Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Listen to Me, Marlon
Actor Marlon Brando was a force of nature and worked his entire life to constantly change his earthly charismatic form, to keep his audience guessing in whatever project he chose. Uniformity, convention, and the routine were repugnant to him and even repulsive.
This chimerical quality of Brando is evident in the very first shot of the documentary "Listen to Me, Marlon" by director Stevan Riley, showing a digitalized image of the actor's talking facial features which were done by Scott Billups, an effects man and a friend of the actor, in the hopes of possibly and conceptually resurrecting his persona to star in posthumous films.
It is a wonderful and startling image that sums up the entire film to come. The head, unmistakably Brando's resembles both a Greek statue and a cyborg made of fractals or sand. This in itself is haunting, given the fact that in the film Brando says that his life will become "no more significant than sand." Seen in this way, Brando's head floating in space as a thespian satellite becomes the actor's killing joke, mocking us a bit, but also challenging us to the future and egging us on.
This marvelous and engaging film is told entirely in the actor's own voice from a cache of self hypnosis tapes that the actor repeatedly went to for catharsis and support, in addition to other taped reflections. Over the recordings, we see segments from the actor's life in formative career moments.
What might have been hum-drum in other hands is exuberant and full of motion here, having its own rhythm and syncopation with Brando's inimitable speech.
We learn of his hatred and fear for his violent father which was in itself an engine for dramatic progress. As a young man from Nebraska, he made it to New York, with "holes in his pockets and holes in his brain." He took to the street and studied people, attempting to guess their personalities, and how each person thought, merely from appearances.
He sought the muse of drama to get the affection he never received from his parents, but it proved a cruel surrogate.
Gradually, the film moves away from the Technicolor flora of Marlon Brando's "Guys and Dolls" to show an empty room cluttered with tapes, bongo drums and the digitized Brando face as a raving and isolated wraith from the future, a new age King Lear.
After the glare of"The Godfather" and the oranges of Tahiti faded, Brando became disenchanted with Hollywood for projecting very similar fare film after film and eliciting the predictable responses from audiences.
The whole reason he went into acting, he says, was to make something new with his own face as the stage. On fire by Civil Rights causes but then feeling claustrophobic and ridiculed, the actor isolates himself in limbo, between Tahiti and Mulholland Drive. The actor looks everywhere for tranquility.
He takes a role again with Coppola, this time as Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now". And again, he is vehemently dissatisfied.
Good actors are liars to Brando. Lying is part and parcel to survival.
Throughout the film Brando is here in the flesh with a collage of colorful imagery. The mythic man voices his anger and frustration in using acting as an agent for change, both public and personal, but fears he is nothing but a serviceman making silly films, echoing his disembodied face that utters ,"all alone I be-weep my outcast state" from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 as if on an endless loop.
The actor is forced from reclusion by his son being charged for murder. Later, his daughter commits suicide.
There is scarce little for Brando to do, except to melt into the liquid drips of technology, reborn as a Marlon Headroom. "Until next time, now...sleep..." The head utters in deadpan parallel to Kurtz's famous line, "The horror...the horror."
It is a heartbreaking exclamation to a great documentary, that also oddly works as wondrous fiction given the sheer scope of this artist's life and reflection.
Sad as his denouement was, the last utterance of "Listen to me, Marlon" has a glimmer of reconciliation and triumph. Perhaps the ultimate metamorphosis and truth that Marlon restlessly sought is to be found in this eerie, computer generated talking head.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org