3 Screenshots: Chameleon (Mizelle, 2019)

I suppose I watch more than the usual amount of independent or micro-budget films. When I think about why, other than the Everest answer, I generally end up with one of three reasons:

–The film covers a subject not normally presented in mainstream, studio films or does so from a perspective not always present. Most documentaries fall into this category, as do many niche or genre films. (Examples: Christian films, GLBTQ films, some world cinema.)

–The film has generated some buzz or critical acclaims from a festival award, a high-profile critic, or current events.)

–The film offers the potential pleasure of seeing and identifying emerging talent, making it easier to anticipate breakout stars or keep potentially worthwhile future projects on one’s personal radar.

Marcus Mizelle’s Chameleon is in the third category. It’s a character-driven crime film that looks surprisingly polished for a movie with a total budget that was was less than I paid for my last used car.

Although the story of Chameleon is generic, it is told in an engaging way. Patrick, a paroled con, appears to be trying to go straight when Dolph, an acquaintance from prison, pressures him into one last score that inevitably turns into a few last scores.

Their scam is for Patrick to court young trophy wives, Dolph to kidnap them when Patrick takes them to out-of-the-way trysting spots, and Patrick to call the husbands to facilitate ransoms.

In the shot above, Patrick is sharing a beer with one of his marks. The use of the curtains to mask the frame isn’t in and of itself innovative, but it does suggest theatrically — Patrick is putting on a show. Yet his back is to the the screen indicating he is indifferent to his role as performer. Also…who is he performing for? The viewer, of course, and ostensibly the other character. But the placement actually suggests both characters are on the “stage” (the balcony) performing for the world. The camera placement, then, symbolically puts the viewer not in the position of a theatrical audience but that of a backstage hand who is watching the performance directed outward.

The curtains are also part of a series of vertical lines that divide the screen. The frame of the sliding doors, the balcony posts, the tree, the legs of the chair, and even the character’s right leg, create vertical panes that are interspersed with horizontal lines (the mountain line, the balcony rails, the security bars on the door), to create the impression of a grid. Does this mean gridlock? Is Patrick getting stuck as his seemingly simple plan gets more complicated? Or perhaps it suggests a sliding puzzle, one of those children’s toys where tiles on a square move in and out of place to form different numerical or pictorial combinations. Either way, Mizelle uses a routine establishing shot to convey — perhaps even subconsciously — moods and ideas that promote the film’s themes.

When I talk about mise-en-scene in a classroom setting, a student or two inevitably ask whether I “really” believe that such constructions are intentional. I say it doesn’t matter much. Shot composition, like literary writing, can be about feel, an internalized preference for one word (or sentence construction) over another that isn’t fully articulated. Mizelle told me that time constraints and lack of advance scouting for locations deterred him from storyboarding each scene but he affirmed that he did have an idea going into them of what he wanted the shot to look like. The end product suggests that his instincts are well-honed.

This shot is not at all instrumental to the plot of the film. Patrick has just exited a car after he and Dolph have had an argument. Aside from again liking the composition of the shot — light and shadow for foreground and background, arches to divide the screen — I found myself drawn to the figure on the left edge of the screen. Is she anyone, or just a random person at the location? Is she crying or looking at her phone? As we will see in the third shot, phones are one distraction from authentic human contact and thus increase our sense of isolation and alienation.

It is the most tautological of all critical aphorisms to say the cinematographer “knows where to point a camera,” but something else occurred to me watching this scene. A lot of indie films lead viewers by the nose, forcing them to see what the director wants by not giving them anything else. Even while using composition effectively to accentuate the story, Mizelle usually gives us more than one thing to look at. Given how budget constraints limit equipment and location access and control, this feature of the cinematography is all the more impressive. No, the director isn’t juggling massive crowds with precisely timed stunts and explosions, but neither does he limit himself to glancing establishing shots followed by tight close ups as the only way to maintain control over every element of the frame. That’s sort of gutsy when you may only have the time for one or two takes.

Here are Patrick and Dolph having a conversation while not looking at or seeing each other. (Given how many people browse their phones while watching movies, I wondered whether the blank television screen that takes up nearly a quarter of the shot was an inside joke.) Since the film begins with Patrick interviewing for parole, we are never quite sure what his relationship to Dolph actually was while they were both in prison. They mostly speak as though they were partners, but Dolph does say at one point that he “protected” Patrick on the inside. Is Patrick motivated primarily by guilt, obligation, or fear? The audience not knowing for sure helps imbue a conventional setup with a broader sense of possibilities about where the movie might go.

In the last half hour, the film swings for the fences, and that’s where it lost me a little bit. I don’t admire Mizelle’s writing as much as his camera work, and while the on-screen talent never gives a canned delivery, it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the repetition of certain shots or snippets was meant to convey a non-chronological structure, a series of alternate realities, a contrast between the present moment and a character’s memory, or…something else. Knowing Mizelle’s affinity for the films of Jean-Pierre Melville helps, but the first half of the film is so tight and feels so effortless that its hard not to be disappointed when watching it unravel a bit on the back end.

The bottom line, though, is that there is genuine talent at work here, and nearly everyone involved deserves bigger roles, bigger budgets, more opportunities.

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