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Nick Toti’s “Digital Gods”- Transmission Two

(Nick Toti analyzes the work of indier-than-you mega-stud Zachary Oberzan. Since the 2010 release of his one-man re-imagining of Rambo: First Blood, Oberzan’s DIY cinematic epics have been vastly under-seen and underappreciated. Click through to read (and then watch!) what you might have been missing.)

Let me be upfront about my own personal bias: I think Zachary Oberzan is the most important filmmaker working today. I’ve chosen to highlight him in this initial Digital Gods column because his work, more than any that I’ve seen, best embodies the spirit and values that I hope to highlight here.

I first heard of Oberzan sometime around 2010 when I was finishing my graduate program in a cold, isolated corner of rural northeast Missouri. I mention the location because, as you would imagine, it wasn’t exactly known for its up-to-the-minute cultural awareness. The fact that Oberzan’s first feature, Flooding with Love for The Kid, was even being talked about there still seems remarkable. I remember a friend asking me if I had heard of this movie that some weirdo had shot entirely in his studio apartment. It was a remake of the first Rambo movie, but with one guy playing every character. It had a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And apparently you had to order DVDs directly from the filmmaker and he’d send it to you autographed with a thank you note. It was all very intriguing…but then, of course, I didn’t get around to actually watching the movie for another four years.

I was an immediate fan and that same night I watched Flooding with Love for The Kid, I also watched Oberzan’s second feature Your brother. Remember?, as well as all the trailers and other videos he had online. His work was a revelation. With incredibly limited means, Oberzan had successfully communicated complex levels of emotional depth unlike anything I had experienced in the work of other filmmakers. This was a new kind of cinema that turned its tools inward without alienating through its self-indulgence. These cute and clever oddities were full of pain. They treated pop culture as a sacramental act. They were prayers – not necessarily to God, but to anything that might listen. Oberzan was creating a personal cosmology from pop culture references and his own damaged personal history, but he had developed a dense yet somehow deceptively simple cinematic language through which he could share this mythos.

It’s hard to say exactly why Flooding with Love for The Kid received as much publicity as it did. New York Times, Vogue, Salon, Village Voice, and more all covered the work with bemused praise. The hook was certainly snappy enough: a one-man remake of First Blood shot entirely in a cramped New York studio apartment. And then, on top of that, it was actually good. Oberzan’s nuanced performances of every character – not just John Rambo and Sheriff Teasle, but dozens of smaller characters with distinct costumes and personalities –were deservedly lauded. Simple tricks, like piping in the sounds of typewriters or passing cars, effectively transformed the same spaces into functionally different locations. Many of the props appeared to be whatever happened to be lying around the apartment. It was all very charming.

What this wave of media attention failed to understand was Oberzan’s seriousness. When the opening title of Flooding with Love for The Kid announced that “This film is a one-man war,” it was the proclamation of an aesthetic philosophy that would continue developing with each new movie he made. Self-reliance is the central theme of Oberzan’s form, just as love is the recurring focus of his content. This tension between the conflicting needs for independence and tenderness is what drives his work and makes it so interesting. Each new movie marks a distinct step forward – or, more accurately, a step inward.

It’s an almost meaningless cliche to say that an indie filmmaker makes “personal” movies, but Oberzan’s are personal in a way that is truly idiosyncratic. He reveals compulsively, as if he is actively searching for new languages or systems of meaning through which he can reveal. His ever-evolving arsenal of techniques include: writing, acting, performing nude, casting his family members, embracing his technical limitations, dressing in drag, dressing as Bruce Lee, dressing as Elvis, dressing like a dog, wearing blackface, improvisation, singing songs that he wrote, singing karaoke, calling Jean Claude Van Damme on the phone, (maybe) vandalizing a public statue, sharing old home movies, reenacting old home movies, and casting himself in the role of a man accused of fraudulently impersonating Zachary Oberzan. For a lesser filmmaker, these techniques might just play off as a series of gimmicks, but Oberzan’s knee-jerk sincerity transcends the easy out of ironic disengagement.

After Flooding with Love for The Kid, Oberzan then made Your brother. Remember? – a sort of experimental, autobiographical documentary that is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. When Oberzan was a teenager, he and his siblings – particularly his older brother Gator – acted out scenes from their favorite movies (KickboxerFaces of Death, etc.) and recorded them on home video. Twenty years later, he brought the family back together to remake their remakes and reflect on the experience. The resulting movie is a collage of material bouncing from genuine originals, youthful recreation, and bemused adult reminiscence. Through interviews with his siblings, shared letters, a very odd music video to an original song narrating Gator’s drug overdose, and the harmonious mimesis of a Jean Claude Van Damme monologue, Oberzan transforms these acts of adolescent whimsy into a moving meditation on family, the passage of time, chance, choice, consequence, and the mysterious ways that popular culture mediates all of these things for us. It’s one of the great works of autobiographical nonfiction cinema and it’s a shame that so few cinema-lovers are aware that it exists.

All of Oberzan’s movies begin as theatrical works and there’s something both enjoyable and unsettling about the interplay between the two media. His third feature, Tell Me Love Is Real, is the most theatrical of all his movies. Ostensibly inspired by Oberzan’s accidental overdose on Xanax the same night that Whitney Houston died from the same drug, the work consists of a series of improvised monologues in which he bounces from totem to totem, riffing on Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg, Amelia Earhart, Buddy Holly, Bruce Lee, and more. It’s a confused and confusing work that reveals more on each repeated viewings. I watched it twice the first night I saw it and then a third time the next week. It’s an exploratory work that, though lacking in focus, contains moments of such clear, visionary brilliance (including the outstanding opening monologue featuring Oberzan as a drunk, pill-popping Whitney Houston) that it is well worth the challenges its form presents.

The final feature in Oberzan’s oeuvre is The Great Pretender. The movie currently only exists in a “demo” version and I’m unaware what differences any future “official” version might entail.. As such, it seems unfair to draw definite conclusions, so please accept the following with a healthy grain of salt.

The Great Pretender is, in a way, Oberzan’s most traditional movie. It has characters, a story, multiple actors, various locations, and was shot in a more-or-less conventional style. However, these conservative formal choices are quickly diffused by the radical content of the movie. I’ll do my best to explain the plot. The Great Pretender is a remake of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up. In it, Oberzan plays a man named Aaron Aaronovich who is on trial for fraud. His crime was duping a Belgian theater company into believing that he was Zachary Oberzan, the great American star of film and stage. So Oberzan plays a man pretending to be Oberzan. The next level of confusion is that the movie is shot in a pseudo-documentary style (ala Close-up) by a filmmaker who introduces himself as Abbas Kiarostami. So we have the real Oberzan playing a fake Oberzan in a fake documentary directed by a fake-but-pretending-to-be-real Kiarostami.

Oh, and the whole thing is periodically interrupted by an on-stage, extra-cinematic Oberzan in an Elvis costume, performing songs and commenting on the action of the movie. If it sounds exhausting, it kind of is. As in his preceding movies, the whole thing is executed without the slightest hint of winking at the audience. The duty of interpretation is foisted onto the viewer. We might laugh, but it’s most likely from discomfort. If Oberzan is ever joking (which I seriously doubt), we’re denied the privilege of being in on it.

Despite my enthusiasm for Oberzan’s work, it would be unfair to avoid listing some of the significant criticisms that I do have. There are serious sound and image issues, especially in the portions of his works recorded during live theatrical performances. Also, even though I love the who-gives-a-fuck attitude behind his appropriation of other movies, there’s often an amateurish laziness to their presentation (see, for instance, the dramatic clip from The Godfather Part II featured in Tell Me Love Is Real that still conatins a “” watermark). Whereas most of his DIY obviousness is charming, moments like these are the exception. With a bit more effort, these superficial imperfections could be smoothed out and the overall experience improved.

But then there’s another part of me that realizes that maybe it’s just this willingness to embrace imperfection that frees up Oberzan’s creative energies to explore the odd and unexpected emotional territories that makes his work so meaningful. His ability to fully embrace flaws and limitations–both personal and formal–is what gives the work its warmth and depth. It isn’t always palatable, but neither is he. Maybe these imperfections are his way of testing us, to see if we’ll love him regardless.

In personal correspondence and in his work, Oberzan is fond of quoting Leonard Cohen. One quote that I’ve never heard him reference is from Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers: “You are listening to the voices of the faithless who tarry on bridges with spikes.” I’ve never known exactly what this quote means, but it’s stuck with me since I first read it over a decade ago. It seems now like a fair summation of Oberzan’s work. Each movie is a collage of small pleasures desperately struggling for coherence in an otherwise lonely and confusing existence. Watching him navigate this often frivolous-seeming journey above such a dangerous void is thrilling and, for those viewers willing to engage, his work provides a uniquely empathic experience. We emerge from it blessed with the knowledge that Oberzan denies himself: the love is real.

The call for new work or filmmakers to take a look at is always open at: [email protected]

– Nick Toti @NickTotiis)

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