Casual Relations (1974)

28 04 2014

There’s a New York Times stub for Mark Rappaport’s debut, Casual Relations, written around the time of the film’s limited run in 1974. The position of the author is not entirely surprising. They demonstrate some attention devoted to the film, but then quickly arrive at the conclusion that the film is not much more than a self-indulgent, amateurish disaster. There are certainly parts of Rappaport’s debut that would strike the more cynical and less open-minded viewer as arthouse self-parody, a film so aggressively high brow that it doesn’t even allow for a more curious audience member to step up. The irony of all of this is that Rappaport’s debut, while suggesting an analysis of the structures that influence our daily lives, is about how we relate ourselves to “low” or popular culture. It is a film about something we all experience, yet it unfortunately illustrates this in a way that is superficially mystifying.


Following a collection of stuttering, shaky stock images of a sky and a beach, Rappaport introduces us to a woman suffering from a severe case of insomnia. Through voice over, she tells us that she doesn’t fall asleep until 7 (presumably, am) and even then, she’s haunted by terrifying nightmares. These nightmares are visualized to us as blown-up, faded, and heavily pixelated images of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The woman then tells us that even though her nightmares haunted her after she woke up, she still struggled to remember what exactly she dreamt. Following an addict (whose addiction is unexplained, but necessary) begging some deity for another chance, we’re introduced to Susan. Rappaport’s camera observes Susan watching television, which is exactly what the film’s title card describes before the shot itself appears.


There’s something candid about Rappaport’s commitment to just observing his characters. It’s nothing new for someone whose watched a film by Chantal Akerman or Tsai Ming-Liang, but unlike those filmmakers, Rappaport’s vignettes seem to speak a bit more directly to his ideas. If Akerman or Tsai are more pragmatic, and dare I use the dreaded word, “realistic” then Rappaport is more interested in having setups that flesh out and illustrate something about his characters quite literally. Early on in the film, we’re introduced to Susan, a woman watching TV. She watches Johnny Guitar, and Rappaport chooses to include the scene in which Sterling Hayden asks Joan Crawford to act like she loves him. She complies, which is just one sequence from that particular film that offers subtext about identity. We encounter Susan only through the media she herself is experiencing, which seems mundane, but the shot’s length emphasizes its importance. Here, the film gives us our first instance of pop culture’s significance in our lives. Our idea of Susan is related to how she herself has related to a scene in a classic western, perhaps a recognized “classic” sure, but not “important, high art.”


The next vignette concerns two old flames reuniting. Again, the audience is given the setup through voice over: “we decided to drive around.” While in the car, the radio plays The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” a song almost explicitly about a desire to possess a woman. It might be cynical to suggest that Rappaport sees something inherently possessive (and thus, abusive) about men seeking heterosexual relationships, but the film repeats this possessive nature in the film’s most impressive scene. Two lovers walking in tall grass begin being intimate, but that intimacy quickly turns to violence with the woman killing the man. The sequence is repeated with slight variations in both the image and the woman’s voiceover. There is one constant in every voice over, though: she’s uncomfortable with how he’s touching her and she’s acting in self-defensive. We finally get a voiceover from the male figure, but his explanation of the situation, given the perspective that’s been repeated to us for the last several minutes, seems comical in its inaccuracy and stupidly selfish.


I watched Casual Relations just days after seeing Jim Jarmusch’s charming enough Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s an enjoyable film that tries to explore, among many other things, the importance of how we digest art and culture. Like Rappaport’s film, Jarmusch is interested in how his characters respond to art, particularly music in this case, but his film ends up falling short of what Rappaport’s film accomplishes. Jarmusch doesn’t illustrate the link and instead, the film, while quite funny does nothing more than feel like a collection of cultural references used to further the alienation felt by their aging hipster vampire protagonists. Rappaport, on the other hand, has used art and popular culture to help contextualize his protagonist’s feelings. We never really “know” much about them, but that’s kind of the film’s point. Their opaque characterization give us something of a clean piece of paper, and the art and culture we seem them experiencing is used to project and even express their anxiety. Like Stuart Hall, Rapapport has argued on behalf of taking pop culture as the serious, vital phenomenon that it is. Hall himself said that pop culture is “where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to our audiences but to ourselves.” Rappaport’s character are seeking themselves out through popular culture and the arts. This is why the film ends on a character, who we know very little about, intensely studying a painting.






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