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Film Essayist Mark Rappaport on His Movie Archaeology: “If I get pretentious with this, slap me senseless”

Film Essayist Mark Rappaport on His Movie Archaeology: "If I get pretentious with this, slap me senseless"

Mark Rappaport, the film essayist, is long gone from New York and from America, but he’s back with more of his often-acerbic reflections on cinema and society. His five new films, which premiered at the Viennale, are short—most of them under half an hour. Their subjects range from tough guy John Garfield to the French actor Marcel Dalio to the largely forgotten actress Debra Paget, a “kitsch princess,” as Rappaport calls her. 

As always, these are the reflections of a man who has seen a lot of cinema, maybe too much.

Rappaport is best known for two feature-length film essays—”Rock Hudson’s Home Movies” (1992), and “From the Journals of Jean Seberg” (1995), both wry views of art and society from unexplored perspectives. Since moving to Paris some 12 years ago, Rappaport has been most visible in the media for a dispute with the American film professor Ray Carney over film prints which Rappaport provided on loan, for which Carney demanded to be compensated for restoration he claimed was done. 

READ MORE: “The Strange and Sad Saga of How Filmmaker Mark Rappaport Lost His Movies (And What He Can Do To Get Them Back)”

The new films, made in 2014 and 2015, were created in Rappaport’s Paris apartment. It’s amazing what a filmmaker of 72 can do with almost no budget and an infinite supply of Hollywood images. The films are a wonder of movie archaeology, a mix of fondness and irreverence, narrated by Rappaport in an accent with the tones of Brooklyn, and full of insights about what society was like when people went to see movies in theaters. People went for entertainment, and Rappaport’s films are that and more.

“Our Stars” gives you an idea of Rappaport’s approach. The film opens with a line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Fair enough, and Rappaport traces pairings of stars—Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, Gary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr—as they begin in early movies of passion (“Duel in  the Sun,” “From Here to Eternity”). Those pairs reunite in later films where, to pick up the star metaphor again, they never shone with the same brightness (“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Indiscreet”). 

“Who could dream or ever imagine that the bolt of lightning could strike twice?” Rappaport asks. “Everyone in Hollywood, that’s who.” 

“We don’t like to see our stars age,” he says in the voice-over. “It reminds us too much of our own mortality. It’s too much like real life.” He’s right, but we should be so lucky to age as well as most movie stars do.

We watch Marcel Dalio age in “I, Dalio,” first playing crooks and con men in France as a character actor, before appearing in “Pepe Le Moko”—plus roles as unlikely aristocrats in Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game.” Rappaport says that those roles fit the stereotype of a Jew, without saying that word. When the Nazis seized Paris, they selected photos of Dalio from film posters to show the generic Jew in anti-Semitic propaganda. 

Dalio then played Frenchmen in a second career in Hollywood. As a Jew, he risked his life to flee the Nazis and leave Europe and entered the U.S. with difficulty. Hollywood needed French accents, so Dalio played lots of waiters and Frenchmen who talked about women and kissed men on both cheeks as cutaway shots showed incredulous American men smirking. He would also play Emil the croupier in “Casablanca.” Although he wasn’t credited, Dalio had one of the film’s best lines. When the police captain Claude Rains declares, “I’m shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!” Emil appears with a fistful of cash and says, “Your winnings, sir.” Hollywood even enabled Dalio to play a priest, in Sam Fuller’s “China Gates” (1957)—a role that Rappaport says the actor would never have been allowed to play in France at the time.

On the screen in Vienna, his unfinished portrait of Debra Paget—shown as a work in progress—has the sumptuous look and feel of a film far more monumental than what might be expected from a Mac and Final Cut Pro on a desk in his Paris apartment, which is where the film was made. Call it guerrilla splendor, and add some clips from Elvis’s first film, “Love Me Tender,” in which Paget co-starred. 

A dark-eyed girl of beauty and talent, Paget had her first romantic kiss on camera at the age of 14 with mobster Richard Conte in “Cry of the City” by Robert Siodmak (1948). Playing an Indian, she would court and kiss Jimmy Stewart in “Broken Arrow” (1950). She became the spoils of war for Robert Taylor in “The Last Hunt” by Richard Brooks (1956). But Paget’s career rose highest in sword-and-sandals epics like “Demetrious and the Gladiators” (1954), “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “Cleopatra’s Daughter (1960). 

“I remember thinking, even as a kid, that her name should have been Debra Pagan,” Rappaport says, remembering those spectacles.

That same actress in biblical epics also had a club act with exotic dancing in Las Vegas (more exotic than movies could tolerate at the time), but she gave it all up in her early 30s, marrying the cousin of General Chiang Kai-Shek and driving the streets of Beverly Hills in a strawberry-red Cadillac. That sounds like a movie. Rappaport calls her a princess of kitsch—his own film proves that she is much more—but he warns that one person’s kitsch can be another person’s nostalgia.

The films at the Viennale were not a complete surprise. The doc series The Art of the Reel at the Film Society of Lincoln Center showed two of them in April, “Becoming Anita Ekberg” (which needs little explanation) and “The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk,” a look at the recurring prop in films that probe the secrets of women characters. The films are now available on Fandor.

Be prepared for a large white parenthesis to appear over the film image from time to time, as Rappaport digresses into an actor’s humble beginnings, or tells of the rhinestones on Paget’s Cadillac, which would be pulled off by fans. It’s all in the parentheses, he says.

Read our Viennale Q&A with Rappaport below:

Would you call these essays film history?

It’s film history, connecting things that might not have been connected before, but it’s also—if I get pretentious with this, slap me senseless—a little bit of cultural and social history, because we thought that these things existed in a sort of formaldehyde of their own, but that’s not entirely true.

These images on the screen are representation to some degree of some real world, or somebody’s idea of a real world, so they can be interpreted in real world ways – presenting social values or cultural values of the era that they were made in. So it’s not entirely film history, and I’m not really a film historian. I’ve just seen too many damn movies, and wasted a lot of time doing it.

Now it’s paying off, because it’s vindication for being interested in this crap for 400 years.

Why Debra Paget?

People used to ask me that about Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson doesn’t interest me at all. Debra Paget doesn’t interest me at all, except for the fact that she’s some kind of artifact from old Hollywood, and it’s a way of talking about a lot of other things besides Debra Paget, for whom I have no interest and no special affection.  But in the Indian movies that she did in 1959 with Fritz Lang [“The Tiger of Eschnapur,” and “The Indian Tomb”], she does these exotic dances that just melt the walls of your apartment. It’s all Las Vegas kitsch—she’s practically naked. She wears costumes that Bob Mackie wishes that he had invented for Cher. Did anybody know what they were doing in those days? Probably, on some level, but could they give voice to it if someone confronted them with it? She’s in her 80s now, and Debra Paget movies are shown on television every Easter, and in Germany they do the same things with the Fritz Lang Indian movies.     

There’s a whole new generation of kids who are seeing Debra Paget through these exotic dances at a very early age and it stimulates their heterosexual hormones.

Why Dalio?

That was something that interested me for years. I thought I might get a commission from French TV, but then I realized that you could do all this stuff on your own, with no one telling you what shot to use. I also discovered that he had written an autobiography, which is an absolute delight to read. I started ordering all the movies from Amazon, and voila, as they say. His two different careers have two different meanings to them. In one he’s the dirty Jew and in the other he’s the sophisticated Frenchman. I don’t know how he reconciled them, but he had a happy and a long life, and he worked until the very end.

Who’s the audience for these films?

I don’t think about the audience when I’m making these things. When I made “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies,” I thought ten people would see it. When I made “From the Journals of Jean Seberg,” I thought five people in the world would be interested in this film, and I know who they are.  It turned out I was wrong. I could be right or wrong about these.

For me the most important thing is to just keep on working.

What’s the status of your dispute with Ray Carney over copies of your films in his possession in the U.S.?

I retrieved the negatives of all of those films from the Museum of Modern Art, and they’re now at the Cinematheque Francaise. He has the only and the best remaining copies of all of the films in 16 millimeter, and I subsequently digitized to high definition a few of the films, and for some of the films there are just no prints at all. He has the last remaining prints. Basically he’s hoping that I die before he does. But I do have the negatives. That makes it a little easier if I’m waiting for the stampede of interest in all my films.

Have you shown a version of the Debra Paget film to Debra Paget? Do you plan to?

No. All she would do is contact her lawyers.

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