ReFramed No. 14: Mark Rappaport & The Video Essay

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

The subversive documentary, and one of its most devious proponents, is the subject of this week's contemplative overview.

Calum Marsh: Mark Rappaport is perhaps the least well-known filmmaker we've discussed in the ReFramed series to date, but I'd argue he's one of the most important--and certainly one of the most deserving of critical rediscovery. Rappaport has produced more than a dozen experimental shorts and features since the beginning of the '70s, all of which deserve recognition and reevaluation, but today we're focusing on the two essential video essays he made in the mid-'90s: first there's Rock Hudson's Home Movies, from 1992, an hour-long look at the homosexual undertones permeating infamously closeted Hollywood icon Rock Hudson’s filmography; and then there's the feature-length opus From The Journals Of Jean Seberg, a kind of philosophical and spiritual exegesis of the career of the mostly forgotten American actress, who committed suicide in 1979.

Like many of the films we've highlighted throughout this series, both Rock Hudson and Jean Seberg are largely neglected by contemporary critics, and neither are widely available on DVD (the latter is long-since out of print, while the former is exclusively available through an independent distribution company specializing in gay-themed independent videos). And, as usual, the neglect is a real shame: despite being nearly twenty years old, Rappaport's radical approach to the documentary form seems every bit as forward-thinking and progressive as it no doubt did when they made a brief splash in the arthouse world in the early '90s, when Rappaport was on the very forefront of experimental video-making.

It’s true that the novelty of the materials he's working with here--he's culled an extensive selection of clips together from a variety of classic films, splicing them together (and grafting new footage atop them) in a fashion made possible only by the advent of video technology--is less impressive in and of itself in 2011 than it must have been in 1992, but it's a testament to Rappaport's genius that neither film feels dated in the slightest..

Jordan Cronk: Not only they are they not dated, they are both arguably more spry and vivid than a majority of the non-fiction films being made today. These films are unlike almost anything I've seen—unique masterpieces that carry no air of pretension or condescension but are instead effortlessly entertaining, informative and thought-provoking discourses on a variety of subjects shot through a prism of two fascinating, misunderstood celebrities. I guess one reason that Rappaport doesn't carry the reputation of some of his contemporaries is his status as a kind of bridge between many other, more well-known filmmakers.

We previously celebrated Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself in these pages, and that's certainly the greatest descendant of this particular kind of film-as-criticism hybrid that Rappaport and someone like Chris Marker helped spearhead in the '90s. In fact, you can form a continuum of sorts between Rock Hudson's Home Movies, Marker's The Last Bolshevik from 1993, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, and Los Angeles Plays Itself—all unique creations that take the documentary/essay formula and use it as a jumping-off point to explore and refract the practice of filmmaking itself.

It's not enough to say these films are biographies of their respective personalities—in fact, most of what's explored here is open to factual interpretation—when an equal amount of time is spent dissecting aesthetic, technique, and outlying and intersecting narratives from the era. Safe to say the many topics broached in these two films could and have spawned entire films and books of their own. But it's to Rappaport's credit that he condenses it all into satisfying, at times provocative, but also consistently funny critiques of the Hollywood machine.

Marsh: Certainly. I suppose it would benefit our readers if we explained exactly what these two films are about (and, perhaps more importantly, how they're about what they're about): they're what you might describe as "fictional documentaries"--which we should stress is not at all the same thing as what are now referred to as "mockumentaries", like the comedies of Christopher Guest--framed as autobiographical accounts of their respective eponymous subjects, both of whom were long-since deceased at the time of each video's production.

Both are narrated in the first-person by actors who physically resemble their real-life counterparts, and both are comprised largely of footage from the films in which their subjects starred. And though they offer lucid, detailed accounts of the thoughts and feelings of their subjects (told, in a sense, by their subjects), neither film qualifies as true autobiography, and ultimately the subjects as presented exist as self-contained texts unto themselves. We're not listening to Rock Hudson or Jean Seberg, nor even particularly faithful approximations of them; what we're given instead are characters, though remarkably rich and compelling ones, that tap into the truth of the people on which they're based more potently than any more "authentic" documentary representations could have.

In that sense, these projects are more accurately described as essays rather than as documentaries, since they're more about what Mark Rappaport has to say about his subjects than what the subjects have to say about themselves. And Rappaport, of course, has quite a lot to say: Rock Hudson's Home Movies probes the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinematic subtext, suggesting that what a film means has much more to do with one’s informed reading than an author's intentions; and From The Journals Of Jean Seberg, much broader in scope than Hudson, interrogates everything from the tyranny of cinematic sexism to the lasting impact of the Hollywood blacklist, all seen through the lens of a lifetime of movie-watching.

In a way, Rappaport is the quintessential cinematic poststructuralist, and, barring perhaps Abbas Kiarostami's masterful Closeup, no other films do so much to problematize what we assume to know about the documentary form and about the nature of the cinema as a whole. This is dense, heady stuff, but as you've also pointed out, these films are compulsively watchable, too.

Cronk: And they're funny! Like, really funny. Rock Hudson's Home Movies in particular is just a briskly entertaining, hilarious look at subtextual homosexual content in '50s Hollywood comedies and melodramas while still managing to register as a tragic portrait of a man who was forcibly kept in the closet throughout his career. From the Journals of Jean Seberg, while less outwardly funny, is equally tragic and as you say, broader in scope. I'd never considered the Kiarostami comparison, but Close-Up would certainly stand as a precedent for this kind of thing.

What Rappaport does is take subjects that are approachable on the surface as texts to subvert the form, comment on the eras in question, and critique the circumstances that led both Rock Hudson and Jean Seberg into shrouded, controversial existences. Both of these films, for all their freewheeling energy and brisk gait, end as mournful meditations on two lives that were left unfulfilled in many different, conflicting ways. In that sense these films offer portraits of their subjects that are arguably truer and more authentically human than what one could probably glean from a traditional documentary. It feels almost like meeting the personalities in question directly while being led on a guided tour through their lives. While most documentarians approach their subjects from a respectful distance, Rappaport confronts them head-on and delivers their personas to the viewer through the fewest degrees of remove possible. It's really a unique approach, and one that hasn't really been built upon since.

Marsh: I think "respect" is a key word there, because in the documentary practice respect usually manifests itself as a kind of forced distance from a given subject. The idea is that you should allow somebody to speak for themselves, particularly if the story is about them, and the implication is that it is somehow unethical to interfere creatively. Rappaport avoids these problems entirely because he doesn't even engage with his subject in the usual way--he speaks through them and for them, and in doing so deconstructs their privileged status as subjects. Those who knew the real Jean Seberg attest that she was nowhere near as eloquent and considered as Rappaport's simulacral Seberg, who speaks about her life and her films with the insight of a film critic and philsopher. It's less "authentic", in a superficial sense, but Rappaport is interested in something more substantial than simple verisimilitude; he instead creates a Seberg who feels realer than the real thing, replacing the ultimate inaccessibility of the person with the deep, immediate legibility of the text.

This is a clever approach, because it suggests that when it comes to the truth of the cinematic image, we can know nothing and everything: we can "know" that Rock Hudson is gay based on his performances so long as we know that he was gay outside of his films--as he says in the film, "it's all there on screen"--but we could never "know" Rock Hudson the man, how he felt and what he was thinking, without that insight. The truth of the man is both obvious and totally obscure, conspicuously hinted but consistently deflected; the point is that it's us, what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore, that determines the reality of what's on screen. Rappaport presents compelling arguments in favor of this idea, but he never seems pretentious or pedagogical about it. And, yeah, you're right: these films are really, really funny. I don’t think I’ll ever watch a seemingly benign 50s rom-com the same way again.

Cronk: Beyond the insights into each subject themselves, what I find interesting about these films is the way they also function as film criticism. There is a masterful sequence in From the Journals of Jean Seberg where Rappaport discuss the editing techniques employed by Lev Kuleshov in the early 1920s. Basically, he shot a close-up of the actor Ivan Mozhukin and intercut three disparate images (a bowl of soup, a dead woman in a coffin, and a young girl playing) in close succession, each one presumably altering the audience’s interpretation of Mozhukin's intentions, despite his expression never changing.

Rappaport conducts the experiment himself later in the film, splicing similar footage from Ordet and M into a single close-up of Seberg while Mary Beth Hurt (as Seberg) narrates the effective change in her motivation as a character on screen. It's a vital display of editing repercussions—of which we as an audience are in a sense being exposed to and manipulated by in a similar way throughout these films—while evidencing the breadth of motivation behind these essayist portraits. Do any particular sequences stick out to you in a similar fashion, whether filmic or political or even humorous, in either film, Calum?

Marsh: That one is definitely important--the Kuleshov experiment is a classic first-year Film Studies lesson, but it's far more compelling when expressed visually, and in such a dynamic context. And it's given considerably more depth when Rappaport links the experiment to Seberg personally, suggesting that the experiment's actor, Ivan Mozhukin, was the father of Seberg's former husband. Like Godard, whose Histoire(s) Du Cinema shares many formal similarities with these films, Rappaport is interested in connecting the cinema to the historical and the personal, as a moment like this illustrates beautifully.

The themes of Rappaport's that most interest me personally relate to gender and sexuality, and I think he shows an uncommonly nuanced perspective on their representation in the cinema. Rock Hudson's Home Movies deals with homosexuality very explicitly, and Rappaport is necessarily limited to the suffocating artifice of Hollywood cinema as a result of his subject's star status. But what's interesting about From The Journals Of Jean Seberg is that its criticisms of artifice and allegations of misogyny are focused principally on the arthouse and foreign cinemas rather than Hollywood. That a Hollywood film from the 1950s could propagate an atmosphere of deception and repression hardly comes as a surprise; that's the style of the place and the era.

But foreign films rarely come under attack on those grounds, so Rappaport's arguments in Seberg are more contentious and, I think, more rewarding. There's a great sequence late in the film in which Mary Beth Hurt compares her own "Sphinx-like" stare at the end of Breathless to Clint Eastwood's more "manly" and intimidating gaze in any number of his Westerns. She complains that while critics describe her as "mysterious" and somehow abstract or ethereal, Eastwood' is regarded as intense and purposeful, a man of power. Rappaport makes a very compelling case for the implicit sexism in the common readings of what are in fact nearly identical facial expressions, and by extension serves a blow to the entire critical canon. Like you said, this is nothing short of film as film criticism, and it's exceptional film criticism, too.

Cronk: But none of this plays as overly academic or studied. Like we've mentioned, these are entertaining films first and foremost. Unlike Histoire(s) du Cinema, which, let's be honest, is a difficult sit no matter it's considerable artistic merit, Rappaport's essay films are works that I will continue to return to as both subtle studies of technique, juxtaposition, and reconstruction, as well as satisfying entertainments with plenty of intrinsic suggestions for further exploration of each subjects filmography. You in no way need to be familiar with either Rock Hudson or Jean Seberg to enjoy, or be informed, or eventually be moved by these films. They work as everything from time capsules to narrative exercises to political and social considerations to straight-up entertainments, and together they total just about two–and-half-hours.

With any luck, with the documentary being at such a high level of respectability and cultural exposure right now—and with films like Clio Barnard's The Arbor exposing new audiences to similar experiments in docu-fiction narrative—perhaps audiences will naturally look toward and properly acknowledge the pioneers in this particular field, amongst which Rappaport should certainly be considered and ensconced, just as his subjects have found a life after death via his probing, restless experiments.





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