How have I never seen Chameleon Street before? This gem of a movie from 1989 deserves more attention. Wendell B. Harris Jr’s only effort as director (criminal!) is a funny, cynical look at charlatanism and marriage.
Harris as an actor is one of the reasons the film works so well. He’s hilarious and deadpan, and his various disguises are also great. The two sections below show not only his sense of humor, but the stereotypes with which he plays – the buttoned up doctor (small mustache and all), and the existential Frenchmen (who goes by the incredible name of Pepe le Mofo…this film abounds in cinematic and literary references):
That former sequence – when Harris’ William Douglas Street (hence the title of the film) cons his way into a surgical position is particularly amazing thanks to an operating room scene. There’s a timer, several sweaty close-ups, and one of the funniest shots in the film: Street wiping bloody hands on his gown. It’s actually a rather tense scene, and the way Harris shoots it is at once traditionally tense (the first two image), and totally self-aware (the last one, which no one in the scene seems to find odd):
Chameleon Street is also great because of how much varied technique Harris uses. There’s the direct-to-camera drug dealer (whose surrounding mise-en-scene and broken fourth wall should remind of Dave Chappelle in Half Baked); a Barbie doll with his wife’s face superimposed (also important because he changes the skin color of the doll just before); and a scene that’s part fantasy part reality where Street holds a press conference.
I like all of this because the style is as “chameleon” as the character. Harris never settles into one mode. It’s a nice match of form and content.
You know when you watch a movie and you hear a quote that you recognize as sampled in a song (or vice versa)? I finally found out what the quote at the beginning of Black Star’s Brown Skin Lady is from. It’s the beginning of Chameleon Street: “…even my conditioning has been conditioned.” Great find!
A lot of Harris’ frames are just unique and pretty. There’s the first one below, which is the hallucinatory end to a masquerade party (appropriate that a con man would attend a masquerade ball, and dressed as a character from a Cocteau film); and the second, which is a nice face-off hugging the edges of frame as a really colorful quartet delivers an ill-advised singing telegram:
Harris and DP Daniel S. Noga have good eyes, and push the color palette in various directions throughout the film.