incest, desultory affairs, twins, sucide, dreams and visions, a knife and a gun. The drama, soapy and operatic, is delivered numbly by a cast of interchangeable black box theater types, and ornamented with classical music, reproductions of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, silent film intertitles, and B-movie cliches. In The Scenic Route (1978), intimations of Orpheus and Euridice by way of Gluck color a New York beset by random violence and a love triangle between two sisters and their diffident lover.
Rappaport’s films are flat — not just in their affect, but literally. He poses his characters in static medium-shot tableaux in front of wallpapered, monochrome-painted and rear-projected backdrops. If there’s anything on the walls, it’s one thing only — a mirror, a reproduction of a painting, a snapshot, invariably a surreal dramatic counterpoint. Compositions have a cut-and-paste, two-dimensional feel. They recall John Ashbery’s collages, with their implication of the self as the center of an indolent cosmos of pop trash and fine art.
The video essays which have been Rappaport’s primary mode for the last few decades are a natural evolution of the critical impulse embedded in his seriously spoofy fiction films. More stridently political, they’re nevertheless distinguished by that same puckish, sociable New York School ethos of cultural consumerism. In Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), the closeted idol, then a recent casualty of the still-raging AIDS crisis which had also claimed some of Rappaport’s collaborators, is played by two performers. The actor Eric Farr, dressed to match Hudson’s onscreen Colorama wardrobe, narrates a clip reel in which the actor is recast as “himself,” drawing out the queer subtext of his various roles.
In clips (assembled in the era before DVDs, meaning every pixelated, undersaturated, color-bleeding, lo-res, pan-and-scan, ghosting shot is a catalog of analog artifacting), Farr-as-Hudson offers a secret history of his persona, one defined by secrecy, camp, and sickness-unto-death. The choice of a limited, post-Paramount decision Hollywood star and the narrator’s occasional bitchy asides speak to a smirking appreciation of glitzy surfaces and an undercurrent of sophisticated urban loneliness. The film recalls a time and a New York when cinephilia demanded obsessiveness, like staying home on nights to tape rare movies off the TV. One thinks of Cruising the Movies author Boyd McDonald in his Upper West Side SRO, excavating the forbidden erotics of lunky contract players on a black-and-white television.
Rappaport’s biographical films posit movie stardom as a meta-narrative superseding individual film texts. In both Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), which is likewise narrated by a speculative version of its subject, his analysis allows dead stars to reclaim the cultural detritus that constitutes their legacy. The Scenic Route, Rappaport said, “slides back and forth between passion and an irony which redirects but doesn’t dilute it.” His filmography is a heart divided against itself, a miraculous equilibrium of object and meaning, surface and depth.
‘Mozart in Love’ and the Cinema of Mark Rappaport runs February 7 through February 18 at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Avenue, Manhattan).