1989, Movies

Chameleon Street (1989, directed by Wendell B. Harris Jr)

This is a bonkers film about the a Detroit con man who successfully impersonated many people, which really serves as a vehicle for its director-star’s interpretation of the real person, rather than any kind of piece of docudrama. It’s a crazy story but that story is subsumed in a crazy art film.

I would have loved this film if I saw it when I was, like, 22. It’s a bat shit crazy approach to filmmaking, using narration, jump cutting, slow motion, actors speaking straight to the camera, and a non-linear chronology to tell what should be a pretty straight forward story.

This is an aggressively odd film at times, while at other times it borders on conventional. Why some parts are told more weirdly than others, I’m not sure I can tell. I would probably have enjoyed it more if it were more consistently bat shit, but I suspect the film might have been narratively impenetrable or incomprehensible had Harris decided to go weirder.

One thing I will say is that it’s funny. (Did I forget to mention it’s a comedy?) And that’s rare with avant garde film-making, which is usually way too serious. Now, this film takes itself very, very seriously, but at least there are jokes.

It hasn’t dated very well, like much avant garde film-making. Sometimes what seems really out there in one era just seems dated or of its time with some years. But in this case it’s more the general misogyny. I guess one could say, well that’s just the character, but Harris’ film identifies with Street so much it’s hard not to feel as though the film is on the side of nearly everything he does, including his behaviour towards his wives and girlfriends.

The story is so fascinating it really deserves a more conventional film. But that isn’t to say this film isn’t worth it if you’re interested in unconventional film-making or African American film-making. It’s certainly a unique, risky, funny and provocative film. I’m just not so sure it’s as great as it thinks it is.


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