FILM / Didn't you used to be . . ?: Faraway, So Close: a new film by Wim Wenders starring Nastassja Kinski and the former president of the USSR. Kevin Jackson on the cameo
Saturday 02 July 1994
This is all good fun, no doubt, and probably all the more welcome in a film otherwise so short on that agreeable commodity. But does the business of asking celebrities to portray themselves amount to anything more than the filmic equivalent of name-dropping? Wenders, who is nothing if not knowing, would surely insist that his reasons for shuffling actual and created characters in this way is far more serious than an exercise in showing off the size of his Rolodex. As a practitioner of good standing within the most defiantly arty tradition of the art cinema, Wenders can legitimately insist on his right to make films which - well, in theory anyway - resonate to the manifold ironies and piquancies of scraping the real against the imagined.
In other words, he has chosen to do with cinema what plenty of novelists, both high- and middle-brow, have been doing on the page for decades. These days, it's becoming harder and harder to pick up a novel which doesn't mingle real and created characters, with the likes of Freud, Wittgenstein, Rimbaud and Sir Isaac Newton swanning around the upper end of the hardback book market and Jack the Ripper, Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald lurking amid the pulp.
Granted, such market categories are a long way from watertight: Oswald is also the central character of Don Delillo's decidedly up-market Libra, while Jack the Ripper haunts Ian Sinclair's unconventional White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. Conversely, Freud is a character in Nicholas Meyer's splendid Sherlock Holmes romp The Seven Percent Solution, and a philosopher suspiciously akin to Wittgenstein is the hero of Amanda Prantera's wild and woolly lycanthropy novel Strange Loop. Mark Frost's recent gothic yarn The List of Seven boasts a cast which includes the young Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, Queen Victoria, Madame Blavatsky and the infant Hitler.
That particular roll-call makes even Wenders's guest list look a bit shabby, though there are, to be sure, immense differences between the two enterprises. Frost is interested in playing cute genre games, Wenders in disrupting or evading them; Frost wants his historical characters to invest his supernatural happenings with a degree of plausibility, Wenders wants to blur the lines of demarcation between journalistic and - let's be generous - artistic truth. More fundamentally, there is all the difference in the world between a novelist presenting a 'real' character they have coaxed out of words, and a film-maker coaxing flesh and blood celebrities to mingle freely with the creatures of his mind.
The Wenders approach to cameo casting is relatively uncommon in the mainstream cinema, and it seems fitting that one of the closest parallels to his Faraway, So Close technique should be Ken McMullen's avant-garde feature Ghost Dances, which boasts a cameo from no less a luminary of high literary theory than Jacques Derrida (who tells a 'true' story about the Czech secret police planting cocaine in his suitcase). The Brechtian Jean-Luc Godard, one of Wenders's early influences, was also partial to casting famous film directors either as themselves or as make-believe film directors with suspicious similarities to themselves: Sam Fuller in Pierrot Le Fou, Fritz Lang in Le Mepris, Jean- Pierre Melville in A Bout de Souffle.
In the majority of dramatic features, though, the appearance of a celebrity is not meant to trouble the surface of the fiction, but, on the contrary, to underwrite its verisimilitude - which is why Gorbachev is not the only statesman to have made a cameo appearance in a movie. In one respect Gorbachev might be seen as following in the footsteps of his countryman Leon Trotsky, who earned pin-money by appearing in American movies - though only, alas, as an unspotted extra, not as himself - when his own political career had gone into a bit of a spiral.
But Gorbachev is one of the few politicians to have played such a part in full conscious knowledge of his participation. (Other political pocketers of the Equity shilling include the Australian premier Gough Whitlam, who presented Edna Everage with her Damehood in a Barry McKenzie film - a classic moment in the art of the cinema; John Lindsay, the one-time Mayor of New York; and our own Ken Livingstone (in A Woman's Guide to Adultery).
More frequently, politicians have made quite inadvertant appearances in dramas through some form of filmic juggling or trickery. Richard Eyre's crew for The Ploughman's Lunch mischievously posed as a news unit at a Conservative Party conference, and so made Mrs Thatcher a real-life player in a drama about the political climate she had engendered (Paul Johnson also puts in a fleeting, florid appearance). More often, public figures have been spliced into features through stock footage, as was the case with the IRA thriller Hennessy, in which Her Majesty the Queen appeared to recoil from a terrorist threat posed by Rod Steiger.
Similarly, in the science fiction thriller Alien Nation, President Reagan is seen talking about the need for America to welcome aliens, meaning political
refugees rather than the beaver-eating extra-terrestrials with domed and mottled scalps. In the second Missing in Action movie, another filmed speech by Reagan provides a crux for the plot; and Brian De Palma's remake of Scarface kicks off with some electrifying footage of Fidel Castro ranting about the social deviants he is kicking out of Cuba's jails and over to Florida.
Yet despite many such pirated instances, celebrity cameos are far less typical of straight dramas than they are of the more anarchic genres of fantasy (paradigm: Prof Stephen Hawking's appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation), satire (brilliant paradigm: the ageing Cecil B DeMille and Buster Keaton in Sunset Boulevard) and comedy (paradigms: too many to list, though Oliver Stone's recent appearance as himself in Dave showed a previously undetected sense of humour in the paranoid director, and the Naked Gun series is drenched with knockabout cameos).
Comedy has always been able to get away with ontological murder, and the cameo has flourished within funny films precisely because they can play truth or dare with reality, yet leave viewers at once amused and untroubled. A particularly fine example comes in the Steve Martin vehicle The Man With Two Brains, in which the mysterious cleaning-fluid killer who has been terrorising the city proves to be . . . Merv Griffin. That joke played better in America, where Griffin is a household name, and where there was a different frisson to the end credit which warned that Griffin was still on the loose. British readers who didn't get the joke should try substituting, say, Michael Parkinson (who, as connoisseurs of horror may recall, appeared as himself both in Madhouse and, a couple of years back, in the BBC's Hallowe'en stunt Ghostwatch).
If there were to be an award for the shrewdest and most artful comic variations on the cameo theme, then one of the strongest contenders would have to be Robert Altman, who not only manages to execute Wendersish games of illusion and reality within far more enjoyable formats, but also goes cynically to the heart of questions about why, and for whom, the device of the cameo works.
The Player spun so many illusionist wheels within wheels (remember Whoopi Goldberg holding up the Oscar?) as to be hilariously giddying, but Altman has long had a keen and jaundiced eye for such matters. In his masterpiece Nashville, the country music parochialism of Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is shown up not so much by the fact that he doesn't recognise Elliott Gould or Julie Christie, as by his immediately fawning over them - 'Welcome to our lovely home]' - once it has been pointed out that they are indeed famous, as the audience knew all along.
Yet the award for best single cameo joke must surely go - as even Woodyphobes can reluctantly concede - to the moment in Annie Hall where Woody Allen, irritated to distraction by the vacuous maunderings of the guy ahead of him in the cinema queue about Marshall McLuhan, duly pulls McLuhan on screen to inform said jerk that he understands nothing of McLuhanite theories about the medium and the message. A splendid moment of wish-fulfillment, and a heartening slap at anyone whose claims to profundity plainly draw on unearned intellectual capital. Maybe Wenders should check it out of his local video shop.
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