The Video Essays of Mark Rappaport (ACMI Virtual Cinémathèque)

Over the last year I’ve become quite fascinated with the format of the video essay, such as David Cairns’ assemblages of footage from German silent cinema for Eureka Video’s Masters of Cinema series, or James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ philosophical ramblings in Indefinite Pitch. So when I discovered that the latest ACMI Virtual Cinémathèque program was Deeper Into Movies: The Video Essays of Mark Rappaport (courtesy of the Filmmuseum München) I was excited to dive in and explore what was on offer.

Rappaport’s films are largely concerned with the “classic” era of cinema from the 1930s-60s, a selection of material which is informed (in part) by nostalgia but viewed from a modern perspective, using the footage of these fictional narratives to illustrate points about the state of the film industry at the time as well as wider cultural analyses. He is prone to go off on tangents during these pieces, helpfully marking the beginning and ending of his diversions by superimposing parentheses on the image.

The most accessible of his film essays are probably his “fictional biography” pieces, which explore the filmic output of various actors or filmmakers as if they themselves were narrating a post-mortem exploration of their own work. Becoming Anita Ekberg (2014) explores the way in which Anita Ekberg’s stardom was constructed almost entirely around her beauty, allowing her little room to be anything other than the receptacle for men’s projected fantasies. Debra Paget, For Example (2015) chooses to focus on Debra Paget as an example of the actresses who never quite made it but deserved better, making strategic use of footage from her films to demonstrate that she had the potential to expand beyond the constricted range of roles she was allowed, if only she had been given the opportunity. Anna/Nana/Nana/Anna (2019) looks at the more obscure career of Anna Sten, a Russian actress who was marketed as the next big thing in America by Samuel Goldwyn of MGM, but who never quite found favour due to mostly uninspiring material for which she became the scapegoat (a “blame the woman” approach which is still very much current in Hollywood). Despite receiving top billing in her films, when they were reissued in later years her credit was shifted down the ranks significantly and she was replaced on the posters by women whose roles were smaller.

The treatment of Jews in the cinema is a theme linking several of Rappaport’s video essays. I, Dalio – or The Rules of the Game (2014) follows the career of little-known French character actor Marcel Dalio. A Jewish actor performing under a pseudonym, despite receiving early acclaim for the portrayal of a sympathetic Jew in the French army, he was largely consigned by other directors to playing villainous characters whose stereotypical Jewish characteristics were coded signifiers of his villainy. His image was later appropriated for use on Nazi propaganda posters as an example of the wicked Jew. Conrad Veidt – My Life (2019) tells of the famous German actor’s refusal to divorce his Jewish wife under pressure from Goebbels and his consequent decision to claim he was of Jewish descent on his citizenship papers, leading to his departure for England. After his decision to star in the movie Jew Süss (1934), an adaptation of his friend Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel which provided a sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish man determined to build a successful life outside of the ghetto, Goebbels responded by commissioning the big-budget Jud Süß (1940), a hateful distortion of the original which transformed the main character into a fullblown evil stereotype. L’année derniére à Dachau: A Film About a Film About a Film (2020), uses a visit to nearby Dachau during the filming of French New Wave classic L’année derniére à Marienbad (1961) as a springboard to discuss Leni Riefenstahl’s dubious usage of Romani from internment camps as extras for her film Tiefland (1940-44), after which they were sent to Auschwitz.

Rappaport has also made several forays into the coded representation of homosexuality in classic cinema, most notably in his earlier works Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), neither of which I’ve yet seen. This strand of his cinema was represented in this package by Sergei/Sir Gay (2016), an exploration of homoerotic imagery in the films of formative Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (who used the nom de plume Sir Gay to sign his frequently filthy caricature sketches). Beginning with a lingering analysis of a scene featuring men sleeping in hammocks in Battleship Potemkin (1925), Rappaport veers off to explore the sexualised depiction of sailors on screen. After an extended exploration of the ways in which other prestigious European film directors were able to feature their boyfriends on film (Jean Cocteau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Luchino Visconti), Rappaport’s fictional Eisenstein identifies one of the actors as his secret boyfriend and dwells on the many ways in which he is lovingly depicted on camera.

While most of the films in this package adopt the biographical approach, two of them are more focused on the theory and technique of cinema. The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk (2014), the earliest film in this strand of his career, zeroes in on Sirk’s use of vanity tables in his films as an illustration of how his female characters move from being trapped in conventional but unfulfilled roles to breaking out into a more authentic existence. The Empty Screen or The Metaphysics of Movies (2017) takes a broader look at the construction of the cinema experience, the ways in which it has been depicted on screen, and the ways in which the screen is more than simply a blank receptacle passively delivering a moving image.

Deeper Into Movies: The Video Essays of Mark Rappaport included:

  • The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk (2014)
  • Becoming Anita Ekberg (2014)
  • I, Dalio – or The Rules of the Game (2014)
  • Max & James & Danielle… (2015)
  • Debra Paget, For Example (2015)
  • Chris Olsen – The Boy Who Cried (2016)
  • Sergei/Sir Gay (2016)
  • The Empty Screen or The Metaphysics of Movies (2017)
  • Anna/Nana/Nana/Anna (2019)
  • Conrad Veidt – My Life (2019)
  • L’année derniére à Dachau: A Film About a Film About a Film (2020)

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