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Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street, 1989

Loosely based on a true story, William Street (Wendell B Harris Jr) is tired of working for his fatherís security company, listening to his wifeís complaining, and in general being trapped at the lower end of the rat race. Street decides to become a professional, just without all that pesky schooling. Faking it until he makes it, Street impersonates a reporter, a lawyer, and even a doctor at a hospital, spinning stories as he tries to stay one step ahead of the truth.

Anchored in a unique cinematic voice and an underdog story that is in a constant state of attraction and repulsion, this is a must-see.

Iím not sure I can think of another film Iíve seen recently where I found a main character so appealing and yet also really disgusting. As portrayed by an uncredited Harris (who also wrote and directed), Streetís every utterance is layered with intelligence and contempt. And perhaps most endearing---in a totally sociopathic way---that contempt remains even when Street is totally out of his depth.

As with so many grifters and conmen, one of the greatest tragedies here seems to be that Street could have had any of the careers he fakes if he had pursued them in earnest. When itís necessary for pretending to be a doctor, he buckles down and studies hard. But it isnít the careers themselves that Street seems to be chasing, so much as the respect and status that come with them. Thereís something of an extra heft given that Street is Black, at times sitting amongst men who would consider him an imposter/outsider even if his credentials were real.

Honestly, I found this film completely captivating. Despite knowing that Streetís behavior was illegal and immoral, some part of me was charmed by him and wanted him to succeed. Yes, that wears off quite a bit when Street performs surgery on a woman, noting that her stretch marks ďgross him outĒ, and his charm has worn pretty thin around the time he pretends to cut his daughterís throat with a knife. But Harris really manages to create a character who is loathsome yet captivating.

The direction itself at first seems a bit too normal for the very strange main character and story, although at times, that only served to highlight how weird it all was. Streetís poetic inner monologue at times clashes hilariously with what is happening on screen. I think that for me, this contrast actually captured conceptually this manís sociopathy: from the outside it looks normal, while on the inside all manner of unspeakable things are happening.

All of this exists in a wonderful mish-mash of social/cultural references. In one of his first escapades, Street attempts to blackmail the wife of a famous baseball player. Later in the film, he and a partner show up to a party dressed in absolutely stunning renditions of the main characters from Cocteauís Beauty and the Beast.

One part of the film Iím still mulling over is the way that it dips into moments of homophobia and a lot of misogyny. The film is so embedded in Streetís point of view, that I genuinely have a hard time separating out if the film thinks women are money-hungry monsters who drive men to extremes, or if thatís just Streetís point of view on the women in his life. My sense was that it was more the latter, but that doesnít necessarily negate the way that those characters come off.

Many reviews mention the baffling fact that this film won the Grand Prize and Sundance and then wasnít picked up by a single distributor. After watching I immediately went to Harrisís IMDb page, and was very dismayed to see that this remains his only directing credit.

Definitely worth checking out.