I mentioned a few technical details about the opening of Chameleon Street in my recent review, and didn’t do much with them. The film doesn’t either, and that’s a problem: its quasi-psychological diagnosis-prologue might have seemed like a good introduction to the character on paper, but in practice, it doesn’t get at much we wouldn’t come to understand anyway — (with different circumstances but the same essential problem, Alexander is another example of this). To make matters worse, this strange prelude comes at the very beginning of the film, which, today, would seem to spell death for an indie movie looking to get a festival screener’s attention.
But in 1990, Chameleon Street did get into the Sundance Film Festival — and won the Grand Jury Prize. It’s the kind of story that has opened the careers of people like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, etc. — only, Wendell B. Harris, Jr. hasn’t directed anything of note since; his IMDB page shows nothing but two other slim acting credits.
Read at Unsung Films: Chameleon Street (Review).
Having made one film without industry support, I presume Harris, Jr.’s lack of output is, in part, a personal choice; for its part, however, the industry failed to support him: that part in the biography where someone takes notice of the filmmaker’s potential — (Kevin Smith fans might know how Mark Tusk took interest even before Sundance and the Weinstein Brothers came along) — never came to pass for Harris, Jr. While I have found mention of a low-quality VHS tape, Chameleon Street seems to have essentially gone undistributed; the DVD from 2007 (which can be acquired for an unusually high price online, on Netflix, or — apparently — the Denver Public Library) includes no Warner Brothers Independent, Paramount Vantage or Fox Searchlight logos before its quite worthy material begins. (You won’t see Miramax’s there either, which seems strange, considering that they’d been around since 1979 and were still independent at the time. I know nothing about what did or did not happen, but Chameleon Street does look like it would have been right up their alley).
It’s a shame, but as Harris, Jr. stated in interviews after the fact, the true prize of winning at Sundance is getting to talk with the studio heads about future projects. Obviously, that didn’t work out, for reasons that seem strange on the surface: instead of offering a deal, the studios thought of remaking the film altogether, perhaps with someone like Will Smith in the title role.
Aside from the fact that Harris, Jr.’s acting and delivery is the lynchpin of the entire film, it’s not a bad idea. Time and experience have shown one simply can’t equal the sheer technical prowess and resources the industry’s finances can provide — almost all of the time, the lighting and sound, if not simpler storytelling aesthetics, separate independent films from studio products. (And while it’s not always the case, that extra bit of perfection often goes a long way — many mid-year action flicks, or tepid comedy-dramas for that manner, get along because their combination of stars and shiny images make a product that is, in a way, too big to fail.)
On one hand, the spirit of Chameleon Street as-is outshines the extra polish such a re-make would have given it — which is, on the other, exactly the kind of sense one can’t reliably bet the box office on. (An easy way to understand executives’ sometimes bizarre-sounding decisions: What would you do if it was your personal money on the line?) Why, however, couldn’t the film have gotten a decent video release? Or in a smaller tour of, say, college theatres? Coming at the forefront of the classic indie film age, the misplacement of Chameleon Street appears to be an anomaly. As I was unable to find exact explanations here, the point of this essay was to point out the gap, rather than fill it — (to hint that the film had been “suppressed” in some way, for its content, would be too easy an out, though a more interesting one.) For my part, a re-make of Chameleon Street certainly couldn’t have surpassed the film in the way myself and others have enjoyed a significant viewing connection… but I’m certain it wouldn’t have begun with the same slip at its beginning.