Having twisted a headline-grabbing story of a skillful, self-taught impersonator into an up-and-down tale of desperation, social climbing, and briefly intoxicating triumphs, Wendell B. Harris, Jr.'s Chameleon Street has, since winning the Sundance Jury Prize in 1990, never gotten its due. Thanks to Cinema Detroit's programming and a new restoration from distributor Arbelos Films, the film's playing locally — where it was filmed, no less — once more. The ambitious and singular project, shot and mostly set around metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Flint, trails a re-created version of real-life con artist William Douglas Street, Jr., a character as versatile as Harris himself — considering that he wrote, starred in, edited, and directed the film.
A diaristically structured work both avoidant and giving, Street's driven through narration by Harris' wry, weatherbeaten baritone, luxuriating in the digressive movements of a roving life. Opening with its lead character, a restless, seemingly self-taught Black intellectual and grifter, casting about in Flint for ways to satisfy his and his wife's own needs. His response is to bluff his way into a range of professional positions — journalist, doctor, lawyer, among others — getting whatever he can from them for the brief span of time in which each con lasts. The resulting narrative slides coolly between moments of frenzied preparation, scheming, impersonation, and wary periods of recovery that follow, linked mostly by Street's presence as an anchor and the unfailing persistence of his struggles to get by. While Street (through Harris' rendering) is ceaselessly clever in his inner musings, his purchase is weaker when it comes to interacting with others. Even as he plays elaborate, comically fragile games of misdirection before assumed colleagues, enemies, and allies, the film's mournful core grants it tension as it moves beneath them, finding the essence of the mercurial scam artist buried beneath them even as his mind and body continue to move and work.
This central dynamic — of constant, destabilizing performance in the service of merely getting by — proves inseparable from more common versions of the same: the recurrent act of trudging against America's prevailing winds around identity, race, and class familiar to so many. In Harris' depiction, this movement becomes a lot at once: a survival mechanism, a game, maybe even a calling — but would it be that last thing if it wasn't the rest? Without pressing a case on that front, Harris meditates playfully on such themes with the force and confidence of first-hand knowledge. (It's worth noting he's been unable to release a movie since.) For Street, constant performance feels as necessary for his career and functioning as it might for any actor or politician even if the rewards are fewer. "When I meet somebody, I know in the first two minutes who they want me to be," he tells a counselor at one point onscreen, suggesting that, at least for one aware of society's performative demands, sliding between characters becomes as natural as anything else.
This understated quality often wraps even Chameleon Street's climactic moments in a tone of brisk, frank observance; Street's character treats even would-be shattering moments with an air of flip bemusement, demonstrating a personal grasp of precarity as simply a part of life. Such experience places stability at a distance as great as anything in the firmament; social mobility is as close a thing to transcendence as could possibly be achieved.
In this sense, it's not so perplexing that skilled impersonation could provide a man in Street's position with a calling. But it's also one that — like his fevered, striving intellectualism — renders him isolated from, confusing to, and ultimately without potential peers. Even in romance, he's fundamentally alone, making the high-stakes games he plays even more vital a preoccupation than they otherwise might be. As a source of amusement, a means of controlling and discarding those who wander through his life, and a way of matriculating (usually with faked credentials) into the drab echelons of white-dominated professional spheres, fakery becomes both perennial entertainment and reason for being. In Harris' directorial vision, such summits don't rise past above a certain clouded drabness: something which serves to contain the film in even its most surprising moments.
While stuffed with flourishes and expressive gestures, Chameleon Street in its production values seems at peace with a certain lack of varnish. Symptomatic not only of its budget but its setting, in the depressed Southeast Michigan of the early 1980s (it should be noted that the film's 2nd Unit Director, Bruce Schermer, worked on Michael Moore's Roger & Me at the same time), the film's palette is comprised of beige furnishings and pale wall hangings, peppered throughout with modest bursts of more visually dramatic expression. At times, Harris and director of photography Daniel S. Noga leave their frame almost totally darkened as in theater, with light showing nothing but an actor's face; at others, they spatter their interiors with pops of pink or fuschia light. The drifting camera, by contrast, shows considerably more vitality, roving about with energetic zooms and blunt, deliberated angles which mingle with Harris' voiceover into a rich and unfailing expression of his mind and eye. In hewing so closely to it — while navigating its world with a certain antic quality Street shares, Harris provides the viewer with an interior portrait that doubles as a rich source of comment. Street, as both an observer and a subject, more than earns the treatment, which to the film's benefit is never too florid. That wouldn't be right or fitting, considering Street's subject: it's about an escape artist with nowhere to go.
Chameleon Street is screening at Cinema Detroit four times starting Friday, Feb. 25. All shows will be followed by a recorded Q&A with Wendell B. Harris Jr. except at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26, when producer Dan Lawton will be on hand for a discussion; Cinema Detroit; 4126 Third St., Detroit; 313-482-9028; cinemadetroit.com. Tickets are $10.